Saturday, 9 July 2011

Mervyn Peake Centenary

Mervyn and Maeve

Today is the centenary of the birth of Mervyn Peake (in Kuling in China) and it is marvellous to see the wide recognition that this significant anniversary is receiving. Peake was a man of diverse talents, literary and artistic, and has always been held in the highest esteem by a devoted coterie of admirers. But he has never achieved the centrality of renown within the canon of twentieth century culture which he merits. Perhaps he has been a victim of his own prolific and unbounded energies. How to encompass someone who was both author, illustrator, painter, poet and playwright? He was also a singular figure, not fitting easily into the dominant strains of modernism and realism which define the English art and literature of the last century for the majority of the critical establishment. He was rediscovered in the 60s, due in no small part to the efforts of his wife Maeve Gilmore and supporters like Michael Moorcock and Langdon Jones. His Gormenghast novels provided an alternative to the all-pervasive influence of Lord of the Rings, although many who expected a similar epic fantasy narrative were put off by its dense, pictorial prose and intense interiority (qualities which those who disliked Tolkien saw as positive virtues). Hopefully the wide ranging mixture of exhibitions, talks and publications which are taking place (and which reflect the wide ranging nature of Peake’s art) will bring him to the fore once more, and establish his reputation on a more permanent basis.

Much of this activity is no doubt down to the tireless efforts of Sebastian Peake to promote his father’s work. He is certainly a very busy man at the moment. He will be interviewed this Wednesday (13th July) at 6.25 pm on Radio 4 Extra by Nick Briggs, better known for his expert voicing of the Daleks in the new incarnation of Doctor Who about the new exhibition of Peake’s illustrations at the British Library, The Worlds of Mervyn Peake (the Library now holds the Peake archive of manuscripts and notebooks). He will be talking about the Gormenghast books on Monday at the British Library, alongside China Mieville, John Sessions and Brian Sibley, an event which also marks the launching of Maeve Gilmore’s continuation of her husband’s work, Titus Awakes. He will return on the 26th July for a celebration of his father, along with his brother Fabian, and with further contributions from Sibley, as well as Clare Penate, Hilary Spurling (who wrote an introduction to the 1974 book The Drawings of Mervyn Peake, and so is evidently a long term fan) and a few filmed words from Michael Moorcock. The British Library has also published a new edition of the Peake gallimaufry Peake’s Progress, which contains a mixture of poetry, short stories, poems, plays and illustrations. There is also an accompanying CD, in which Sebastian and Fabian (both of whom have good reading voices) narrate a series of ‘weird tales’ which Peake wrote for Boxing Night, as well as the long narrative poem The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb and some light nonsense verse.

He will be coming down this way (to the South West) on Wednesday (the 13th), were I will hear him speak with Fabian and sister Clare at the Dartington Ways With Words Festival, set in the beautiful environs of Dartington Hall. The three were interviewed recently in the Telegraph in Clare’s book lined flat, which apparently is hung with a personal gallery of her father’s paintings. They talk of the discovery of Maeve’s manuscript for Titus Awakes, which was discovered in an unremarkable box in the attic a couple of years ago, and which has now been published. Enticingly, Sebastian holds out the hope that there may be more manuscripts to be discovered. None of them knew she was writing it, and it appears to have been an intensely personal artistic attempt to reclaim the Mervyn she had loved but who had slipped away from her through slow, mentally degenerative illness. Gilmore had written a deeply felt and vivid memoir of her husband shortly after his death in 1968, which was published in 1970 under the title A World Away (now published in a joint volume with Sebastian's memoir A Child of Bliss). It brings to my mind another autobiography written as an act of cathartic remembrance after profound loss, this time by Peter Cushing after the death of his beloved wife Helen. Maeve was a fine artist in her own right, and her work can be seen alongside Mervyn’s in an exhibition at the Victor Wynd Gallery in Hackney. The photographic prints are lovely. One, of Mervyn holding a forking branch above his head as a fantastic antler forms the basis of a wonderful painting by Maeve which graces the cover to the 1983 paperback edition of A World Away which I have. There is also a fascinating insight into the Peakes bohemian domestic environment, with a picture of their kitchen at Drayton Gardens, every surface covered in colourful paintings and murals (even the cooker). Drayton Gardens was the Peakes’ home in the 60s, so these decorations are probably mostly Maeve’s work, since Mervyn was by this time very ill.

Sebastian was also our guide to the Channel Island of Sark, which was in many ways his father’s true home, in a radio programme broadcast on Radio 4 on 7th July under the title A Hundred Years of Mervyn Peake. He noted that islands were central to his father’s work, and that Sark was a place of inspiration and renewal for him. He is still remembered by the older Sarkese; and how could he not be, with his generously open nature, flamboyantly colourful clothing, ring pierced ear (quite daring at the time) and tendency to sport a voluminous cloak. Sebastian meets several people who knew Mervyn, one of whom reveals two pictures which he painted on the island which he has never seen before. Clare and Fabian also take part in the programme, with Clare (whose own memoir of her father was published recently) warmly recalling him as ‘a man of enormous affection – abnormally affectionate’. There are also some perceptive and insightful comments from the novelist Joanne Harris, who clearly has more than a cursory knowledge of Peake’s work. She makes the comparison between Gormenghast and Kafka’s Castle, remarking that in both works, the castle is the world. The novels certainly share and absurdist sensibility, with a rigid adherence to meaningless ritual, although Peake has a more Romantic sensibility, as opposed to Kafka’s darkly ironic worldview. She also notes that the geography of Gormenghast seems to be constantly shifting, such that it would be impossible to provide a map to its corridors and towers (in the traditional post-Tolkien fantasy novel manner). Harris will spoke further about Peake with Ian MacMillan on the Radio 3 programme the Verb last night, and will also be speaking at the Mervyn Peake and the Fantasy Tradition conference in Chichester on the 15th July, with Sebastian Peake giving a lecture the following day. Chichester also hosts two major Peake exhibitions, one at the Pallant House gallery and the other at the Otter Gallery in Chichester University.

The BBC is also marking the centenary with a major new six part adaptation of the Gormenghast books, which will include Titus Awakes. Brian Sibley is the man responsible for the new version, a natural choice since he knew Maeve and is described by Sebastian in the radio 4 documentary as being ‘a Peake expert’. Indeed, this is not his first adaptation of the books. He wrote a two part abridgement back in 1984, partly under the aegis of Sting, a huge fan of the books (I seem to recall that he named his daughter Fushcia), who played Steerpike. He also wrote the fine 26 part adaptation of The Lord of the Rings in 1981, with Ian Holm playing Frodo. By the time of Peter Jackson’s films, he had aged into the role of Bilbo. The cast for the Gormenghast adaptation this time around includes David Warner, who is identified as ‘artist’. Extracts played in the radio 4 documentary suggest that there is an overarching narrative voice, which happily means that more of Peake’s descriptive prose should remain intact. Carl Prekopp, a relative newcomer plays Steerpike this time around, a difficult role which is the key to the success or failure of any adaptation, since he is the agent of change and revolution within the otherwise ossified castle world, the generating engine of story, and also the embodiment of the novels’ moral ambiguity. The miscasting of Steerpike in the BBC Gormenghast was one of the major causes of its failure to fully capture the spirit of the books. He is not attractive, more a kitchen rat whose charisma is cast by means of an adaptive cunning, offering people what he perceives they desire. Miranda Richardson should make a fine Gertrude simply by fine-tuning the customary Miranda Richardson role. Tamsin Greig plays Irma Prunesquallor, and her brittle comic middle class persona is ideal for the awkward comedy of manners which provides one of the lighter of the several variations in tone and style in the weave of alternating plot strands making up Gormenghast, the second novel. The marvellous Fenella Woolgar plays Clarice, one of the two easily-led, doll-like twins whose strings Steerpike pulls. Mark Benton, a great hangdog presence in Mike Leigh’s Career Girls, the first Ecclestone Doctor Who and a memorable episode of Stephen Volk’s Afterlife, gets to enjoy a role of theatrical meanness as the head cook of the abyssal kitchens, one of Peake’s gleefully exaggerated grotesques.

As mentioned above, Maeve Gilmore’s novel (for it really must be attributed to her more than Peake) Titus Awake has now been published. She wrote it under the title Search Without End, but acceded to the final title, which would link it more recognisably to the Gormenghast sequence. She had little to go on other than what Mervyn might have told her over the years, two or three introductory pages and a few columns of suggestive lists of paired and grouped words, a filament-thin framework upon which to build. The lists included words such as snows, islands, thieves, actors, psychiatrists, lepers, echoes, fires, poverty, monsters, hypocrites, madmen, bankers, affluence, debt, society, pirates (always an obsession), dreamers, decadents, athletes, invalids, colours and scents. As the American Overlook Press edition puts it, ‘what these books might have been’. For Maeve, the quest is clearly for her husband, with Titus as a surrogate searcher. He meets an artist in a psychiatric ward who is no longer able to paint or write, or even adequately communicate, and who is clearly Mervyn. Titus subsequent efforts to find him again eventually leads him to an island. We don’t need to be told where it is. They’ve returned to Sark, the golden isles. Thursday also saw the publication of the Illustrated Gormenghast, a handsome hardback volume with an introduction by China Mieville, who was one of the four writer contributing to a recent Guardian Review lead article on Peake (the others were Moorcock, with a personal reminiscence of his relationship with the Peake’s and their work - his verse accompaniments to Peake's Sark drawings for his children has just been published as The Sunday Books; Hilary Spurling on his illustrations; and AL Kennedy on Sark and its influence on Peake’s art). There are 100 new illustrations, which range from full page portraits to small, swiftly rendered pencil sketches which nestle in amongst the text. This replicates something of the feel of the notebooks in which Peake first wrote the novels. The language and the visual sketches ran side by side in the composition, the one feeding into the other in an instinctive process. You can imagine him scribbling as sentence and then pausing to sketch the outline of a figure at the side of the page and quickly shade it in, thinking to himself ‘yes, that’s what they look like’. So it is fitting that they should now find publication in this form. The writer and artist finally united in one great volume. There’s never been a better time to discover Peake, and feast on the products of his ceaseless imagination. Enter, the gates to the castle are open.

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