Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Mervyn Peake on The Beauty of Books

The BBC4 series The Beauty of Books, which centers around precious treasures brought to light from the modern crypts and undercrofts of the British Library, featured a look at the manuscripts and notebooks of Mervyn Peake last night. Peake’s son Sebastian was on hand to comment, marvelling at these handwritten pages with accompanying sketches which he hadn’t set eyes on for so many years. The ink had browned, giving the manuscripts a patina of aniquity greater than their actual age, and matching the manilla folders (and there’s a tantalisingly generous number of them) in which they are kept. It’s clear that Peake sketched and wrote at the same time, as if the one activity was indivisible from the other. The drawing of the characters and their setting is given linguistic form in the detailed and intensely visualised quality of the Gormenghast novels. The enclosed world of the novel and its strange, sad and grotesque inhabitants are made to feel solid and vividly, sometimes oppressively present, in contrast with the rather evanescent atmosphere of many fantasy novels. Here, you really feel the weight of the stones and the traditions which they embody. We see an ink sketch, more fully formed than some of the other quick impressions Peake transferred directly from his imagination onto the page, of the Prunesquallors in all their bird-like, long-beaked glory. It’s Peake’s genius as a writer that he can make us care about these grotesques, and hope for the ultimate success of Irma’s unlikely courtship with Professor Bellgrove. The exciting news is that a fully illustrated edition of the Gormenghast books will be published later in the year, supervised by Sebastian Peake, with ten times as many sketches from the notebooks as have previously been used. The old Penguin Classics editions all contained a small selection of Peake’s sketches, which also adorned the covers: Fuschia for Titus Groan; Steerpike and Barquentine for Gormenghast; and Irma Prunesquallor for Titus Alone. But this sounds like it’s of an entirely different order. According to Sebastian Peake’s blog on the Mervyn Peake website, this new edition should be published in July.

The link was made between the Gormenghast books and Peake’s wartime experiences, travelling through the ruined cities of Europe and witnessing the horrors of Belsen. His sketch of Peter Back, the first Nazi executed for war crimes, was likened to the portrayal of Steerpike. Back was a very small fish, a ‘crippled tailor’ as Malcolm Yorke puts it in his Peake biography My Eyes Mint Gold, condemned for having killed, along with four others, an American airman who had bailed out after machine gunning their village. The incident casts a light on the complex morality of the Gormenghast books. The participants in the programme condemn Steerpike to the role of malevolent villain, but he is a more ambiguous and therefore more interesting figure than such reductive descriptions allow. A quick-witted opportunist who rises from the lowest level, he manipulates the castle-earldom’s rules and the eccentric dreams and desires of its upper classes to his own ends. His cruelty is accentuated because it is actively used to aid his literal and social climbing. But it is no greater than the unthinking cruelty of the Groans and their minions, whose casual acts of cold-blooded destruction are given the validation of dusty years of ritual and tradition. The invoking of contemporary historical events to qualify what works of fantasy are ‘about’ is not uncommon. The forces of Mordor are frequently associated with the Nazis. It seems a way for literary critics to give a realistic context in which to look at a kind of fiction which they would otherwise have difficulty approaching. Undoubtedly, the experiences of a writer or artist informs the work they produce, but such works of the imagination deal as much with archetypes and the externalisation of inner landscapes as they do with the immediacy of the world outside. This is what gives them their universal and timeless appeal. If any one part of Peake’s life informed the creation of Gormenghast more than any other, it would be his childhood in China, as Sebastian Peake illustrated in the talk I saw him give at the Dartington Ways With Words festival a few years ago. He showed some incredible photographs of huge statues of warriors and beasts lining the rocky road of The Spirit Way to the Eastern Imperial Tombs, receding in shrinking perspective towards the horizon. Gather these in to one great, vaulted room and you would have the Hall of Bright Carvings from Titus Groan. These photos can be found in the chapter Chinese Childhood, written by Sebastian Peake, which is included in the recent and profusely illustrated volume Mervyn Peake: The Man and His Art, edited by G. Peter Winnington (whose biography of Peake is the one recommended by Sebastian and Michael Moorcock). Peake’s talk at Dartington was wonderful, and is something he delivers from time to time. It partly draws from his moving and self-revealing book A Child of Bliss, which is full of anecdotes of his life with his father and mother, Maeve Gilmore, and haunted by the sense of a magic time fading into a past forever out of reach.

Detail of Snow White from the Pallant House exhibtion page
This year is the centenary of Peake’s birth, and there are several events planned to celebrate it (again, these are listed on Sebastian Peake’s blog). Most excitingly, there is an exhibition of his art in Chichester, split between the Pallant House Gallery and the Otter Gallery at the University of Chichester, which will be on between 26th May and 17th July. Here’s what the programme for the Otter Gallery has to say: ‘This year celebrates the centenary of the birth of Mervyn Peake, best known for his illustrations of fairytale and fantasy works. Peake has strong local connections, having lived at Burpham, near Arundel, where he is also buried. To mark his centenary, the Otter Gallery will host an exhibition of Peake’s nonsense and poetry illustrations, including The Hunting of the Snark and Rhymes Without Reason. The exhibition also shares some of the famous Gormenghast and Captain Slaughterboard series with the Pallant House Gallery’s concurrent show. Originated by the Maison d’Ailleurs, Switzerland, this exhibition coincides with the international conference on 15th and 16th July on Mervyn Peake and the Fantasy Tradition hosted by the Sussex Centre for Folklore, Fairytales and Fantasy at the University of Chichester’. The conference speakers include Sebastian Peake, Michael Moorcock, Joanne Harris and two major academics specialising in the area of fantastic literature, Colin Manlove and Farah Mendlesohn. All of which sounds worthy of making a special trip for. Hopefully they’ll include the illustration of a pear soaring in blissful flight, leaves as wings, which accompanies the poem ‘O Here It Is and There It Is’. As Peake’s poem declaims, ‘It has no right – no right at all/To soar above the orchard wall’, but there it is, ecstatically riding the late summer breezes. You’ll believe a pear can fly!
(The Mervyn Peake section of the programme begins about 20 minutes in, but there are also some interesting insights into the William Tenniel illustrations for Alice in Wonderland, with a brief glimpse of Peake's later versions).

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