Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret
among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture Marly Youmans is a novelist and poet out of sync with the times
but in tune with the ages. --First Things

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Stray thoughts on Mervyn Peake

To go down one's own proper path in words or images is sometimes to forego wide popularity and warm acceptance, and one must be very determined not to be swayed by the desires and would-be directions of other people. If this is one's call, well, one must tread that weird, singular path or else make a botch of what one is given to do. Yet it was hard for artist and writer Mervyn Peake to have little reward--to have children and be uncertain of how to feed and clothe them.

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He did not let go of his strange, unconventional muse but followed her over hollow lands and hilly lands, even though it caused him sorrow--he gave the gift but clearly often felt that it was not received. Then he died in 1968 of a rare degenerative neurological and psychiatric disease. It's hard not to think that the mad figures of Gormenghast were a kind of prefiguring of his own early degeneration. I have seen what it is like to be with someone dying by inches of such a thing--my father died of a dreadful neurological disease--and the pain of slow slippage, the ability to interact and to do the work one is meant to do draining away into nothingness.

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My mother gave me the books when I was in high school . . . But it wasn't until I was nineteen that I discovered more of Peake's illustrations and fell in love with the marvelous Alice drawings. It wasn't so easy, back then, to see the scope of an artist's work.

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In the BBC Bookmark film, it's recounted that he once sat on the bed of a dying girl, drawing her face and abruptly feeling astonished at his own ability to do so, to bear it, to be calm in the face of what he was seeing and doing . . . Hasn't every writer or artist felt the same, that the curious, examining, describing part of the brain was guilty of looking at people in a wrong, blameworthy way? And yet his imagination could never get over that visit to Bergen-Belsen, could never forget what his eyes saw.

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He became ill; he saw the end of all his dreams, and his work had not become beloved--as it would be shortly after his death. It's as sad as any story of a Melville or a Bruno Schulz. Today he is an artist and writer treasured for his singular way of seeing and making, but the change and popularity came too late for him to have its sweet reward. He left us such magical gifts. When in the world's madhouses and still able to know himself, he ended his longing, loving letters home to artist Maeve Gilmore and their three children with "God bless you all."

12 comments:

  1. I read a biography of Peake a year or two ago -- actually the second, because I read his wife's biography a long time ago. Such an intensely lived life. "You could go farther and do worse" --

    His writing had a profound impact on me, at a tender age. I must have read the Gormenghast trilogy when I was fourteen or fifteen, and I found it deeply disturbing, deeply exciting. It strikes me as a sad book, now, haunted by trauma of its time, full of guilt and anxiety. But it's not one I will ever be able to view impartially.

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  2. No, I feel just the same about his impact, only I also think his drawings were a force that meant something to me--part of what formed me. I was utterly fascinated by the Alice drawings in particular when I discovered them in England when I was 19 or 20 ( and the Alice books had been my favorites when I was tiny.) I remember that I bought a book that was entirely Alice illustrations by many artists at the British Museum, and that his made all the others seem feeble or slick, even though they were quite good, really.

    I suppose we were the first wave of people to read the books after his death, when they became so enormously popular.

    Glad he was productive so young, or we might have missed him entirely...

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  3. Re reading it and its immediate effect, much as Dale has described it, although my intro to his work was earlier. One of the teachers at my little progressive school was a friend of his and had original drawings on his walls.

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  4. How utterly marvelous! What lucky, lucky children!

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  5. My, he sounds like quite the artist and writer! How come I've not heard of him??? I've been poking about the net reading more about him and found lots to look at. Shall check the library....

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  6. Oh, Marja-Leena, you will be very interested! He is a wonderful writer and artist, tinged with darkness and sorrow but beautiful.

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  7. I read everything the Ballantine fantasy series was issuing in those days. God, what brilliant choices they made! Eddison, the King of Elfland's Daughter -- all kinds of wonderful stuff, and this back when the genre was supposedly poison. (*Adult* fantasy? Who'd buy that?)

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  8. Oh, I had a lot of those Ballantine books too--my mother, who was very strict about what I read (librarian!) found those things to be just fine. I think George MacDonald was my gateway to literary fantasy.

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  9. My introduction to Peake was a theater production of Gormenghast in London in 1992. I was mesmerized by the grotesque cook cleavering away in his red-lit kitchen, the tick-tock steps of the cadaverous Flay, the cries of 'Steerpike', Lady Gertrude's cats a tangle of stiff white wire preceding her into the room. The production was equal parts kabuki, puppetry, and wizardly. It knocked my 17-year-old socks off.

    I've since read Titus Groan. Now you've made me curious about the illustrations.

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  10. Alisa,

    You can go to mervynpeake.org and see the range of his work--not complete, of course, but it gives you a taste and will show illustrations, charcoal and pencil drawings, and paintings.

    Well worth perusing! I've often felt that my writing is as much influenced by the visual arts (and I don't mean simply that it is "visual") as by writing.

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  11. Over at John Coulthart's marvellous 'feuilleton' there's a link to a Peake documentary that you should investigate:

    http://www.johncoulthart.com/feuilleton/2013/11/27/bookmark-mervyn-peake/

    Love
    C H-J

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  12. Oh, I watched it when he posted on twitter. It's very interesting for how it brings together Gormenghast and his Chinese childhood and Gormenghast and Sark.

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Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.