People who didn’t know him very well often said Mervyn Peake’s books were so darkly complex that writing them had sent him mad. Others, who perhaps knew him a little better, understood how cleverly Peake was formalising his own experience and observations. He was one of the most deeply sane individuals you could hope to meet. He was a conscious artist, with a wicked wit and a tremendous love of life. “He has magic in his pen,” said Charles Morgan. “He can annihilate the dimensions.”
Although he wrote his trilogy at more or less the same time as Tolkien, with whom he was then marginalised as another ‘unclassifiable’ fantast, Peake had no great interest in The Lord of the Rings and as far as I know never read it or The Hobbit. It wasn’t his kind of thing. ‘Children are anarchists,’ he told me, ‘not policemen.’ C. S. Lewis was an enthusiast, and warned Peake against others who insisted the Gormenghast books were religious allegory. Peake, whose parents had been missionaries, cheerfully and firmly rejected this interpretation as he rejected most ‘pompous profundities’ applied to his own work. Peake’s own suspicion of academics and clerics, evident from his books, made him a little wary of Lewis’s friendly overtures and he was rather more pleased by the attention he received from Elizabeth Bowen, Angus Wilson and others, whom he did read. Wilson thought he was ahead of his time. Peake certainly never had a cult develop around him the way it did with poor Tolkien, whose last years were often made miserable by his fans.
Anthony Burgess thought the English mistrusted Peake for being too talented. Peake was a first class illustrator (at one time, ‘the most fashionable in England’, according to Quentin Crisp in The Naked Civil Servant), a fine poet and an outstanding painter. His novels, said Burgess are ‘aggressively three-dimensional… showing the poet as well as the draughtsman… It is difficult in post-war English fiction to get away with big rhetorical gestures. Peake manages it because, with him, grandiloquence never means diffuseness; there is no musical emptiness in the most romantic of his descriptions. He is always exact… (Gormenghast) remains essentially a work of the closed imagination, in which a world parallel to our own is presented in almost paranoic denseness of detail. But the madness is illusory, and control never falters. It is, if you like, a rich wine of fancy chilled by the intellect to just the right temperature. There is no really close relative to it in all our prose literature. It is uniquely brilliant.’
His wife Maeve’s memoir, A World Away, which Vintage recently reprinted, is full of stories of scratching the backs of elephants through floorboards to try to keep them quiet while he was sleeping above them, his spontaneous acts of romantic generosity, his dashing gestures and glorious sense of fun, his willingness to give drawings or poems away to anyone who said they liked them, his London expeditions, drawing faces from Soho, Limehouse, Wapping — what he called ‘head-hunting’. He courted her elegantly and with humour. He was, she said, ‘unique, dark and majestic’. Tea at Lyons, a trip on a tram, and she was his forever. He was conscripted in the Second World War, was in London a great deal during the Blitz and was the first War Artist into Belsen, producing studies that are remarkable for their humanity and sympathy, experience he used in his last book. He, like most of us, somehow stayed roughly sane, if a little overwrought, throughout the war. His practical jokes, often concocted with Graham Greene, were elaborate and subtle.
Mervyn Peake was inspiring, joyful company whose tragedy was not in his life or work but in whatever ill-luck cursed him with Parkinson’s Disease. ‘If we went out,’ said Maeve, ‘it often seemed that he was drunk or drugged and offence would be taken. I longed to shelter him and resented the intelligent ones who turned their backs on him. It’s very painful to see such a gentle man cold-shouldered.’ Increasingly unable to draw, or work on the fourth Titus book, he was by the mid-1960s institutionalised and in the last stages of his illness. His public reputation had vanished. Neither Greene, Bowen nor Burgess, all of them admirers, had enough influence to convince his publishers to return his books to print.
If there’s an unsung hero of Mervyn Peake’s life and career it has to be Oliver Caldecott, painter and publisher, who became head of the Penguin fiction list, founded Wildwood House and died prematurely. Ollie and Moira Caldecott, South African exiles, had been friends of mine for several years and we shared a mutual enthusiasm for the Gormenghast sequence. We’d made earlier efforts to persuade someone to reprint it, but as usual were told there was no readership for the books. Caldecott wouldn’t give up hope.
I’d been instrumental in getting a couple of Mervyn’s short stories published and ran some fragments of fiction, poetry and drawings in my magazine New Worlds, some of his poetry was still in print, together with one or two illustrated books, but he was thoroughly out of fashion, his reputation not helped by Kingsley Amis describing him ‘as a bad fantasy writer of maverick status’, revealing a tendency for those who trawled the margins to link him with the authors of horror stories and talking animal books.
He was always badly served by comparisons with Tolkien because he was Tolkien’s antithesis. Peake spoke of his artistic experiments as ‘the smashing of another window pane’. He wasn’t looking for reassurance. He was looking for truth. “I rather thought I was writing for grown-ups,” he said mildly. “I can’t see that I have anything in common with Tolkien.” Nothing is cute or furry in Gormenghast. Peake was a fascinated explorer of human personality, a confronter of realities, beaming his brilliance here and there into our common darkness, a narrative genius able to control a vast range of characters (no more grotesque than life and many of them wonderfully comic) in the telling of a complex, narrative, much of which is based upon the ambitions of a single, determined individual, Steerpike, whose rise from the depths of society (or ‘Gormenghast’ as it is called) and extraordinary climb and fall has a monumental, Dickensian quality which keeps you reading at fever pitch. The stuff of solid, grown-up full-strength fiction. Real experience, freshly described. “It’s not so much their blindness,’ he said of his more conventional contemporaries, ‘as their love of blinkers that spells stagnation.” Gormenghast was written by a real poet, with a real relish for words and a real feel for the alienated, a painter who could see the extraordinary beneath the apparently nondescript. Closer to the best Zola than any Tolkien or the generic tosh which followed him.
In his introduction to an early collection of his drawings, Peake wrote — ‘After all, there are no rules. With the wealth, skill, daring, vision of many centuries at one’s back, yet one is ultimately quite alone. For it is one’s ambition to create one’s own world in a style germane to its substance, and to people it with its native forms and denizens that never were before, yet have their roots in one’s experience. As the earth was thrown from the sun, so from the earth the artist must fling out into space, complete from pole to pole, his own world which, whatsoever form it takes, is the colour of the globe it flew from, as the world itself is coloured by the sun.’
Born in China, still carrying a feel of the exotic about him, a fine painter, illustrator, poet and novelist, Peake had been a sunny, bouyant source of life for so many who knew him. His optimism could be unrealistic, but he was never short of it. He was charming and attractive, generous and expansive by nature, combining his dark Celtic good looks with a fine sense of style. Though he’d always supported his family, he’d never had much of a knack for making money — he received five pounds for the entire set of illustrations to The Hunting of the Snark. He wasn’t much good at anticipating bills but only as his illness worsened did his anxieties begin to get a grip on him and he had exaggerated hopes for his surreal play The Wit To Woo, which failed badly.
Knowing little of the brain in those days — this was before Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s were identified — we watched helplessly as Mervyn declined into some mysterious form of dementia, while the surgeons hacked at his frontal lobes and further destroyed his ability to work and reason. The frustration was terrible. His instinctive intelligence, his kindness, even his wit flickered in his eyes, but were all trapped, inexpressible. “It feels like everything’s being stolen,” he said once to me. Here was an extraordinary man, his head a treasure-house of invention, poetry, characters, ideas, being destroyed from within while his genius was rejected by the literary and art world of the day.
When art critics of reputation like Edwin Mullins tried to write about Peake, editors would turn the idea down. I had only a modest success, mostly in low-circulation literary magazines, fanzines. The story, even then, was that Peake had lost his mind. The strain of writing such dark books. All the fictional madness he had created had caught up with him. Unwholesome stuff, darkness. Sniff at it too hard and it gets inside you. That story was a damaging sensational nonsense recklessly perpetuated by Quentin Crisp (‘all that darkness, dear, gets to you in the end’), for whom Peake had once illustrated a small book and to whom the Peakes had been consistently kind in the years before his notoriety.
The last novel of the sequence, Titus Alone, had indeed contained structural weaknesses which we had all assumed were Mervyn’s as his control of his work became shaky. Then, one afternoon, Langdon Jones, composer of a superb musical setting for Peake’s narrative poem of the Blitz, The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb, was leafing through the manuscript books of the novel, which Maeve Peake had shown him, 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, and whole characters and scenes cut.
Jones began to check handwritten manuscript (mostly done in huge ledgers and randomly dotted with drawings) against typed pages and the final typed manuscript, slowly restoring the book to its present much improved state. It took him over a year. He was never professionally paid for the work. We suggested to the original publisher that they should now republish the book, perhaps with the new text. Not only did they not want to publish any of the books, they were anxious to hide the fact that the last book had been so badly butchered. They became distinctly negative about the whole thing. I proposed to Maeve that we begin the process of getting back the rights. Meanwhile Mervyn became increasingly unwell.
Oliver said mysteriously that he was hoping to get a new job, which might make things a bit easier. And then one morning he phoned me to tell me, with considerable glee, that he was now ‘the guy who picks the Penguins’. And, of course, our first action must be to sort out the Gormenghast books and decide how to get them back into print.
Needless to say, the moment Oliver showed interest from Penguin, the original publisher saw a new value in the books. They were happy to lease the rights to Penguin. They were still very reluctant to do a new edition of Titus Alone, however. Eventually the whole production was taken over by Oliver, who proposed illustrating the novels from Mervyn’s own notebook drawings of his characters. He had the authority and experience to get what he wanted. The text was restored. The new, beautiful hardbacks were bound versions of the characteristic Penguin editions prepared by Jones. Anthony Burgess gladly contributed an introduction to Titus Groan, which he believed to be a masterpiece, and Oliver Caldecott brought the three volumes out as Penguin Modern Classics. It was the perfect way to publish the books, boldly, enthusiastically and unapologetically, in the best possible editions Mervyn could have.
Next, with the considerable help of my ex-wife, Hilary Bailey, Maeve Peake was persuaded to write her wonderful memoir of Mervyn, A World Away, which Giles Gordon, another Peake fan, then at Gollancz, was delighted to publish (‘the most touching book I’ve ever read’, he said.) Monitor began production of their rather Gothic TV programme on him. Peake was getting a new, appreciative public. Too late, unfortunately, for him to realise it. I remember going with Maeve to take him some of the publicity done for the new editions, to show him that his books were to be published again, what they would look like. He nodded blankly, mumbled something and dropped his eyes. It was almost as if he could not himself bear the irony. Maeve and his children had to deal with many similar moments.
The rest is more or less history. A history spotted with bad media features about Mervyn which insist on perpetuating his story as a doomed loony. Bill Brandt showed him as a glowering Celt, a sort of unsodden Dylan Thomas, and his romantic good looks help project this image. Women certainly fell in love with his sheer beauty. And then with his charm. And then with his wit. And then they were lost. After he married Maeve, Peake’s home life was about as ordinary and chaotic as the usual bohemian family’s. Their mutual love was remarkable, as was the passion and enthusiasm of the whole wonderful tribe. As he faded into the final stages of his disease, we were all overwhelmed by an ongoing sense of loss, of disbelief, as if the sun itself were going out.
Peake was neither a saint nor a satanic presence and what was so marvellous for me, when I first went to see him as a boy, was realising that so much rich talent could come from such a graceful, pleasant, rather modest man who lived in a suburban house much like mine. He was amused by my enthusiasm. I was in no doubt, though, that I’d met my first authentic genius.
In time, of course, many others shared that view, until eventually all Peake’s work came back into print, new editions of his stories and poems were produced, public shows presented of his drawings and paintings and various dramatic versions done of his novels not least the extraordinary minimalist version of Gormenghast by David Glass and the Derek Jacobi TV version of his charming short novel Mr Pye.
Peake had a huge, romantic imagination, a Welsh eloquence, a wry, affectionate wit and his technical mastery, both of narrative and line, remains unmatched. “To be a good classicist,” he said, “you must cultivate romance. To be a good romantic, you must steep yourself in classicism.” He was both an heir to the great Victorians and a precursor to the post-modernists, the magic realists. His statements frequently anticipated the likes of Salman Rushdie. He influenced a generation of authors, amongst them Angela Carter, Peter Ackroyd and Iain Sinclair, who found that it was possible to write imaginatively and inventively about character and real experience while setting their stories in subtly unfamiliar worlds.
And Peake’s own attitude is best summed up by a poem which achieved popularity some forty years after he wrote it. “To live at all,” he said, “is miracle enough.” Of course he did much more than live. “Art,” he used to say, “is really sorcery.” He infused life and art into everything he touched. And his sorceries continue to entrance us.
Copyright © 1995 by Michael Moorcock.