Eaten by Owls

Michael Wood

  • Peake’s Progress: Selected Writings and Drawings of Mervyn Peake edited by Maeve Gilmore
    British Library, 576 pp, £25.00, June 2011, ISBN 978 0 7123 5834 7
  • The Illustrated Gormenghast Trilogy by Mervyn Peake
    Vintage, 943 pp, £25.00, June 2011, ISBN 978 0 09 952854 8
  • Titus Awakes by Maeve Gilmore and Mervyn Peake
    Vintage, 288 pp, £7.99, June 2011, ISBN 978 0 09 955276 5
  • Complete Nonsense by Mervyn Peake
    Fyfield, 242 pp, £14.95, July 2011, ISBN 978 1 84777 087 5
  • A Book of Nonsense by Mervyn Peake
    Peter Owen, 87 pp, £9.99, June 2011, ISBN 978 0 7206 1361 2

Mervyn Peake, the son of a medical missionary, was born just over a hundred years ago in Kiang-Hsi Province, China. The family moved back to England when he was 12. He attended the Royal Academy and served in the British army in the first years of the Second World War. He suffered from severe mental illness periodically from that time on, spending various spells in a series of remarkably grim-sounding institutions, and was overtaken by Parkinson’s disease. He died in 1968. He had been a well-known designer and illustrator – his Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass (1946 and 1954) are especially memorable. He was a painter, a poet, a novelist and a playwright too. Peake’s Progress, a reissue of a book first published in 1978, brings together a rich collection of verse, fiction, drawings, theatre; and the Illustrated Gormenghast Trilogy reprints his best-known works, the novels Titus Groan (1946), Gormenghast (1950) and Titus Alone (1959). The three books were apparently not designed as a trilogy, but as early volumes in a longer series. Peake wrote only a few pages of a fourth book, and in the 1970s his widow, Maeve Gilmore, continued it. This work is now published as Titus Awakes. Other centenary publications include a reissue of A Book of Nonsense (1972) and Complete Nonsense, a new volume following on from the Collected Poems of 2008.

One of Peake’s fiercest and most brilliant pieces of writing is his short story ‘Boy in Darkness’, which has the incidental advantage of helping us see what the looming castle-world of the Gormenghast novels is and is not. The story, reprinted in Peake’s Progress, first appeared alongside stories by John Wyndham and William Golding in 1956, in a collection called Sometime, Never. Taken together the three stories read more like fables than fantasy or science fiction, and they glance curiously at the contemporary world they are not directly seeking to imitate. But whereas Wyndham explores genetics and medical experiments in an undated time and Golding takes on inventions in ancient Rome, Peake leads us into a post-human world where half-beasts – a goat and a hyena who used to be men, a lamb whose earlier incarnation is obscure – struggle for power and specialise in pain. What can this story be about, what non-fabulous reality lurks behind it or in its sights?

The Lamb, also known as the Lord of the Mines, is the blind ruler of an underground realm beneath a ruined industrial landscape. ‘There had been a time,’ we read, ‘when these deserted solitudes were alive with hope, excitement and conjecture on how the world was to be changed!’ There were ‘experiments … without precedent’ in the conversion of humans into other animals, which seem to have been carried out without chemicals or surgery. The Lamb ‘gathered … in at will’ a whole variety of ‘supplicants … at differing stages of mutation and dire change’ and ‘willed them to become while they were yet men, beasts’. The repetition of the idea of willing is not casual. A little later Peake writes of ‘the throbbing horror of the will’:

For it was the Lamb’s exquisite pleasure to debase. To work upon and transform in such a way that through terror and vile flattery subtly intertwined, his unwary victims, one by one, ceased to have a will of their own, but began to disintegrate not only morally but palpably … He began to will them into a state in which they longed to do what he wished them to do, and be what he wished them to be. So that by degrees the form and character of the beasts they had somewhat resembled began to strengthen and little signs began to appear, such as a note in the voice that had never been there before, or a way of tossing the head like a stag, or lowering it like a hen when it runs to its food.

The technical term within the story is the creepily bureaucratic ‘readjustment’.

But the Lamb can’t keep his changed creatures alive. The only exceptions are the Goat and the Hyena, unkillable life-forms it seems, and they bring to him a boy they have found wandering in their territory. The Lamb looks forward to working again with ‘nothing less than flesh entirely human’, but the boy is alert enough to baffle his captors, find a sword and kill the ruler. He leaves the mines in the company of the Goat and the Hyena, now described simply as ‘two ancient men’, who go their own way, and he is found by the people who have been looking for him and taken back to his ancestral home.

The Lamb and his experiments recall not only the philosophical and medical preferences of the Third Reich, but a host of 20th-century anxieties about the masses and their relation to the will. The will is both the evil instrument of the ruler – and Peake seems to have thought that England in wartime was as dictatorial a place as anywhere – and the precious capacity for resistance that the fawning victims lose. A similar structure appears in Thomas Mann’s great story ‘Mario and the Magician’, where a hypnotist can impose his will on everyone who has no counter-wish to set against his.

The boy in the story is not named, but is usually assumed to be Titus Groan, because he has run away from a castle that resembles Gormenghast and is the site of much senseless and ancient ritual, of ‘remote ceremonies the meaning of which had long been forgotten’. There is a lot to be said for this assumption, but we should note that it turns Gormenghast into a retreat from pain, a home which has its horrors but is not the realm of the Lamb. It represents an old order that hates change; hasn’t even suspected that change could be anything other than disorder and confusion.

If ‘Boy in Darkness’ is a nightmare version of the historical world – Peake himself was sent by the army to Belsen as an observer and came back with some extraordinary drawings, full of fear and hunger, edging towards the grotesque – the Gormenghast novels portray a nightmare version of a refuge from that world: ancient, tottering, extensive, extravagant. What’s astonishing is how enticing this nightmare is: not comfortable or friendly, but complete, insidious, resistant both to mere ordinariness and extreme terror. Smiles, for example, become signs of alienation, systems of meaning gone wrong, cartoonish and eerie at the same time. We can’t take our eyes off them. When the Earl of Gormenghast displays ‘a slithery smile’ to his daughter, it is a mark of insanity. And when the castle’s vast cook, Swelter, is amused, ‘billows of flesh’ run across his face, leaving between his cheeks ‘a gaping segment like a slice cut from a melon’. ‘It was horrible. It was as though nature had lost control. As though the smile, as a concept, as a manifestation of pleasure, had been a mistake.’ We might say that Peake has adapted aspects of Dickens and Lewis Carroll – scary writers we have mysteriously made charming – and pursued them with steady seriousness and at length, so that caricature and nonsense come to set the terms of our understanding. They are the works’ standards of internal reality, and indeed the weaker moments in the Gormenghast novels occur when there is a slippage towards ordinary plausibility.

The castle, with its battlements and acres of ill-assorted buildings, its high windows and steep drops into distant courtyards, is a playground for the imagination, a place somewhere between Kafka and Disney. The characters are all locked in their own lovingly elaborated eccentricity: the Earl, Titus’s father, driven mad by the burning of his library; the Countess, Titus’s mother, haughtily adrift among her flocks of birds and her carpet of cats; the Earl’s dim, murderous twin sisters; the mincing and loquacious castle physician, Dr Prunesquallor, and his infinitely vain sister, Irma; the Earl’s dour and loyal manservant, Flay; and Titus’s older sister, Fuchsia, a sort of Art Nouveau wild child. Titus himself is largely absent from the first volume, since he gets born at the beginning and is only a year old at the end, although he does manage to commit a couple of acts of ‘blasphemy’, foreshadowings of his later bid for freedom. When he is folded into a vast ancient volume at his christening, the book tilts and the baby tears the page. A year later, given a set of ceremonial objects to hold as he is formally declared 77th Earl of Gormenghast – his father has been eaten by owls – he chucks them into the lake.

It is in this world that we meet Steerpike, the eerily interesting, red-eyed villain of the story. He is a boy who escapes from the kitchen and seeks to make himself master of the castle by stealth and guile, a social climber who also climbs all over the material castle, bringing a figure of speech to literal life in a way that marks Peake’s art. In a French novel he would be the young man from the provinces, an avatar of Stendhal’s Julien Sorel. He is a wonderful fictional creation because Peake’s strong sense of Steerpike’s evil and the damage he does – by the end of the second novel he has killed six people – is quite at odds with the loving attention he lavishes on the character. Steerpike – the name glances at Dickens’s Steerforth – is a model of the unfeeling, intelligent person. He has, among many other qualities, ‘an unusual gift. It was to understand a subject without appreciating it.’ Similarly, he plays music brilliantly but without emotion. He doesn’t grasp, but seeks to undo ‘the ancientry of the tenets that bound the anatomy of the place together’. The most eloquent tribute to him is that Fuchsia, the wild child, almost falls in love with him and when she discovers the extent of his criminal career, considers suicide out of despair at her folly. While she is considering, standing on a ledge, she is surprised by a knock at the door and falls to her death. In the second novel, Titus, now a little older, is able to play the hero by killing Steerpike, thus ridding the castle of the modernist, volitionist threat he represents. But Titus doesn’t care about the castle: he hates Steerpike for other reasons, most cogently, although Peake doesn’t put it in these terms, because Steerpike’s rebellion against the place assumes the form of wanting to take it over, while Titus’s wish to escape represents a refusal of the whole idea of the castle’s order.

Peake told his friend Gordon Smith that reading Virginia Woolf’s Common Reader had made him ‘enormously dejected (in the right sort of way, I think) over Titus Groan’.

I feel that what I’m ‘after’ has to a large extent been forgotten while I wrote. What was I after anyway? I suppose, to create a world of my own in which those who belong to it and move in it come to life and never step outside into either this world of bus queues, ration-books, or even the upper Ganges – into another imaginative world.

Some of his characters now seem to him ‘intolerably sentimental’, another seems ‘wordy, to the verge of tears’. And: ‘It gets too sane in the middle of the book.’ Peake was right to worry about his work getting ‘too sane’, but he staved off the danger. The opposite of sanity was improbable adventure; and nonsense was an escape both into and out of meaning.

We inhabit Gormenghast the way we live in certain kinds of daydream or sustained fiction, like the stories we used to tell ourselves about the ceiling or the wallpaper when we were children. China Miéville suggests in his introduction to this reprint of the Gormenghast books that reading them ‘can be like the moment the friend we greet turns and is not our friend at all, but an only vaguely similar stranger’. Conversely in the novel Gormenghast itself a group of characters stray into an area that is ‘new to them, although unquestionably of the very stuff of their memories … They had never been there before, yet it was not alien – it was all Gormenghast.’ The uncanny plays both ways. We think we know it and we know we don’t. It sustains its weird intimacy with us in each case.

The pathos in the Gormenghast novels, and in Maeve Gilmore’s continuation, is that there is nowhere else to go. If Titus leaves at the end of the second book, he returns at the end of the third. It’s true that he comes back only to confirm that he has ‘no longer any need for home, for he carried his Gormenghast within him’, and Gilmore picks up this thought by having her hero – after various rather desultory adventures with army deserters, an affair with a woman painter and a stint as an orderly in a mental hospital, where he meets and is captivated by a patient who much resembles Mervyn Peake – return at the end of Titus Awakes to the words his mother used when he first left Gormenghast: ‘There’s not a road, not a track, but it will lead you home.’ Brian Sibley, introducing this book, suggests that home now ‘is not the crumbling, time-eaten towers and turrets of Gormenghast but the mind and heart of the man who built it in his imagination’. There are three quite different sorts of home on offer here. What the Countess means is that Titus will carry Gormenghast with him everywhere and that there is therefore nowhere else: ‘For everything comes to Gormenghast.’ What Titus means – apparently but not really the same thing – is that he has all the Gormenghast he needs in his head. And what Sibley, and perhaps Gilmore, suggest is that Gormenghast is more generally the mind’s home, a figure for any habitation the psyche has built and can live in. My sense is that all three readings are right, but of course every mind builds its own home, and Peake’s mind settled specifically on Gormenghast: a place of rigid, intricate ritual, of repetition and tradition, that can’t be forgotten and can’t be loved; whose eccentricity is endlessly fascinating but will never look like freedom.

Not only that, but a childhood in Gormenghast will render a person incapable of distinguishing freedom from anarchy. This is precisely what Gilmore catches so well in Titus Awakes. The hero’s life is ‘shapeless’ when he is out of Gormenghast: ‘Hitherto events had happened because he had not cared enough to avoid them.’ He finally decides he cares enough to try to change this and takes off for an island where he finds the man who resembles Peake. But isn’t this just another evasion, another submission to chance or authority? This is what Gilmore suggests: ‘The harsh voice of command must sound the same in any language, and the regimentation of men to whatever creed or philosophy, as demeaning to the individual spirit.’ The Gormenghast novels recognise no middle ground between being lost and being trapped, between regimentation and disorder, and speak therefore to all those moods where we can’t find that ground ourselves.

In his introduction to Complete Nonsense, R.W. Maslen, who is also the editor of Peake’s Collected Poems, says that ‘nonsense verse is the poetry of Gormenghast’ and that ‘it’s as if Gormenghast were the one space in which Peake’s works could be wholly at home.’ This is an ambiguous compliment, but it does point to the mental energies that lost or trapped people may find for themselves. Nonsense, Peake said, ‘is not the opposite of good sense … It’s something quite apart – and isn’t the opposite of anything.’ Whenever poems and songs appear in the Gormenghast novels, which is often, they are invariably of the kind classified as nonsense, ‘an arrangement of words on the page’, as Maslen says, ‘without regard to meaning but with careful regard to grammar, form, sound and rhythm’. Not quite without regard to meaning, perhaps, but with a dissident or unruly regard, a sense that meanings are there to be overturned or scrambled.

The jailer and the jaguar, for example, in the poem of that name, are linked by alliteration rather than sense, and what happens to them is governed almost exclusively by rhyme, but their shared fate arises from something else, a surprising suggestion that they are not interesting enough:

They search for Warmth and Clothes to Mend
But mostly for their Wives,
Who left them long ago to lend
More Colour to their Lives.

And in the sorrowful poem ‘Come, Sit Beside Me Dear, He Said’, a friendly fellow, ‘a most ambrosial man’, as he calls himself, invites a woman to tell him her troubles. She does, but realises as she does so that she should have looked sooner ‘to see/The kind of face he had’. ‘He had a tiger’s face,’ and behaves like a tiger. ‘Never listen first, then look,’ the speaker of the poem says, ‘But always look, then listen.’

As you have guessed, that gentleman
Has thrived on my nutrition.
He’s eaten me, and I am dead,
But do remember what I’ve said:
A gentle voice may be misplaced
With a gross disposition.

The advice seems too simple to be serious. We can’t learn from her error, but there’s damage done, and ‘He’s eaten me, and I am dead’ is inspired nonsense. It has us searching for oblique sense: what has happened to her, and what might these figures mean in a literal world?

This question is openly addressed in the poem ‘It Worries Me to Know’. Again a man is ostensibly trying to comfort or help a woman, but is far too patronising, and makes the mistake of using a violent figure of speech: ‘Your hand has blood upon it too.’ ‘I’ve always hated them’, the woman says, ‘Those Figures, sir, of Speech.’

I’ve known them all, and exorcised
As many as I could
  … and for a time
The Figures let me be.
Their Speech was all about a crime
I did when I was three.
And now you’ve let them loose once more.

All she has left, she says, is poetry, a mixed blessing. The poem comes from the Peake archive in the British Library, and although it doesn’t appear in any novel it mentions Gormenghast in the last line. This would be another way of thinking about what Peake calls a world: a literary place where figures of speech keep coming to life, and will not leave you alone.

Complete Nonsense, like Peake’s Progress, reproduces a series of funny drawings actually called Figures of Speech. They’re very inventive, and the phrase the pictures illustrate isn’t always easy to get even when you’ve looked it up more than once. A man plays the flute, his feet tapping against the music: this is ‘Toeing the line’. Another stares sorrowfully at what seems to be a puppet at the end of his arm: ‘His right-hand man’. A humanoid sea creature surfaces cheerfully from the water, his arms wrapped around himself: ‘Coming up to scratch’. The drawings show not only how strange these idioms can look when literalised but how easy it is to animate seemingly random pieces of language and keep them animated. The ordinary, practical meanings of the phrases seem inert and pointless, and nonsense steals the scene, eclipsing for a moment the sanities and insanities of home.