Mervyn Peake Essay - Critical Essays

Peake, Mervyn

Peake, Mervyn 1911–1968

Peake was a Chinese-born English novelist and poet. He is best known for his Titus Groan trilogy which abounds in weird characters and bizarre events. In addition to his writing, Peake illustrated several books, including some of his own works. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 25-28.)

If the pedants who like critical post-mortems want a go at Mervyn Peake, they should be urged to bide their time. The cycle of literary reputations has never been so fickle, and precisely because Peake deserves a place among the eccentrics of the English (yes, English) tradition alongside Sterne, Blake, Lear, Carroll and Belloc, it will be sad if the current cult brings the usual overswing of the fashionable pendulum and he comes to be footnoted—alongside, perhaps, Spike Milligan and John Lennon—for some dexterous wit with his pen. It is, however, impossible not to notice in this charming little collection of pieces [A Book of Nonsense], some of them dating back to 1937, how remarkably Peake foreshadowed the tragic philosopher-fool view of society that now so strongly appeals to the young—civilization, in other words, comes in for some savage knocks. (p. 86)

The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1973; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), January 26, 1973.

[Peake] had visions that could not be expressed fully, anything like fully, by his drawing, brilliant and passionately individual though it was. The visions needed to be expressed with a fulness and a visual precision that could only with great difficulty be combined…. And no series of drawings, however brilliant and numerous, could convey the thought and action that the artist craved. Words were the only answer. For only in prose could such a vision as the tormented battlements of Gormenghast be realised in all its complexity of mood, morals and aspect; only through prose could the artist create a world that was exactly his, to be apprehended and accepted as we accept the vision in a painting—say, a painting by the elder Breughel.

But if words were as much his tools as pen and pencil, his eyes were the supreme instrument….

[At] the time that he started Titus, words were Peake's richest visual medium. Literally, he painted with them. We must look at his book as at a painting—realise that it freshly is what the tired old cliché, 'a word-picture', means.

It is, by any standards, an exceedingly odd picture, however brilliant the handling….

Gormenghast is not merely the castle, it is an idol, a way of life, and the Masters of Ritual inexorably exact from the Earls, as from all lesser inhabitants, slavish compliance with the necessities of maintaining Gormenghast in being for ever.

But Gormenghast is still also a castle, full of strange corners for the word-painter, and stranger inhabitants….

It took the artist two large volumes to fill the canvas that the frame encloses.

The picture itself is, in turn, only a frame, or a stage, for the actions of the characters, which are … the centre of Peake's imaginative, as distinct from his technical, concern and inspiration. (p. 40)

Mervyn Peake, I suggest, never abandoned, but never solved (except possibly towards the end of his career) his problem of language as a painter, and it was an early stage of his quest which tumbled Gormenghast out of him. Only a painter could have conceived it or carried it out, in words or any medium; but though the Titus books gave vent to his other talent, they were not the answer to his difficulty—they were almost an evasion of it. Perhaps the trouble was that we must have something to say before we can master any language, and Peake for long found nothing suitable to say in paint. (p. 41)

[The] castle of Gormenghast is a symbol and a world into which the maker poured, as its very matter, all his power, all his intelligence, all his rejoicing in life. It was a creation of love, and when Titus rejects it (as he does at every instant from the age of two) he seems to be rejecting love—all that goes with the ideas of family, friends, home and country. He is also rejecting the emblem of Peake's achievements in art, and through it, perhaps, all art. We feel, in Titus's wrath, his creator's determination to break new ground; to go on. Consequently the Titus books as we have them depict a real drama, a clash of two rights; art brings the clash distressingly alive….

[At] the very end of his work, Mervyn Peake forces us to know ourselves. Fantasy comes full circle, and what may have begun for artist and public alike as a high-spirited escapade brings them at last face to face with one near and cruel aspect of the reality of all our lives. (p. 42)

Hugh Brogan, "The Gutters of Gormenghast," in Cambridge Review, November 23, 1973, pp. 38-42.

While Tolkien waxes nostalgic for a fictional golden age of Behaving Ourselves, Peake appeals to that part of everyone's childhood that squirmed under the burden of unimaginative "goodness" and secretly wanted to see Hansel baked into gingerbreadboydom because he was, after all, an insipid little bugger. Tolkien's characters are aggressively simple, Peake's aggressively ambiguous. While Tolkien's hero fights for Right, Peake's tries to re-imagine it and defends order only to exile himself from it, ultimately. Tolkien's world is black and white; Peake views his kingdom with the ambivalence of one entranced and repulsed by it simultaneously. The strange lure of Peake's epic, The Gormenghast Trilogy, is its love of ritual which goes hand in hand with its loathing of regimentation.

The hero, Titus Groan, suffers a love of his home and its ancient laws even while yearning to escape from it, to locate himself as himself—his rebellion is the search for identity. In Gormenghast there are two agents of destruction of the Order: Steerpike, thirsting for authority, and Titus, the young Earl himself, trapped in a maze of traditions he himself represents. The two rebels battle: one as a representative of manipulation for power, the other as authority yearning to abdicate—one of Peake's cruel political ironies. Both villain and hero oppose the order of their world, which has become intolerable, and both are, in a strange way, kin.

Peake was always as dubious about his world as Tolkien was positive about his. The fantasy, for those who create it wholeheartedly, is a trap. Peake, I imagine, started off as one of those kids who built his own kingdom in solitude, as other kids listened, in varying degrees of inattention, to what Teacher said. Growing up in China near Tibet, Peake came to England as an adolescent. The feudalism close to the surface of things there probably mixed strangely with the earliest childhood memories. In Peake's case, architectural fantasies merged with barely-remembered landscapes, and a gift for the grotesque, evidenced in the earliest of his drawings, mingled with the very British Gothic vein and the Dickensian caricature. Gormenghast is one of the extreme junctures of several bizarre traditions: the gothic, the camp and the bildungsroman—a gargoyle, in short—a gargoyle about the size of a cathedral….

Peake … approaches his "entertainment" with the passionate seriousness of children at play. The result is anything but childish however, because along with this passionate seriousness is the adult equipment of irony acting in strange new quarters. Peake transfers the adult equipment back into the child's situation, carrying all the adult implements into the imaginary realm. It seems at times an act of revenge or, if nothing else, colossal stubbornness. The tone is a most peculiar blend of camp and the archaic, gothic and the farce. (p. 30)

Peake, as I have said, brings to the whole huge fantasy the equipment of the adult to a place originally invented in childhood. This creates many problems of genre: is Gormenghast a parody? No. Does it contain parody? Yes—the "love" scene between the abominably vacuous Irma Prunesqualor and her husband-to-be, the aged schoolmaster Bellgrove, is itself one of the cruellest parodies of romantic love done in the twentieth century. But then it is countered by a series of scenes between young Titus Groan and his half-sister, "the Thing"—a child gone wild and living from tree-top to tree-top—which recalls some of the most embarrassingly unabashed scenes in W. H. Hudson.

Is Gormenghast a gothic novel? Yes and No. Gormenghast goes beyond the Gothic, to turn around, look at it and grimace maliciously: the seventy-sixth Lord of Gormenghast falls prey to melancholy following the burning of his beloved library, and gradually begins to take on the identity of the death-owls that live in the Tower of Flints—Peake's tone moves between the comical and the horrible—but when the Earl is devoured by the owls in a terrible scene, it has nothing to do with gothic anymore: it is simply astonishing. In certain scenes—as when the insurgent Steerpike escapes across the roofs of the castle—the writing is so beautifully imagined, each gesture described with an almost choreographic clarity—that even the most unsympathetic reader might develop vertigo, if not acrophobia. This simply doesn't happen in "gothic" novels, in which the environment blurs into a conventionalization….

The first two volumes are filled with scenes that haunt the imagination. The first keeper of the rituals is buried with ribbons tying his bones together and a boiled calf's skull replacing his missing cranium…. In the second volume, a terrible flood occurs just at the time Steerpike's crimes have been uncovered, and the great landscape of the castle is transformed into a nightmare of water and manhunt.

But in the third volume, Peake abandons his world for a futuristic landscape in which the young hero wanders, having repudiated Gormenghast and its traditions. Despite some wonderful scenes—a money eating beggar, a ludicrous battle between a camel and a mule—Titus Alone does not have the richness, or the strange power of the first two Gormenghast books. In a final scene, one of the heroes vowed enemies tries to convince him his ancestral home was not real, that he is mad. There follows a masquerade, in which the characters of the first volumes re-appear travestied. The fragility, the strange choppiness of this volume, may have been due to Peake's own emotional difficulties: his world, once repudiated, took a strange revenge on him, and he fought off madness himself during his last years. When, in an ending that happens too swiftly, young Titus Groan reaches his homeland to abandon it once again, the equivocation is that of the private imagination trying to reconcile itself to something else. Adulthood? Who knows? Reality takes many definitions.

Peake suffered madness and Parkinson's disease in his last years, undergoing electric-shock treatment and subsequent depressions. The Parkinson's disease rendered Peake, one of the best post-war illustrators, unable to work, while the melancholy halted numerous written projects…. Peake had not intended to leave the Titus books as a trilogy but envisioned a series of books which would take Titus through all human experiences: Titus among the "snows, mountains, islands, rivers, fires, floods, doldrums, soldiers, thieves, actors, psychiatrists …". Trying to envision the unwritten Titus books, one can only mourn with the poet Jonathan Williams:

            Creator of one Dark Kingdom
            unstrung by a darker one …
            I lament all ravens and owls of hell
            who stay his hand and disconnect
            this sun.                              (p. 31)

Philip Guerrard, "The Strategic Fantasies of Mervyn Peake," in City of San Francisco (© by City Publishing Co., Inc.), February 17, 1976, pp. 28-31.

Peake's fabulously dry humour is very Alice often heavily via Firbank….

Read a Titus book and it is the first time you have come across writing like it. An involuntary shiver first takes hold of your perimeters and then, as you advance into the opening chapter, seizes the brain and mainlines it with a fever to gluttonise upon such original nourishment. [Peake] can describe a rafter in two thousand words without introducing anything extraneous such as a pillar or even a beam, or boring you. Two thousand words on a rafter sounds boring, doesn't it? That is to say, if someone asked you to make a suggestion in a bookshop, would this be the sort of thing you would like your recommendation to get up to? Two thousand words on a rafter? Which is only part of a roof, you know. And Peake describes the whole roof and the castle of which it is a part, a castle five miles long, describes all of it, and what goes on in and around it. Strange.

Some very skilful paranorm is at work here. It astonishes that the standard slips nowhere in so long a book, in itself a major accomplishment of physique. And then he does it again. Two books. The third volume, due to circumstances beyond his control like Parkinson's disease (is this what is meant by 'premature senility'? It is characteristic of Peake to die from a logical impossibility) was never finished. Nonetheless, the book which Langdon Jones tidied up from long drafts is as weird as sin. After the density of the first two volumes, the speed and space of the third is one of literature's great dislocating events. The mind, coffered into the elaborate chambers of Gormenghast, is suddenly reeling across phantasmagorical landscapes and through settlements which are not of this earth. If it is possible to put Gormenghast into some historical frame of mind iconographically reminiscent of the Middle Ages, this is no longer tenable once Peake's own mind begins to travel beyond recall. It is a shock, it may be aesthetically uncomfortable, but it is magnificent, too. Instead of squarely coming to the conclusion of a perfect work, Peake's crazy brain takes one twist too much. And he stays with it, he keeps writing amid the inner globular delirium and in considerable physical pain. The urgency moves into overdrive, the imagery becomes ever more unlocateable, until finally the thread vanishes into the folds of another, greater system. (p. 30)

Duncan Fallowell, in Books and Bookmen (© copyright Duncan Fallowell 1976; reprinted with permission), April, 1976.