Titus Alone by Mervyn Peake

Titus Alone, by Mervyn Peake “To the reader who has followed Titus through the two earlier books Titus Alone administers a profound jolt, and many have not liked it,” writes Malcolm Yorke in My Eyes Mint Gold, his biography of Mervyn Peake. It was warnings such as this that put me off reading the third of Peake’s Titus books back when I read the first two, and which prepared me, on finally getting round to it, not to be disappointed by it not being a Gormenghast book. But, as it is a Titus book, it is at least haunted by Gormenghast, even if the world Titus moves through, and the prose style we get to experience it through, aren’t Gormenghastian, but something less grandiose and Gothic, less solid, and of that much less character, too. At times, it reads like a sort of mannered absurdism, full of details that ought to add up to character and style but without any of the substance that would make them work.

Perhaps the trouble is that Titus, though the figure around whom the whole series revolves, isn’t one of Peake’s more interesting characters. He exists, at first, to be oppressed by Gormenghast, then to defy it and escape from it. But because his identity is so tied up with that vast shadow-haunted castle, once he’s away from it, what is he? This is something Titus himself has to confront, as he finds himself, in Titus Alone, so far from his home that no-one has ever heard of it, and most don’t believe such a place even exists:

“Did you run away, young man?”

“I rode away,” said Titus.

“From… Gormenghast?”

“Yes, your Worship.”

“Leaving your mother…?”

“Yes.”

“And your father…?”

“No, not my father…”

“Ah… is he dead, my boy?”

“Yes, your Worship. He was eaten by owls.”

The Magistrate raised an eyebrow and began to write upon a piece of paper.

Finding himself in a very un-Gormenghastian land of motorcars and helicopters, tall glass buildings and needle-like aeroplanes, Titus is arrested for having no identity. “So my papers are out of order, are they?” he says. “So is my brain and heart.”

MuzzlehatchUnfortunately, this lack of identity makes for him being a very weak character to hang a novel on. In the Gormenghast books, relief would be found in other characters, or in Gormenghast itself, but here there’s not much weight to the world Titus finds himself in, and we only get a small handful of characters who have any real character at all. Perhaps there’s only one. And that would be fine, because the whole of “Boy in Darkness” is sustained by the eerie presence of the Lamb alone, but here the one new character of interest, Muzzlehatch, exists mainly to stride in and out of the plot at key points, rescuing Titus when Titus needs rescuing, then to disappear, because Muzzlehatch, “Barbaric to the eye, his silhouette more like something of ropes and bones,” a man “so ragged and yet, at the same time, so like a king”, whose “every movement was a kind of stab in the bosom of the orthodox world” is a kind of hero of indifference, a hero of individuality and self-containment, something Titus aspires to, but fails to achieve until the very final paragraph of the novel. Till then, Muzzlehatch must exist as a heroic example, but one who therefore can’t take centre place in a novel which is all about the attempt to solve the problem Muzzlehatch has already solved — the problem of knowing who you are, of being self-contained — not what Titus is, a ghost of his own past, simultaneously longing for, and trying to deny his need for, Gormenghast. “Give me some proof of me!” Titus cries, at one point. Yet Gormenghast, his once-home, is the only proof of Titus.

I said in my Mewsings on the second Titus book that it didn’t hit its stride, and really get back into the immersive feel of the first book, till about 250 pages in. This is excusable in a book with another 250 pages to go. For me, Titus Alone didn’t hit its stride till the 200 page mark, which might sound like an improvement till you realise Titus Alone is only 260 pages long, leading me to think it might have been better as a novella like “Boy in Darkness” — short, but focused on a single episode. And, if it weren’t for the need to build up the characters that feature in that final episode, it would surely be possible to read just those final 60 pages on their own, because they comprise the only real set-piece of any weight in the book, and almost all of its meaning.

Peake’s at his best with set pieces. His style is all about elaboration, about building up his characters from quirky little cartoons to full-blown human beings, and building up his settings in all their Gothic cobwebbed glory, and then bringing it all together in grand, climactic moments. In Titus Alone, there’s nothing for his elaborations to adhere to till the final scene, where Cheeta, the scientist’s daughter who’s intent on ruining Titus’s mind, builds a mockery of Gormenghast and brings him to it, to parade in front of him grotesque creations meant to represent his mother, his dead sister, his dead father, and the other inhabitants of a world she has only heard about through Titus’s mutterings whilst in a fever.

Titus Alone, by Mervyn PeakeThe thing that makes the world of Titus Alone most different from that of Gormenghast is that, whilst Gormenghast seemed at most to be a post-World War II world, and that only as a distant echo, Titus Alone is resolutely in the atomic age. Cheeta’s father, described in the book as “the greatest scientist in the world” was in fact, in Peake’s original manuscript (according to John Batchelor’s book on Peake), described as “the greatest deathray scientist in the world” — something which makes a lot more sense of why his factory, and his daughter, should be the focus for the book’s idea of evil. Scientists in Titus Alone are purveyors of death, and inventors of devices for mass killing, and the world of Titus Alone, though slightly futuristic with its tall glass buildings and needle-like aircraft (and its over-leisured middle classes who spend so much time at over-crowded cocktail parties), is a diminished world:

“Once there were islands all a-sprout with palms: and coral reefs and sands as white as milk. What is there now but a vast shambles of the heart? Filth, squalor, and a world of little men.”

Titus Alone isn’t in the same league as the two Gormenghast books, or even the much shorter “Boy in Darkness”, and for most of it, I found myself wondering if I’d get anything out of the reading at all. But the final 60 pages were good — not quite Gormenghast good, but certainly good enough, and unlike the early parts of the book, they tied in enough with the story of Titus’s leaving Gormenghast to make them seem a worthwhile continuation, completing the arc of Titus’s development into manhood that began, in the second book, with the sudden death of “the Thing”, then his decision to leave Gormenghast, to the moment in the final paragraph of Titus Alone where he finds, finally, the link to his past that properly enables him to absorb it, and escape it.

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