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The Vision of Mervyn Peake


Mervyn Laurence Peake (1911 – 1968) best known for his amazing Gormenghast books, was also an artist, poet, and illustrator. The Gormenghast trilogy is uncategorisable - while it can be compared to the works of J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson, it possesses a flavour and shape all its own. Apart from its rich and unique imagery, the second book, called Gormenghast, contains one of the most exciting chase sequences in fiction.

Peake also wrote poetry, short stories for adults and children (Letters from a Lost Uncle), stage and radio plays, and a novel, Mr Pye. Having made his reputation as a painter and illustrator during the 1930s and 1940s, when he lived in London, and he was commissioned to produce portraits of well-known people, he was also commissioned by various newspapers to depict war scenes at the end of the Second World War. Some of his works now appear in the collections of the National Portrait Gallery, the Imperial War Museum and The National Archives.

In 2008, The Times named Peake among their list of 'The 50 greatest British writers since 1945’.

But his writing is quirky and unusual. Here is a cross-section of some quotes to give you a flavour:

'He is climbing the spiral staircase of the soul of Gormenghast, bound for some pinnacle of the itching fancy - some wild, invulnerable eyrie best known to himself; where he can watch the world spread out below him, and shake exultantly his clotted wings.'

'And now, my poor old woman, why are you crying so bitterly? It is autumn. The leaves are falling from the trees like burning tears- the wind howls. Why must you mimic them?'

'He had no longer any need for home, for he carried his Gormenghast within him. All that he sought was jostling within himself. He had grown up. What a boy had set out to seek a man had found, found by the act of living.'

'Lingering is so very lonely when one lingers all alone.'

'She had shown him by her independence how it was only fear that held people together. The fear of being alone and the fear of being different.'

'We are all imprisoned by the dictionary. We choose out of that vast, paper-walled prison our convicts, the little black printed words, when in truth we need fresh sounds to utter, new enfranchised noises which would produce a new effect.'

'Yet not with all of me am I in love. Too much of my own quietness is with me.'

'This tower, patched unevenly with black ivy, arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven. At night the owls made of it an echoing throat; by day it stood voiceless and cast its long shadow.'

'For what use are books to anyone whose days are like a rook's nest with every twig a duty.'

'To live at all is miracle enough.'

'Cold love’s the loveliest love of all. So clear, so crisp, so empty. In short, so civilised.'

'Why break the heart that never beat from love?'

'Swelter's eyes meet those of his enemy, and never has there held between four globes of gristle so sinister a hell of hatred. Had the flesh, the fibres, and the bones of the chef and those of Mr Flay been conjured away and away down that dark corridor leaving only their four eyes suspended in mid-air outside the Earl's door, then, surely, they must have reddened to the hue of Mars, reddened and smouldered, and at last broken into flame, so intense was their hatred - broken into flame and circled about one another in ever-narrowing gyres and in swifter and yet swifter flight until, merged into one sizzling globe of ire they must surely have fled, the four in one, leaving a trail of blood behind them in the cold grey air of the corridor, until, screaming as they fly beneath innumerable arches and down the endless passageways of Gormenghast, they found their eyeless bodies once again, and reentrenched themselves in startled sockets.'

'I am clever enough to know that I am clever.'

'I am the wilderness lost in man.'

'It was not certain what significance the ceremony held... but the formality was no less sacred for it being unintelligible.’

'Each day I live in a glass room unless I break it with the thrusting of my senses and pass through the splintered walls to the great landscape.'

'In the presence of real tragedy you feel neither pain nor joy nor hatred, only a sense of enormous space and time suspended, the great doors open to black eternity, the rising across the terrible field of that last enormous, unanswerable question.'

'Life is too fleet for onomatopoeia.'

'His was not the hatred that arises suddenly like a storm and as suddenly abates. It was, once the initial shock of anger and pain was over, a calculated thing that grew in a bloodless way.'

'If ever he had harboured a conscience in his tough narrow breast he had by now dug out and flung away the awkward thing - flung it so far away that were he ever to need it again he could never find it.’

'As I see it, life is an effort to grip before they slip through one's fingers and slide into oblivion, the startling, the ghastly or the blindingly exquisite fish of the imagination before they whip away on the endless current and are lost for ever in oblivion's black ocean.’

'He saw in happiness the seeds of independence, and in independence the seeds of revolt.'

'There is a love that equals in its power the love of man for woman and reaches inwards as deeply. It is the love of a man or a woman for their world. For the world of their center where their lives burn genuinely and with a free flame.’

‘The rich soil crumbles through the yeoman's fingers. As the pearl diver murmurs, “I am home” as he moves dimly in strange water-lights, and as the painter mutters, 'I am me' on his lone raft of floorboards, so the slow landsman on his acre'd marl - says with dark Fuchsia on her twisting staircase, “I am home.”’

‘The love of the painter standing alone and staring, staring at the great coloured surface he is making. Standing with him in the room the rearing canvas stares back with tentative shapes halted in their growth, moving in a new rhythm from floor to ceiling. The twisted tubes, the fresh paint squeezed and smeared across the dry on his palette. The dust beneath the easel. The paint has edged along the brushes' handles. The white light in a northern sky is silent. The window gapes as he inhales his world. His world: a rented room, and turpentine. He moves towards his half-born. He is in Love.’

‘The love of the diver for his world of wavering light. His world of pearls and tendrils and his breath at his breast. Born as a plunger into the deeps he is at one with every swarm of lime-green fish, with every coloured sponge. As he holds himself to the ocean's faery floor, one hand clasped to a bedded whale's rib, he is complete and infinite. Pulse, power and universe sway in his body. He is in Love.’


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