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TITUS ALONE
1959

Book cover art by Eleanor Crow (right), Bob Pepper (left).
Review © 1997 by Thomas M. Wagner.

Published nine years after Gormenghast, Titus Alone, to put it mildly, is a complete surprise. Though it doesn't quite equal the Himalayan heights of literary achievement that the trilogy's first two books attain, it's still a startling and unusual creation by an author who had imagination to burn and burn again. Its particular achievement is in the way Peake simply takes every expectation one had drawn from the conclusion of Gormenghast and turns it on its head. And if you have not yet unearthed and devoured Titus Groan and Gormenghast, then do not read this review any further, since spoilers are included inevitably. Anyway, by now you know you should be reading this saga if you haven't already done so.

At the finale of Gormenghast, Titus had abandoned his life in the massive castle following the deluge, as well as his position as 77th Earl of Gormenghast. Finding himself lost, he suddenly discovers exactly how backwater his home really was, as he stumbles into a city of strange technological marvels, of shimmering metal and glass buildings, whose inhabitants travel by motorcar and airplane — and yet which also houses an entire culture of outcasts, dregs, and bums beneath the city itself in the "Under-River".

This shift in the trilogy's leitmotif, from quasi-medievalism to borderline SF, is jarring at first, but quickly becomes intriguing as Peake imbues Titus's new surroundings with nearly as much strangeness as his old. Titus, wandering the nameless city, finds himself doggedly pursued by two mysterious helmeted figures and a shadowy "policeman" who is tracking him with nearly Javert-like tenacity for simple vagrancy. Befriending (in a manner of speaking) a local zookeeper and his former lover — and establishing a brief tryst with the latter — Titus nevertheless finds himself more lost than ever, lacking any real sense of identity or direction. On the one hand, though he has repudiated his life in the castle of Gormenghast, he still carries a piece of rock from it as a momento, and he is resentful when the denizens of this strange new city do not seem to respect or acknowledge that he is the 77th Earl of Gormenghast. Indeed, it isn't long before his travels become so aimless that he longs for the castle and the former life he abandoned.

Though this in no way diminishes the stature of the trilogy as a whole, Titus Alone didn't succeed for me as well as the first two novels for the simple fact that it is sketchier, less consistent, and, especially toward the end, sometimes downright cryptic. Part of this can be due to the fact the novel is only just over half as long as each of the first two, and Peake doesn't spend as much time lovingly going over every lush detail as he does in Titus Groan and Gormenghast; there were simply so many things in Titus Alone I wanted to know more about, and I kept wishing Peake would have added another couple of hundred pages to make Titus's new world every bit as richly realized and as powerful as Gormenghast.

Yet I still found myself agog at many of the weird wonders that were unfolding before me. Peake generates dazzling imagery in the reader's mind that is quite often unforgettable, and many scenes and players bring to mind Peake's kindred spirits in cinema, Fellini and Gilliam. (Such as Muzzlehatch's great zoo, or a character from the Under-River, a failed writer who drags with him every unsold copy of the one book he published years before.) Titus's confusion of identity is handled believably and grippingly, though at times you just want to slap the shit out of him; yet it is the tragedy of his confusion, and of his inability to realize that the Gormenghast he thinks he wants to flee is more deeply rooted inside of him than he can ever know, that makes Titus such a great character. The supporting character of Muzzlehatch proves the book's most vibrant and interesting new cast member; by contrast, Cheetah, a girl introduced near the novel's end and someone who really needs such detailed development, is only sketched out for the reader and one never identifies with her as well as one wants to.

So, while Titus Alone does not end this great trilogy on as consistently high a note as its beginning and middle, it is still a feat of storytelling unmatched in wit or imagination by the majority of today's novels. You would find your life a whole lot less enriched were you to fail to absorb yourself in Mervyn Peake's strange and wonderful world as soon as you possibly could.

Peake was working on a fourth volume, but it never got past the rough notes stage. Fragments of it can be read in the Overlook Press omnibus trade paperback edition of the trilogy, currently available.