Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Titus Alone by Mervyn Peake

I have a rocky relationship with the Gormenghast book. I've often found the writing style too ornate - deliciously descriptive, true, but also sometimes so adorned that I can't tell what the hell is going on. I found the second book more readable than the first. I find the third more readable than the previous two. The problem is, while it was a more pleasant read, I'm not sure why it exists.

I just don't get it. I don't really get what it adds to the Gormenghast story, what its purpose is, even what its themes are. I was told that Peake wrote it while in the grips of dementia, and Wikipedia tells me that he had further volumes of the Gormenghast series planned. And actually, that makes this make more sense. As the third and final book in a trilogy, this book makes no sense. As an episode in a much longer story, perhaps it's more fitting.

It wraps nothing up, except perhaps the theme "you can't go home again," but given that that only occurs in the last few pages, it's not like it's an overriding theme of the book. But if I look at it as a way station in the larger tale, okay. Fine.

Titus has fled Gormenghast and his duties as Earl. (Earl? It's been a long time since I read the second book, when the title had more relevance.) He seems to emerge out of the vaguely fantasy world of Gormenghast into one much more like our own, complete with cars and the suggestion of totalitarianism. But only the suggestion. It's not that well explored.

As always, he runs into a number of capital "C" Characters, including the gruff owner of a menagerie, Muzzlehatch, his billowy love Juno, and tiny crazed woman Cheeta. And some interesting characters who live in a sewer. Titus knows nothing of this world, but is taken under the wing of all of the above, progressively.

While he drifts through is new life, Titus doesn't really latch on to anything, but becomes obsessed with finding his way back to Gormenghast, although I'm not really sure why. (That really is a problem with the book - the prose is very readable, but the story meanders, and not in a good way.) People love him and hate him, aid him and attempt to destroy him.

And it just doesn't add up to that much. I found it more accessible, superficially, than previous Gormenghast books, but with less of a story underlying it. On the other hand, the characters that surround Titus are entertaining, and I didn't mind spending time in their company. It was only after it was done that I looked back and wondered, really, what was the point of that?

(On the other hand, by finishing this, I draw to within 11 books of reading the complete BBC Big Read books!)


  1. I never made it to Titus Alone, as I muscled my way through Gormenghast and felt that, while supremely colorful, it was largely a literary exercise which escaped my 16-year-old self. Perhaps I should return and then try Titus Alone to finish this series, but I haven't the motivation.

    It's disheartening to see that the series peters out like this, particularly with the kind of zaniness which permeated the earlier work. Alas! It seemed the author had Peaked with with his earlier novels!

    1. It is a pity, although I have to say that overall, I've never been enthralled with any of the Gormenghast books in the way some people have. They're interesting, but not arresting.

    2. (I know this is an older post, but I read this and also came across your blog recently...)

      The edition I read contained all three Gormenghast books, but it included an extensive note: Mervyn Peake died before completing Titus Alone. As a result this was cobbled together from various notes and unfinished chapters, so that maybe why.

    3. Hi Charlotte - sorry it took me so long to notice your comment! Blogger has changed the way the admin stuff looks so my attention isn't drawn to pending comments from the top page.

      And I imagine that is true, but it is also, I think that, he was suffering from progressive dementia at a relatively young age, which is very sad.

  2. I personally feel they're very dense for what one gets out of them. They're an interesting world, but it doesn't seem like Peake has any overarching theme to say about it - it's a muddled mix of mocking traditionalism and examining fascist radicalism, with no overarching message. His characters are delightfully eccentric, but feel like they're Dickensian grotesques or crazy NPCs, glommed together in a zany world that, like its soul-searching hero Titus, lacks a sense of completion.