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First, I suppose, some history. Peake was multi-talented; he established a substantial reputation as an illustrator before turning to writing. As a writer, he turned out some quirky verse that he illustrated himself with corresponding quirkiness, a charming but now sadly overlooked little fantasy novel (Mr. Pye), and the three monumental and critically divisive so-called “Gormenghast novels” (a misnomer).
(The BBC elected to use for their “millennium production” the first two of those three—why only those two you will soon see—run under the title Gormenghast; despite a very few good bits, overall that disaster is best forgotten, the sooner the better.)
There is, incidentally, an annually given “Mervyn Peake Award” from the Parkinson’s Disease Society that honors persons with Parkinson’s for outstanding achievements in art, poetry, or photography.
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(These are commonly, but mistakenly, called the “Gormenghast novels”.)
Peake had intended to write a lengthy series of epic novels centered on Titus Groan, Earl of Gormenghast, beginning right from his birth. In the event, Peake completed only three before his premature death from a disease that affected his mind as well as his body (there are minuscule fragments of what would have been the fourth book). As we will see, the third Titus book is strikingly different from the first two, as the successors would also have been, in line with Peake’s larger scheme. But, as the three are all we have, the third is necessarily the odd man out; many reviewers, wanting—as reviewers always do, their hypocritical protestations to the contrary notwithstanding—the old dog to keep to his old tricks, reported the third book as most unsatisfactory, and attributed that unsatisfactory character mainly to Peake’s supposedly deteriorating powers during the writing of it. I will speak of that anon.
What is Gormenghast? Where? When? Such questions are even more profitless than is usually the case with well-wrought fantasy. Unlike the tale told in a setting that, however distantly, connects to ours, or the tale placed in an obviously independent world of its own, Gormenghast lies in a maddening, teasing, curious relation to the fields we know. Indeed, Peake makes it fairly clear that his world is to be taken mercilessly on its own terms: it stands or falls by what we make of it, and one who would seek to make something of it by its relation with us will forever be missing the boat. But a few words for those who cannot bear to be adrift….
What? In brief, Gormenghast is a limited land surrounded by mountains and dominated by the huge castle of Gormenghast—really a good-sized city, a single place, interconnected by mazes of ancient passageways and arches and tunnels.
Where? The land seems curiously isolated: there is no mention of any least traffic with an outside world, nor direct mention of such a world. Yet the place knows what parrots and ostriches and giraffes are—indeed, has (or can obtain) parrots—and the schoolmasters give lessons to unruly boys much as schoolmasters in nineteenth-century England gave lessons to unruly boys; the masters ask boys “Name an isthmus”, and assuredly there are no such things in the geography of Gormenghast (and world globes are found in their classrooms). Remarks are made curiously evocative of, if not literally from, Shakespeare.
When? Above all else that it is, the place is old. Titus is the seventy-seventh Earl of Gormenghast. Close your eyes, move your lips a little, touch your fingertips: Yes! That is a lot of time: centuries; millennia even. The infrastructure of Gormenghast seems timeless: swords are contemporary weapons, horses pull carts, even the aristocracy reads by candlelight. But they have hot-water bottles and, more germane, hypodermic needles. It is, if one must have a parallel, perhaps the middle to later nineteenth century in England.
But, though I give them, those data are irrelevant. Gormenghast is not this place or that time or whatever—it is itself: it is…Gormenghast.
Peake is difficult to explain to one who has never read him. Let me try to grope toward some explanations, some modicum of sense. To begin, what is absolutely certain is that his writing is immensely powerful. What Peake’s language does with that power is create moods: atmospheres. Those moods are not the flash of the deftly chosen adjective—they are cumulative effects, built with almost ponderous deliberation: no one will ever mistake a paragraph of Mervyn Peake for one of Ernest Hemingway. As a random sample of Peake’s Gormenghast prose style, here is a paragraph forming part of his description of the Great Kitchen at Gormenghast Castle:
The walls of the vast room, which were streaming with calid moisture, were built with grey slabs of stone and were the personal concern of a company of eighteen men known as the “Grey Scrubbers”. It had been their privilege on reaching adolescence to discover that, being the sons of their fathers, their careers had been arranged for them and that stretching ahead of them lay their identical lives consisting of an unimaginative if praiseworthy duty. This was to restore, each morning, to the great grey floor and the lofty walls of the kitchen a stainless complexion. On every day of the year from three hours before daybreak until about eleven o’clock, when the scaffolding and ladders became a hindrance to the cooks, the Grey Scrubbers fulfilled their hereditary calling. Through the character of their trade, their arms had become unusually powerful, and when they let their huge hands hang loosely at their sides, there was more than an echo of the simian. Coarse as these men appeared, they were an integral part of the Great Kitchen. Without the Grey Scrubbers something very earthy, very heavy, very real would be missing to any sociologist searching in that steaming room, for the completion of a circle of temperaments, a gamut of the lower human values.
There is something there that seems to correspond to the adjective Kafkaesque. Peake’s writing in Gormenghast normally conduces to definite feelings of stifling, enclosure, helplessness, and decay, without ever becoming any more explicit than the paragraph above.
(Note the apparently anachronistic reference to sociologists. I say “apparently”, because though Peake scatters—seemingly without care, though in the end, one reckons, with extreme care—seemingly anachronistic or anomalous references like that throughout the books, on close examination they are invariably seen to be communications from Peake the author to us the readers, and not related to what those within the frame of the tale can or do know or know of.)
Peake augments those feelings by a device that ought not to work, that ought instead to be ridiculous: the names of his characters. Rottcodd, Sourdust, Sepulchrave, Deadyawn, Flay, Swelter—all not only atmospheric but apt. Even the less grim are grotesque: Prunesquallor, Perch-Prism, Fluke, Titus Groan himself. But such is the force of Peake’s portrayals of place and person that those names seem integral, necessary even, not at all frivolous.
I recall that the first time I began Titus Groan I kept putting the book aside, then picking it up again soon every time. At last it dawned on me: I was having trouble reading for long stretches just because the claustrophobic air of Gormenghast was so—I keep using this word because it is the right word—powerfully conveyed that the mood was capturing my senses without my fully realizing its source.
Peake is not, however, relentlessly grim: there are high notes of humor (if mainly ironic humor), all the more keen for being set in such strange surroundings. A sample:
This evening Irma had been more tiresome than ever. What was it, she had inquired, over and over again, which prevented her from meeting someone who could appreciate and admire her? She did not want him, this hypothetical admirer, necessarily to dedicate his whole life to her, for a man must have his work—(as long as it didn’t take too long)—mustn’t he? But if he was wealthy and wished to dedicate his life to her—well, she wouldn’t make promises, but would give the proposal a fair hearing. She had her long, unblemished neck. Her bosom was flat, it was true, and so were her feet, but after all a woman can’t have everything. “I move well, don’t I, Alfred?” she had cried in a sudden passion. “I say, I move well?”
Her brother, whose long pink face had been propped on his long white hand, raised his eyes from the tablecloth on which he had been drawing the skeleton of an ostrich. His mouth opened automatically into something that had more of a yawn than a smile about it, but a great many teeth were flashed. His smooth jaws came together again, and as he looked at his sister he pondered for the thousandth time upon the maddening coincidence of being saddled with such a sister. It being the thousandth time, he was well practised, and his ponder lasted no more than a couple of rueful seconds. But in those seconds he saw again the stark idiocy of her thin, lipless mouth, the twitching fatuity of the skin under her eyes, the roaring repression that could do no more than bleat through her voice; the smooth, blank forehead (from which the coarse, luxuriant masses of her iron-grey hair were strained back over her cranium, to meet in the compact huddle of a bun as hard as a boulder)—that forehead which was like the smoothly plastered front of an empty house, deserted save by the ghost of a bird-like tenant which hopped about in the dust and preened its feathers in front of tarnished mirrors.
There are far more richly amusing passages, but they rely—as so much in these books does—on long, slow development of situation and character to achieve their results.
That, I suppose, is a large part of what one needs to know before essaying Peake: the point is not the destination, it is the travelling. There is plot: things happen and people do things in consequence and thus more things happen. But, to me at least, there never seems in Peake that pressing need on the reader’s part to know now what happens? The atmosphere is Kafkaesque, dreamlike: things happen, and the ordinary laws of cause-and-effect are not so much suspended as rendered inconsequential. As in a dream, there is a sort of internal logic or consistency, but it is not that of waking life; we simply wait to see what will happen next, without deep concern about what it may be. We are watching a complex, emotional film in a foreign language without subtitles. (And it is almost as if we are watching it in slow motion; events large and small tend to move along at a ponderous pace, gathering slowly but surely the force of inevitability, though what it is that is inevitable we only discover when it happens.)
I do not mean to say that what happens in these tales is itself inconsequential. On the contrary, it seems throughout that every least act by every least character is supercharged with profound significances understood perfectly by those in the tale, but incomprehensible to us. I do not doubt that, at some very deep level of the psyche, important strings are being pulled by what takes place on the surface of the tales, but if so, the level is very nearly pre-symbolic, for the characters and settings seem, to me at least, not to be recognizable as symbols. But the cumulative effect, the force, that Peake achieves strongly implies that he is accurately hitting targets well below the conscious level of the mind.
The essence of the first two books is Gormenghast itself: the place, the atmosphere. What dominates Gormenghast in a way we can hardly grasp is ritual. For many, many centuries the life of the castle (which is virtually the place) and all who live therein has been as dominated by the steady, stately procession of events according to ritual as the most rabid theocracy is dominated by religious rite (for the Gormenghast rituals are completely secular).
No one understands why the many and varied rituals are, nor does anyone care in the least; it is in the observing of the rituals that all, highest to lowest, are fulfilled. At such-and-such hour, the Earl, in the presence of specified persons, he wearing garments of these colors and that cut, shall open this cabinet with those exact gestures, shall say certain words, shall take just so long in the doing, shall proceed then to a prescribed next place and do there what is required, and so the day goes. The Master of Ritual produces the daily requirements from the Books of Ritual, and the things are done, timelessly.
We must take care not to mock too quickly or savagely. It is by no means clear that the folk of Gormenghast are hag-ridden or unknowingly miserable; this is not the classic fantasy situation, ripe for the eager, inexplicably progressive hero to tear down so as to make it more like the idyllic, progressive paradise our own world so obviously is. We are what and who we are; Gormenghast and its people are what and who they are. They are, all for all, a great deal more content with what and who they are than are we. For all the manifest decay (long-abandoned rooms, halls, entire sections of the castle, and other physical details), there is also here and there life, brightness, growth. The place is dynamic, though clearly the forces of growth are slowly, generation by generation, losing to the forces of decay.
There is, over the first two books, a sort of plot: the career and eventual downfall of an insidious enemy of all that Gormenghast is, a young nobody risen—through utter amorality—to a position of such power that he threatens the entire place. That is perhaps a lesson or commentary: this creature achieves what he does because Gormenghast is actually so moral that an amoral creature is literally beyond its understanding. I say “it” about the place for it functions almost as a living organism, the folk in it, great and small, the cells or organs of its body. Young Titus, the focal point of the tales, never dreams—even in his wildest moments of discontent—of changing the place: he seeks only to escape it.
I hate giving away any plot at all, but it is mandatory that I explain that in the third book Titus does leave the apparently self-contained Gormenghast, and the world that he experiences beyond it I think so sorely disappointed readers and critics, who wanted more Gormenghastly experiences, that it caused them to unfairly deprecate the book. The new, wider world that Titus roams is also strange and dreamlike and profoundly deliberate, but it is so very different from Gormenghast that it must have jarred those readers snuggled down in an armchair sure they know what they were in for a comfy evening of; their shock when they came to Chapter 7 (and the early chapters are but a page or two each) must have been great. Just because the image of Gormenghast was so powerful, that third tale, set elsewhere, is perhaps a bit smaller (but only perhaps). Were it the only thing we had to know Peake by (with some sort of foreword to provide the context), we would—I think—still find it a work of genius. It pales, if at all, only by a comparison with something perhaps a little beyond even genius.
Well, I cannot blame you if you have read all this and wonder “Whatever is he babbling about?” Of all the Grand Masters, Peake is the hardest to convey. I ask: just accept that Peake was a genius on a grand scale and that the Gormenghast books are books by a genius on a grand scale, and read them.
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Please don’t overlook this little delight. It is a fantastic comic morality play, set in 100% everyday modern times, on the little island of Sark (a real and curious place, one of the Channel Islands between England and France). Its ironies are many but gentle, its message ultimately soothing but important. If this were Peake’s only book in our fields, he would be a three-star author of limited output.
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Peake, as I said at the outset, was a polymath. A good idea of his scope can be found in the monumental collection Peake’s Progress, compiled by his wife Maeve. It contains samples from every period of his, well, progress through his career, both of drawings and writings, the latter ranging from a charming little fantasy written when he was 11 years old on through poems serious and nonsense, dark, serious stories, and more. It’s not quite a work of “speculative fiction”, and so is not listed below with Peake’s other works, but is thoroughly rewarding reading (and viewing).
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There is a gratifying amount of Peake material available on the web.
Dedicated Peake web sites include Peake Studies (the home of a web periodical about Peake), a fine place to begin finding Peake on the internet; Mervyn Peake (the official site); and Gormenghast Castle. Also, Peake’s son Sebastian has a blog about his father and the works titled simply Mervyn Peake, and it is a rich Peake resource.
An interesting essay, "The Final Word: Fictional spaces, Death and Literature; Mervyn Peake and the Gormenghast trilogy" appears at the Three Monkeys Online Magazine.
David Louis Edelman’s introduction to a reprint of Titus Alone is available on line and is a most useful—I am tempted to say "necessary"—comment on that segment of the Titus works, and to some extent on the entire corpus; he has seperate pages actually reviewing Titus Groan and Gormenghast and Titus Alone.)
Other excellent extended Peake pages can be found at The Scriptorium’s Peake page [for now, archived; possibly to be restored at The Shipwreck Library] and A Reverie of Bone (a Peake appreciation by Langdon Jones, who edited some of his work); and there is sound, if brief, Peake material at this Peake page, and at this PBS site an affecting biography of Peake.
If you want some small idea of the tremendous accomplishments of Peake the illustrator, look in at the Peake entry of the Giornale Nuovo blog—even the few samples there well convey Peake’s wondrous excellence [because that page is now an archive, you will need to click the image descriptions individually to see the actual images; sorry]. Or look in at this entry at The Valve blog [another archive]. And one more sampling not to be missed is Mervyn Peake in Lilliput at the feuilleton blog.
And there’s a lot more yet; remember, Google Is Your Friend.
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G. Peter Winnington, who maintains the Peake Studies web site linked above, is also the author of Vast Alchemies, a biography of Peake. I have not yet gotten hold of a copy myself, but it has received strong praise. (Winnington also edited the pleasant and useful set of Peake appreciations included in the recommended Overlook Press edition of The Gormenghast Novels.) And he has now also produced a further work, The Voice of the Heart: the working of Mervyn Peake’s imagination (and has edited a volume on Peake’s art, Mervyn Peake: the Man and His Art, which looks positively luscious—Peake was a simply brilliant illustrator).
A Peake biography that I have read is My Eyes Mint Gold by Malcolm Yorke, an intelligent biography of Peake by an obviously intelligent biographer; we are given some idea of the things that may have shaped Peake’s outlook without any descent to the all-too-common “He stubbed his toe on a rock when he was seven years old, which is doubtless why all his major death scenes take place in rocky surroundings” sort of claptrap.
Other possibly noteworthy print resources on Peake include A World Away: A Memoir of Mervyn Peake, by Peake’s widow, Maeve; and Mervyn Peake: A Personal Memoir by longtime Peake friend Gordon Smith. The "authorized" biography, Mervyn Peake by John Watney, is reportedly of lesser worth than these others.
Yet more Peake-related publications can be found listed at Part F of “Peake in Print”, Published monographs wholly about Mervyn Peake, at the Peake Studies web site.
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This page was last modified on Thursday, 15 April 2021, at 4:06 pm Pacific Time.