Heir to Gormenghast [SKINNYFest Issue 2]

SF: Sebastian Peake talks about his father's life and work<br/><br/>PQ: Sixty years since Titus Groan was first published, Mervyn Peake remains one of the most original and underappreciated writers and artists of the 20th Century.

Feature by Julian Smith | 14 Aug 2006
Mervyn Peake's most famous novels are set in the massive, crumbling castle of Gormenghast, a world unto itself, separate from our reality, but every bit as varied and expansive. The books are full of horror and wonder, nonsense and whimsy, the magnificent and the grotesque. Peake's books are themselves often described as being completely original and inimitable, isolated from the mainstream literary canon. Sixty years since 'Titus Groan' was first published, Mervyn Peake remains one of the most original and underappreciated writers and artists of the 20th Century.

Sebastian Peake, Mervyn's son, speaks with passion about his father's work: "I think 'Gormenghast' is its own literary tradition. You see, my father was not an enormous reader. Not because he didn't like reading, but because when he wasn't writing he was drawing, and when he wasn't drawing he was composing poetry, and when he wasn't doing that he was having ideas for the theatre. He was an absolutely non-ending artistic fireball, spewing out this white heat of ideas. Inspiration didn't really come from other writers, it was more from painters. He loved Dickens, and 'Don Quixote', and 'Treasure Island', but I think his influences were primarily visual."

Mervyn Peake himself was a prolific painter and illustrator. He illustrated editions of many great literary classics, including 'Alice in Wonderland', 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' and 'Treasure Island'. During the Second World War he worked as a war artist, and painted the dying inmates at the Belsen concentration camp after it was liberated. His novels, too, are intensely visual, full of stunning panoramas from Gormenghast's rooftops and wonderfully detailed descriptions of its characters. Sebastian tells me that the primary visual inspiration for 'Gormenghast' came his father's boyhood in China:

"Most people don't know that the author of 'Gormenghast' spent his first 12 years in China. His principle impressions of life were viewed through China. Arendall Castle is sometimes thought of as being the inspiration for Gormenghast, but actually it was the great road that went out into the Gobe Desert with great stone animals on either side. It was called the Great Spirit Way, and as you walked along it you passed the tombs of all the emperors of the dynasty which culminated in Ci Xi, the last empress of a line of 300 years of the Manchu dynasty."

Titus Groan, the protagonist of the three Gormenghast books, is himself the last of a line of rulers. He is destined to become the 77th Earl of Gormenghast, but instead abdicates and leaves the castle in search of something beyond. Peake had intended to continue the series, but his life was tragically cut short by Parkinson's disease in 1968.

Sebastian is a wine merchant by trade, but he also writes himself, having published a memoir of his childhood and several books of poetry. He is currently at work on a new book about his father, which will include contributions from such admirers as Michael Moorcock, Joanne Harris, Terry Jones and Chris Riddell. I ask him if he has ever considered taking up where his father left off and continuing the Gormenghast series. He just laughs: "Oh no, I couldn't. I couldn't take him on. He's too massive a character. I'm pretty good at selling wine."

But Sebastian is determined to preserve his father's legacy: "My life has been dedicated to sustaining what my mother began in 1983. When he died, she decided that she would do her very best to promote his work. At the nadir of his fortunes, at the beginning of the 1970s, when she had no money, she went with examples of his finest work to the Tate Gallery. They offered her £1,500 for his entire output. She remembered walking back along the embankment with tears streaming down her cheeks. That gross humiliation to one of England's finest writers and artists was something that I would do my absolute best to make up for. When she died, within a month I drove to Warsaw and gave three lectures, and that was the beginning of 23 years of talking about my father."

Since then Peake's reputation has gone from strength to strength. In the early 70s the Gormenghast books were published as Penguin Modern Classics and have never been out of print since. The BBC's millennial production was a television adaptation of 'Gormenghast' and Sebastian says that he could now sell a single one of his father's drawings for £5,000.

"All I'm doing is holding the flag for somebody who doesn't need a flag held for him. And it's done something for me in the sense that I've really believed in something through and through. And as I've become less emotionally entangled from the dirty trick that fate played on him when he contracted Parkinson's disease, I've done my best to make amends. If I've succeeded, that's great. If I haven't, then I think that quite a few hundred people during these last twenty years have got to know a bit more about him."
Sebastian Peake appears at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, ScottishPower Studio Theatre, August 14, 14:00.

'Mervyen Peake: The Man and his Art' will be out September 2006. Published by Peter Owen. Cover Price £29.99