Wednesday, January 07, 2009

"To live at all is miracle enough"

Like many folks, I discovered Mervyn Peake as a result of reading Lord of the Rings. Not, of course, that Peake's writing in any way resembles Tolkein's. It was simply that in 1969 there was little in the way of 'follow-on' literature once LOTR had hooked you into literature fantastical.

I'm not sure I even liked the Gormenghast stuff when I first read it - the baroque grotesqueries of Peake's world weren't really my cup of tea. But it was fashionable to be enamoured and so I claimed to be, following up on the 'trilogy' with the (infinitely poorer) Mr Pye and the nonsense poems Rhymes Without Reason. And gradually, what had begun as a mild flirtation turned into something a bit more serious. I read his wife Maeve's biography A World Away and learned that he was as much of an artist and illustrator as he was a novelist and poet (if not more so). So I searched out collections of his drawings and copies of stuff he'd illustrated and it was the art, rather than the writing, that I came to love. One particular drawing summed up for me the utter genius of Mervyn Peake; it's a drawing of Maeve's head in profile, lightly sketched in pencil in a way that is both spare and intricate, a kind of delicate, whispered drawing that still takes my breath away every time I look at it. I've tried to find the picture on tinternet but with no luck, so you'll just have to take my word that it is a thing of wonder.

I loved his book illustrations too (there is no better Treasure Island or Alice in Wonderland in my opinion) and bought what I could, both new and secondhand. I've ended up with quite a reasonable collection of Peake-abilia, some of which I've pored over, some I've barely opened. As with many of my fancies, this one came and went - I no longer seek out the published works, avidly read every biography and newspaper or magazine retrospective, or trek off to exhibitions. But, like all old loves, Mervyn Peake has a place still in my heart. Which is why, on our recent trip to Sussex, Husband and I went to visit his grave in Burpham churchyard:

From Burpham Church and Mervyn Peake's Gravestone

The encounter made me a bit sad, as much for the loss of the person I was when I was a 'fan' as for any other reason. Which is also the way of old loves, I think, to remind us of past selves who were younger, brighter, more enthusiastic, more passionate, but also more confused, less self-assured, less confident of our tastes and affiliations. I don't really miss that old me - I really like what the intervening years have wrought of me. And I honour the small but important part Mervyn Peake plays in that continuing process.

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