By Carl Darnell
"The vastest things are those we may not learn."
(From "The Glassblowers," 1950)
Mervyn Peake was born in China in 1911 of British parents. His father was a missionary doctor, and it was this early exposure to extreme poverty and human decay that informed much of Mervyn Peake's work, both as writer and illustrator. Ways Of Traveling was published when Peake was just ten years old. In it he described the various forms of transport he saw around him in China. Even at such an early age Peake was observing the world around him and transforming it into his own witty, authoritative and haunting style.
Critics remain divided over Peake's reputation. This is mainly because unlike other major writers of the 20th century, Peake seems to tackle no important or topical themes such as war, sex, politics or marriage. Instead Peake appeared to use his titanic imagination to create a dense, eccentric world of nightmare and nursery rhyme. However, a closer reading of his work as poet, novelist, short story writer and playwright reveals a powerfully insightful mind which transfigured the horrors and joys of the world into a highly controlled satire. Peake is the man who wrote in one verse: "I can/be quite obscure and practic-/ally marzipan"; and in another: "to live at all is miracle enough."
Peake's early career was as a painter in London. Living on the bleakly beautiful island of Sark in the English Channel, Peake cut a handsome Bohemian figure. Some islanders on Sark remember him painting outdoors wearing nothing but an elegant hat. It was during this period that Peake married fellow artist Maeve Gilmore, the woman who would become the centre of Peake's life and imagination. His description of her in one poem is exquisite: "You walk unaware/of the slender gazelle/that moves as you move." It was also during this time that Peake made a name for himself as an illustrator of children's classics. His unique, unnerving interpretations of classics such as Hunting Of The Snark and Alice's Adventures In Wonderland created great adoration amongst his peers (amongst his friends were Dylan Thomas and Graham Greene) but also suggestions that his imagination was too frighteningly adult for children.
It was during the Second World War that Peake began Titus Groan, his first, and most famous novel. On the surface Titus Groan is a brilliant, highly unusual gothic romance set in the sprawling castle of Gormenghast whose endless, ridiculous rituals echo a Kafkaesque nightmare and whose absurd and melancholic characters seem to have strayed from Dickens. But underneath the eccentricities of the novel is a very modern meditation on the evil and madness of the world, and particularly of the Second World War. Peake had first hand knowledge of the atrocities of war. With the support (though not, as is usually believed, with the commission) of the British Government, he went to Belsen as a war artist to make a pictorial record of the victims and their environment soon after the war ended. This experience left a deep impression on him. Peake's muscular use of language and haunting use of imagery and incident ensure that Titus Groan is no gothic flight of fancy but a sustained, tragic and pathetically farcical vision as solid as castle Gormenghast itself.
Titus Groan (1946) was followed by two sequels: Gormenghast (1950) and Titus Alone (1959). The trilogy tells of the birth, childhood and growth to maturity of Titus, heir to Gormenghast. In the final book Titus finally escapes Gormenghast and enters the "real" world, but Peake's version of this "objective" world proves to be just as bizarre and grotesque as Gormenghast itself. It was while writing Titus Alone that Peake began to suffer from the disease -- commonly believed to be Parkinson's -- which would slowly destroy him. Contributing to his illness was a sense of tremendous stress -- Peake never found much success with his writing, yet he was always determined to earn a living for his wife and their children. During the late 1950s he pinned all his hopes on his play The Wit to Woo. When the play was written off as a total failure, Peake's condition worsened. What remained for him was a terrible, slow decline into physical and mental incapacitation until his death in1968. During the early years of his illness he valiantly tried to work, but he soon reached a point where work was impossible. Among his last work were a set of harrowing, shaky drawings for a poem he had written called "The Rhyme Of The Flying Bomb." The harsh, broken illustrations complemented the atmosphere of the poem perfectly. The poem tells the story of a sailor who finds a baby during an air raid: "All bare and cold in that gutter of gold/You had no cause to be,/No more than it's right for the likes of you/To be born in this century."
As with many individualistic geniuses Peake's greatness was not recognized until after his death. For the man who had worked so hard, with great passion, honesty and integrity, the rewards came too late.
There are many collections of Peake's work. Writings And Drawings edited by his widow Maeve Gilmore is a comprehensive account of his work as poet, novelist, painter and illustrator, including many rare pieces. Peake's Progress is a substantial posthumous volume, again edited by Maeve Gilmore. It includes many short stories, plays, poems, drawings, fragments and even notes Peake made for books he never had time to write, including an attempt at an autobiography. Often neglected, due to the huge shadow of the Titus trilogy, is the excellent novel Mr. Pye. This is the story of Mr. Pye, who comes to the isolated island of Sark to convert the islanders to a spiritual union with God. What follows is a clever and disturbing examination of the difference between Good and Evil as Mr. Pye begins to realize that he is becoming too Saintly a figure and must do something drastic to change himself.
A very informative guide to Peake is Maeve Gilmore's A World Away. In this sincere and moving work, Maeve Gilmore recounts her life with Mervyn, full as it was with joy, adventure, but, ultimately, tragedy. Peake is revealed in the book as a hardworking, humorous, sensitive man totally in love with his wife yet somehow remaining solitary and troubled. This book is essential for an understanding of Peake and the genesis of his work and is a good starting point for anyone wishing to enter into Peake's work.
Mervyn Peake remains a fascinating, timeless artist for future generations to discover. At the heart of his work is a conviction, simplicity and love of life a world away from the plethora of 20th century writers concerned principly with their own cleverness and fame. Peake's concerns were to reflect our world using his idosyncratic imagination. In doing so he created a beautifully grotesque world of his own which never falters or strays, which unfolds with exhilaration and a child-like wonder of being alive.
All flowers that die, all hopes that fade
All birds that cease to cry,
All beds that vanish once they're made
To leave us high and dry.
All these and many more float past
Across the roofs of Gormenghast.
--Carl Darnell, 1 March 1999
More on Mervyn Peake
You may order Peake's works online through Amazon.com by visiting the Libyrinth's Mervyn Peake Bookstore.
Langdon Jones maintains a Mervyn Peake Page that features an article on Peake written by Michael Moorcock. He is also the founder of the Mervyn Peake Webring.
Peake Studies Homepage introduces the Peake Studies, a periodical devoted to Mervyn Peake and his work.
The "Great Science Fiction and Fantasy Works" site holds a Peake page that discusses his writing.
The BBC maintains a Gormenghast page detailing their sumptuous series based on the novels.
Irmin Schmidt, founder of Can, a seminal Krautrock group has written an opera called Gormenghast. The Gormenghast Page has information about the work as well as a small biography of Peake.
Google Search -- This will search news groups related to Peake.
Yahoo News Search -- Searched Yahoo for artcles and news related to Peake.
Northern Light -- This will search Northern Light for online articles and sites about Peake and his work.
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