Possessed by Peake
Slightly Foxed, Winter 2006
Giving the right book to the right person at the right time can be magical, though one should always be wary of the possible consequences. Ambitious young boys, good at chess and board games such as Risk and Monopoly will devour classic studies of power like Machiavelli's The Prince, Thucydides The Peloponesian War and Orwell's 1984. When they have grown beards and an interest in hallucinogens and Celtic mysticsm, they will be equally grateful to the hand that fed them Graves's The White Goddess and Huxley's The Doors of Perception. Anything by Salinger will enhance your standing in the eyes of a 15-year-old niece, while I know a father who discreetly cautioned his daughter by providing her with a trousseau of Benjamin Constant's Adolphe, Maurice Baring's Cats Cradle and Laclos's Les Liaisons Dangereuses for her honeymoon. These three studies of the shifting nature of male desire might have constituted literary over-kill, though the marriage in question has triumphed. For someone attempting to cope with the death of a partner, the gift of either Laurence Whistler's Laughter & the Urn or Kavanagh's The Perfect Stranger, should powerfully reinforce the sentiments of a well-constructed letter of condolence. For a young adult setting off into the world, leaving behind either college or close-knit community, I would instinctively choose Mervyn Peake. Not any Peake; it has to be Titus Groan and Gormenghast without the so-called third volume of the trilogy. For Titus Alone is one of the most pronounced examples of a failed sequence; a disconnected series of passionless adventures that leaves one longing for a glimpse of the acutely drawn cast of characters and the haunting eloquence of his architectural creations that suffuse the first two books. I have diligently collected his other works but they are only of interest for their accompanying illustrations.
I first became aware of Mervyn Peake through the covers of a Penguin paperback. It had nothing to do with those late 20th-century crafts of niche-marketing and brand-packaging, but because Penguin used Peakes own drawings of his invented characters on the covers. I was familiar with the thick lips of the heroine Fuchsia and the cadaverous, high-brow of the anti-hero Steerpike years before I read so much as a line. They have power. Peake was an artist and only took to writing after the war; possibly a deliberate personal reaction to the task of trying to record the horrors of Belsen concentration camp as a war artist. But he could never shed this experience and in the end it helped to destroy the already delicate balance of his mind. In his possession of equal talents as both an artist and writer, he can only be compared to two other British geniuses - Wyndham Lewis and Michael Ayrton. Though their personalities were very different from Mervyn Peake's there is a curious but striking affinity in their etchings and drawings. All share the same sharpness of line, the physical energy and sense of suppressed fury. It would be good to gather up their work in a joint exhibition, though arguably private discovery within the pages of a book best suits their talents.
I must also confess that I had at first only noticed Mervyn Peake's books because they were being held in the hands of a boy called Pink. Amongst the many hundred of clever and competitive boys at Charterhouse he and I were the only ones who ever seemed to make use of the library - not for what was in its shelves - but as a shelter from a world otherwise dominated by sports and amplified music. Pink was bright, pale and taciturn, made up new languages and their accompanying grammars for his own amusement and had an intriguing taste in books. (I hope he has survived to become some kindly philologically-inclined don, though I fear that such an original soul may have succumbed to a bad fix in a garret near King's Cross). So when it came to using the book tokens that were handed out as school prizes, I selected what Pink was currently engrossed in, which was Mervyn Peake. A few weeks later I was expelled from my public school having spent a night in a police cell. I toyed with the idea of becoming a White Father in Africa. In this sort of frame of mind, the Peake volumes were put to one side, and were quickly buried amongst the piles which littered the bedroom I shared with my brothers.
My brothers were not the least bit bookish but have turned out in later life to be very successful with money. They were indulgent of my interests and already aware that bibliophiles do not simply stock-pile for next year, but amass books for some perfect moment of imagined need in the future. A spine flattened from years of neglect at the bottom of a tottering pile, will suddenly be plucked and thrown into a bag, at last ripe and ready. Such as reading Bovill's Golden Trade of the Moors when you can breathe the hot winds coming out of the Sahara for yourself. Academic careers and life-long archaeological obsessions are built on such accidental encounters.
In a similar way the two neglected Peake books were suddenly packed into a suitcase on top of a white short-sleeved shirt, a pair of dark trousers and some blue shorts. My father had arranged that I be given a lift in an aircraft carrier that was sailing from Portsmouth dockyard on a naval exercise in the Bay of Biscay, and would be able to deposit me in Gibraltar. I think he was hoping that a period at sea, in the mess of some naval cadets, would attract me towards a career in the Royal Navy. If this was his plan, it failed. But it did turn me into a lifelong devotee of Mervyn Peake.
Living in the bowels of a great aircraft carrier, lodged in a cabin on level 7, proved to be the perfect environment in which to totally submerse myself in the brilliantly imagined world of the castle of Gormenghast. I had no occupation onboard the great aircraft carrier apart from reading, exploring the ship and attending meals. Everywhere around me Peake's fabulous three-dimensional creativity was mirrored in the equally fantastic architecture of a war ship: the bridge looming up like a gothic metal tower hung with gallows and aerials, the empty stone courtyards and arcades of the castle here transmuted into long metal passages, decorated with ladders, hatches and riveted bulk heads which would suddenly blossom into some vast internal hall packed full of fighter planes with bent wings and a hatches of dark helicopters.
The rigid neo-Byzantine heirachy of Gormenghast's ritual-obsessed society dovetailed with that of the Royal Navy, with its ingrained respect for rank and seniority. However charmingly vague they might appear to be when pottering around their gardens in the Meon valley, I was able to observe that at sea a Captain is an absolute monarch, a male queen at the centre of a hive of drones. But there are subtle limits to his powers. Most particularly he is forced to dine alone every evening unless he has been specifically invited into the hospitable buzz of the officers' mess. The turmoil of the kitchens and the perpetual heart-like beat coming from the engine rooms allowed me to walk in my imagination through the cellars of Peake's Gormenghast and to look upon the forms of Swelter and the eighteen grey scrubbers. Through the professional pride of the senior petty officers, you could meet Flay every morning and in the physical confidence of the sailors you could touch upon the society of the Bright Carvers. In between my obsessive reading, I saw elements of Titus and Steerpike, hero and antihero, in the cabin mirror.
Titus is the child heir to the vast massing stone of Gormenghast castle. He is seventy-seventh in line to be the Lord of this rich and complex society though he is also trapped in the complex daily round of rituals and obligations that are controlled by his servants, especially that of Sourdust, Master of Ritual. Titus is loved but also totally neglected by his mother, Getrude the Countess of Groan, who has visited him on just seven occasions within the first seven years of life. In his adventures to defeat the usurpation of Steerpike Titus will be helped by Flay his dead fathers loyal manservant, by his own devoted foster-mother and by the vain but clever doctor Prunesquallor.
Steerpike is the young servant boy who has advanced out of hellish servitude in the castle kitchens (ruled over by a gross and tyrannous cook) to scale his way up through the ossified ranks of society of Gormenghast by his own quick wit, intelligence and merciless ambition. To my mind he is a brilliant literary fusion of Iago and Napoleon, men caught up in the innate tragedy of their abilities which must always be further tested until, like a meteor, they at last consume themselves.
Looking in the cabin mirror I was by turns either Titus, a young man tramped by the weight of inherited expectations or Steerpike, a clever self-serving anarchist who was prepared to destroy a whole culture if it proved enough of an adventure and an advantage.
I don't suppose I will ever completely recover from such an intense fusion of life and literature. It did however prove to me that the enclosed world of traditions and rituals of Gormenghast are not to be put to one side as the ultimate 'gothick' fantasy, but can also be considered to be a reasonably accurate reflection of a particular society. In the same way that Claude Levi Strauss used the example of Lewis Carroll's Red Queen to provide a effective summary of the intense social life of one of the Amazonian tribes that he studied - and which he found to be riddled with aristocratic lineages assisted and distracted by equally old dynasties of courtiers, concubines and servants.
Like all members of a cult I get a frisson when the accidents of life fit within the pattern predicted by Peake's Gormenghast. Working as a pony-boy on the West Highland estate of Mrs Douglas, and observing that the windows had been broken to allow birds all year access to the bread and water put out for them in the kitchen made me realise that I had stumbled across one of the atavars of Countess Groan. In Fez last year, I heard from an imposingly tall orientalist scholar of the destruction of her family's library the previous year by fire - which up to then had been the oldest and best collection within Europe to have remained in private hands. But instead of immediately expressing sympathy, all I could think of was that this was a pure piece of Mervyn Peake - so much so that it made me instinctively fear that her brother the Prince might soon feed himself as a sacrifice to the owls.
About fifteen years ago I spent many months travelling around Europe in the company of Major Munthe, helping him to lift dust sheets from darkened drawing rooms, rearrange statues in walled gardens and open up the many secret vaults within the walls of his castle outside Rome and his manor houses in Sweden, Herefordshire and Wimbledon. It was a bizarrely intense reimmersion into a Peake-like world, most especially as each house was populated with a random assortment of lodgers, quarrelling custodians, dog-keepers and the occasional resident poet. There were also family secrets, an obsessive jangle of keys and locks, pet cemeteries and attic hutches for Romolo, the pet owl who travelled within an adapted gladstone bag. Each house had its own season to be open for guided tours and as a holiday refuge for exhausted teachers of history. This allowed Major Malcolm Munthe to establish a whole busy schedule of trans-European train journeys as he closed down one house and then set off to re-open another - the whole thing funded by wads of cash drawn from a numbered account in Zurich. I delighted in his company and he had the good manners to read all my books from cover to cover and to listen as well as talk. We also developed a system of barter; so that the weeks of train travel and help that I gave him in rearranging the houses was paid for not in cash but in 'treats': such as a seat in the front row of a ballet followed by dinner in La Bulestan, or seats in the National Theatre followed by supper in the Café Royale, or a day spent hunting down all the Caravaggio's in Rome under his expert guidance. When I was about to get married he volunteered to give me a stag party until I confessed that I didn't relish bringing by various male friends around one table. He adapted his offer and the numbers steadily increased until so that in the end he gave us a ball complete with dripping chandeliers, vintage Taittinger and vodka-enriched soup.
Major Malcolm Munthe had been a hero in the Second World War, both from his own efforts in escaping from the German army across the mountains of Norway and as the young spy-master who helped organise the first cells of Scandinavian resistance. He was subsequently moved to the Italian front and was blown up by a mortar shell that destroyed his best friend in the confused fighting of the Anzio landings. These experiences may have helped Munthe turn his back on a conventional career and create his own world of historical imagination behind crumbling walls. But there were other causes. Malcolm's father, Axel Munthe had written the first international bestseller of the 20th century, The Story of San Michele. This partial memoir is set around the construction of an isolated hermitage on a hill-summit in Capri and is flavoured by Axel's many identities and experiences: by turns a compulsive womaniser, heroic doctor to the plague-ridden slums of Naples, traveller, bohemian aesthete and a brilliantly successful consultant for neurotic diseases who was much in demand behind the closed walls of many of Europe's royal palaces. Axel Munthe was a very famous, perhaps even a notorious, father to Malcom. He was also very neglectful of his children and his beautiful young English wife, who seems to have been first obsessed and then disgusted by Axel. This parental schism was to be confirmed by the contents of Axel's will which effectively disinherited his two boys in favour of an old mistress and an archaeological institute. This callous act may have encouraged the Last Lord Wharton to his own, for he would disinherit his own wife and family in order to leave his substantial art collection and fortune to his childhood friend, Malcolm Munthe. The fusion of tales that Major Malcolm Munthe created to honour this odd bequest as well as his passionate devotion to his English mother, Hilda Pennington-Mellor, and yet also make sense of his respect for a distant father created houses filled full of mystery, enchantment and illusion.
When, at the confused end of his life, Major Munthe tried to encourage me to become the perpetuator of the annual rituals he had created, and the custodian of the treasures he had inherited, I was forced back to the mirror of my immersion into the world of Mervyn Peake to see whether a Titus 'Suckled on shadows; weaned as it were on webs of ritual ... Heir to a crumbling summit: to a sea of nettles: to an empire of red dust: to ritual footprints ankle-deep in stone' or a Steerpike would prevail.
But there proved to be a third way. Against the emphatic counsel of the one friend we had in common, Malcolm's son Adam and I formed an unlikely friendship in the legal confusion that followed the death of Major Munthe. It has not always been an easy process but last week we had a picnic breakfast together in the garden of one of the manor houses that Adam Munthe now looks after. I reminded him of the time that I had given his son a pair of books to help him on his first travels away from home. It was Mervyn Peake's Titus Groan and Gormenghast wrapped up in a map and tied together by a ribbon. Adam had gone pale at the sight of them, for Peake was the one writer he had been determined to keep out of the hands of his children.
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