Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Review of Titus Alone by Mervyn Peake

Positively peripatetic compared to Titus Groan and Gormenghast, Titus Alone (1959), the third Titus novel by Mervyn Peake, finds the titular heir on walkabout, trying to find his place in life.  The routine and comfort of the castle, Prunesqualor, the Countess, Steerpike, Fuschia, and the others in his rearview mirror, Titus Alone throws the shutters of the young man’s world wide open, threatening to drown him in modernity in the process.  More bizarre than Titus Groan and Gormenghast, Titus Alone is a wild, surreal ride possessing just as much depth for those willing to see it through.

The outset of Titus Alone finds Titus wandering a desert, not a clue as to where Gormenghast is, or how he has gotten there.  Coming to a boat on a river, he casts himself inside and falls asleep.  Like baby Moses, Titus drifts downstream and is eventually fished out of the current by two policemen.  His new surroundings a shock (to the reader, as well), tall buildings, cars, and other elements of modern society greet the eye.  Befriended by a mysterious zookeeper named Muzzlehatch, Titus is taken to a menagerie—the giraffes, zebras, and lions making the reader aware Gormenghast’s gothic is far behind.  Thinking to escape the work given him, Titus becomes an unwitting guest at a party, and there meets a strange woman named Juno.  Flesh a new taste as well, Titus’ life from there on out only becomes increasingly more harried.  Memory of his home twisting itself into dream and back again, where he came from, where he is going, and who is he are questions in greatest need of answer.  Finding these answers, however, will test him physically, emotionally, and spiritually per the following:

    ‘Who are you?’ she said at last, ‘and what do you know of Titus?’
    ‘My name is of no account.  As of Titus, I know very little.  Very little.  But enough.  Enough to know that he left the city out of hunger.’
    ‘The hunger to always be somewhere else.  This and the pull of his home, or what he thinks of as his ancestral home (if he ever had one). I have seen him in the cedar grove, alone.  Beating the great branches with his fists.  Beating the branches as though to let his soul out.’

China Mieville has said that the Titus reader should not skip out on Titus Alone.  Indeed a book with vastly different tone and setting than Titus Groan or Gormenghast, it is, however, every bit as delicious in detail and direction.  Titus’ time in prison and the man Old Crime he meets there, the fight in the underground passage with Veil, the nighttime excursion through the forest of the wheelchair would-be novelist, his retainers, and their tottering pile of books, the theatrical staging of Gormenghast, and many other scenes possess the vivacity and clarity of the other two books.

All of the eccentric characters and gloom of castle Gormernghast in the past, Peake turns his imagination loose on a setting that, for as strange as it sounds, is equal parts Gormenghast and 1950s British reality, with a pinch of science fiction.  Titus Alone a dynamic novel that picks up the glacial pace of the previous two novels, Titus finds himself in a wide variety of places and amongst a wider variety of company.  The open-hearted Juno, the mysterious and timely Muzzlehatch, the scheming Cheeta, and other characters make decisions away from the rote of Gormenghast anything but easy.  The plot more obfuscated by literary devices and allusion, readers should expect the novel to require more engagement plot-wise yet be more variant (and potentially delightful) from the perspective of imagery and visuals.  In fact in dialogue with the idea of Gormenghast itself, Titus’ dreams and incoherent ramblings cross the line from memory into commentary, particularly given the realist elements backing those scenes.

Regarding the blend of alternate world fantasy (which one takes Titus Groan and Gormenghast to be) with the contrasting mimetic elements of Titus Alone, it is unfortunate Peake passed on before finishing the fourth novel.  As M. John Harrison would go on to do in his Viriconium novels, Titus Alone leaves the reader with the feeling that a fourth novel would find Titus in even more familiar territory, namely our world, the transition to reality complete.

In the end, Titus Alone is a jewel that possesses more facets than Titus Groan and Gormenghast yet will be elusive to some readers precisely for that reason.  Titus’ autonomy in the ‘real world’ not an easy responsibility to take on, his first steps away from his ancestral home do not prove confident, tragedies and disappointment dogging him every step he takes.  More rich in allusion and metaphor, Peake proves his writing powers are equally effective beyond the gothically oblique, making the novel equally good but wholly different from the previous two novels.


  1. This sounds great. I've only read Titus Groan, and I loved it.... Wonderful review.

  2. Intriguing that you should have enjoyed Titus Groan. I wouldn't have considered it your cup of tea. :) But if so, then you will also love Gormenghast as it's a precise bookend to Titus Groan. Titus Alone, though a wildly different story from many perspectives, is equally good from others. Like Ballard's later works of surrealism, Peake establishes story as art, and let's the reader swim in the warm waters.

    Sorry, went off on tangent, there... It's good. If you have the time and desire, it's recommended. :)

    1. Not my cup of tea? Albeit, I do not read a lot of fantasy but what frustrates me about the genre are all the Tolkien rip-offs and reliance on elves and wizards etc. I found Titus Groan strangely surreal, everyone immersed in what they've been doing for eternity, a visualization of decadence... Much different than your normal quest fantasy.