The Third International after Lenin

Monday, April 19, 2010

Prodigiously weird and sinister

Mervyn Peake — the anti-Tolkien–Britain’s great, neglected fantasist

April 12, 2010
by Chauncey Mabe

Mervyn Peake

It’s not as if Mervyn Peake gets no attention at all — the second book in his Gormenghast Trilogy won the Heinemann Prize for Literature in 1951. But he does stand deep in the shade cast by J.R.R. Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings. Now, thanks to the British Library, Peake is getting some much deserved attention.

The library raised £410,000 to acquire the Peake archive, including 39 Gormenghast notebooks, original drawings for his own work plus a complete set of Peake’s illustrations for Lewis Caroll’s Alice books, and his correspondence with contemporaries like John Berger and C.S. Lewis.

Peake's Alice, passing through the looking glass

News is already starting to tumble out of the archive. You can see a gallery of Peake’s drawings — he was a successful illustrator before he was a writer — at the Guardian website. Some of the Alice drawings are already on display at the library.

Digging deeper into the archive, Vanessa Thorpe, also writing at the Guardian, discovers the genesis of Peake’s disturbed and disturbing imagination in his work as a British combat correspondent during World War II.

“The writer and draughtsman had been sent out on assignment for the Leader magazine in 1945 and the unsettling impact of the scenes he witnessed is clear from nine letters he sent home to his wife, Maeve Gilmore.”

In one letter, Peake describes the devastation at Cologne, where everything had been bombed flat except for the untouched cathedral: “It is incredible how the cathedral has remained, lifting itself high into the air so gloriously, while around it the city lies broken to pieces, and in the city I smelt for the first time in my life the sweet, pungent, musty smell of death. It is still in the air, thick, sweet, rotten and penetrating…”

This lends credence to the notion, shared by Anthony Burgess, among others, that the prodigiously weird and sinister Gormenghast novels — Titus Groan (1946), Gormenghast (1950) and Titus Alone (1959) — are Peake’s response to World War II.

Among fantasy lovers, a line is sometimes drawn in the sand between Tolkien, with his rich gloss on Northern European mythology, language and medieval chivalry, and Peake’s denser, darker Gormenghast vision. Indeed, not a single wizard or elf or magical creature of any kind is to be found.

Thats’ why Peake is sometimes viewed as the anti-Tolkien. Evil is not the work of orc or mage, but arises from human corruption, greed, decadence and ambition. Yet at no point do the novels feel like anything other than a thrilling, terrifying fantasy. From the description of Gormenghast castle that opens Titus Groan, a sense of dire foreboding descends and never lets up:

“Gormenghast, that is, the main massing of the original stone, taken by itself would have displayed a certain ponderous architectural quality were it possible to have ignored the circumfusion of those mean dwellings that swarmed like an epidemic around its outer walls.”

This first sentence gives some clue to the twisted joys to come, with the “mean dwellings” of the poor swarming “like an epidemic.” An eye cast at some of Peake’s character names is also instructive: the striving upstart Steerpike; the fragile, conniving Princess Fuschia, Lord Sepulchrave and his personal assistant Flay, Dr. Prunesquallor, Nannie Slagg, Doggit.

But really, as C.S. Lewis knew, it is possible to love Tolkien and Peake as equal in their very different achievements. “[Peake's books] are actual additions to life; they give, like certain rare dreams, sensations we never had before, and enlarge our conception of the range of possible experience,” observed Lewis, a close friend to Tolkien — and a fair fantasy writer himself if you recall.

Peake, who was born in China to missionary parents, was admirably productive until he began to suffer the debilitating symptoms of Parkinson’s in the 1950s. He fought the disease by continuing to draw and write in the long decline that ended in his death in 1968.

Last year Peake’s granddaughter found a manuscript that turned out to be a fourth Gormenghast novel, this one written by Maeve Gilmore from “a couple of pages of prefatory notes made by her husband.” Titus Awakes will be published in the United States next year by the Overlook Press to mark Peake’s 100th birthday.

That gives us plenty of time to read — or reread — the other three books. And meanwhile — what the heck, let’s play: Do you think Peake matches Tolkien’s genius?

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