Friday, October 9, 2015

Titus Alone: Initial Thoughts

I finished reading Mervyn Peake's The Gormenghast Trilogy as of late, specifically the 1999 Vintage edition. (If you were wondering where September's book went, don't worry, it's on its way. A 953-page fantasy trilogy creates holes, though.) For those not up on 20th-century fantasy, The Gormenghast Trilogy consists of Titus Groan (1946), Gormenghast (1950) and Titus Alone (1959). It was not originally intended as a trilogy but became one out of necessity. Also for those not up on 20th-century fantasy, you may want to read the trilogy before reading this entry - that is, unless the theory of these books is so much more important to you than the plot that you're willing to endure spoilers in order to have a lively discussion about the meaning of the novel.

I considered commenting on any one of the books as September's book, much as I did with Douglas Adams back in 2012, but ultimately decided against it for the following reasons:

  • So much has been written on The Gormenghast Trilogy I'm not sure what I could reasonably add. That said,the fantasy and world-building lend themselves to longer-form speculation rather than the couple paragraphs I wrote to acknowledge that I once, indeed, read Bleak House in a week.
  • Which book would I have picked? Unlike the Hitchhiker series, there's such a tight narrative to The Gormenghast Trilogy I could not have possibly picked one book without mentioning the others. Simply reading the first, Titus Groan, and then not the others would have been the greatest disservice of all considering the loose ends every (surviving) character faces between Titus Groan and Gormenghast.
  • Peake is such a master of setting and character that any detailed review of the entire trilogy would either be hopelessly long or a personal reflection. This blog is proud to reserve "hopelessly long" for the painstaking analysis only PUAs or exploitative TV shows can inspire, and this entry is something of a personal reflection.

The 2015 reader is lulled into a false sense of security in light of how Peake influenced so many later works, and how Peake's character archetypes pop up in the weirdest places (like this latter-day Cora and Clarice). Expecting a cozy fireside story of where various fantasy tropes originated, the reader is instead legitimately surprised at every turn. In Titus Groan and Gormenghast, Peake knocks off characters in ways that would make George R. R. Martin blush. (Accidental drowning while considering suicide, and sudden out-of-nowhere lightning bolt-inflicted death, are the two... best?)

Steerpike is the most enigmatic character of all, starting as a hero in Titus Groan before becoming a serial killer during Gormenghast. I take issue with the many reviews claiming Steerpike was evil all along; before his calamitous forays into fire, he seems to care about Fuchsia at least somewhat, is thankful for what Prunesquallor does for him, and Peake's consistent mentioning of Steerpike's lack of empathy seems unrealistic. That he does all he can for himself should be a given when considering the kitchens he flees and his general lack of resources at the outset. It is obvious by the middle of Gormenghast that Steerpike has become a villain, but the transformation in Steerpike's psyche over the preceding 400 or so pages make him, in my opinion, one of the best characters ever written. That he appears on the cover of the edition I read is, after reading the trilogy, no surprise.

Where I start this speculation, though, is a few short pages after Titus murders Steerpike via multiple stab wounds. Nothing like the two main characters on a collision course, is there?


Titus Alone is the strangest book I have ever read. For why Titus Alone is so strange, David Louis Edelman's introduction puts it wonderfully:

In the last words of Gormenghast, Peake writes that “Titus rode out of his world.” Who would have imagined that Peake meant it literally? Titus Groan and Gormenghast take place in some undefined location in what seems to be a pre-Industrial setting. But in Titus Alone, there are flying mechanical needles, death rays, and a factory filled with mysterious bad smells. Muzzlehatch drives a car, Cheeta rides in a helicopter, and Cheeta’s scientist father talks to his subordinates through a videoconferencing system. Crabcalf informs us that someone or something named “Molusk” has recently circled the moon. (A successor to Sputnik?) All this technology implies that the novel takes place in the near future, yet nobody Titus encounters has heard of Gormenghast. Gormenghast, a castle so enormous that you can wander its rooftops for days without seeing the end of it.
Unmentioned above: The only noted use of the death ray was to destroy a zoo, killing all the animals, for no discernible reason other than for science, leading to the zookeeper going on a murderous rampage in the name of revenge. This same zookeeper caught Titus sleeping with his ex-lover but then, shortly after, invited Titus over for drinks and then laughed about the whole thing.

Gormenghast Castle is situated in what approximates 18th-century Europe. To be transported to the world described above without any warning is indescribable. My first reaction was to think Titus had been transported to contemporary 1959 London, which would have made Titus Alone a reverse Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. (Or, if you're extra-cynical, a proto-Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles.) Titus suddenly starts using contemporary British slang, such as phrases like "bloody", and, defying all conventional logic, barely seems surprised by what he sees. Titus Alone's plot is what may as well a series of random events.

A curious exchange shows how dense Titus appears to the locals of Titus Alone occurs while he is in the courtroom. Titus correctly explains to the rightfully befuddled judge that his father "was eaten by owls" (812). The next time Titus speaks with the judge, the following ensues:

JUDGE: "You have told us of your father's death. What of your mother?"
TITUS: "She was a woman." [attributions mine]

Again, Titus Alone is completely unexpected, even from page to page.

While reading Titus Groan, however, I had a distinctly different idea of how Titus Alone would proceed...

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