1911 No. 4: Mervyn Peake

Mervyn Peake was born in China in 1911, and educated at Tientsin Grammar School, Eltham College, Kent and the Royal Academy Schools. His first book of poems, Shapes and Sounds, was published in 1941. He also wrote Rhymes Without Reason (1944), Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor (1945), The Craft of the Lead Pencil (1946), Letters from a Lost Uncle (1948), Mr Pye (1953), The Wit to Woo, a play (1957) and The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb (1962). He also illustrated several classics, notably The Ancient Mariner, Alice in Wonderland, Treasure Island and The Hunting of the Snark. The Titus novels – Titus Groan (1946), Gormenghast (1950) and Titus Alone (1959) – are considered to be one of the 20th century’s most remarkable feats of imaginative writing. For Gormenghast and his poem The Glassblowers Peake was awarded the W.H. Heinemann Foundation Prize by the Royal Society of Literature in 1950. He died in 1968.

The book ends with its titular hero not yet two years old, but there is plenty of time for him: we have finished a mere third of the tripartite epic. And it is as we near the end of Titus Groan that we realize the propriety of applying the term ‘epic’ in an exact sense. The book is closer to ancient pagan romance than to traditional British fiction. The doomed ritual lord, the emergent hero, the castle, the hall of retainers, the mountains, the lake, the twisted trees, the strange creatures, the violent knives, the dark and the foreboding belong (however qualified by tea, muffins, tobacco and sherry wine) to a prehistoric England. And the magnificence of the language denotes an epic concept.

(Anthony Burgess, Introduction to Titus Groan)

Lord Sepulchrave, the seventy-sixth Earl of Groan, arrives for breakfast:

Arriving, as was his consistent habit, at exactly nine o’clock every morning, he would enter the long hall and move with a most melancholy air between rows of long tables, where servants of every grade would be awaiting him, standing at their places, their heads bowed.

Mounting the dais he would move around to the far side of the table where hung a heavy brass bell. He would strike it. The servants sitting down at once, would begin their meal of bread, rice wine and cake.

Lord Groan’s menu was otherwise. As he sat, this morning, in his high-backed chair he saw before him – through a haze of melancholia that filmed his brain and sickened his heart, robbing it of power and his limbs of health – he saw before him a snow-white tablecloth. It was set for two. The silver shone and the napkins were folded into the shapes of peacocks and were perched decoratively on the two plates. There was a delicious scent of bread, sweet and wholesome. There were eggs painted in gay colours, toast piled up pagoda-wise, tier upon tier and each as frail as a dead leaf; and fish with their tails in their mouths lay coiled in sea-blue saucers. There was coffee in an urn shaped like a lion, the spout protruding from that animal’s silver jaws. There were all varieties of coloured fruits that looked strangely tropical in that dark hall. There were honies and jams, jellies, nuts and spices and the ancestral breakfast plate was spread out to the greatest advantage amid the golden cutlery of the Groans. In the centre of the table was a small tin bowl of dandelions and nettles.

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