Mervyn Peake was a man of many, many talents – painter, illustrator, playwright, novelist, poet – but it is as a writer, more specifically as the author of the Gormenghast novels that he is best remembered.
Set in the sprawling, ritual-ridden castle of Gormenghast, the first two novels in the cycle – Titus Groan and Gormenghast - deal with the birth and coming-of-age of the new Earl, Titus Groan and the rise and fall of Steerpike, a would-be usurper. The novels are lush and richly decorated – not only in terms of their language but also in terms of the illustrations that Peake provided for them – filled with Dickensian grotesques (characters such as the obscenely obese cook, Swelter, or the dusty and gangling Mr Flay, the foppish Dr Prunesqualor or the doomed Lord Sepulchrave) and a painter's eye for detail they are among some of the finest fantasies ever written (although, in all truth, it is perhaps a matter of reader perspective as to whether or not the novels could be considered fantasy in the commercial sense).
Remarkable as both Titus Groan and Gormenghast are, the third novel in the cycle – Titus Alone – is an equally remarkable book and one which is, sadly, often overshadowed by it predecessors.
When Titus finally leaves the confines of Gormenghast castle, he is plunged into a world equally as strange and dangerous as the one he has just left, populated by characters every bit as grotesque as those of his abandoned realm. Whereas the first two novels in the cycle could be considered to have a Dickensian feel, or to have a skewed Ruritanian aspect to them, Titus Alone is set in a world not too far removed from the mid 20th century, almost as if Titus has stepped forward in time to an age of aircraft, automobiles, secret policemen, and stark, foreboding architecture.
Befriended, albeit reluctantly at first, by the gaunt giant Muzzlehatch, imprisoned for ill-defined crimes and set free by the good graces of the ageing but still beautiful Juno, who briefly becomes his lover, Titus finds this new world no more to his liking than the old. But his further wanderings – firstly to the Under-River and then to the sinister environs of The Factory – offer little or no purpose and the loss of Gormenghast itself – although his exile is entirely self-imposed – leads Titus to the verge of insanity as he beings to question his own memories.
A picaresque novel which casts Titus as a latter-day Candide, Titus Alone is a dark and sometimes nightmarish read, often obeying its own narrative rules (a technique that Peake had explored in his novella Boy In Darkness). Yet it is also a novel that shows Peake's delicate touch as a writer, with gleeful, sometimes morbid, slapstick thrown into the mix – Titus's impromptu arrival at Lady Cusp-Canine's over-crowed and mirthless party, the failed writer Crabcalf who carries the unsold copies of his novel everywhere with him or the horrific, almost cartoonish, death of Mr Veil (“Crushed and prostrate, he rose again, and to Titus's horror it seemed as though the features of his face had all changed places.”)
The extended climax of the novel – where Cheeta, daughter of the scientist who owns the Belsenesque Factory, tries to drive Titus past the point of madness by recreating Gormenghast in the crumbling Black House – is by turns thrilling and terrifying and demonstrates Peake's mastery of the written word. (“Under a light to strangle infants by, the great and horrible flower opened its bulbous petals one by one...Out of his fear and apprehension something green and incredibly young took hold of Titus and sidled across his entrails... Something was emerging from the forgotten room. Something of great bulk and swathing. It moved with exaggerated grandeur, trailing a length of dusty, moth eaten fustian...)
A critical and commercial failure upon its publication in 1959 (due in large part to editorial tampering which Peake - by then firmly in the grip of the Parkinson's Disease which would end his life tragically short – was unable to correct) Titus Alone was subsequently re-edited by the British author Langdon Jones in the early 1970's to emerge as a truer version of the text and one which is as close to Mervyn Peake's original vision as possible.
Sometimes and unfairly regarded as a bizarre postscript to the Gormenghast cycle, Titus Alone is a novel which defies expectation – and, to a certain extent, category – never content simply to be 'the third book', taking the story of Titus Groan into strange new places, a unique and unsettling novel from a writer who's imagination was boundless and who's legacy should be treasured.
(By way of addendum: Mervyn Peake's intention was to continue the story of Titus Groan beyond Titus Alone and he had planned a fourth novel – Titus Awakes – for which only a few fragmentary notes existed.. The novel was taken up by his widow Maeve Gilmore and retitled Search Without End. In 2011 it was finally published as Titus Awakes – The Lost Book of Gormenghast. A review should be forthcoming on The Computerbank soon)