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Titus Alone by Mervyn PeakeBallantine Books edition3.5 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsPublished nine years after GormenghastTitus 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. 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.

Overlook editionAt 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. Yet there is also an entire subculture 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. 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 doesn’t succeed 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 it’s 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 unfolding before me. Peake generates dazzling imagery in the reader’s mind that is quite unforgettable, and many scenes and players bring to mind Peake’s kindred spirits in cinema, Fellini and Gilliam. There is 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’s 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 you never identify with her as well as you’d like to.

Another factor shaping this book’s uneven quality was undoubtedly Peake’s declining health. The illness that would eventually kill him — he was initially diagnosed with Parkinson’s, though years after his death it was determined he actually suffered from Lewy Body Dementia — had already taken a firm hold years before Titus Alone finally saw print. The 1957 critical and commercial failure of a stage play Peake had written sent him to hospital with a nervous breakdown. Neither his mental nor physical health ever really recovered. Peake had planned a fourth volume, Titus Awakes. But it was thought never to have been worked on apart from a few pages of notes, some of which were included in the 1995 Overlook Press omnibus trade paperback edition of the trilogy. In 2010 a full manuscript for the novel finished out by Peake’s widow Maeve Gilmore was discovered, and published in 2011.

Titus Alone crowns 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, sad and wonderful world as soon as you possibly could.

(Additions and revisions were made to this review in 2015.)