The Final Word: Fictional spaces, Death and Literature. Mervyn Peake and the Gormenghast trilogy

Mervyn Peake was often described by his contemporaries as a painter first, a poet second and a novelist last[13]. Edwin Morgan in his essay on the novels of Peake relates his style to Dickens in its direct call for the visual[14], while Henry Tube in the Spectator declares that his prose and its effects could not have been achieved by anyone other than a figurative artist[15]. Peake is hailed as primarily visual in his narrative style. This most striking element in the trilogy is beautifully demonstrated in an episode in chapter fourteen of Gormenghast which describes the now adolescent Titus sitting bored in his classroom[16] as he begins to “follow a train of thought, at first lazily, abstractedly, without undue interest”. Peake then builds up the dream- like sequence of colour and imaginative shapes as images swim, languidly separating themselves “for a moment to the tissue of his mind”. Titus becomes more and more engrossed not simply in these images but in their fusion with his thoughts as they “follow one upon the other so effortlessly”. Just as in the Hall of the Spiders, Peake builds up the transparent layers of narrative colour so sensitively that we are once again put in mind of a great jewelled and fantastic painting:

“And it had been the colour of the ink, the peculiar dark and musty blue of the ink in its sunken bowl in the corner of his desk, which had induced his eyes to wander over the few objects grouped below him. The ink was blue, dark, musty, dirtyish, deep as cruel water at night: what were the other colours? Titus was surprised at the richness, the variety. He had only seen his thumb- marked books as things to read or to avoid reading: as things that got lost: things full of figures or maps. Now he saw them as coloured rectangles of pale, washed- out blue or laurel green, with the small windows cut out of them where, on the naked whiteness of the first page, he had scripted his name.”

It is not only Titus who is struck. The intensity of the written drawing is almost alarming. What is also interesting is that it is the book that Titus is fixated on, which is thought of as both signifier and signified. Not only is the book identified as written text, but also as a kind of canvas onto which colours of blue and green are set against the jarring “naked whiteness” of the page. Here, Peake has begun to force the “Word” into a direct dialogue with the “Image”. The book is described intricately using sophisticated chains of verbal signifiers while also creating an arrestingly visual effect. Just as in the Hall of the Spiders which is conceived in the “effect of a drawing in black, dove – grey and silver ink” the episode is described using a very conscious fusion of both visual and aural signifiers. For Peake, the narrative moment must be imagined, seen, heard and felt on every level possible. It is the synthesis of that is important.

This brings us rather neatly into what for Peake was the related issue of Illustration. It must be remembered that Peake, while profoundly skilled at creating convincing written fiction, was also (as well as being a playwright and poet) an illustrator. He began making a living out of it before and after the war on his graduation from art school, taking commissions for such works as those of Lewis Carroll, Charles Dickens and Alexander Pope. These were quite hard times for Peake who, in his own stylistic preference, often went away from what was artistically prevalent at the time[17]. In an age seeking abstract expressionism and the Avant Garde, Peake remained firmly in academically representational works, often echoing romanticism or deviating into the grotesque. The Gormenghast trilogy exemplifies his idiosyncratic draughtsmanship which sometimes defies classification. The illustration which accompanies Flay’s reverie and preparation for murder for instance, typifies Peake’s play with the narrative experience[18]. It is a striking image which simultaneously echoes and defies the fabric of the text. The description of Flay and his mood is typically convoluted, verbose and hyper sensitive in its detail: “He moved like a stick – insect through the grey star – pricked, summer knight [.....] With every step he became more conscious that he was narrowing the distance between himself and something horrible”[19]. Looking at the actual illustration, however, we find that it is realised in highly expressionist black marks with an almost total absence of detail. The figure of Flay is barely perceptible as a figure at all as the black and white image comes to resemble little more than an ink blot. Yet this is done for a reason. The image, taken in conjunction with the text is altered. Something has happened to both description and picture, with both of them suddenly making a kind of sense which would be lost if either element were abandoned. J.R.R Tolkien once commented on the destructive power of illustration in a narrative text, maintaining that if “a story says ‘he climbed a hill and saw a river in the valley below’ , the illustrator may catch, or nearly catch, his own vision of such a scene; but every hearer of the words will have his own vision of such a scene, and it will be made out of all the hills and rivers and dales he has ever seen…”[20] Tolkien, agreeing with Stephane Mallarme maintained that the words have a kind of performative power, a magic that works on the reader in the evocation of the image. Pictures present whereas words evoke[21].

Perhaps Tolkien did not fully appreciate the special problem posed by the writer who is also his own illustrator. In this way, Mervyn is unique in his own and deeply personal understanding of his text. This sensitivity is not just visited in his own work either. In relation to the great illustrators of the past such as Goya, Durer and Hogarth, Peake reflected on their genius as singular not just in technical skill, but in their ability to feel what they were illustrating: ‘These men had more than a good eye, a good hand, a good brain. These qualities were not enough. Nor irony. All this they must have, but above all things there must be the power to slide into another man’s soul’ ef=”″ name=”_ftnref22″>[22]. Peake proves this not only in his idiosyncratic illustrations for the The Ancient Mariner[23], but most devastatingly in his own translations of the War. Having been sent with a journalist by the Periodical the Leader to Germany to document the liberation of the camps makes a sketch of a young teenage girl in Belsen, dying of tuberculosis[24]. Peake’s drawing of her seems to go beyond simple illustration. She is more then sketched. She has been transferred into the mind of the artist. The girl is barley realised in ink marks with the exception of the enormous black eyes, the only visible part of her face above the bedclothes. The sketch is also accompanied by a poem which almost impossibly highlights the pathos of her last moments :” the tapping of her little cough-jerked head-/ If such can be a painter’s ecstasy,/(Her limbs like pipes, her head a china skull) / Then where is mercy?”[25]

The sensitivity of Peake’s rendering of the Belsen experience is felt every bit as strongly in the trilogy as the episodes are highlighted with an almost frightening intensity. This, I have previously stated is most peculiarly implicit in the treatment of the deaths of nearly all of the principle characters, including Titus’s bizarre twin aunts and his beloved wet nurse. As with the episode of Flay and Swelter, the mortal representations are visited with an extraordinary vision, in the most literal sense of the term. The death of Fuchsia, for instance is literally framed as a painting would be. She is conceived within the frame of her window, which in the early chapters of Titus Groan is compositionally set up :

“Fuchsia was leaning on her window-sill and staring out over the rough roofs below her. Her crimson dress burned with the peculiar red more often found in paintings than in Nature. The window-frame, surrounding not only her but the impalpable dusk behind her, enclosed a masterpiece.”[26]

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