Some thoughts on a couple of recent short reads… #mervynpeake @Blackheraldpres


After some of my epic reading during August (in particular the Serge!) I found myself drawn to slimmer works for a while, and today I wanted to talk about a couple of interesting short pieces I read towards the end of the month. They’re very different works, but both have *many* points of interest!

How a Romantic Novel was Evolved by Mervyn Peake

One of the things which happened over the summer was a major reshuffle and prune of the mountainous heaps of books in the house; and of course whilst doing this, I inevitably stumbled across things I forgot I’d picked up… One of these was a collection from 1959 called “A New Romantic Anthology”; and no, it has nothing to do with Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet or the like! Edited by Stefan Schimanski and Henry Treece, the book sets out to try to “show how widely spread is the Romantic attitude in British writing today.” So the editors bring together essays, poetry and short stories from all the nations of the UK, including some very tantalising items of Scottish and Welsh poetry. However, the reason I have the book is because I am a Mervyn Peake completist, and the book contains a short piece with the above title where Peake talks about the genesis of his Gormenghast writing, complete with some extracts from “Titus Groan”…

That alone makes fascinating reading, even though his introduction to the extracts are only a page long. But the icing on the cake, for me, is four glossy plates of his drawings of Gormenghast characters, including one on a manuscript. They’re quite stunning and beautiful, and so the book had to be procured and added to my Very Large Peake Collection. Reading the extracts reminded me, too, that I may well have left enough space since my re-read of “Gormenghast” and should perhaps get on with “Titus Alone” soon… ;D

The Riches of Uncertainty: Queneau and Cioran by Jean-Pierre Longre, translated by Rosemary Lloyd

Back in June, I shared my thoughts about an intriguing new book from a publisher I’d not come across before; this was “The Double Rimbaud” by Victor Segalen, published by Black Herald Press in France. They specialise in bilingual works of most interesting essays, and contacted me to ask if I would be interested in any more of their titles. This particular little volume caught my attention, as I love Queneau’s work and Cioran is on the TBR – so of course I said yes! Author Jean-Pierre Longre is a university professor, critic and author; here, over 20-odd pages, he muses over the connections between two authors who may not seem an obvious match and finds much to compare between the two!

All this remains fragile, subject to the constant doubt of the reader and the two writers who, extremely keen on philosophy, do not proclaim themselves philosophers and indeed are not philosophers. They propose no system, but rather let questions develop, disassociations reveal themselves, and they give free reign to their scepticism, their humour, their mockery, their self-mockery.

Queneau is of course best known for his OuLiPian connections and probably for his book “Zazie on the Metro”; Cioran, in contrast, was a Romanian philosopher and essayist. Yet for Longre there are strong links between two writers who do not necessarily claim to be philosophers but product philosophical works. What interests them both seems to be language and literary writing, and so perhaps the threads between the two are more substantial than might be seen at first. It’s an elegant and thoughtful work, beautifully translated (of course I read the English version!) and has left me pondering about the two authors and determinted to get onto Cioran sooner rather than later.

Black Herald Press books are beautifully produced, with the French version of the work at the front and the English at the back; this allows for comparison between two languages if wished for, but doesn’t have the other version right in front of your nose while you’re reading, which I enjoy!


So a couple of short and enjoyable reading experiences which have left me wanting to read several different books at once. If I’m honest, I don’t think my next post, on Monday, is going to help very much with that either… 🙄


ETA: I’ve been asked about the contents of the Romanticism book, so here are a couple of images with the contents!



“His cardinal virtue? An undamaged brain.” #mervynpeake #gormenghast @BacklistedPod


It’s been noticeable over recent months how much joy I’ve been getting out of revisiting old favourite books of mine from many years ago. There has, of course, been the Narniathon, which was a real treat; I hadn’t read these books for decades and had almost forgotten how much I love them. Then there was “The Lord of the Rings”; I’d meant to go back to these for some time, but the prompting of the #1954 Club had me re-reading all three, which was a profound and emotional experience. These two sequences of books were pivotal to me in my younger years and are still lodged in my heart. There’s one more sequence which is just as dear to me, if not more so, and that’s the “Gormenghast” books by Mervyn Peake. I’ve written before about how much these books mean to me, and I did in fact spend some time in helping run the Mervyn Peake Society. I revisited the first book, “Titus Groan”, back in 2017 when I stumbled across a nice-looking omnibus edition, and it was a wonderful experience. Somehow, I’ve never picked up the second, “Gormenghast”, since then although it’s been calling to me strongly. But a nudge from a recent, wonderful episode of the Backlisted podcast was all I needed, and I spent a week at the end of June hiding from the horrors of our world in the marvellous creation which is Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast castle – and it was pure heaven.

“Titus Groan” opened with the birth of the titular figure, who is the 77th Earl of Gormenghast, and ended when he was one year old. That book encompassed much change in the castle, including deaths of family members and others, conflict and banishment, and the inexorable rise of the kitchen boy, Steerpike, intent on making his way to a position of power. It was a rich and wonderful book, conjuring a marvellous array of scenes and characters, all vividly portrayed in Peake’s incredible prose. “Gormenghast” takes up the story when Titus has reached the age of seven and covers a longer, ten year, period; during this time, Titus will come of age, lose his boyhood and grow into young adulthood; and Gormenghast itself will be changed forever.

It’s hard to go into plot specifics because not only is the story rich and complex, I also would hate to spoil the joy of anyone reading these books for the first time. However, I’ll pick out some standout elements for me! Firstly, Titus goes to school with the ‘ordinary’ boys of the castle, and the creation of the school and its Professors is just masterly; a ragged and assorted bunch, with the most wonderful names (Perch-Prism, Cutflower (“La!”), Opus Fluke), they provide the story with much humour, something which is not necessarily always associated with Peake’s work.

It was as though Cutflower was so glad to be alive that he had never lived. Every moment was vivid, a coloured thing, a trill or a crackle of words in the air. Who could imagine, while Cutflower was around, that there were such vulgar monsters as death, birth, love, art and pain around the corner? It was too embarrassing to contemplate. If Cutflower knew of them he kept it secret. Over their gaping and sepulchral deeps he skimmed now here, now there, in his private canoe, changing his course with a flick of his paddle when death’s black whale, or the red squid of passions, lifted for a moment its body from the brine.

Bellgrove, the headmaster, is a memorable and often moving character, and his association with the bony Irma Prunesquallor (sister of the castle’s doctor) is full of mirth and pathos. In fact, the Prunesquallors generally are a delight, with ‘Dr. Prune’ showing himself to have much more intelligence and backbone than you might expect as events move on; he’s a character I grew to love as the story progressed.

Then there are Titus and his sister Fuchsia, who move closer together and find a warm sibling connection through the book. Their mother Gertrude, Countess Groan, comes to the fore, and an old friend reappears. I won’t say who the latter is, but his presence in the book and final fate were incredibly moving. But of course, running through the story is the presence of the evil Steerpike, determined to take control, whether it means he has to seduce Fuchsia, take over as Master of Lore or kill anyone in his way. The action builds gradually to a dramatic climax in the midst of a biblical flood where Titus will show his mettle; but will he manage to quash the rebellion in his own spirit?

I would so love to own a first edition…

Revisiting “Gormenghast” was the most wonderful experience, and I spent a week sunk in the book, having the joy of re-encountering old friends and reliving the story, as well as reminding myself just what a completely individual author Mervyn Peake was. He’s a writer who breaks all the rules which would be taught in courses nowadays; paragraphs can be two pages or twenty; he flits from viewpoint to viewpoint; he writes luxuriant and involved descriptions that some idiot taking a writing course would tell you to remove. Oddly, I found myself thinking of Dostoevsky, who I once described as writing in scenes or set pieces, and Peake’s books can be very much like that in places. However, because he breaks all the rules, his books are truly glorious and unique pieces of art which stand alone to my mind – there really *is* nothing like them.

What struck me the most this time round, perhaps (and thanks to Andy Miller on the Backlisted podcast for picking up on this) was the painterly, visual quality of his writing; his chapters are often those set pieces, conjuring a section of his created world, and his words summon vivid images of the vast Gormenghast castle, with its endless corridors and stairs and roofs, in almost an Escher-like fashion, which are unmappable and never end. I have to say that I prefer things undefined when it comes to Gormenghast, and I love the fact that it sprawls on forever and that even those who live in it don’t know its complete extent – even Steerpike, who’s roamed and mapped it widely, can get lost. Gormenghast is a book which conjures endless vistas in the mind and they stay with you; although I was astonished to find on this read (and I’ve read the book a *lot*) that there were scenes I had forgotten! Because the writing and the imagery is so vivid, I find I *live* the book alongside the characters; this is something you inhabit rather than just read. Whilst I was making my way happily through it, the world of Gormenghast was much more real than my own.

As I’ve said, I think Peake is unique; if I had to state any influence it would be Dickens with his love of the grotesque, whether in character or name, and his long, labyrinthine narratives. But the world Peake has created, with it crumbling castle, vivid and often bizarre characters, compelling and haunting narrative, and unforgettable story, is truly individual. Yes, it’s dark – there is real evil present, most particularly in Steerpike (and yet, somehow there is a conflict in the reader, in that although he has done vile things, he has challenged the stagnant status quo so that you still feel a sneaking sympathy for him). His rebellion against the system is different to Titus’s resistance to his inherited role, and yet they are flipsides of the same coin.

…he knew that there would be a difference; and that there could be no other place exactly like his home. It was this difference that he longed for. There would be other rivers; and others mountains; other forests and other skies.

I could go on and on about how brilliant these books are; they basically changed my life when I read them as a 19-year-old, and I will always love them. I accept they’re not for all, but it has been wonderful to see the outpouring of love for them online after the Backlisted episode. If you’ve not read them, I would encourage you to approach them with an open mind and give them a try; you might be surprised! As for me, I have a massive book hangover, and although my impulse is to pick up “Titus Alone” and carry on with the sequence, I’m not going to; that book is very different to the other two and needs a gap before it. In the meantime, I shall let Gormenghast swill around in my head; I’ve seen the place described as a ‘state of mind’ and I totally get that! 😀


I must add a little bit about editions at the end here. I re-read “Titus Groan” in this new omnibus edition which I picked up at a charity shop, thinking it would be easier to handle than my fragile old Penguins. I started to do the same with “Gormenghast”, but was soon discombobulated by several typos which should have been picked up in proofing.

The offending edition…

I got my old edition out and not only were the typos not there, there were also variations in the setting of the book, missing asterisks that divided up some sections and the like. I instantly ditched the omnibus and it will go back to the charity shop, not least for the mistake of having “Gormenghast Trilogy” on the cover. I went back to my original editions and was happy with a 1978 version of “Gormenghast” – there’s a lot to be said for reading your original copies!

More than a manual… #mervynpeake #craftoftheleadpencil


When I was scouring the shelves to find out what books I had available for the #1954Club, there were a number of books I pulled out as possibles that I suspected I wouldn’t actually get to; and “The Craft of the Lead Pencil” by Mervyn Peake was one of them. Peake is a long-term love of mine; I read his Gormenghast books when I was in my teens and they changed me. However, this short work, his take on how to learn to draw, wasn’t on my radar to read now. But there was a DNF for 1954, about which I said more on my closing 1954 post, and the Peake was there and I thought to myself that I probably hadn’t read it since I obtained my fragile, foxed copy and before you know it I was reading it… Alas, it was only as I got to the end that I realised the book was actually published in 1946 – I did get in a tangle with some dates for this club; but I thought I would share a few thoughts here anyway.

I’ve written about Peake before, as he’s an author who whose books were some of my formative reads, and I’ve revisited the first of his Gormenghast books here. As well as an author, however, he was a magnificent artist – his works are like no-one else’s as far as I’m concerned – and “Lead Pencil…” was published in the same year as “Titus Groan”. “Lead…” is a short work, just over 20 pages, and yet contains much to feed the artistic mind.

There are, of courses, many ‘how-to-draw’ books, and speaking as someone who can’t, I’ve never found them a lot of help. “Lead…” however, takes a straightforward view, breaking down the art into short sections of instruction, with headings such as ‘Direction of Light’, ‘Line’ , ‘Minor Shadows’, ‘Proportion’ etc. These sections are illustrated with examples from Peake and he’s remarkably good at convincing the reader they *can* draw; I must admit to wishing I’d had such practical instruction in art classes at school, as unless you showed natural talent you were pretty much ignored. Peake is clear that to draw you need to practice, but to be able to practice you need guidance such as that provided here.

The drawings are distinctively Peake, and so if you like his style you’ll definitely like this book; I know he doesn’t appeal to everyone but I think his work is stunning. There’s an underlying darkness running through both his writing and his art, and even a simple drawing of a head (like the one shown above) is far from ordinary. With so many of my older books, it’s probably decades since I looked at this one; so even thought it wasn’t one I could include in the #1954Club, I’m so glad I was nudged into picking it up. I’ve been enjoying reconnecting with authors from my earlier years, and I rather think I’d need to recommence my re-read of the Gormenghast books sooner rather than later! 😀

If it’s London, there must be books…. @Foyles @secondshelfbks @JuddBooks


Unfortunately for the shelves in my house, visits to London are inextricably linked with bookshopping, and Saturday was no exception to the general rule… My BFF J. and I managed to miss out on our usual pre-Christmas get-together back in December, and so as it was her birthday yesterday, we decided to have a catch-up, a gossip and a general bimble round London (as she puts it) on Saturday – which turned out to be a relaxing, fun and profitable trip! 😀

The KBR tote came in handy as always….

Inevitably there were bookshops and after we’d done a bit of general browsing (clothes, fabric and art shops!) we decided to give Second Shelf Books a look, as I’d been very impressed by what I’d seen and heard about them (and Ali thought very highly of them on her visit!) We rolled up fairly early (we’re morning birds), wondering if they’d be open and even though they weren’t officially, the very nice person behind the till let us in! And what a lovely place it is! We had a wonderful browse through all the wonderful rarities and first editions, with me eventually settling on purchasing this:

It’s by Elaine Feinstein, who translates Tsvetaeva wonderfully and whose biography of Anna Akhmatova I have lurking and it’s a mixture of novel set in Russia amongst real writers as well as her poetry. So it was most definitely coming home with me… ;D

After interludes for getting vaguely lost, stopping for lunch at Leons (with much gossip and catching up) as well as a very tempting visit to Paperchase, we headed for Judd Books in Marchmont Street. They’re a stone’s throw from Skoob (which we managed to resist) and I can’t recommend them enough. Judds is a shop always stuffed with unexpected treats and I was lucky to get out with only these:

I’ve wanted to add Marianne Moore to my poetry pile for yonks and this was at a fraction of the price it is online (bricks and mortar shops win out again!). As for the book on Peake, I’m not sure how I missed out on this when it originally came out, but it’s absolutely stuffed with the most amazing artworks, essays and writings, and a steal at the price. Both J. and I left with copies…

Inevitably, we ended up at Foyles – well, how could we not? – and partook of tea in the cafe, while J. finished reading a book she’d brought with her for me. Yes, she’d managed to procure me a beautiful first edition of a Beverley I needed!

As it comes with a dustjacket, I was doubly pleased and now I can get on with reading the rest of this particular house/garden trilogy of Bev’s! Dead chuffed!

We didn’t get out of Foyles unscathed, needless to say. Although I *did* exercise restraint, picking up and putting down any number of books. J. indulged in some poetry in the form of Roger McGough and Willa Cather (two of her favourites), whereas I eventually settled on these:

I’ve been circling the Gamboni for a while and finally decided to go for this new, reasonably priced edition (the old ones were priced at scholarly book rates…). As for the Kate Briggs, it’s all about translation and I love translated books and I love translators so it’s a no-brainer. Very excited about this one…. 😀

That’s it book-wise. We were in any number of stationery and art shops, and bearing that in mind I certainly think that the small haul I have was very well-behaved of me…

The tea is green with mint (my favourite) which I decided to treat myself to from Fortnum and Mason (yes, really!) We were in there to pick up some favourite marmalade for J.’s hubby, and I decided to treat Mr. Kaggsy to some posh coffee flavoured choc (not pictured). The tea just fell into my hand as I was queuing to pay…

So a fun day out gossiping, playing catch-up and shopping – lovely! It *is* nice to live close enough to London to pop up there (and especially go to Foyles, although those visits always bring a sense of despair at the *mess* of construction that’s going on in the area). Now it’s just a case of deciding what to read next… 😉

However, before I finish this post, there was *one* more book which sneaked into the house at the weekend, and that was a volume I ordered online after reading a review of it here. Kate Macdonald picked up her copy, oddly enough, at Second Shelf, and wasn’t so enamoured with Priestley’s grumbling. However, I’ve found his grumpy narratives oddly entertaining, so I though I’d give it a try! 😀

The best way to change a person’s life…. @RobGMacfarlane


When I had my little wobble in Waterstones recently and went a bit mad, buying three brand new books when I have so many unread ones at home already, I justified one of the purchases by the fact that it was very slim and about books – so it didn’t really count and I would be able to read it quickly. Well, yes – but for all its small size it certainly got me thinking!

The book in question is “The Gifts of Reading” by Robert Macfarlane; the latter is well-known for a number of chunky books loosely about landscape (although really about much more), as well for his championing of Nan Shepherd. This, however, is an essay by Macfarlane on the subject of books, specifically on the practice of gifting them, and it’s an absorbing little read.

I guess all of us booklovers have given and received any number of volumes over the years, and Macfarlane is no different. Here, he muses on the act of giving by relating it to his own very personal experiences, particularly with his friend Don (to whom the book is dedicated). The latter was the person who gave Macfarlane a copy of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s “A Time of Gifts”, which became a touchstone for Robert in his subsequent travels, perhaps even a catalyst for them. And he goes on to consider any number of other book gifts and their fates, the passing on of the libraries of departed friends, the effects those books can have and how in fact the right book at the right time can be life-changing.

I must be honest and say that my first read of Macfarlane’s work (“The Old Ways”) was not unproblematic; however, having read this eloquent and beautiful little book I’m inclined to think that possibly the issue was with me and not the book, and perhaps it was simply a case of bad timing. “The Gifts of Reading” set me off on all sorts of trains of thought, and if you’re a bookish person I can really recommend tracking it down to see if your experiences of book gifting are the same as this.

However, as I hinted above, the book nudged my brain into thinking a *lot* about books I’d been gifted during my life which had a really significant impact; and so in the spirit of Macfarlane’s book I thought I’d share them here. And I should say that these are all the original copies – I still have them after all those years…

The earliest is probably my copy of Tolkien’s “The Hobbit”, which was given to me by family friends Bill and Pamela back in the day (and this is *really* back in the day because I was very young!) They had been visiting us down south from Scotland and noticed I was reading the Narnia books. Bill was of the opinion that if I liked those I should also read “The Hobbit” and not long after sent me his copy. I read it, and my Dad also read it, and this led on to us reading “The Lord of the Rings” from the library in lovely big hardbacks (I’ve written about this before). Tolkien was indeed a life changer and I’ve gone through a number of LOTR obsessions in my time.

The inside of the book with Bill’s inscription – the book itself is a bit fragile nowadays…

The next most influential gift books I recalled were given to me the Christmas I turned 19 and were a set of the Mervyn Peake “Gormenghast” books. I was living in a cold-water flat in the Cotswolds at the time and went home for Christmas; the gift of the books came from one of my flatmates. I spent the whole of the Christmas period absolutely locked in the books, unable to stop reading. They really *were* life changers as I became so obsessed with Peake I later ended up helping to run the Peake Society for a while – but that’s another story…

My original Penguin Peakes – just beautiful…

Finally, of course, there has to be Italo Calvino. “If on a winter’s night a traveller…” (note the UK spelling on the cover of my version!) was gifted to me by Mr. Kaggsy in our early days together, and it really was a game changer. I’d never read anything like it; it did literary things I’d never came across and it took me places I’d never been and I had a major obsession with Calvino (still have, really). Yes, I get obsessed with my favourite writers, in case you hadn’t noticed – Georges Perec, anyone? 😀 Anyway, this was one of the most important gifts of my life, really, changing the way I saw everything. Truly books can be transformative.

My original Calvino, complete with UK spelling!

Those are the three obvious gifts of reading I’ve received during my life (although I could probably think of many more and make this post so long you’d all nod off); and I hadn’t thought of them in those terms before, but really they’re so important to me and did indeed change my life, making me the person I am – I would have been very different without experiencing them. So actually, Robert Macfarlane’s little book has been a bit of a gift in itself, making me consider some of the books of my life in a way I never have before. I can’t recommend “The Gifts of Reading” enough (in both senses!) and I’m off to rescue “The Old Ways” from *whispers* the donation pile as I think I’ll have to give it a bit of a reconsider! 😀

Rediscovering Gormenghast: Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake


One of the pivotal reads of my life, and one which I’ve mentioned a couple of times recently in guest posts, was my first encounter at the age of 19 with the Gormenghast books by Mervyn Peake. I devoured them over a dull Christmas, and became totally absorbed in the strange and wonderful world the author had created. They had such an effect on me that I later ended up becoming involved with the running of the Mervyn Peake Society for some years, and I’ve always thought that Peake’s polymath talents have been underappreciated. Painter, illustrator, poet, playwright and author, he really was a multi-talented man.


Over the years I’ve returned to the books several times, and they would most definitely be on my desert island list. However, writing about them brought them back into my mind and I’ve been circling a re-read. A chance stumble upon a lovely, readable omnibus edition in a charity shop clinched it – now was the time to make a return journey to Gormenghast castle and its inhabitants. I actually read the book over a week where both myself and OH were unwell with some nasty undefined bug that was doing the rounds, and it’s a tribute to Peake’s genius that I was completely absorbed – I spent the week *living* through the events in Gormenghast once more. I’ll confess up front that I’m not going to be able to give an objective, coherent review – I’m too close to the book, it means too much to me and so I’ll just try to capture some impressions and thoughts.

The action is set in the castle of Gormenghast, home to the ancient family of Groan, and opens with the birth of an heir, Titus, to Lord Sepulchrave, the 76th earl, and his wife Gertrude. This is a world ruled by the iron hand of ritual; every day defined by a prescribed set of actions that Sepulchrave and the denizens have to undertake, under the hand of the ancient and bad-tempered master of ritual, Sourdust. In rapid succession we meet all the main characters: Flay, stick-like and monosyllabic manservant to Lord Sepulchrave; Fuchsia, 15-year-old daughter of the house of Groan; Dr. Bernard Prunesquallor and his sister Irma, not quite part of the higher echelons but above the servants; Nannie Slagg, ancient nurse to the children of Groan; Swelter, the monumentally huge chef; and Steerpike, the high-shouldered, sly kitchen lad who comes to play a pivotal part in the story.

Fuchsia and Steerpike on a page of the ms - from mervynpeake.org

Fuchsia and Steerpike on a page of the ms – from mervynpeake.org

Those are just a few of the characters in this rich and wonderful book, all vividly alive, in fact larger than life; but there are many more who pass through its pages. To be honest, the castle itself, a rambling, sprawling, undefined structure with architectural oddities and marvels all over it, is very much a character itself. And as the castle’s denizens reacts to the birth of Titus, Steerpike makes an escape from the kitchens and into the upper life of the Groans; Flay and Swelter clash in a way that will eventually seal their fates; Fuchsia responds badly to the changes coming in the castle; and the story follows the events of the first year of Titus’s life which will bring dramatic events to a cataclysmic head. More I am not going to say, because if you’ve never read Peake you have the biggest treat in the world awaiting you.


To attempt to give a summary of the plot would be impossible in a blog post, and also I want to avoid any kind of spoiler; so instead I’ll just focus on a few of the strands which gave me the most pleasure. Of course, watching Steerpike’s inexorable rise through the ranks, as he twists every situation to his own advantage, is fascinating – like watching a poisonous animal in action; the development of Prunesquallor, who initially appears to be all hysteria and puff but gradually reveals himself to have a hidden intelligence and subtle understanding of what’s going on around him, is wonderful to see; and the late-flowering relationship between Fuchsia and her father Sepulchrave is particularly poignant and heartbreaking. The Flay-Swelter rivalry and conflict is gripping, and has you on the edge of your seat at several points; and the manipulation of the Groan twins Cora and Clarice is clever and vicious. As for the melancholy Sepulchrave and his library – let’s not go there…..

The library appeared to spread outwards from him as from a core. His dejection infected the air about him and diffused his illness upon every side. All things in the long room absorbed his melancholia. The shadowing galleries brooded with slow anguish; the books receding into the deep corners, tier upon tier, seemed each a separate tragic note in a monumental fugue of volumes.

Even though I know this story better than I had remembered, the joy of revisiting it was immense. The first time reading it I was stunned by the writing and the characterisation, reading obsessively to follow the story. However, on re-reads you can wallow in the wonder of the prose and the sheer brilliance of the imagery. Wherever Gormenghast is meant to be (in my mind it sits apart in some kind of parallel world!), it is truly alive in its own right and it’s a creation of genius. “Titus Groan” contains vivid and wonderful writing, the prose of an artist bringing to life his creation with word paintings. The pictures it creates, of corridors and roofscapes, attics and kitchens, faded ceremonial rooms and bedrooms full of ivy, birds and white cats, are unique and stamped in my brain. Peake’s writing summons a chiaroscuro world where light and dark are in constant contrast and although the book contains a scattering of his pen and ink drawings of characters, you don’t need them – the writing provides the pictures for you.

    As Fuchsia climbed into the winding darkness her body was impregnated and made faint by a qualm as of green April. Her heart beat painfully.
    This is a love that equals in its power the love of man for woman and reaches inwards as deeply. It is the love of man or of a woman for their world. For the world of their centre where their lives burn genuinely and with a free flame… The love of the painted 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 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 painted mutters, ‘I am me’ on his lone raft of floorboards, so… dark Fuchsia (says) on her twisting staircase, ‘I am home’.
(Fuchsia’s love for her secret attic)

And revisiting these characters, with all their quirks and individual traits, was a wonderful experience. From Prunesquallor’s hyena laugh to Irma’s obsession with her long white neck; Steerpike’s cold mechanical calculation to Swelter’s almost sensual greed and hatred; Fuchsia’s petulance and need for affection to Sepulchrave’s melancholia and love of his books; all the characters leap off the page, alive and vivid, and they’re ones you don’t forget. The wonderful Flay is one of my favourites, but each strange but compelling character is necessary to the story. I’ve pondered in the past about a sub-strand of the plot, involving Keda; one of the Bright Carvers, people who live outside the walls of the castle, she’s brought in as a wet-nurse for Titus, and her life and fate is related alongside that of the castle. The passion she and her people feel is in direct contrast to the sterility of the dying line inside the castle, and I think is a necessary counterpoint to that story.

Mr. Flay (from mervynpeake.org)

Mr. Flay (from mervynpeake.org)

What I had either forgotten or perhaps never appreciated is quite how Dickensian Peake’s writing is. His wonderful use of names, of course, echoes the great Victorian writer, and he demonstrates the same kind of dry wit at times. The sprawling world of Gormenghast in many ways echoes Dickens’ London, and the use of evil, melodrama and dark themes was common to both writers.

I accept that “Titus Groan” and Peake’s writing will not be for everyone. The events and characters are often grotesque, the subject matter grim and the sense of ennui and destruction noticeable. The books were influenced by Peake’s experiences as a child living in Tientsin, but also by his life experiences. As a war artist, he was one of the first civilians to see inside Belsen and witness the prisoners dying as their liberators arrived; therefore it’s hard not to read significance into something as simple as Steerpike’s kitchen uniform having a striped jacket… (“Titus Groan” was published in 1946). The book contains darkness, yes, but a necessary darkness; it’s also shot through with brilliance and often great beauty.

I did wonder, after all these years and several reads, what I would feel approaching the Gormenghast books again. Although I’ll never be able to recreate the thrill of that first read, this re-read stunned me in many places with the brilliance of the writing and plotting, completely involved me emotionally and left me drained at the end. It’s one of those books, a select few, that you inhabit rather than just read. The main problem I have now is in restraining myself from simply picking up the next book and carrying on with the re-read – I want to give myself time to recover a little, but the temptation is immense!

AV/AA – An Exemplary Short Story Collection from Persephone


The Woman Novelist and Other Stories by Diana Gardner

The wonderful Persephone Books have issued a number of short story collections, but this was one that I had a particular interest in getting hold of. You see, many, many years ago (well, ok – in the 1980s) I was involved in running the Mervyn Peake Society, and early on in my tenure I was lucky enough to meet his widow Maeve Gilmore, shortly before her death. Myself and a group of friends were later invited to Maeve’s memorial service in London (an emotional affair that involved the four of us with one tissue between us…) and there we met Diana Gardner, who’d been a pupil of Mervyn’s and was a friend of the family.

I bought my copy from the Persephone shop - here's the haul! :)

I bought my copy from the Persephone shop – here’s the haul! 🙂

After the service, we trotted off to the nearby Royal Academy for some picture therapy, and bumped into Diana again. She recognised us from the memorial and we had a lovely chat. She was an inspiring woman, just off to spend the day painting, and so when I discovered there was a collection of her stories available I had to have it.

Gardner had a fascinating life, mixing painting and writing, as well as working in publishing. And according to the Persephone blurb, she also knew Leonard and Virginia Woolf. “The Woman Novelist” collects a number of her stories, all of which were in an earlier volume apart from the title story.

Short stories are often a difficult art to master, but Gardner certainly has, as this is a quite wonderful collection where each tale stands out distinctly in its own right. “The Land Girl” is possibly the best known, and it was her first story to be accepted for publication. It’s a clever, slightly acid tale, from the point of view of the girl of the title ( a city type sent to work on the farm) revealing the disruption she causes there. She’s a brilliantly unreliable narrator, and Gardner cleverly gives us the insight into a very selfish mind and a strong clash of cultures.

Then there’s “Miss Carmichael’s Bed”, which has a mystery to it with an unexpected solution; “The Summer Holiday “, a tale that shows how some people just bury their heads in the sand (not literally….); “In the Boathouse”, an evocative tale of love and war; “Crossing the Atlantic”, a story of mismatched sailors; and many more, all fabulous.

Portrait of Gardner by Peake, courtesy the Persephone Books site.

Portrait of Gardner by Peake, courtesy the Persephone Books site.

The title story is absolutely brilliant; narrated by the Woman Novelist, it takes us through the tasks of her day as she tries to juggle the needs of an extended family who not only depend on her financially, but also physically and emotionally. The main bond she has is with a loyal maid who understands her problems and supports her as much as she can so she can write. The tale articulates brilliantly the problem women artists of all types have had in balancing the needs of their art with the often selfish demands of those around them – a situation a male artist would never be expected to tolerate.

Gardner’s prose is excellent and I loved the way she played with the reader’s preconceptions. She’s brilliant at building up tension in a story only to twist the ending in a way you least expected. I’ve read many short story collections where the stories blur into one, but that doesn’t happen here – each tale is a distinct gem in its own right and there’s not a dud amongst them.

I loved “The Woman Novelist” much more than I expected to: Gardner’s writing is impressive, her stories fresh and original and memorable, and the twists marvellous. This is one of the most enjoyable short story collections I’ve read (which is saying something!) and I only wish there was more of Gardner’s work available. Another winner from Persephone! 🙂

Sebastian Peake


Sometimes life can be full of strangeness and sadness, and sometimes both of these together. Yesterday I posted about my trip to London and mentioned how J. and I used to be involved in the running of the Mervyn Peake Society. Today, while stumbling across some literary blogs in a random kind of way, I learned that Sebastian Peake, son of Mervyn, died suddenly in September.

Sebastian was Mervyn Peake’s eldest son, and he tirelessly promoted his father’s work during the time I knew him. He was kind and friendly, and very supportive while we were running the society. Mervyn Peake is an acquired taste, but those of us who love his work spend many hours trying to convince others of his genius. Sadly, I believe he is simply too talented and to unique to be appreciated by the mass public; but nevertheless I will always love his work.

I first read Peake’s “Gormenghast” books when I was 19. My then flatmate had given me a set of the three books at a Christmas gift, and I took them with me when I went home for the holidays. Needless to say, I was rather anti-social that Yule – I spent the break with my head in the books, entranced by Peake’s language and his illustrations, the pictures he painted in my head and the crazy and wonderful story he told. Nobody wrote or drew or painted or composed poetry like Mervyn Peake; he was a one-off.

Sebastian was a lovely man, but he seemed in some ways to live in the shadow of his father. However, he was always good company, fond of good food and wine, and his support made our involvement in the Peake Society great fun. His passing is sad, and I’m sure he will be missed by his lovely family plus brother Fabian and sister Clare.

(There is a very nice interview with all three Peake children here)

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