David Louis Edelman David Louis Edelman

Mervyn Peake’s “Gormenghast” and “Titus Alone”

I’ve finally completed Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast Trilogy and thought I’d share my impressions. (Read my review of the first novel, Titus Groan.)

Gormenghast by Mervyn PeakeGormenghast is a suitable companion-piece to Titus Groan. The two are so alike in tone and theme, that they seem to have been written in a single burst of inspiration. Peake provides us with an extended cast of characters, this time including Headmaster Bellgrove and his professors; he follows the rise of Steerpike’s crooked ambitions to their ruinous end; and he gives us a climactic manhunt that’s every bit as insanely drawn out as the battle between Flay and Swelter from the first novel.

In fact, I think I enjoyed Gormenghast more than its predecessor. Peake’s voice seemed more assured here, and unlike the first novel, even what initially seemed like extraneous plot strands were gradually woven into the main tapestry by the end. Characters like Mr. Flay that teetered close to caricature in the first novel are here drawn more sympathetically.

But Titus Alone is a completely different animal altogether. It’s an amazing novel in its own way, but it stands completely aloof from the first two novels of the series.

Whereas Titus Groan and Gormenghast are ponderous, dense, slow-moving psychological explorations, Titus Alone is a spritely wafer of a book. Its chapters are frequently only a paragraph long, and it zips along at a pace that’s much more conducive to short attention spans. Groan and Gormenghast took place in a world devoid of all but the vaguest mentions of higher powers, while Titus Alone brims over with Biblical allusions. Groan is an entirely sexless book and Gormenghast approaches the subject with the utmost of discretion; Titus Alone is full of sexuality, both expressed and repressed. Groan and Gormenghast strolled through the narrative at a leisurely pace, often taking an entire page or two to describe a character rounding a corner, while Titus Alone gives us incomplete sketches of even major characters like Muzzlehatch and Juno (with occasionally redundant descriptions to boot).

Even more shocking is that Titus Alone appears to take place in an entirely different world than its predecessors. The only hint of time or place I could find in the first two novels was a brief reference to “the Arctic” in Gormenghast; there was no other historical or technological context to anchor the novels in any particular time or place. But in Titus Alone, Peake gives us cars, airplanes, elevators, factories, telescreens, helicopters, and glass buildings. There are jarring references to a remote controlled spy device of some sort and flying mechanical needles. It’s perhaps closer to our world than the first two novels, but not by much.

Titus Alone by Mervyn PeakeWhat are we to make of all this? It’s tempting to think that Mervyn Peake was simply out of his gourd by the time he began work in earnest on Titus Alone. The foreword to the revised edition speaks of Peake’s deteriorating mental state in the later stages of the draft and the necessity of editing out some of his more incoherent passages. There are multiple references to madness in the novel, and one of our protagonist’s central conflicts is to decide whether all the memories of his entire childhood (and therefore the contents of the first two novels) are simply the hallucinations of a diseased mind.

I couldn’t help thinking of Philip K. Dick’s (contemporaneous) novel Time Out of Joint, which features a similarly deluded protagonist living in a dreamworld stitched together by carefully labeled pieces of paper.

And it’s worth noting that we’re never given any external validation of the existence of Gormenghast in the course of Titus Alone. The one physical piece of evidence of home that Titus carries with him, a flint, is lost halfway through the novel, and is a perilously thin reed to hang one’s sanity on anyway. It’s notable that, while Titus is convinced he’s found his way back to Gormenghast Mountain in the book’s final scene, he chooses not to peer over the edge of the rock. He chooses not to return to Gormenghast.

I wonder how much the progress of Peake’s Parkinson’s disease influenced the subject matter of the novel. In addition to the tremors and the slurred speech, visual hallucinations are one of the classic symptoms of Parkinson’s (which I can tell you since I have a close relative who’s suffering through such hallucinations right now). Was Peake writing about himself in Titus Alone? Was he himself having trouble distinguishing fantasy from reality? Peake’s friend Michael Moorcock writes in his marvelous and touching exploration of the man’s later years that “People who didn’t know him very well often said Mervyn Peake’s books were so darkly complex that writing them had sent him mad.” Moorcock properly scoffs at this notion, but I wonder if it didn’t work the other way around: the process of mental deterioration inspired him to write a darkly complex novel about his condition.

In the end, however, Titus Alone, while concerned with questions of sanity and reality, isn’t a Philip K. Dick novel. While it does share elements in common with novels of the psychedelic ’60s, the book is ultimately more backwards-looking than forwards-looking, as Anthony Burgess points out in his introduction to Titus Groan. It’s ultimately a traditional coming-of-age story about a Prodigal Son learning to trust himself in a strange and hostile world. It’s more Cervantes than Philip K. Dick.

Unfortunately, Titus Alone was intended to be only a middle novel in a five-book series. The fourth, Titus Awakes, was barely even begun by the time Peake succumbed to his illness (and the existing fragment is available online); the proposed fifth, Gormenghast Revisited, remains wholly hypothetical. So we’ll never get to see the 77th Earl of Groan’s homecoming. Titus will always remain out there, wandering and homeless, living off his wits and questioning his place in the world.

I kind of like it that way.

(As a small postscript, I think it’s worth pointing out that the Vintage UK set of the Gormenghast novels whose covers are pictured here contain some of the most arresting cover art I’ve ever seen. The silhouetted black birds are cleverly set on the spine of the book to indicate the number of the book in the series: one bird for the first book, two for the second, three for the third. But strangely, the interior is printed on horribly cheap paper, and as a result the type is often very difficult to read. I picked up these books in Paris, as I mentioned before, and I wonder if that has anything to do with it.)

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  1. Paul Raven on February 14, 2007 at 5:06 pm  Chain link

    I remember Peake’s trilogy with great fondness, as I believe I mentioned before. But it’s high time I re-read it – I think I’d get even more from it now I’m older. I also keep meaning to watch the BBC adaptation, which was (allegedly) quite good.

  2. […] – Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast and Titus Alone David Louis Edelman takes a look at these unique classics of genre literature. (tags: literature […]

  3. Jerry Prager on March 9, 2007 at 10:32 pm  Chain link

    Titus Alone is actually the only Gormenghast book I read, the other too I watched in the fabulous BBC version. I loved Titus Alone, it belongs to the same class of books as The Master and Margarit (sp?).
    I think it’s a brilliant work, for all its quirks and oddities.

  4. David Louis Edelman on March 10, 2007 at 10:35 am  Chain link

    Oh yes, The Master and Margarita, by Bulgakov (or in Russian, as Wikipedia tells me, Мастер и Маргарита). I loved that one, too, though I think I was too young when I read it to make much of the political allusions.

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