A year lost to Mervyn Peake

In what is unintentionally becoming a bit of a series about authors with unreasonable amounts of great reading material, Robbie Guillory herein attempts to get you reading the works of Mervyn Peake.

Mervyn PeakeMervyn Peake was a bit of an artistic polymath; an author, poet and illustrator. It was Peake who introduced me to the Fantastic. Before I’d read Pratchett or Jacques I was given the first of the Gormenghast Trilogy, Titus Groan.

Titus Groan by Mervyn PeakeThough I was far too young to really understand what is, on occasion, prose as dusty and cobweb-ridden as the castle it inhabits and, despite probably not finishing it, I was hooked with the idea of this other world, with it’s endless spires and forgotten rooms, the popping joints of Flay and fetid breath of Swelter.

Gormenghast illustration 2As happens to many other people, I eventually got older, my mind expanded its ability to hold more complex ideas, and when I returned to the trilogy I was ready. I really can’t express to you how good the storyline is, but I will try. Before I do, I should probably tell you that there is a very good BBC adaptation that can be bought on DVD or downloaded, which is an excellent lure to the series.

Gormenghast by Mervyn PeakeSo what exactly is the Gormenghast trilogy, you may ask, to which I would reply: Gormenghast is a collection of three hefty novels set in a feudal earldom that blends an Asiatic isolationist, ritualistic culture with the medieval feudalism of England. Gormenghast itself is a castle – massive, dark and sprawling, whole wings of which have been closed off and forgotten, vast acres overgrown and broken by ivy – the seat of the Earls of Groan. The focus of the story is on two characters in particular: Titus Groan, heir to the Earldom (his father is the 76th Earl of Groan), and Steerpike, a kitchen boy who desires control over his destiny. I don’t want to give too much away because the storyline is fantastic, so here is a picture of the third book in the series, Titus Alone. (I think these covers by Vintage Classics don’t reflect the books very well, but there are some truly bad ones out there)

Titus Alone by Mervyn PeakeIf I was to be thoroughly honest, which I will be, Titus Groan and Gormenghast are far superior to Titus Alone, but that is simply because the former are similar and connected whereas the latter is very different, in both subject and writing style, and is like some nightmarish rambling through the mind of a trauma victim. However, what makes it interesting is that this book, in my opinion, has aspects that foreshadow the Steampunk genre. What I am meaning to say is that if you only have time to read the first two, you are still finishing the story, really.

Gormenghast illustrationWith these two characters I will neatly segue from What Really Makes The Trilogy Great (this is how it is written in my notes) to Mervyn Peake – Didn’t He Do The Art For Alice In Wonderland. Just so you don’t skip ahead he did indeed, and we will get to that. The above drawn characters (taken from the manuscript) are Dr Prunesquallor and his sister, Irma Prunesquallor. Aside form the wonderful names in this book, what really makes it great (see?!) are the characters. There are the two aunts, Cora and Clarice, who finish each others’ sentences, and Mr Flay the aged retainer, whose knees pop with every step he takes. I’ve already mentioned his nemesis, the chef Swelter, fat and lecherous. And then there is Titus’ poor sister, Fuchsia, who apart form having a rotten name is ignored because she is a woman. Titus’ mother is the Lady Gertrude, who is enormous, can talk to birds, and has hundreds of white cats, whilst his father, Lord Sepulchrave, is a distant figue, eaten up by the endless rituals of office, as administered by Sourdust, Master of Rituals, and then his son Barquentine. And the list goes on. Illustration 2If you can get your hands on a copy of the Illustrated Gormenghast you can see all these characters as Peake imagined them, doodled on the pages of the manuscript. He was a fantastic artists, with a style of illustration which I would say is completely his own. You can see more of his artwork in the Carcanet edition of his collected poems, which are rather wonderful in themselves.

GlassblowersPeake illustrated Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (very hard to get hold of),

Alice in Wonderlandcreated this Jabberwocky,

Jabberwock illustrated Treasure Island (almost impossible to find),

Treasure Islandand many other things, including the Rime of the Ancient Mariner:

The Rime of the Ancient MarinerAnd that is the wonderful things about Peake, is that once you start to discover him, there is any number of different ways to can go. If you fancied trying to draw him you could scour Abe Books for a copy of his bound pamphlet The Craft of the Lead Pencil, or you could read his poetry, or even his childrens’ book Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor (I have bought this for my nieces, though they are far too young, because it is such a sweet and funny story).

Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor by Mervyn PeakeIf you don’t fancy hitting the 900-odd pages of the trilogy, you should buy a slim collection of short stories, Boy in Darkness, in which the boy may or may not be Titus Groan, which are wonderful and fantastical and a bit scary (there is a bit with animals that have been half-turned into people which gives me the willies even thinking about it) and would be a pleasant introduction for you.

Boy in Darkness by Mervyn PeakeComing soon as part of the A Year Lost To… series:

Trollop (If I find someone who has read them all)
Atwood
Asimov (because Foundation)
Pratchett (unmissable)
Murakami
Rowling
Mantel
Hemmingway

And many more. Probably on a monthly basis.

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