Tuesday, 23 January 2001

Mervyn Peake: Titus Alone (1959)

Edition: Penguin, 1981 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 725

The third volume of the Gormenghast trilogy is the story of the life of Titus, 77th Earl of Groan, far from the ancestral castle of Gormenghast and the life of ritual lived there. It was one of the last pieces of writing completed by Peake before he succumbed to his eventually final illness, and there are signs of haste about it. Originally, more novels were planned to follow it, and parts of Titus Alone read more like plans and outlines than completed work. It is quite a lot shorter than its predecessors, and has a far smaller group of characters.

There are two main themes in Titus Alone. Having gone so far from Gormenghast that its name is not even known, Titus regrets some things that he has left behind, and is constantly thinking of it. In delirium with fever, it is the constant subject of his ravings, to the extent that his nurse when later she is a spurned lover can create a parody of the main characters to torture him with. In the end, he seeks to return home.

Then there is the contrasting modern world in which Titus is now living. There are clear signs that the background is more modern, as it contains devices unknown in Gormenghast - helicopters, cars and watching devices rather like flying TV cameras. Titus, of course, does not fit in, and most of the friends he makes are society's outcasts. (The exception to this is a fading society beauty who falls in love with him.) Titus, once ruler of all he surveyed, is reduced to being a beggar in rags - but he is free of the ceremony which was his whole life before his rejection of Gormenghast.

The whole of the framework of the novel is allegorical. Rejecting senseless rules from his childhood, Titus becomes an adult; as an adult, difficulties make him long for the security of those rules. Yet the modern world offers nothing better than a travesty of the old rules, and we cannot return to our childhood. This is the importance of the ending of the novel, and the moment when Titus turns away once more from the Gormenghast he has almost reached makes a fitting conclusion to his story, even if not originally intended to be the final moment.

Gormenghast is Peake's masterpiece; Titus Alone is more a monument to what might have been had not illness intervened.

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