February 24, 2018

Mervyn Peake Perspective

On this day in 1968 Mervyn Peake died, aged fifty-seven. Peake's career as a writer and artist was prolific, varied and, some say, too eccentric for mainstream popularity. But if the critics continue to ignore or quarrel over the achievement, the fans continue to assemble, arriving from all corners and by many paths. Apart from many recent, international editions of Peake's books, there have been stage, radio and musical adaptations, plus a lavish and highly-praised BBC TV mini-series -- reviewed in The Guardian as "quite different from anything else on TV. Or on earth."

Perhaps it is a good thing that, as recent biographer G. Peter Winnington says, Peake "remains largely unclassified and unclassifiable." It is certainly an improvement: in 1967, a year before Peake's death, one reviewer who had praised his most recent book of poetry was accused by a prominent London daily of having made the author up. Although there have always been fans and favorable critics for the Gormenghast books, there has always been surprise that there are not more. Titus Groan and Gormenghast, the first two books in the trilogy, were published in 1946 and 1950. Both Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings and Orwell's 1984 were published in 1949. These books have many dissimilarities, but they all present vivid, provoking, imaginary worlds. That Tolkien and Orwell should be so enshrined and Peake so neglected is certainly a puzzle -- though it would perhaps not be for Peake himself. The opening scene of Titus Groan presents Rottcodd, the ancient curator of the Hall of Bright Carvings, going sleepily about his only business: to flick dust from the objects of beauty in his keep -- Bright Carvings which briefly impassioned the multitude and the Earl of Groan, but which are now ignored.

There was no dust or lip-service in the life. Peake's guiding principle seems to have come from one of his poems, a line now on his gravestone: "To live at all is miracle enough." His last decade was a horror of debilitation and increasing dementia, caused by Parkinson's. He "was buried at the age of 57 looking near 90," says his son, Sebastian, "leaving behind him over 10,000 drawings, 200 oil paintings, books, poems, short stories, illustrations, plays, film scripts, stage designs and ideas...." Leaving behind love and admiration, too. Sebastian Peake's Child of Bliss (recently reissued with another memoir by his mother, Maeve Gilmore, as Mervyn Peake: Two Lives) overflows with unique times and places, and child-at-heart moments like this one on Sark, the family's Channel Island home:
    I remember a marvellous game once, where he and I skipped and danced through the Sark house, him with a large wooden frame, and me with a smaller one resting on our right shoulder, being held in place by our right hand, and hopping from one side of the lower part of the frame to the other, with our feet sometimes on the inside and then on the outer sides of the frame. Making wild Red Indian whoops, we went upstairs and down, out into the garden, round the duck pond and in and out of the bunker until we had had enough.

    Click here for more from TinL guest contributor Sebastian Peake.
The playing with frames was life-long. Peake tried to keep writing through the final years but at last had to give up -- the author of the 1000-page trilogy able to manage only postcards to his son: "Here's some perspective for you." The vision, like the life at the very end, could be gormenghastly, but it was also thankful, and irreducibly one-of-a-kind:
    To live at all is miracle enough.
    The doom of nations is another thing.
    Here in my hammering blood-pulse is my proof.

    Let every painter paint and poet sing
    And all the sons of music ply their trade;
    Machines are weaker than a beetle's wing....

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