Maeve Gilmore, Titus Awakes

Technically Maeve Gilmore and Mervyn Peake, but only the fragment at the very beginning is Peake’s, and most of what I’ll be discussing is therefore his wife’s.

The situation as I understand it is as follows: Peake died in 1968 leaving only a fragment and notes for the intended fourth book in the Titus series, Titus Awakes. In the years following his death his wife Maeve Gilmore, with whom he had discussed the book, worked on a manuscript of her own based on these scraps of Titus Awakes titled Search Without End. According to Brian Sibley’s introduction to this book Gilmore did not initially plan to publish the book (though there’s no indication that she was against it). The manuscript was lost for some time but resurfaced early last year and was published in time for Peake’s centenary.

The result is a very strange book, and a very uncomfortable read.

To start with, Titus Awakes is closer in feel to Titus Alone than to the two books set in Gormenghast. Titus Groan and Gormenghast are both deeply strange books in many ways, but the world in which they are set is a self-contained one, and there’s a general sense of knowing where things ought to be (this is something that informs the plot to a great extent as well). Titus Alone represents a massive change stylistically – suddenly we’re in a world that Gormenghast hadn’t prepared us for, but that exists in the same universe. Suddenly we have cars and pretentious literary partygoers and surveillance technology. You don’t know where this world will lead you.

Titus Alone has Titus wandering, and trying to come to terms with a sense of self that isn’t centred around Gormenghast. Titus Awakes has, in some ways, more of the same, but many of the places Titus visits seem to make reference to Peake’s own life – particularly his World War II experiences. There is a meeting with an artist (Maeve herself?), some time spent in a hospital, and at the end of the book Titus travels to Sark (where the Peake family lived for some years) and appears to meet Peake himself. Gilmore sometimes captures the weird, dreamlike quality of much of Peake’s writing. Attempts to write like Peake (if that ever was the intent) fail – often Gilmore has her characters speaking with more like the narrator of the Gormenghast books than actual people.

Sibley states in the introduction that while the book “begun as an act of homage” it evolved into “a highly personal quest to understand her husband’s tragic descent into illness in terms of his artistic and literary brilliance”. This is the real problem – it is intensely personal. I suspect that the writing of it may have been cathartic, but it’s so uncomfortably tied up in Gilmore’s own relationship with Peake that for me, at least, it was hard to separate the two. I felt like an intruder all the time.

Gilmore has written another book about her life with Peake – the autobiographical A World Away. In terms of style and coherence that book is probably a lot better than this one. But what I took from Titus Awakes that I could not see in A World Away was a stronger sense of Peake and Gilmore as both being artists with a great sense of respect and understanding for each other’s work.But this, once again, is less about the book than the Peakes – however hard I try I find myself judging Titus Awakes on what it tells me about the relationship between  the authors rather than on its own merits. And that doesn’t feel right at all.

One Comment to “Maeve Gilmore, Titus Awakes

  1. This does sound like an odd book. My curious side wants to read it, but I know deep down that it’s probably not a good idea and won’t add to the wonderful worlds I have inside my head from the previous Titus books.
    It’s nice to read your views, and helps me make the right decision!

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