Hanging in the National Portrait Gallery, dated 1932, there is an oil painting of a young man with a distinctive shock of thick black hair, which seems to stand upright and undulate at the same time, like seaweed growing from the ocean bed. Surrounded by a dark, mysterious landscape of midnight blue skies and ominous mountains, he is wide-eyed, startled, leaning back fearfully from our gaze, his neat pencil moustache an almost comic contrast to his obvious eccentricity.
The subject and the painter of the portrait are the same man: Mervyn Peake. When he created this arresting self-portrait, he was twenty-one years old.
Those who have read Peake’s work might not be surprised by his own bizarre vision of himself. His most famous novels, Titus Groan and its sequel Gormenghast, could only ever been the work of the man in that portrait. Dream-like and melancholy, often sinister and full of bizarre characters – yet with a strong thread of humour running through them – the Gormenghast novels were ahead of their time when they were published in the 1940s. Frankly, they still are.
I remember the first time I picked up a copy of Titus Groan. I was the same age as Peake in that remarkable painting. Studying English at university, I was trying to kill time between lectures, wandering through the weekly market that took place in the Student Union hall. At the back of the room, flanked by clothing stalls and poster sellers, there were six trestle tables loaded with second-hand books.
I’d never heard of Mervyn Peake (and yes, I did say I was studying English, so yes, my ignorance was a disgrace), but the book’s title snatched at my attention. Titus Groan. An odd, Gothic-comic name, it seemed at odds with the appearance of the book itself, which was one of those utilitarian mid-60s Penguins with the washed-out sea-green spines. Reading the blurb on the back, I was confused: this sounded like recent fantasy novel to me, about a child trapped in a huge castle about to be brought down by a plotting usurper.
And yet it had first been published in the 1946, even pre-dating Lord Of The Rings. And it was a Penguin Classic. With a foreword by Anthony Burgess.
I took the book home, and read it over two days, lying on a blanket in the tiny, overgrown garden of the musty Victorian student townhouse I was living in, surrounded by foot-high grass while the bees buzzed in the sprawling lavender bushes. Two chapters in I realised I was reading the work of a truly remarkable man. The moment I finished it, I got up and walked straight into town, without a break, to buy the remaining books in the trilogy, Gormenghast and Titus Alone.
Titus, the heir to Gormenghast, is unloved and ‘suckled on shadows’ in a huge castle – so huge, in fact, that it’s more like a city state, housing many thousands of people. At the top, there are the Groans themselves – Titus’ father, Lord Sepulchrave, melancholy and exhausted and ultimately pecked to death by owls; his freakishly obese, cat-obsessed wife; artless Fuchsia Groan, considered a spare part due to her gender; Sepulchrave’s dangerously bitter twin sisters. At the bottom are the ‘grey scrubbers’, a faceless army of kitchen workers who slave ceaselessly under the supervision of Swelter, a massive, cleaver-wielding chef. And then there’s Flay, the tall, thin butler whose knees click as he walks and with whom Swelter is engaged in a long and violent feud; there’s Barquentine, a hobbling, dwarf-like bureaucrat. There’s Steerpike, the Machiavellian psychopath intent on bringing down the Groans by any means necessary, and – well, there are many more, but it’s enough to say that cast of the Gormenghast trilogy is a grotesque one, and the things that happen to them are sometimes absurd, sometimes tragic, sometimes cruel, often all three.
Multiple plot-threads snake through this languorous, sometimes surreal trilogy, and yet somehow there are also long stretches in which nothing seems to happen, and we’re simply left to wander, lost in Peake’s baroque prose. Even more strangely, this doesn’t seem to matter.
Although generally considered a fantasy trilogy, there is no magic in Gormenghast, no elves, no talking animals – just a vast, complicated, hierarchical society, bogged down in pointless, archaic rituals which must be torturously adhered to on a daily basis. (I find it impossible to watch the State Opening of Parliament without thinking of Gormenghast.) As an added bonus, the novels are richly illustrated with the author’s own distinctive pen-and-ink drawings, bringing the characters into an even more vivid life.
Mervyn Peake, the man who created this peculiar, beautiful and often frightening world, was born in 1911 in China, the son of missionaries. Until 1922, when the Peakes left China, he lived entirely in the enclosed compound that housed the hospital run by his father. Peake spoke of his world at this time consisting solely of everything within those stone walls, “and on the other side of the wall was China”. This must surely have partly inspired Gormenghast, whose walls Titus becomes obsessed with scaling to escape – and of course, Peake later learned of equally closed-in imperial palaces in which the emperors lived bound by protocol and ceremony, never alone yet always lonely.
Having forged career as a painter during the 1930s, Peake applied to become a war artist at the outbreak of World War II. Producing a series of horrific paintings with bland titles such as ‘Still Life’ and ‘Family Group’, Peake envisaged them as a propaganda leaflet, presented in the form of a mock catalogue for exhibition of imagined art by Hitler: the ‘Still Life’ shows a group of terrified, starving people in a war-ravaged city; others show victims of torture and rape. The very concept is a fine example of Peake’s imaginative genius, and viewed today, the paintings themselves are eerily prophetic in comparison to photographs taken subsequently. Although the Ministry of Information bought the artwork, they decided they were too dark even for their intended purpose; Peake’s application to be a war artist was rejected and he was conscripted into the Army.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Bohemian, sensitive Peake proved unsuited to military life, and suffered a severe nervous breakdown that saw him invalided out of the Army and sent to a psychiatric hospital. The Ministry of Information employed him as a graphic artist for a time and finally, in 1945, sent him to France and Germany as a commissioned war artist to depict the aftermath of the conflict.
One might question the wisdom of sending a man of fragile mental health to sketch the dying inmates of Belsen, and some believe Peake never fully recovered from the experience. He poured out his anguish in a series of poems questioning the morality of turning suffering into art, and his drawings, many of which depict the Nazis’ victims literally dying before his eyes, are among the most bleak, haunting and desperate images of the war.
Peake’s post-war years were spent with his wife and children on Sark – a peculiarly feudal, isolated, Channel Island with its own legal system, presided over by a ‘seigneur’ who, until 2008, was the only person on the island with the right to keep pigeons and unspayed dogs. It’s hard to imagine that this insular, archaically-legislated location wasn’t another influence on Gormenghast, although it was his non-Gormenghast novel, Mr Pye, which Peake actually chose to set on the island.
During and after World War II, Peake produced memorable illustrations for classics such as The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner, Alice In Wonderland, Treasure Island and Bleak House. Never have familiar characters been rendered so vividly, with such unsettlingly apparent lives of their own. Long John Silver’s repressed violence simmers threateningly on the page. The haggard, emaciated Mariner stares wild-eyed, seemingly overtaken by his extravagantly overgrown beard. Jo, Bleak House’s child road-sweeper, is a wretched, fearful creature, wizened by cruelty and hardship.
Peake’s last Gormenghast novel, Titus Alone, has been criticised for being barely a shadow of its predecessors, disconnected and awkward in structure and tone. By the time Peake had started writing Titus Alone, he was suffering not only from the after-effects of his wartime mental illness, but also from the debilitating physical symptoms and associated dementia of Parkinson’s disease. Knowing this makes Titus Alone an even more uncomfortable read: having escaped from Gormenghast at last, Titus wanders through a dystopian, industrial modernist wasteland, meeting cruel, destructive people. Titus’ fear that he is insane and that Gormenghast never existed in the first place is almost painful when the reader knows of Peake’s own mental state at the time.
It’s my opinion that Titus Alone is underrated, and stands in isolation as an impressive piece of work in its own right, but it’s certainly fair to say that it’s not cut from the same cloth as the two previous Gormenghast novels, and Peake was unable to write, or draw, again. He died, in a nursing home, in 1968.
Were he still alive, Mervyn Peake would be just over 100. Fortunately, his work is celebrated by literary critics, art enthusiasts and fantasy fans alike to this day – more so now, in fact, than during his relatively short life. I sometimes try to picture a centenarian Peake, with white Einstein hair, perhaps, still wielding his pen to build his dark, hallucinatory worlds through words and pictures. But I find I prefer to remember the young man in the painting in the National Portrait Gallery instead: an eccentric, humorous outsider, with a brilliant mind still untouched by the horrors of war.
The Substantive Columnist Mel Gomes’ e-book ‘Glory Nights: From Wankdorf to Wembley’ is now available to download from Amazon and Smashwords. New, independent writing on popular culture, it is being backed by The Substantive.