Mervyn Peake’s much-loved cult series was brought to an abrupt and tragic end with the onset of Parkinson’s and Encephalitis. The mantle, however, was to be taken up in Titus Awakes by none other than his wife Maeve Gilmore – quite a surprise given that no one knew of her manuscript until its discovery by chance in the attic having lain dormant for nearly thirty years.
In the centenary year of Mervyn Peake’s birth, Stephanie Lawless talks to his son Sebastian on the legacy of his father’s work.
Some pieces of fiction are doomed to failure due either to over-hype or to an unfortunate lack of skill on the part of the author. There are also novels that begin their lives under the unbearable weight of their predecessors and the probability of achieving success independently of their parents is, therefore, greatly diminished from the get-go. Prime examples of this congenital misfortune belong to sequels, trilogies new editions of older classics (replacing Tom Sawyer’s ‘N’-word with ‘slave’, for instance), and other re-workings which somehow continue or, dare I suggest improve the original? Continuing a series represents a particular challenge in this vein- especially when the series in question commands a small but cult following. How does the author continue the dynamism and narrative energy beyond, let us say three books?
This was a problem that haunted Mervyn Peake- the celebrated author of the Gormenghast stories not only from a creative point of view but from a far more mundane and cruel perspective. Peake, having begun the series during his days in the army in the Second World War made the Gormenghast episodes his life work, was unable to finish it the way he wanted. Peake ended his days in unimaginable pain and mental anguish as he began to suffer from Parkinson’s disease and Encephalitis. Peake, who had always intended to continue the series (for that is what the novels consisted of as opposed to the commonly-held belief in the so-called Gormenghast ‘trilogy’, left behind him the barest of indications for the novel which was to succeed Titus Alone, his third instalment in the saga).
This is where it gets interesting. On an ordinary day last year, Mervyn’s granddaughter was to discover a manuscript that was to reawaken the world of Gormenghast written not by the late Mervyn but by his wife, Maeve Gilmore, who died without a word of her project to anyone in 1983. Gilmore, a writer and artist in her own right took up the mantle of her husband and finished what Mervyn was unable to. “None of us knew about it”, says Mervyn’s son Sebastian Peake who, along with his brother Fabian maintains the legacy of their father’s work. The novel had lain dormant and unknown for almost thirty years. Originally calling the book Search Without End, Maeve took her late husband’s directions that he had indicated for Titus and continued his personal struggle to find himself in a world that became ever-more strange and unimaginable. She was, according to Sebastian ‘not only [..] bringing a kind of closure to his story but also to his life and his suffering. It brings the stories full circle.’
The circle begins with the birth of a boy – an heir to an ancient earldom steeped in ritual. Titus Groan introduces the crumbling world of Gormenghast – a landscape dominated by the monstrous silhouette of the great castle. It is a world in which ritual is a living thing that demands constant obedience from its citizens – not least from Titus Groan, the 77th earl of Gormenghast who must assume his role of responsibility. The second instalment, Gormenghast then journeys through the early years of this boy who is becoming suffocated under the weight of tireless and arcane ritual until he finally abandons his home and his duties to journey beyond the castle walls. Titus Alone sees the isolation and continuing anger of a young man who has been fatally scarred by his experiences.
When I asked Sebastian what he thought made the Titus books endure to this day, he remarked that it was his father’s sense of “timelessness” that marked him out: “He didn’t write in any particular period in history yet it was a world in which we all inhabit and can relate to.” The jewelled peculiarities and eccentricities of Peake’s landscape are such that no one has ever been able to satisfactorily characterise his style. He has been compared to such disparate writers as Tolkien, Tolstoy, Graham Green and even Charles Dickens, however, his work has remained stubbornly idiosyncratic to this day. Added to this difficulty was the fact that Mervyn was not just a writer. He was a poet, playwright and artist too –and much of this mix of creative talent can be found throughout the Titus episodes. Quentin Crisp, illustration veteran for instance scratched his head over the peculiarities of Peake’s brooding spaces, comparing him with the only artist he could think of whose eccentricities defined him:
“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.”
With each character etched in densely defined parameters, his narrative style is at best difficult to unravel in terms of one element over the other. Peake’s descriptions are dense and sophisticated and involve words that are peculiarly special and more utterly specific to the author than almost any other.
The Titus novels are defined by a dense network of rich and sophisticated characters – each with their own histories, quirks and ambitions and with these people come a landscape which defines itself as its own character. The castle almost breathes through the characters as it demands precise maintenance via endless ceremony and ancient ritual. Continuing Titus’s journey must, therefore, take all of this fabric into consideration and so it is hard to imagine how such a series could ever be continued by another. Titus Awakes, however, is no ordinary homage. It is written in the shadow of a dearly loved husband, whose physical and mental disturbances reduced a once vital man to a wreck. Not only was Gilmore utterly devoted to her husband but she was also an artist and a writer in her own right – qualities which account undoubtedly for what is a thoroughly beautiful dedication to a man who suffered terribly towards the end of his life.
There are many elements that tie the novel to its origins and much of this is easily explained by the intimate personal and creative relationship between Maeve and her husband. The integral relationship between Titus and the landscape around him, for instance remains key in Titus Awakes. Where the numbing familiarity of the castle and its needs were paramount for the young Earl in Titus Groan and Gormenghast, the strangeness of the environments encountered by Titus on his travels away from his home are continuously underlined:
“Titus […..] went out into the wide empty streets, where the rough wind was not blowing poetically through a field of corn, but was playfully toying with the sordid litter of an unlovely urban purgatory.”
The unsettling nature of changing environments echoes the uncertainty in Titus’s mind. The farther he travels from “the shadows of time-eaten buttresses” the more alienated and alone he becomes. From crystalline cities to vast desert-like lands to those inhabited by anthropomorphic cars and exotic feuding animals, Maeve herself maintains the importance of the physical reality of Gormenghast for both Titus and Mervyn:
“Gormenghast was not a dream. The world he encountered outside was not a dream, and the world that had been engendered by the first three books was to encompass the vastness of life. A picaresque tale that was so bloody, and so enormous in its vision, that only a man who had that boldness and that vision within his grasp could manipulate it.”
That boldness was extinguished, however, as the author could not complete his vision and it is from the artistic as well as personal relationship between Maeve and her husband that this book takes flight. Mervyn was never fully diagnosed with what was most likely Parkinson’s disease. Maeve, therefore, witnessed first -hand what must have been unbearable suffering for a man who had always been so vital. Mervyn began to lose those faculties which he must have held most dear – his hands began to shake with increasing force and his lack of coordination must have driven him to the depths of despair- especially given that he had already begun his work on Titus Awakes – a novel which he himself would never be able to finish as his death interrupted its realisation. There are powerful echoes of Mervyn himself throughout the novel, particularly as Titus experiences the haunting environment of an asylum in which he works on his travels. Here he meets a mysterious patient whose suffering is the stuff of impenetrable mystery to the staff and patients around him:
“He had been told that the man who had been brought in some days before was an artist, and no one knew what was the matter with him […] When the effect of the drugs had worn off and with difficulty he sat up in his bed, one of the most pitiful sounds that Titus had ever heard almost rent the ward in two. A cry of despair. It belonged to neither man nor beast. It had in it all the pain that the man has suffered since time began. It was so basic that it affected everyone, both staff and inmates, with an unnamed fear – such as the animal world feels before a natural disaster. The cries could not be alleviated by soothing words, or gentle persuasion. It was the soul and the heart of all humanity, pleading to whatever God there was for release.”
The parallels with Mervyn himself as he had suffered are clear and overwhelming in their grief – a grief which is written from the point of view of one who suffered from this pain as well as one who witnessed it. Gilmore was writing the character of Titus almost in a transformative manner – one which not only charted Titus’s journey as Mervyn would have wanted but of Mervyn himself and the resolution to his own journey. It is no coincidence that the character of Titus finally settles on a small island – more than a little reminiscent of Sark, where Mervyn spent his happiest of days writing the novels and being with his wife and children away from the confusion and noise of the city. Maeve was bringing both Titus and Mervyn home.
Titus Awakes is more than a continuation of Titus’s journey. It is a vehicle in which Mervyn’s suffering is given narrative substance through a protagonist whom the author deeply cared about. It is also a way in which Maeve herself can bring resolution to her own frustrations and anger at a God in whom she was losing faith: “I think she did lose her faith toward the end of her life”, reflects Sebastian, “but then maybe this was her way of finding her own version of her faith” – finding a kind of “goodness” which for her resided in the work of her husband and the intimate artistic as well as personal relationship that they shared together.
It is in grief that the power of this novel resides. Throughout the narrative, it is strikingly clear that Maeve is trying to come to grips with her husband’s physical and mental despair. This is perhaps most acutely evident in her own introduction to the first pages of the novel which were‘tortured into life by the man who struggled with his failing brain, and his failing hand to conjure up so enormous a task.”
The task was an enormous one. Not only did it have to take into account the extremely densely woven history of the series, but it also had to use this history as a narrative background to Titus’s continuing journey.