Arts & Culture

Mervyn Peake in Germany, 1945.

I first encountered Mervyn Peake, as most readers do, through his baroque Gormenghast trilogy. At the time, I was stuck in the purgatorial antechamber between adolescence and maturity, reluctant to abandon certain habits of mind but keen to develop the imaginative sophistication that I thought might come in handy in college. So the BBC’s television dramatization of what they promised would be a darker alternative to Tolkien had its appeal. As it turned out, the BBC only adapted the first two Gormenghast novels, and then only cartoonishly. But my curiosity was sufficiently stirred to seek out the trilogy.

Just over a decade later, the centenary of Peake’s birth presents us with the occasion to appreciate his abundant gifts as an illustrator (of, among other thing, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland), novelist, poet, and writer of literary nonsense. On both sides of the Atlantic, there have been new illustrated editions of the Gormenghast novels and a new epilogue, Titus Awakes, has surfaced, written by Peake’s widow, Maeve Gilmore. In Britain, the celebrations have been understandably more elaborate. The British Library has mounted an exhibition to celebrate their recent acquisition of Peake’s archive, while the radio dramatist Brian Sibley has adapted the trilogy, with its new conclusion, for BBC Radio 4. Toward the end of July, I visited the exhibition and attended a panel discussion featuring a host of speakers, including Peake’s sons, Fabian and Sebastian.

Peake’s original drawings for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Mervyn Peake was born in 1911 in Kiang-Hsi Province, China, as the son of missionaries. Like Kipling before him, his singular genius for invention was nourished by his early experience of displacement. The British Library exhibition maps out his progress, charting his life through the places that formed him and inspired his work. After moving back to England in 1923, he studied at the Royal Academy of Art and lived in London for much of the thirties, where he drew on the daily life of the city for his own lively visions. (He spotted the model for his Mad Hatter in a phone box on the Charing Cross Road.) During World War II, Peake worked as a war artist and visited Bergen-Belsen, where he sketched some of the victims of the Nazi atrocities, even attending the trial of a German soldier accused of murdering an American airman. Shortly after the war, Peake moved his family to the Channel Island of Sark, where he wrote a large portion of the trilogy and set his only other novel, Mr. Pye. He led a creative life of extraordinary wit, sympathy, and responsiveness; the exhibition also includes letters from Graham Greene, Dylan Thomas, and C. S. Lewis that attest to Peake’s rootedness in the volcanic soil of postwar British literary life. More arrestingly, it also displays his famous illustrations for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, as well as the notebooks in which he composed Gormenghast, where the thick undergrowth of near-illegible text erupts into violent blooms of illustration.

An Illustration from the Gormenghast notebook.

In the memorable opening of the trilogy, we are introduced to a world of “time-eaten buttresses, of broken and lofty turrets,” and to the imposing Tower of Flints, which “arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven.” We begin with the birth of Titus, the seventy-seventh Earl of Groan. Titus is heir to Gormenghast, an isolated mountain domain ruled according to the precepts of a spiritless religion of codified arcana. Who the Groans are, how long they have reigned, and what all those ceremonies mean are questions that are never properly answered. The alternatives of a world beyond Gormenghast seem scarcely imaginable.

The first two novels dramatize a growing crisis in this Elsinore. We follow Titus’s longing for something other than his life of onerous responsibility. At the same time, we watch the machinations of Steerpike, a dazzlingly malevolent youth in the employ of the realm’s bilious kitchens. Steerpike escapes from obscurity and charms, murders, and manipulates his way to a position of great influence, coming within a dagger’s plunge of usurping the dynasty. The climactic encounter between these antagonists at the end of the second book isn’t quite the expected stand-off between good and evil; instead, it is shaded with the honorable indifference of the young Earl and the desperate conviction of his challenger. Titus Alone, the third in the trilogy, shatters the apparently self-contained world of the preceding volumes and evicts us from our crenellated perch. In it, Titus wanders through a wilderness of forests, refugee camps, and disconcertingly familiar urban settings dotted with helicopters, automobiles, and zoos.

A letter home to Peake's wife from Germany in 1945.

Few imagined worlds have so memorably portrayed the weird arbitrariness of total power or conveyed the rank undesirability of its possession. Gormenghast, the home from which Titus can never entirely escape, and to which he can never quite return, must have seemed a gnarled allegory for the newly wild and centerless world of the thirties and forties. But this is not Narnia, much less Middle Earth; what we might mistake for symbols will not stay still and conveniently fall into a pattern. Steerpike’s charnel house of victims and the macabre pleasure he derives from inflicting cruelty inevitably recall the evil of the camps. But his belief that “equality is everything” might have struck an uncomfortable note for British readers, coming as it did at a moment when the new ethos of public service was distributing prosperity and opportunity much more evenly across society.

For this reason, some of the work’s admirers have had trouble confining the novels to any one genre. Anthony Burgess, one of Peake’s early advocates, argued that Gormenghast ought to be read alongside books like 1984 and Four Quartets, consciously elevating the trilogy to the status of Literature. At the British Library celebration, the biographer and critic Hilary Spurling began her erudite survey of the illustrations by coolly declaring that she didn’t consider Peake a fantasist at all. But does it really do him a disservice to view the writing as fantasy? C. S. Lewis thought not:

To me those who merely comment on experience seem far less valuable than those who add to it, who make me experience what I never experienced before. I would not for anything have missed Gormenghast. It has the hall mark of a true myth: i.e. you have seen nothing like it before you read the book, but after that you see things like it everywhere. What one may call “the gormenghastly” has given me a new Universal.

This captures Peake’s appeal very well, his skillful design of a world to retreat to and recoil from. But it also characterizes the elusive pertinence of fantasy to a generation that had been stunned by what experience had to offer.

Mervyn Peake's drawing of Prunesquallors, Gormenghast notebook.

Peake’s original plans for an entire sequence of Titus novels were tragically foreshortened by his early death, from Parkinson’s disease, in 1968. At the panel discussion, it became clear how hard his admirers have had to fight for his reputation, even during his lifetime. In a filmed contribution, Michael Moorcock explained how his friend Oliver Caldecott had worked to resurrect Peake by republishing the Gormenghast trilogy as a Penguin Modern Classic. After the discussion, Hilary Spurling told me how she first came across Peake’s work through a remaindered copy of his illustrated Alice that she found in an Oxford bookshop in the early sixties.

The effort has been worthwhile. I was drawn to Gormenghast by its attractive crookedness. But what has lingered most is Peake’s overwhelming sensitivity and compassion. His imagined worlds accommodate individuals who feel estranged from what they see. Not all of them meet a sticky end. One of the few straightforwardly decent characters in the Gormenghast trilogy is Dr. Prunesquallor, the loquacious surgeon to the Groans. As dear old Prunesquallor contemplates the bloodshed entrained by Steerpike’s ascendancy, we might glimpse, obscurely, the reflection of his author:

Although the Doctor, with a mind of his own, had positively heterodox opinions regarding certain aspects of the Castle’s life—opinions too fee to be expressed in an atmosphere where the woof and warp of the dark place and its past were synonymous with the mesh of veins in the bodies of its denizens—yet he was of the place and was a freak only in that his mind worked in a wide way, relating and correlating his thoughts so that his conclusions were often clear and accurate and nothing short of heresy. But this did not mean that he considered himself to be superior. Oh no. He was not … He was no outsider—and the tragedies that had occurred touched him upon the raw.

Jonathan Gharraie is the British correspondent for The Daily.

All illustrations © Mervyn Peake Estate and British Library Board.