Titus Awakes: the Lost Book of Gormenghast
Maeve Gilmore, based on a fragment by Mervyn Peake
Vintage, 288pp, £7.99
Writing soon after the publication of Titus Groan in 1946, Quentin Crisp attempted to define what made Mervyn Peake unique:
Perhaps the truest measure of Peake's originality is that there is something "old-world" about his work . . . Only with one artist can he be compared with any degree of elaboration, and that is William Blake, who was both an artist and a writer. Of the two, Peake is infinitely the greater draughtsman, infinitely the less a mystic. Blake revelled in the fantastic; Peake dwells on the dreadful. Surrealism in its glibbest sense is concerned with dreams rather than with fancy; the horror of the scenes it depicts is symbolic. Peake, on the other hand, seems to me more concerned with fancy than with dream, and he is not exegetical. In this work he succeeds in building a whole new world, but he was also asked to govern it. This he could not do.
Reprinted in the US in the Overlook Press paperback edition of the three main Gormenghast novels (1995), Crisp's evaluation captures the qualities of Peake's work better than any later critical assessment. The most distinctive feature of the Gormenghast books is the playful exuberance with which they recount scenes of horror and madness. Peake was appalled when he learned that the American publisher of Titus Groan had given it the subtitle A Gothic Novel, and with good reason. While the book contains obvious Gothic tropes - the plot is set in a castle and has to do with ritual, rebellion and transgression - there is nothing medieval or supernatural in it. The horror that fascinated Peake was not lurking in the shadows of ancient buildings but alive in the human soul, and if he has a predecessor as a writer it is Edgar Allan Poe, rather than William Beckford or Mary Shelley.
The grotesque characters and ghastly scenes that fill the Gormenghast books do not emerge, half-formed and darkly menacing, from the depths of the unconscious mind. They are creations of wit; what's more - and here I disagree with Crisp, who goes astray at this point - nothing is more characteristic of Peake's genius than the perfect command he exercises over the world that he invented.
This is what separates him from Blake and from the Romantics and the surrealists. He does not look for creativity in delirium, or find freedom in the destruction of restraint. The jaunty mastery of horror that Peake displays in his work is reminiscent of what Nietzsche called "the pessimism of strength". Contrary to some interpretations, the Gormenghast novels are not an extended Romantic-liberal fairy tale, one more tranquillising fable of personal redemption, but a vehicle for something much rarer and altogether more spirited - a condition of superabundant vitality that affirms life even as it refuses to shrink from the most terrible aspects of life.
The peculiar horror of Peake's own life is that he was struck by an illness that destroyed this freedom of spirit. Never properly diagnosed in his lifetime, it seems to have been a variant of Parkinson's disease, which robbed him of the capacity to write and draw. Titus Awakes is a treasure salvaged from the ruins. It is based on a few fragmentary pages, abandoned by Peake in July 1960, which his devoted wife, Maeve Gilmore, began turning into a book entitled Search Without End two years after Peake's death in 1968.
Gilmore, a gifted artist in her own right, produced a manuscript that was discovered in an attic by her granddaughter Christian more than a quarter of a century later and more than a decade after Gilmore died in 1983. Given the obstacles she faced, it is a remarkable achievement. Never meant to be a trilogy, the Gormenghast books would in other circumstances have been a continuing expression of Peake's vision. That prospect was cut off by his illness, but there were also features inherent in the books that made continuing the series difficult.
The relations between Gormenghast - the decaying castle in which the first two volumes of the series are set - and the world outside have always been problematic. In keeping with much of the astonishing imagery, the picture of a vast tenement studded with limpet-like inhabitants was undoubtedly a transmuted version of the landscape of Peake's childhood, which was spent in China, where his father was a medical missionary.
But Gormenghast is more isolated than even pre-invasion Tibet, so much so that the location seems entirely self-enclosed. Peake solved that problem in Titus Alone, where the castle's rebellious heir escapes to a world that must have seemed fantastically futuristic when the book was first published in 1959.
Today, Peake's vision seems presciently accurate: the world in which Titus wanders, where wealth is ghostly and fear of poverty lurks on every corner, where the human detritus of war moulders in camps and life mutates daily under the impact of new technologies, is our own. The radical discontinuity between this world and that of the castle is obvious, and in Titus Alone Peake repeatedly underscores the contrast.
The two worlds have something in common, however - there is no exit from either of them. At the end of the second novel in the sequence, Gormenghast, when Titus is about to leave home, his mother, the Countess Groan, warns him: "There is nowhere else, you will only tread in a circle, Titus Groan. There's not a road, not a track, but it will lead you home. For everything comes to Gormenghast." She is both right and wrong. Titus discovers that there is another world out there, but it is a labyrinth, no less impenetrable than the castle he has left behind.
Gilmore's solution is quite different. Here, too, Titus wanders through a world that resembles our own, but there is some continuity with the absent world of the castle, signalled by references to his beloved sister Fuchsia and semi-wild foster-sister. Some of the places are suggested by episodes in Peake's life - an institution where Titus works for a time as an orderly recalls a hospital where Peake was confined for part of his illness. Some of the people Titus encounters are also drawn from life, including an artist who can only be an avatar of Peake.
Above all, the protagonist's search has an end. Recounting Titus travelling through sites recalling those of Peake in real life, but in reverse order, Gilmore has Titus reach an island that is unnamed but is plainly Sark, where Peake spent two years before the war and where he returned with Gilmore and his sons, Sebastian and Fabian, after Titus Groan was published. In Gilmore's account, Titus follows Peake in a counterclockwise journey, returning at last to a place of healing and happiness. The story ends with those words of the countess: "There's not a road, not a track, but it will lead him home." It is a moving conclusion to a grand modern saga, which fate denied Peake the chance to complete. l
John Gray is the New Statesman's lead reviewer. His most recent book is "The Immortalization Commission: the Strange Quest to Cheat Death" (Allen Lane, £18.99)