Titus Awakes

Titus Awakes. Maeve Gilmore. Based on a fragment by Mervyn Peake. Overlook Press, 2011, 265 pp., $25.95.

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Reviewed by David Bratman

[This review originally appeared in Mythprint 48:11 (#352) in November 2011.]

Sequels by other hands to classic novels do not have a distinguished history, though they’ve be-come common in recent years in the science fiction and fantasy field. Titus Awakes, a fourth book for the so-called Gormenghast trilogy by Mervyn Peake, written by Peake’s widow, Maeve Gilmore, is a little different from most of these. It wasn’t written to cash in on the original’s fame or to appease legions of clamoring fans. Gilmore wrote it privately, even secretly, over several years as a kind of creative personal therapy for her own grief at her husband’s illness and death, and never made any serious effort to publish it. After she died in 1983, only a few people knew any-thing about it, and nobody knew what had become of the typescript, until her granddaughter recently found it in a box in an attic. Publication promptly followed, with an explanatory introduction by Brian Sibley, one of the few people who’d read it while Gilmore was alive.

This is not a fourth Gormenghast book. Anyone who’s read its immediate predecessor, Titus Alone, will know there isn’t even a third Gormenghast book. Peake’s long-term intention was not to continue the story of that crumbling castle, but to write an episodic biography of his central figure, Titus Groan. At the end of the second book, Titus leaves Gormenghast and ventures into the outside world. In volume three he finds, not an extension of the sealed decaying tradition-bound world he came from, but a strange futuristic modernism that he doesn’t understand and which is accordingly described in vague, hallucinatory language.

Readers disconcerted by Titus Alone have blamed Peake’s neurodegenerative illness for its differences from its predecessors, but rightly or wrongly, Peake knew exactly what he was doing, and more appreciative readers, starting with Gilmore, have taken it for what it is. Unfortunately the worsening of Peake’s illness made him unable to write more than a couple of pages, featuring Titus dreaming about his past, of a fourth book, along with a list of what were apparently intended as chapter titles. It was enough to make clear that he intended the story to feature Titus wandering from place to place and encountering a great variety of people, and such is the story that, beginning with Peake’s fragment, Gilmore has written.

Although it follows Peake’s intentions, it doesn’t read at all like a Peake novel. Though Gilmore, like her husband, was an artist by profession, Titus Awakes is less intensely visual than Peake’s works, and Gilmore doesn’t even try to reproduce his elaborate way with the English language. It’s much more plainly told, and in some ways clearer, though the settings are just as vaguely described as in Titus Alone. There are no fantasy elements, but it can’t be called realistic either. The second half of the book has a contemporary setting: several characters, like Titus Alone’s Muzzlehatch, drive cars; trains and telephones are mentioned; artistic fashions are those of the mid-20th century. But we’re given no concrete geographic or current events cues, and the first half’s setting is much harder to pin down. Most of the people Titus finds himself among in the first half speak no language, or at least none that he can recognize. It’s something of a shock in chapter 20 when, having escaped from a small regiment of soldiers who seem to want to inveigle him into servitude, Titus is taken in by the talkative and witty artist Ruth Saxon. This is the turning point of the book, the change from the primitive and brutal world of the first half to the more sophisticated, though at times no less brutal, world of the second half.

Titus, too, changes. The problem with Titus as a central character in all four books is that he’s too passive and surrounded by far more color than he himself possesses. Gilmore tries to mitigate this by making Titus a wanderer by creed. He declares to himself that he cannot commit to staying with anyone. He leaves the nameless, speechless woman who bears his child in chapter 9. He leaves the dog, for long his only continuing companion, whom he refuses to name to demonstrate his lack of commitment. He leaves Ruth, who became his lover, when circumstances take him away. He leaves other friends who never expected him to stay long. He leaves, with more alacrity, the soldiers and several others who try to force him to stay. Thus the episodes of the book — there are about a dozen, most of one to three chapters — are driven along.

Up through the turning point at the middle of the story, when he meets Ruth, Titus often thinks of his past and is eager to tell his personal story to any-one he meets who can understand his speech, though he warns them they might not believe it. (There is no recapitulation in the text of Titus Awakes itself, but reading the earlier books is not necessary to follow the plot.) Afterwards, though, the memory of Gormenghast drops off the story’s mental map, and Titus, half-unaware of what he’s doing, embarks on a new quest: to meet his literary creator, Mervyn Peake, which he suspects is the final goal of his journey. It’s not spelled out explicitly, of course; Peake’s name is never mentioned, and Sibley’s introduction helps spell it out. But it’s clear that the large episode set among Ruth and the other members of the artist’s colony has Gilmore’s personal experience behind it. The episode has a vividness of narration denied to anything earlier in the story.

Almost immediately after-wards, Titus takes a job as a ward orderly at a mental institution. There he cares particularly for one patient, an artist who eventually utters one word, Titus’s name. That patient is Mervyn Peake, and the institution is a description of one where the terminally-ill Peake was kept for a while. Later, Titus stays at a restful priory, and sees another guest, a man with haunting eyes who does not fit in. This too is Peake, and the priory is another place where Peake stayed, earlier on. At the very end of the story, Titus takes a boat to an island, his goal to meet a man there whom he sees accompanied by three children. The island is Sark, where the Peakes lived idyllically for a few years, and the Peakes had three children. As Sibley points out, Titus is traveling back-wards in Peake’s life; Gilmore is using the story as emotional therapy to return to the happy, healthy portion of her married life.

It’s not clear if the three figures in the story are the same man; even Titus can’t entirely put his finger on why they feel important to him. And the episodes are interrupted by others that are caustically satirical: encounters with a gang of nihilistic teenage thugs and with a monstrously egoistic man who writes repulsive poetry. But Titus’s previously random journey now has a focus, and once the reader realizes the significance of the man with the three children, Titus’s sight of him becomes an appropriate closing for this peripatetic journey.


Titus Awakes. Maeve Gilmore. Based on a fragment by Mervyn Peake. Overlook Press, 2011, 265 pp., $25.95.

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