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Mervyn Peake, creator of Gormenghast

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Mervyn Peake, creator of Gormenghast Empty Mervyn Peake, creator of Gormenghast

Post  eddie Sat Jul 02, 2011 10:52 pm

A celebration of the writing and art of Mervyn Peake

Mervyn Peake, creator of Gormenghast, is now recognised as a brilliant novelist and artist. Michael Moorcock, China Miéville, Hilary Spurling and AL Kennedy celebrate his achievements, Friday 1 July 2011 23.55 BST

Mervyn Peake, creator of Gormenghast Illustration-of-Swelter-b-007
Swelter, the murderous cook ... illustration by Mervyn Peake from the The Illustrated Gormenghast Trilogy published by Vintage Classics

A Century of Peake by Michael Moorcock

Through the late 1950s to 1968, when he died, Mervyn Peake's friends and relations watched helplessly as he declined steadily into a mysterious form of dementia which would later be diagnosed as Parkinsonism. Our frustration was terrible. His instinctive intelligence, his kindness, even his wit flickered in his eyes, but were all trapped, inexpressible. Here was an extraordinary man – a fine poet, draughtsman, painter, playwright and novelist being destroyed from within while his genius was rejected by the literary and art world of the day. When sympathetic critics tried to write about Peake, editors would reject them. The story was that Peake had lost his mind – the strain of writing such grotesque books. That story was a damaging nonsense, helping to marginalise him further.

Mervyn Peake, creator of Gormenghast The-Illustrated-Gormenghast-
The Illustrated Gormenghast Trilogy by Mervyn Peake

The last book he finished of a planned sequence, Titus Alone, contained structural weaknesses we had all assumed were Mervyn's as his control over his work weakened. One afternoon, however, the composer of the musical setting for Peake's narrative poem "The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb", Langdon Jones, was leafing through the manuscript books of the novel with Maeve Gilmore, Mervyn's wife, admiring all the drawings of scenes and characters Mervyn had made as he wrote, when he realised that much of what was missing from the published book was actually in the manuscript. Checking further, he found that the book had been very badly edited by a third party, with whole characters and scenes cut.

Jones began methodically restoring the book to its present, much-improved state. It took him over a year. When we suggested that the original publisher republish the novel, perhaps with the new text, they refused. I proposed to Maeve that we begin the process of getting back the rights. Meanwhile Mervyn became increasingly unwell.

Then an editor friend, also a Peake fan, Oliver Caldecott, phoned one morning to tell me, with considerable elation, that he had a new job. "I'm now the guy who's going to pick the Penguins. Of course, our first action must be to sort out the Titus Groan books and get them back into print."

I told Oliver how Mervyn used to illustrate his manuscripts, and Oliver proposed illustrating the novels with some of the drawings and using the Jones-prepared texts. Anthony Burgess, another Peake fan, contributed an introduction to Titus Groan, which he believed to be a classic, and Caldecott brought the three volumes out as Penguin Modern Classics. It was the perfect way to publish the books, boldly and unapologetically, in the best possible editions. From being a marginalised "gothic" writer, Peake gradually assumed the position he holds today. The terrible irony for those who loved him was that he could no longer grasp what was happening to him. When we took his new book jackets to show him, they meant nothing. He was institutionalised for the last few years of his life, dying at last in the arms of his nurse.

To ground her grief and to bring some sort of resolution to Mervyn's story, Maeve wrote the next book he had planned, Titus Awakes. She had no special plans to publish it and set it aside to concentrate on the beautiful, sometimes disturbing paintings in which she symbolised their life together. Then, with the help of her friend Hilary Bailey, Maeve wrote her memoir of Mervyn, A World Away. Monitor did a rather sensational TV programme on him. There were exhibitions and biographies, the best of which is Peter Winnington's Vast Alchemies. Too late for him to appreciate it, Peake entered the English canon.

The rest is more or less history. Over the following years Peake's work was reprinted, and books and exhibitions of his drawings and paintings appeared all over the world. Slowly the media stopped telling his story as a doomed one. In fact he and his family had enjoyed a happy life, much of it on the island of Sark, where Peake every Sunday drew the lively pictures for his little sons that were published this year as The Sunday Books with a text by me. Here, too, he set his gentle allegory Mr Pye, his only non-Titus novel, which was televised with Derek Jacobi in the title role. Maeve died of cancer in 1983. Meanwhile Titus Awakes, in which she symbolically took herself, Titus, Mervyn and their children back to Sark, was mislaid, only to be rediscovered last year. It has been published in time for Mervyn's centenary. As part of the same celebration, Vintage has decided to publish an even more elaborately illustrated version of Mervyn's Titus sequence as The Illustrated Gormenghast.

Mervyn's home life was about as ordinary and chaotic as the usual bohemian family's. He was handsome, romantic, something of a dandy, whom women frequently found irresistible. He was loved by his family and his friends, but he was neither a saint nor the satanic presence the 70s press liked to present, citing Bill Brandt's atmospheric portraits. As a boy I was amazed that so much rich talent could come from this pleasant, witty man, but I didn't doubt his authentic genius. Maeve, a beautiful woman, was frequently his subject and is the model for the Countess of Groan with her white cats. He and Maeve were in love till the end. This year, a hundred years after his birth, conferences and exhibitions will recognise an artist as talented in his own way as Blake, and those of us privileged to have known him will remember his kindness, his humour, his practical jokes, his ebullient sense of fun and his generosity both as an artist, a husband and a friend.

Peake's illustrations by Hilary Spurling

The first I remember of Mervyn Peake's drawings was on the dustjacket of his illustrated Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, remaindered for a few shillings in Blackwell's bookshop in Oxford when I was a student in the early 1960s. It amazed me. The only Alice I knew in those days was John Tenniel's original Victorian miss with her grown-up face and strap shoes, tightly encased in voluminous layers of starched apron, striped skirt, stiff petticoats and long stockings. Peake re-saw her, more than a decade before Lolita, as a bored pre-teen nymphet, all tousled hair and bare limbs. His March Hare wears an OTT Ascot hat, his Walrus and Carpenter are a couple of specious street derelicts or druggies, his White Queen is a thumb-sized frump, no bigger than a chess-piece, crouched in the hearth on a perfectly ordinary, life-sized coal shovel. All are miracles of fantastic invention, linear control and exactitude.

When I reached London and got my first proper job, as arts editor of the Spectator, I rang the number under Mervyn Peake in the phone book to ask if he would review the big autumn show of Aubrey Beardsley about to open at the Victoria & Albert Museum. His wife answered the phone, and encouraged me to explain in detail what I wanted and why. We talked for 20 minutes or more before she told me that he couldn't do it, as he'd been hospitalised for years with severe Parkinson's. His hands shook, and he didn't always know who she was.

My blood ran cold with horror, and at the same time I burned with shame. Only someone as young and ignorant as me – I was 24 years old at the time – could have made such a blunder. It was only long afterwards, when we had become friends, that I realised what my call must have meant to Mrs Peake. Her husband was forgotten in those days. His books were going out of print, and his drawings were never shown. No one rang up to speak to him, let alone to offer him work insisting, as I did, that the younger generation was clamouring to hear from him.

Later she asked me to select and introduce what became the first published book of his drawings. It came out in 1974, by which time Peake was already a cult figure. His three Gormenghast novels and his illustrated books were being reissued, small exhibitions of his drawings would be followed by bigger ones, and eventually by a lavish serial Gormenghast on BBC TV in 2000.

All shared the same combination of imaginative force and phenomenally accurate observation as well as the sudden shifts of scale or perspective that give so much of his work its exhilarating undertow of dislocation and danger. No one, so far as I know, has yet matched his illustrations to classics such as Alice, Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Stevenson's Treasure Island, and now his own Illustrated Gormenghast Trilogy in Vintage's handsome centenary edition.

He made fine portrait drawings of his contemporaries – Mark Gertler, WH Auden, Edith Evans, Laurence Olivier, and of course his own wife, Maeve. Her luxuriant hair, pale skin and beautiful bone structure inspired Peake's images of the stormy adolescent Fuschia in the Gormenghast novels. There is something of Maeve's strength and endurance in Fuschia's mother, the monumental Countess of Groan, whose indifference and indolence make her a force of nature as formidable in her own way as the mountain of Gormenghast itself.

For all the graphic intensity of that mountain and its labyrinthine, Kafkaesque castle, Peake rarely if ever drew landscape. His strength was people and the anthropomorphic animals who populate so many of his illustrations, drawn with exquisite delicacy and extreme precision, often seen from strange angles, through peepholes, up funnels, down vertiginous drops, sometimes strangely magnified, telescoped or upended. The new show at the British Library is full of images that crackle with electric tension, such as the tiny drawing of Alice's queen with hairpins like crossed swords in a nest of quivering corkscrew curls, or the meek bespectacled horse with his mane streaming backwards at alarming velocity as if in a tearing wind.

The vitality of these grotesque inventions derives from Peake's ability to look directly and intently at everyday reality. "The advance from virtual blindness to the state of perception – half rumination, half scrutiny – is all that matters," he wrote. He walked the streets of London with his pencil like a head-hunter with a spear (he said he spotted his Mad Hatter in a telephone box on Charing Cross station). He was haunted by things he had seen in the war, especially in the ruined cities of a defeated Germany and on a fearful trip to Belsen in 1945. The nightmare images that raced through his brain in visions, dreams and times of disintegration or breakdown deepened and darkened his work.

But Peake's secret and deepest resource was China. As the child of missionaries, he spent his first 10 years surrounded by gaudy street processions, brilliant silk banners, the myriad shapes and colours of paper kites and lanterns. All were imprinted on his nascent imagination. Born in 1911, the year the Manchu empire was finally toppled, he grew up in a world still impregnated with imperial customs, rituals and stories at a time when, like Gormenghast, all Chinese towns were fortified with frail earthen huts clamped like limpets to their massive walls.

I recognised the gulfs, chasms and peaks of Gormenghast itself in China four years ago when I climbed Mount Lu, rising sheer nearly 5,000ft from the Yangtze plain. Peake was born on top of this magic mountain. Its precipitous scrambles and dizzy plunges shaped both the inner and outer reality of the worlds his pen and pencil created in line or words with such apparently effortless authority.

Gormenghast by China Miéville

With its first word the work declares itself, establishes its setting and has us abruptly there, in the castle and the stone. There is no slow entry, no rabbit-hole down which to fall, no backless wardrobe, no door in the wall. To open the first book is not to enter but to be already in Mervyn Peake's astonishing creation. So taken for granted, indeed, is this impossible place, that we commence with qualification. "Gormenghast," Peake starts, "that is, the main massing of the original stone," as if, in response to that opening name, we had interrupted him with a request for clarification. We did not say "What is Gormenghast?" but "Gormenghast? Which bit?"

It is a sly and brilliant move. Asserting the specificity of a part, he better takes as given the whole – of which, of course, we are in awe. This faux matter-of-fact method makes Gormenghast, its Hall of Bright Carvings, its Tower of Flints, its roofscapes, ivy-shaggy walls, its muddy environs and hellish kitchens, so much more present and real than if it had been breathlessly explained. From this start, Peake acts as if the totality of his invented place could not be in dispute. The dislocation and fascination we feel, the intoxication, is testimony to the success of his simple certainty. Our wonder is not disbelief but belief, culture-shock at this vast, strange place. We submit to this reality that the book asserts even as it purports not to.

Many more than three books were planned: this was an accidental trilogy. Each of its parts, and each of those unborn others, has and would have had its own quiddity. Gormenghast is not only the title of the midpoint text, but the shared foundation of the three books – even the last, strange, scandalously neglected volume. The events it describes all occur in exile from the castle, but Gormenghast, absent presence, could hardly be more there than it is in those pages.

It is a cliché to insist that this or that work "evades classification". Caution is indicated. But the sheer strangeness of Gormenghast is very real. The work is irreducible to the sum of any of the influences we can find in it. Given its brilliance and the devotion in which it has always been held, one might be surprised at how relatively restrained its overt influence has been. Of course it has always had partisans and those grateful for its shadow, but it seems rather astonishing that it has not been a taproot text, a genre-starter, spawning generations of post- and sub-Gormenghast fantasies.

The particular flavour of its oddness helps to explain this somewhat subterranean history. What faces us is not a radical and violent estrangement so much as a sustained sense of almost-familiarity, of not-quite-familiarity, a strong but wrong recognition. Reading the Gormenghast trilogy can be like the moment the friend we greet turns and is not our friend at all, but an only vaguely similar stranger.

Some of the themes, for example, are hardly unprecedented: the tension between tradition and change, between the antique rules of Gormenghast and the insurrectionary force of Steerpike, at whose hand so much is shattered. Even here, however, while the problematic may be relatively clear, the sides, the moral axis, are anything but. When Steerpike tugs limbs from a beetle while saying "Equality is the great thing, equality is everything," the conjunction of sadism and radicalism could read as fairly heavy-handed reactionary slander, and his ongoing sociopathic Machiavellianism might seem to underline this view. But is this really the argument? Given the remorseless ludicrousness of the rituals to which those inhabiting Gormenghast and Groan are subjected and by which they are trapped, the practices' pointlessness and powerlessness to improve anything for anybody, the panicky subservience of those in their thrall, the idea that the books are celebrating fidelity to "tradition" or "history" is utterly hollow. There is something at least as bracing as it is horrifying in the transformations Steerpike wreaks. We both take and untake sides.

It is in the names, above all, perhaps, that Peake's strategy of simultaneous familiarising and defamiliarising reaches its zenith; Rottcodd, Muzzlehatch, Sourdust, Crabcalf, Gormenghast itself. Such strange and unlikely composites clearly echo Trollope and Dickens. But where for them the nomenclaturic agenda worked, often moralistically, to semaphore aspects of the named, for Peake no such readings are feasible. This is hardly because he tones down the absurdism. On the contrary, what is merely camp in Dickens becomes splendid grotesquerie in Peake. But such names are so overburdened with semiotic freight, stagger under such a profusion of meanings, that they end up as opaque as if they had none. "Prunesquallor" is a glorious and giddying synthesis, and one that sprays images – but their portent remains unclear. The doctor's character does not help us. He is vivid, comedic, decent, but neither particularly squalid nor overtly fructine. Our minds are perpetual hermeneutic engines, and they do not stop attempting to decode, but their gears cannot get traction.

Not all the names are invented or crossbred, and where they are not, it is their context that makes them strange. Flay, Lord Groan's taciturn manservant, and his nemesis, the murderous cook Swelter, are both named with a verb, proper-nouned. In each case the symbolic suitability is arguable, but is neither self-evident, nor, in fact, argued. Swelter has a first name: Abiatha. Its Hebrew meaning, bountiful father, is a discomforting joke, to which Swelter himself draws attention. "I am the father of excellence and plenty," he says, and makes the name a chant. Abiatha, he sings, hypnotically. Nomen est omen, but an omen of what, who can quite say?

Paradoxes like this one, of surplus yet shy meanings, abound. Gormenghast feels both claustrophobic and vast. The language is lush and dusty, organic and desiccated.

At the start of the middle volume, Peake introduces us to a boy we've so far known only as a baby. These opening pages are, uniquely for the series, in the present tense; no matter, then, what other ages Titus passes through, he is also, always, seven – a child needing succour. We open with three three-word clauses. "Titus is seven." And? "His confines, Gormenghast." Gormenghast, again and always. Here "confines", noun and verb, underscores the oppression of all that stone. And how does Titus live? How has he been raised? "Suckled on shadows."

It is an astounding phrase. A vivid Gormenghastian paradox, an impossible dialectic of nurture and imprisonment, of sustenance out of emptiness, out of darkness. Here Peake the writer meets Peake the artist. These two aspects of the man's work were always intimately related, and it is an inextricable aspect of the trilogy that these are illustrated books. For many of his admirers, it is in Peake's pen-and-ink work that his most remarkable talents show: in his vivid and loose working sketches; his sparse outline drawings, which render in blank space as much as in the lines themselves; in the lightly washed Gormenghast of shade-contrast, elegant brushwork and space; and above all in his astonishing cross-hatching. Scribbles and overlaid lines become vectors of shade and solidity. Through only two values – black and white, lines of the former overlapping on the latter – Peake's figures and landscapes emerge in three dimensions. It is through this monochrome alchemy of crosshatching that all the vivid varieties of presence, all the humanely rendered, exaggerated but never parodic features of his Gormenghastians, and of the city inhabitants with whom Titus walks in self-exile, are made. Plenitude out of nothing, substance out of shade.

"And darkness," Peake says a few lines on from his reintroduction of Titus, "winds between the characters." It does, and it winds into each of them, and winds them together, too. One might say the same about the work of any black-nib-wielding illustrator. But the point is not only that Peake drew his own imaginings so brilliantly, it is that there is something specific about that brilliance. It is the manner in which, in his art, he captures intricacy and austerity. It is this that makes the claim of an elective affinity between his words and his images more than a tendentious fancy.

There was nothing like the Gormenghast trilogy before it came along. And despite the gratifyingly growing number of readers for whom it is indispensable, and the spread of descendant texts, such cuttings are all at a remove. Cousins, nieces, nephews, yes; but the Gormenghast trilogy has no book-children. It and only it does what it does.

Each time the arid succulence of the prose brings us up short, each time our eyes widen at the illustrations, at Gormenghast itself emergent out of scribble and scrawl, it is we who are suckled on shadows.

Peake and Sark by AL Kennedy

For many, Mervyn Peake's Mr Pye offers a suitably eccentric introduction to the tiny and determinedly unusual island of Sark. The tale is an amoral fable in which our hero arrives on Sark – without a return ferry ticket – to undertake a one-man crusade of dubious value on behalf of the Great Pal. As he works and walks across the island, he begins to grow either burdensome wings or shameful horns, depending on his behaviour. We are shown a world within which good does patent harm, evil is strangely innocent and where, for Mr Pye, simply being human requires an impossible balancing act. The dark humour, eccentricity, hallucinatory elegance and intensity of the piece seem typical of Peake.

The island, too, could be a Peake fabrication: a strikingly beautiful, secretive and harsh landscape, layered with strange place names – Derrible Bay and Dixcart Valley – and its people bound by archaic entitlements, laws and customs. But Peake knew Sark well, and his portrait, though playful, is plainly taken from life. He catches the curious politics of a service-based economy, the strange mix of genteel incomers and true Sarkese, holidaymakers and fishermen, bohemians and farmers, all variously beguiled or amused by the Great Pal.

Peake first arrived on Sark in 1935 and found his place in its small artistic community. The island had attracted painters since the 18th century. Two handfuls of green plateau edged by dramatic cliffs, headlands, stacks and cave formations, Sark is a gift to landscape specialists. Victor Hugo called it a "poem of stones". Its light is dramatic, wildly changeable, its coves, dells, cliff paths and beaches seem to promise a wild kind of solitude that seems absurd when any observer could cross and recross the island in a day's strolling and is rarely more that 20 minutes away from a tea room.

But Sark's more enduring influence was on Peake the writer, not the artist. Mr Pye explores Sark as itself, but the island also lives in the baroque convolutions of the Gormenghast trilogy: the ingrained traditions, the climbs and depths, the hereditary positions, the extraordinary landscape, the florid eccentricities and contrasts, the intrusions of violence, the claustrophobia. Once described by Rabelais as "thieves, bandits, pirates, robbers, ruffians and murderers", the people of Sark grew parsnips and wrecked ships. Perhaps unsurprisingly, unlike their neighbours on Jersey and Guernsey, they failed to find a strong enough interest in knitting to invent a garment. Penned together in a space that measures only three miles from Bec du Nez to Petit Etac and only a mile and a half from Gouliot headland to Point Cagnons, the Sarkese have grown grimly humorous, self-reliant and inscrutable. Feuds, gossip and enthusiasms can last for generations, as do a sense of communal responsibility and the will to survive. Family names such as Guille, Remphry and Hamon have been on Sark for almost 500 years. The island that carried the feudal system into the 21st century is now reinterpreting democracy according to its own customs. Sark intends to stay Sarkese and to define what that means according to its own lights.

The island remembers, quietly, the fun it had in 1986 when the television adaptation of Mr Pye was filmed there. The islanders played islanders with both enthusiasm and discretion, made no comment about the film's odd idea of what a Sarkese accent might be, gave their visitors what was needed and then went back to being themselves.

The Worlds of Mervyn Peake is at the British Library, London, from 5 July to 18 September 2011. © Guardian News and Media Limited 2011
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Mervyn Peake, creator of Gormenghast Empty Re: Mervyn Peake, creator of Gormenghast

Post  eddie Sat Jul 23, 2011 3:26 pm

Mervyn Peake's war paintings unveiled by National Archives

Museum at Kew to display series showing victims of atrocities as the artist imagined Hitler might have drawn them

Maev Kennedy, Friday 22 July 2011 17.56 BST

Mervyn Peake, creator of Gormenghast Mervyn-Peakes-Still-Life-007
A detail from Mervyn Peake's Still Life, one of the paintings from his war series showing at the museum of the National Archives.

A series of war paintings is to go on display for the first time to mark the centenary of the artist, novelist and poet Mervyn Peake – more than 60 years after the government lost its nerve over his extraordinary attempt to help the war effort.

The rejected paintings were transferred to the National Archives from the Ministry of Information, but have never been displayed until now. A selection will be shown in the archives' museum at Kew, taking their place beside the Domesday Book and Magna Carta.

In 1940 Peake, a genius best known for his trilogy Gormenghast, created the paintings showing mutilated, raped or starving victims of war atrocities, as he imagined Hitler might have drawn them.

Peake, who was already striving to become a formal war artist, proposed to the Ministry of Information that they be published as a propaganda leaflet, presented as an illustrated catalogue for an exhibition by Hitler, complete with a title page showing an artist's palette pierced by the barrel of a rifle, and banal titles such as "Family group" and "Still life" and "Reclining figure" for the shocking images. Surprisingly the government accepted the idea, paid the perennially broke artist 140 guineas for the works, and proposed to print 100,000 copies and distribute them across South America.

Within a few months there had been a change of heart, to Peake's disappointment: the paintings would never be used and, as he had sold them, he could neither exhibit nor publish them.

When his son Sebastian visited the archives this month, it was the first time he had seen the originals. "What is so extraordinary about my father's paintings is that he was creating these powerful images of ruined cities and devastated people, which would later become so familiar from films and photographs, out of the force of his own invention, years before any of these events had happened," he said.

Peake's biographer, Peter Winnington, believes the artist must have been inspired by Goya's Disasters of War etchings, but wrote: "There is something disturbing about the idea that these pictures were drawn entirely from Mervyn's imagination, as he sat in the relative comfort of his Suffolk cottage, long before he had seen anything of the horrors of war."He would go on to become a more conventional war artist, and produced drawings in the aftermath of the war, including from Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, for the magazine the Leader.

The Hitler album paintings were never published in full or exhibited, but sat for decades in the Ministry of Information files, which were then transferred to the old National Archives in Chancery Lane, and eventually to Kew. His son believes that inspiration for the paintings, and for much of the rest of his work, came from scenes Peake saw as a child in China, where he was born in 1911 when his doctor father was running a mission hospital in Hunan province. He died in 1968 after years in hospitals and mental asylums after physical and mental collapse blamed on Parkinson's disease and Encephalitis Lethargica (sleeping sickness) which he probably contracted in an epidemic in China.

Original paintings from Mervyn Peake's Hitler series will be on display in the museum of the National Archives at Kew, free, until the end of 2011
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