Peake performance

The fantastic, baroque imagination of Mervyn Peake expressed itself in prose and painting, in poetry and illustration. Michael Moorcock introduces a new book and exhibition of his work
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The Independent Culture

People who didn't know him very well used to say Mervyn Peake's books were so darkly complex that writing them had sent him mad. Others who knew him a little better understood how cleverly Peake formalized 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.'

Anthony Burgess thought the English mistrusted Peake for being too talented. He was a first-class illustrator (at one time 'the most fashionable in England', according to Quentin Crisp), 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 . . . [Titus Groan] remains essentially a work of the closed imagination, in which a world parallel to our own is presented in almost paranoiac 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, is full of stories of 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 Corner House, a trip on a tram, and she was his for ever.

He was conscripted in the Second World War, was in London a great deal during the Blitz and witnessed the horrors of Belsen soon after it was liberated, 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 institutionalized 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 is 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 had made earlier efforts to persuade someone to reprint it, but as usual were told there was no readership for the books. Oliver wouldn't give up hope.

Peake spoke of his artistic experiments as 'the smashing of another window pane'. He wasn't looking for reassurance. He was looking for truth. 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), Peake told 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. He was closer to the best Zola than any of the generic tosh which was published in the 1970s.

In his introduction to the first 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 was a sunny, buoyant 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. Although 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; 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 diseases were understood - 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 istinctive 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 such as Edwin Mullins tried to write about Peake, editors would turn the idea down. I had only modest success, mostly in low-circulation literary magazines and fanzines. The story, even then, was that Peake had lost his mind through the strain of writing such dark books. All the fictional madness he had created had caught up with him. That story was 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, did indeed contain 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 realized 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, with whole characters and scenes cut.

Jones worked on Titus Alone for over a year, and when he had finished we suggested to the original publishers that they should reissue the book with the new version of the text. Not only did they not want to publish any of the books; they were anxious to hide the fact that the last one had been so badly butchered. They became distinctly negative about the whole endeavour. I proposed to Maeve that we begin the process of buying back the rights. Meanwhile Mervyn became increasingly unwell.

One day Oliver Caldecott said mysteriously that he was hoping to get a new job that might make things a bit easier. And then he phoned to tell me, with considerable glee, that he was now 'the guy who picks the Penguins'. Of course, our first action must be to sort out the Gormenghast books and decide how to get them back into print.

Eventually the production was taken over by Oliver, whose idea it was to illustrate all three novels with drawings from Mervyn's own notebooks. The text of Titus Alone was restored. Anthony Burgess gladly contributed an introduction to Titus Groan, which he believed to be a masterpiece, and Oliver brought the three volumes out as Penguin Modern Classics in 1967. It was the perfect way to publish the books, boldly, enthusiastically and unapologetically, in the best possible editions Mervyn could have.

Next, Maeve was persuaded to write her wonderful memoir of Mervyn, A World Away. And BBC's Monitor series began production of its rather gothic television programme on Peake. He was getting a new, appreciative public. Too late, unfortunately, for him to realize it. I remember going with Maeve to the Priory at Roehampton to take him some of the publicity for the new editions, to show him that his books were to be republished and what they would look like. He nodded blankly, mumbled something and lowered his eyes. It was almost as if he could not himself bear the irony.

The rest is more or less history. A history spotted with bad media features about Mervyn that 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 a 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 realizing 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 had met my first authentic genius.

In time, of course, many others have come to share that view, until eventually nearly all Peake's work is back in print, new editions of his stories and poems have been produced, public exhibitions have presented his drawings and paintings, and various dramatic versions of his novels have been produced, all the way from the lavish adaptation by the BBC in 2000 to the extraordinary minimalist version of Gormenghast by David Glass, not forgetting the Derek Jacobi television version of the charming short novel Mr Pye.

Peake had a huge, romantic imagination, a Welsh eloquence and a wry, affectionate wit. 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 postmodernists and the magic realists. His statements frequently anticipated the likes of Salman Rushdie. He influenced a generation of authors, among them Angela Carter, Peter Ackroyd and the two Iains, Sinclair and Banks, who found that it was possible to write imaginatively and inventively about character and real experience while setting their stories in subtly unfamiliar worlds.

Peake's own attitude is best summed up by a poem that 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 ultimately sorcery.' He infused life and art into everything he touched. And his sorceries continue to entrance us.

This is the abridged introduction to Mervyn Peake: The Man and His Art compiled by Sebastian Peake and Alison Eldred, edited by Peter Winnington (Peter Owen, £35). To mark its publication, there is a selling exhibition of over a hundred works by Peake at the Chris Beetles Gallery, 8 & 10 Ryder St, London SW1 (020 7839 7551; from 4 to 28 October. Peter Winnington's The Voice of the Heart: The Working of Mervyn Peake's Imagination is also being published this week by Liverpool University Press (hardback £50, paperback £18.50)