Happy Birthday, Mervyn Peake

Author, poet, and artist, Peake was a bona fide literary god worshipped by fantasy-fic fans around the world.

Nandini Ramachandran July 09, 2011 12:35:16 IST
Happy Birthday, Mervyn Peake

Mervyn Peake was one of the great polymaths that haunted 20th century literature. Literary output aside— novels, plays, poems— he was a famous painter and illustrator. It was as a writer of fantasy, however, that the legend of Mervyn Peake was cemented, and the Gormenghast trilogy marked a watershed in modern fantasy. The best known names of speculative fiction claim Peake as an inspiration, and credit him for reviving the true spirit of fantasy.

Happy Birthday Mervyn Peake

English author and artist Mervyn Peake in London, 21st December 1946. Raymond Kleboe/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Gormenghast is a moody and evocative series of books set within a brooding Gothic castle. By the last book —Titus Alone— our hero sets out into the strange outside world (there is now another sequel, Titus Awakes). The trilogy is suffused with Peake’s intensely visual imagination and his eerie sense of atmosphere.

In it, Peake broke away from the Tolkien-inspired formulae of ‘epic fantasy’, following instead the Romantic tradition of harnessing the surreal and the grotesque to create both suspense and wonder. In the first chapter, we encounter Rottcodd, the curator of the “Hall of Bright Carvings” within the castle:

 Even on a hot, stifling, unhealthy afternoon such as this, the blinds were down and the candlelight filled the room with an incongruous radiance. At the sound of the door handle being rattled Rottcodd sat up suddenly. The thin bands of moted light edging their way through the shutters barred his dark head with the brilliance of the other world. As he lowered himself over the hammock, it wobbled on his shoulders, and his eyes darted up and down the door returning again after their rapid and precipitous journey to the agitations of the door handle. Gripping his feather duster in his right hand, Rottcodd began to advance down the bright avenue, his feet giving rise at each step to little clouds of dust. When he at least reached the door the handle had cease to vibrate. Lowering himself suddenly to his knees he placed his head and the vagaries of his left eye (which was for ever trying to dash up and down the vertical surface of the door), he was able by dint of concentration to observe, within three inches of his keyholed eye, an eye which was not his, being not only of a different colour to his own iron marble, but being, which is more convincing, on the other side of the door. This third eye which was going through the same performance as the one belonging to Rottcodd, belonged to Flay, the taciturn servant of Sepulchrave, Earl of Gormenghast.

To excerpt Gormenghast is, in some ways, deeply blasphemous. Every page of the novels is an education. You could pretty well open any of the books at random, as I did, and find dozens of sentences worth quoting. Rarely are novels as seamless as this trilogy, and even more rarely is their prose as consistently startling as Peake’s can be. All I can tell you today, his birth centenary, is to get thee to Gormenghast as soon as humanly possible. For those who don’t have the time or the inclination for three novels, Gormenghast was made into a BBC series starring Jonathan Rhys Myers. While it is no substitute for the delight of the novels, it’s a stunning experience in its own right.

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My personal explanation for the genius of Peake is the combination of his training as an artist and his vocation as a poet. During his lifetime, he published many volumes of verse, most of which were published as a collected edition in 2008. A favourite of mine (these change daily) is ‘Lean Sideways on the Wind’, in which he gently mocks people who, like himself, suffer from the fantastic disposition.

Lean sideways on the wind, and if it bears
Your weight, you are a daughter of the Dawn--
If not, pick up your carcass, dry your tears,
Brush down your dress- for that sweet elfin horn

You thought you heard was from no fairy land--
Rather it flooded through the kitchen floor,
From where your Uncle Eustace and his band
Of flautists turn my cellar, more and more

Into a place of hollow and decay:
That is my theory, darling, anyway.

Peake proved singularly lucky in his family. His three children have actively maintained his legacy, and are probably why his books became posthumous classics. His wife, Maeve Gilmore, was both his muse and (unusually for a literary life) his one true love. She was a writer and painter herself, and her memoir of their life together (A World Away) chronicles their intense devotion to each other. Many of Peake’s poems were dedicated to Maeve. I counted four on a cursory skim of the contents of the Collected Poems, written at various stages during their marriage. Across all of them, his love and awe of her shines through. Consider the following poem, simply titled ‘Maeve’, written in 1942, five years after they were wed.

Happy Birthday Mervyn Peake

Mervyn Peake sketches a likeness of his wife painter Maeve Gilmore while she is working at her easel. General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

If when I married you I was in love
As I imagined at the time I was,
Then what is this new Illness? and the cause
of my heart crying from its midnight grove
of ribs, for, trapped like an alizarine bird
In the heaving cradle of the bended boughs
It shakes anew its violent wings and grows
maddened the moment that your voice is heard.

Either it was not love I felt before
Or else love climbs like fever. I hope it is
that I was not in love, for This
may then grow wilder yet, though any more

Of love seems unimaginable; ah Maeve
I do not wish more glory than I have.

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