Titus Alone by Mervyn Peake (1959) 196 p.

Mervyn Peake’s first two Gormenghast novels, Titus Groan and Gormenghast, are not so much separate books as they are chapters in the same vast, powerful work of literature. Titus Groan is merely the stage-setter: it’s Gormenghast which details the climax to the twin story arcs of Steerpike’s ruthless ambition and Titus’ growing urge for freedom, for liberty, for escape from the stifling confines of the ancient castle of Gormenghast – and indeed, the novel ends with Titus finally fleeing the castle.

Titus Alone is, to put it mildly, very different. I don’t want to give too much away, but suffice to say that we finally find out what lies beyond Gormenghast, and perhaps wish we hadn’t. Throughout the first two books, the outside world was rarely mentioned, only vaguely alluded to; we had no idea what it might contain, in this bizarre little fantasy world of Peake’s, and nobody except Titus seemed to think it even mattered. It was Schroedinger’s world, an object of intense curiosity for both Titus and the reader, and I couldn’t help but feel that for Peake to open the box is something of a betrayal.

It’s important to note that Peake was in poor health when he wrote this novel, which was supposed to be merely the third volume in a planned five-book series. He was suffering from early-onset dementia, and by the time Titus Alone was published in 1959 his mental capacity had badly deteriorated; he spent two decades in a care home before dying in 1968. There is much debate about the extent to which Peake’s illness influenced Titus Alone, and indeed the novel itself has undergone certain revisions. The 1959 edition was heavily modified by the publisher, removing certain scenes and references that readers accustomed to medieval Gormenghast might object to; in 1970 the writer Langdon Jones revised it to more accurately reflect Peake’s final manuscript, which I believe is the version I’ve read in my collected Vintage edition. It nonetheless remains a very different book from the previous two: less than 200 pages long, with many chapters lasting only a few paragraphs, and – while Peake’s writing style is as distinctive as ever – there is a certain lack of intense, baroque descriptions. In Titus Groan and Gormenghast Peake could easily spend pages describing the physical descriptions of certain characters; here, several major figures are barely described at all.

The basic question is how much Titus Alone was supposed to be different, and how much it’s a result of Peake’s crumbling sanity. I suspect it was always supposed to be a weirdly different book – breaking the barrier between Gormenghast and the outside world is no light thing, after all – but I also suspect Peake’s own fears and anxieties about his mental health greatly affected the book. Much of the novel, particularly towards the end, revolves around Titus doubting his own sanity as to whether Gormenghast ever really existed. Having lost any physical connection with the place, he has lost his identity: he stumbles through a bizarre, confusing world full of people who refuse to believe his claims of such a place. When I began reading it I thought perhaps this bubble of strangeness would be pierced, later on, by the return of old characters – Dr Prunesquallor and the Poet, for example, riding to Titus’ new abode to fetch him back to Gormenghast, and reasserting his fears about why he left in the first place – but the further I read the more I came to think such a thing might be impossible. For the first two novels, Gormenghast feels like an imperturbable reality and the outside world a mere fantasy; in Titus Alone, this formula is flipped.

Around the same time I was reading this, I was watching the Alien films again for the first time in years. Wait, come back! (It says something about the strength of Peake’s writing that although his novels are technically in the fantasy genre, and although Alien is among the hundred greatest films of the 20th century, I still feel lowbrow for comparing them. Although now that I think about it, the vast and byzantine structure of the Nostromo… anyway.) Nobody disputes that Alien and Aliens are brilliant, near-perfect examples of their respective genres of horror and action, but Alien 3 is a much more reviled beast. And certainly, it’s nowhere near as good. But watching it for a second time, knowing what to expect, I found myself strangely sympathetic to its aims. The first two films are so ensconced in pop culture canon that they feel like immutable reality, so it feels like a betrayal for Alien 3 to change gears so rapidly, to sit so awkwardly outside the box. Ripley finds herself stranded amongst prisoners in a grubby, low-tech prison colony, hunting a very improbable alien whose presence stretches suspension of disbelief, and the entire film plays out more like fantasy than science fiction. It looks, talks, and feels very different from the first two, almost like it takes place in another world altogether. At one point the leader of the prisoners says to Ripley, “The outside world doesn’t exist for us any more.” Right up until the film’s conclusion it’s possible to think this may be true: that it’s a sort of purgatory, or a nightmare she’s having in hypersleep aboard the Sulaco. Or, most terribly of all, that the opposite is the case: that the events of the first two films weren’t true, that they never happened except in Ripley’s mind, and only this horrible place is real.

That’s probably not the best comparison in the world, but that’s what I was thinking about at the time, and there it is. Titus Alone is a novel hugely different from its predecessors, but also one obsessed with the very concept of difference: with how much our external surroundings affect our own internal world, our thoughts and our memories and our sense of reality. I can’t argue that it stands well alongside Titus Groan and Gormenghast; I can’t even argue that I’m glad to have read it, or that I’m glad it exists. But for better or worse, it’s what Peake intended for us to read. It’s a terrible shame that illness robbed us of his genius and our chance to see Titus, in those further planned novels, to return once more to his ancestral home.