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Things I've Found #5A (A Very Special Edition)—11/27/2001

by Mark Rose

Well, not as special as the “Fonzie Goes Back to School” episode of Happy Days, but you get the drift. THIS is one of the reasons I started writing this e-zine, so I could tell you about the “things I’ve found,” and so here we go.

For those of you on this list who have heard me rant and rave about Mervyn Peake (and your numbers are legion), you can delete this mail. If you haven’t heard of Mervyn Peake, the Gormenghast trilogy, Mr. Pye, Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor, give me a sec.

Peake died in an asylum in 1968 at the age of 57. He only wrote “four novels, one novella, three illustrated children’s books, a drawing primer, short stories, articles, broadcast talks and adapted his own work for radio and television.” Compared with folks like Georges Simenon, G.K. Chesterton or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, he is a dabbler with a significant lack of quantity to his work. And yet.

And yet, he is one of the few authors to have TWO regularly published scholarly journals devoted to his works, and his fans have formed a loud and obnoxious cult that rivals Star Trek geekdom. Why? I don’t know. His writing is so poetic, so aesthetic, so otherworldly, that a review of one of his books in a noted British literary periodical took up an entire half page of empty space with the only words printed as: “It’s indescribable.” And that’s fairly true.

One of his biographers (G. Peter Winnington) states that his writing is “synaesthetic,” or that it uses the descriptive vocabulary of one sense to explain feelings encountered in another sense, i.e., “tasting the color blue.” This is also fairly true, but it doesn’t fully explain the darkly sexual tension of a character like Fuchsia in the Titus Groan books, or the bridled frustration of Titus himself, or the misunderstood malevolence of the evil Steerpike. Peake can write about characters as well as do descriptive purple prose.

What Peake does best is create an otherworld, with its own logical rules and rituals, and get you to accept that world. He is a fantasy genre writer that exceeds almost all others in his field. I know you’re waiting for me to say it, so here goes: J.R.R. Tolkien is lame! Lame, do you hear me? Peake can write rings around the Oxbridge scholar!

To prove that, I wanted to quote from the first book of his monumental Gormenghast trilogy (Titus Groan – I, Gormenghast – II, Titus Alone – III). But one quickly realizes that any quote removed from the heart of the text is lifeless; even the smallest amount of words depends on the other words that surround it and so to read just a paragraph is a hollow experience. So I looked at Titus Groan, and found myself reading the first 25 pages in my basement before I remembered why the reading had even started. It is a book, and Peake is an author, that PULLS you into the world.

The Gormenghast trilogy of books is his most famous, and most accessible, work. His artwork (an accomplished painter who had well over 20 solo exhibits in Britain during his life) is even more exemplary, but much harder to find. Some of you who receive the BBC America television channel may have seen the “Gormenghast” TV adaptation which was good in its way (this captured Fuchsia and Steerpike quite well). But TV can never be as lush as the printed word. While it’s nice to see the story acted out by people who love the stories, it’s never quite as good as what you might see in your own mind when reading the books.

Just now, I was about to put my reading copy of Titus Groan away when I chanced upon this passage:

“Who can say how long the eye of the vulture or the lynx requires to grasp the totality of a landscape, or whether in a comprehensive instant the seemingly inexhaustible confusion of detail falls upon their eyes in an ordered and intelligible series of distances and shapes, where the last detail is received in relation to the corporate mass?”

It’s a throwaway line for Peake, but its complexity is an excellent metaphor for reading his works. Sometimes it’s difficult to understand what he’s trying to do because you are overwhelmed with the details, but upon further reading, or even a re-reading, it falls into place like a jigsaw puzzle and the shocking brilliance of the chaotic order is made apparent. He writes down the details, and sometimes you see the whole picture, and sometimes you can only comprehend the little descriptive bits.

Now, I’ll never be able to convince folks who dislike genre literature to try a series of three fantasy novels. But Peake is ill-served by a “fantasy genre” label. That’s more for the likes of Pratchett, Kurtz and Donaldson. Peake is much more in the line of the English nonsense writer: Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, John Lennon. And, like all of those writers, he is much more than just a fantasy tale-teller.

Peake’s artwork is disturbing, grotesque, beautiful, and memorable. He is especially strong with eyes, but bad with arms and limbs unless doing a cartoon. He can show a painting that on the surface makes one think very mundane thoughts, but then a switch will be thrown, and you can see the darkness and horror and isolation beneath. Flip the switch again and the whimsy is back on top. Quite remarkable, really.

And his poetry. Well. That same legion mentioned before of whom I’ve already bent their ears about Peake, will well know I’m not much of a poetry fan. But he has a felicitous turn of phrase even here, as in this touching love poem written to his wife, Maeve:

You walk unaware
Of the slender gazelle
That moves as you move
And is one with the limbs
That you have.

You live unaware
Of the faint, the unearthly
Echo of hooves
That throughout your white streams
Of clear clay that I love

Are in flight as you turn
As you stand, as you move,
As you sleep, for the slender
Gazelle never rests
In your ivory grove.

— (Peake, Shapes and Sounds, 1941)

“Echo of hooves” is a stunning line! Well hell, I’m seduced. Seduce yourselves. Make Mervyn Peake one of your own things that you’ve found. The next time you’re in a bookstore, or the next time you’re browsing online, make the effort and buy a Mervyn Peake book. You’ll probably only be able to find the Gormenghast trilogy but that’s a good one to get. Be patient and let his words and his worlds wash over you. In the literary realm of Jonathan Franzens, Danielle Steeles, and the entire  . . .For Dummies series of books, you owe it to yourself to read an author who could never be published today. His words are simply too beautiful.