Thursday, 23 July 2009

Mervyn Peake, Writer and Artist

The Writer as Artist
(Article first published in Writing Magazine, August-September 1996. Copyright Carol Townend)

The first book in Mervyn Peake’s gothic trilogy — Titus Groan was published in 1946, shortly after the close of the second world war. It was a time of penny-pinching and austerity and Peake’s highly detailed and complex fantasy succeeded because it provided readers with a much wanted escape into another world. Mervyn Peake was not only a novelist, he was an artist and poet too. As an official war artist he was one of the first to enter and record for posterity the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps. He held exhibitions. He illustrated several books including Alice in Wonderland and Treasure Island. He wrote poetry and plays. Both Titus Groan and Mr Pye were adapted for radio plays by the BBC.

The Gormenghast trilogy, according to the Penguin History of English Literature, is a ‘story of mythic intent, focusing on the artist and the curse that is also the creative power of imagination’. While writing it, Peake brought all his artistic talents to bear, and
a glance at the text proves that the draughtsman in him was never very far below the surface. His artist’s eye records everything in minute, obsessive detail. Peake’s highly artificial romance might not be to everyone’s taste, but a writer today can still learn from his work.

Here is a brief description of some pine cones the Earl of Groan has put on the floor of the library for his baby son, Titus, to play with: On the carpet in the lamplight lay scattered a score of fir cones, each one with its wooden petals undercut with the cast shadow of the petal above it. The picture in our minds is in sharp focus. Peake has clearly made studies of pine cones, and his observation of the dark shadows cast by the wooden petals conjures up the cones at a stroke. His description is written with the concentration of an artist drawing a still
life, and the emphasis on light and shade makes the detail on the library carpet leap into life.

Here is another extract from near the end of Titus Groan when the feud between Flay, the Earl’s manservant. and Swelter, the castle cook, has come to a bloody conclusion. The library has been destroyed by fire and is now occupied only by owls. The Earl has been driven mad. One of the Earl’s last orders to his servant Flay is that he should drag Swelter’s mountain of a
body to the library. Peake is using light and dark again, writing like a painter balancing tones to highlight and define his setting: The white silence was terrible. The moonlight like a hoar frost on the Tower of Flints. The shell of the library glimmered in the distance far down the long line of halls and pavilions, and of domed, forsaken structures. To their right the lit pine-woods were split with lines of midnight. Above their feet a few cones, like ivory carvings were scattered, anchored to the pale earth by their shadows.

This play on contrasts, this accentuating of light and dark, black and white, as for example in ‘the lit pine-woods were split with lines of midnight’, is evident throughout the trilogy.

Peake the narrator works in bold black ink, an ink particularly suited to the gothic nature of his epic. Peake’s use of contrast — or counterpoint — is not confined to the pages of Titus Groan. The world of Gormenghast is so complete, so eccentric a world, that readers cannot but be aware of the contrast between the fantasy world of the book, and the real world outside.

Peake’s trilogy can also be used to examine several methods of character presentation. First, narrator’s statement. This can be bald and simple, directing the way the reader sees a character. For example: Mrs Slagg was never very tactful.

Or the narrator’s statement can be longer and more detailed and complex, as in these caricatures: Who else is there of the direct blood-line? Only the vacant Aunts, Cora and Clarice, the identical twins and sisters of Sepulchrave. So limp of brain that for them to conceive an idea is to risk a haemorrhage. So limp of body that their purple dresses appear no more indicative of housing nerves and sinews than when they hang suspended from their hooks.

But surely this is telling, not showing, and writers are usually urged to show, not to tell? That is certainly true. Showing conveys information by allowing the reader to watch events unfold and to judge for themselves what they think about a character, while telling, where the author summarises past events or characters’ natures for the reader, is less direct. But telling does have its uses, as the last quote (from Gormenghast, the second book in Peake’s trilogy) proves. Peake is running through the main cast list to refresh the memories of those readers who have read the first book, and to give those readers who may not have read it the necessary background to enjoy Gormenghast.

Narrator’s statement therefore, despite being telling and not showing is useful if a fiction writer needs to fill in background information quickly and succinctly.

Description is another method of presenting characters, and Peake often sketches his character in with a line or two. Note how the artist in him never sleeps. We have: Sourdust was shocked. His mouth worked at the corners. His old, fissured face became a fantastic area of cross-hatching and his weak eyes grew desperate. Peake’s use of the phrase cross-hatching — the tone-creating technique used by artists — vividly conveys the wrinkles on the old man’s face.

And look at this: Barquentine raised his hot-looking, irritable eyes and dropped the cross-hatched corners of his mouth. Here the phrase cross-hatched corners shows readers a grouchy old man with a drooping mouth. Describing a part — face, hands, way of walking — can, of course, tell readers a lot about the whole.

Clothes are another example. They say a lot about a person and can be used very effectively to symbolise a character’s status or aspirations in the fictional world. Early in Titus Groan Peake gives us this description of Flay, the Earl’s manservant, coming to attend Titus’s christening: He was wearing his long black moth-eaten suit, but there had been some attempt on his part at getting rid of the major stains and clipping the more ragged edges of cuff and trouser into straight raw lines. Over and above these improvements he wore around his neck a heavy chain of brass... The negative dignity of the room threw him out in relief as a positive scarecrow.

Continually focusing on opposites, positive and negative, black and white, Peake’s writing conveys the starkness of his vision, undiluted. But he has not entirely banned colour from his palette: One of these narrow beams lit Fuchsia's forehead and shoulder, and another plucked a note of crimson from her dress.

A character’s actions can also be revealing. And with action it is important to distinguish between meaningful actions, like putting into effect a plan to commit arson, and actions which are mere movement, like the way Flay’s knees crack when he walks. An action must be significant, an event that carries the plot forward. Flay’s cracking knees are relevant, but they are part of the description that helps readers visualise him. Since they do not reveal anything about his purpose, his private goals and ambitions, or his hidden nature they are not seen as character-revealing action. Steerpike is a young kitchen boy at Gormenghast castle who has ambitions above his station, and seeks eagerly for an opportunity to better himself. As soon as the chance presents itself, Steerpike flees the kitchen: glancing around and finding that he was alone he had made for the door through which Mr Flay had passed and was soon racing down the passages turning left and right as he ran in a mad effort to reach the fresh air.
This is significant action. In this case, Steerpike’s determined dash from the kitchen is more than mere movement, it carries the plot along, and marks the beginning of Steerpike’s efforts to climb the social ladder.

Dialogue or speech is another way of presenting characters. Much later in Titus Groan, Steerpike has risen to a position of some trust in the Castle. Here, he engages Fuchsia the Earl’s daughter, in conversation. By now the reader knows that Steerpike is ruthlessly, dangerously intelligent, but they do not know how far he is prepared to go. Does Steerpike have feelings? Is he capable of kindness?

Steerpike paused to remove a stag-beetle from where it clung to the soft bark of a pine. Fuchsia went on slowly, wishing she were alone.
‘There should be no rich, no strong, no weak,’ said Steerpike methodically pulling the legs off the stag-beetle, one by one, as he spoke. ‘Equality is the great thing, equality is everything. He flung the mutilated insect away. ‘Do you agree, Lady Fuchsia?’ he said.
‘I don’t know anything about it, and I don’t care much.’
‘But don’t you think...’
And Steerpike continues talking, apparently oblivious of Fuchsia’s lack of interest. Nor is he conscious of the contradiction between the impression he is trying to convey — that of an intelligent liberal — and what he is doing to the stag-beetle. There is in Steerpike a terrible void, and by showing his callous destruction of the beetle while fine words are pouring out of his mouth, Peake builds up a picture of a man who might be capable of anything.

Another way to reveal character is to show their thoughts, and a second glance at the above extract shows how simply this can be done. Peake gives us Fuchsia’s reaction to Steerpike in a line: Fuchsia went on slowly, wishing she were alone.

A dedicated painter and draughtsman as well as a writer, Peake used the knowledge gleaned from his art to enrich his writing. What are your other interests or passions or areas of special knowledge? Do they give you a particular view of the world? Can you use your insight to enliven and colour your own writing?

Mervyn Peake Mervyn Peake’s well known gothic trilogy:
Titus Groan — 1946
Gormenghast — 1950
Titus Alone — 1959

Sadly the works that follow might be out of print, but they can be found in libraries and second-hand book- shops:
Mr Pye—1953
Poetry: The Glassblowers — 1950
The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb — 1962
A Book of Nonsense (published posthumously) — 1972
Selected Poems of Mervyn Peake — 1975

Writing Magazine Article, August-September 1995, copyright Carol Townend

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