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Book review: 'Titus Awakes: The Lost Book of Gormenghast'

Mervyn Peake's 'Gormenghast' series of novels is continued by his widow, Maeve Gilmore, in a fascinating, intensely personal homage.

August 28, 2011|By Michael Moorcock, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Author and illustrator Mervyn Peake sketches a likeness of his wife, painter Maeve Gilmore while she is working at her easel in 1938.
Author and illustrator Mervyn Peake sketches a likeness of his wife, painter… (General Photographic Agency,…)

Titus Awakes

The Lost Book of Gormenghast

Maeve Gilmore, based on a fragment by Mervyn Peake

Overlook Press: 265 pp., $25.95

There is only one Mervyn Peake. An outstanding painter, illustrator, poet, novelist and playwright, Peake is now solidly part of the British literary canon. He was voted one of the 50 best British writers since 1945 in a recent London Times critics' poll. His centenary is being celebrated this year with events and an exhibition at the British Library, an academic conference and the publication of new material or republication of several of his best works, including "The Illustrated Gormenghast."

In the U.S., he tends to be mentioned in the same breath as J.R.R. Tolkien simply because he wrote three books set in a world "parallel" to our own. But his "Gormenghast" sequence — "Titus Groan," "Gormenghast" and "Titus Alone" — was never intended to be a trilogy. It has little or no supernatural content and lacks the sentimentality of Tolkien. Before his descent into the debilitating illness that eventually killed him in 1968, he was planning further novels that would bring his protagonist Titus Groan into worlds more specifically relevant to our own.

Planning the next book in the series, Peake sketched out where he planned to take Titus with a series of scenes headed "Titus in the mountains," "Titus among the snows," and so on. From what he said at the time, he planned to take his protagonist into the contemporary world as a naif, returning him to Gormenghast as it suited his story, blending fantasy and reality in the same narrative. He always discussed his ideas with his wife, the painter Maeve Gilmore, who was not only one of his favorite sitters for portraits and characters (for instance, the Countess of Groan is modeled after her, as was her penchant for white cats) but was also his close collaborator in the preparation of his novels. She was the subject of many poems and many others were dedicated to her. She was, in the view of many who met her, one of the most beautiful women of her day. She also loved him passionately and selflessly. When he contracted the Parkinson's disease that would slowly kill him, she found herself having to take over many of his day-to-day routines, including, of course, the need to find work to support the family.

Money, however, was not what Maeve had in mind when, as Mervyn grew weaker, she began to write a series of stories and sketches that helped ground her grief and keep alive her husband and his work. Her impulse was not so different from what many of us feel when a talented friend dies. Her decision, after much consultation with close friends, to carry on the Titus sequence was seen as a means of helping her to come to terms with a grief she described visually in many of her best paintings. During her lifetime she showed no strong wish to publish the book and, for many years, the manuscript remained largely forgotten and unread until her children rediscovered it and offered it to Peake's publisher as part of their father's centenary celebration.

Although inspired by Mervyn Peake, this book is not another "Titus Alone." A fascinating, intensely personal homage, "Titus Awakes," with its themes of baffled love and loss, takes the scraps of notes and list of chapter titles, turning them into a testament of Maeve's devotion as she sends Titus off into a world even more dream-like than the original.

Accompanied only by his faithful Dog, Titus finds himself on a quest for place and identity, first in the mountains and then in a variety of generally harsh landscapes, a passive participant in the plans of others, reflecting the increasing bewilderment of Peake as his hold on reality weakened. The protagonist is really more Peake than he is Titus. Gilmore found a way to echo rather than imitate him, knowing that Peake could not be imitated. She successfully echoes the music of the originals, if not the eloquent precision of Peake's baroque style as she sends Titus on his adventures, ultimately to find friends in a painter's colony whose backgrounds and characters have the authority of observed reality.

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