Monday, January 25, 2010

retrospective exhibitions

Early last week, British newspapers began publishing articles about a fourth Gormenghast novel, Titus Awakes. I should have written this post then, because I was angry, and now that anger has settled. It would have been easier to write when I was angry, but, "No," I thought, "calm down, Sebastian Peake is only trying to do what he thinks is best for his dead father, he's not a wolf chewing, sucking, lapping at the flank of a corpse, he is not a devil, he is not a demon, only a human being -- be nice, be nice. (The vampire! That ghoul!)"

Mervyn Peake's children found the manuscript written in notebooks after their mother died, Maeve Gilmore; she took a beginning fragment written by her dead husband and continued it, giving it an ending. In her version Titus travels to an island and decides to settle there, merging with the figure of Mervyn, who spent years living with his family on the isle of Sark. Described like this, as it is the articles, Titus Awakes sounds like a therapeutic exercise: death had taken Maeve Gilmore's husband, and so she restored him.

"And it is going to be a fine enough book," I argued, cooling myself. "I think it will. What has the son done, after all, but take on the role the mother had while she was alive, the promoter, the force behind a number of other projects that you're grateful for?" After her husband's death she wrote a memoir and put together Peake's Progress: Selected Writings and Drawings of Mervyn Peake, a good, thick book. "She has helped to organize retrospective exhibitions of his work," says the biography at the front of my Peake's Progress, "and is Honourary President of the Mervyn Peake Society which was founded in 1975. She lives in London and has recently been working on murals and screens." This edition of Progress was published in 1981. The memoir is brief, sweet, all love, no scandal, and gracefully written -- the tone is elegiac, the anecdotes well-told, a deft miniature. This is how I am imagining Titus Awakes. I don't think it will be anything like Peake. He could not have written the memoir and she, if the memoir is any guide, could not have written his books.

The trouble is -- the trouble is -- my trouble is -- that a few years ago Mervyn Peake finally became a coffee table book, a big, expensive thing, glossy, with quotes from celebrities, and it was at this point that the word ghoulish came into my head: this was just grotesque grasping greed, a hermetic, enclosed, eccentric piece of writing being polished into a tidy commercial shape, dulled-down, buffed-up, clipped, shorn, made aspirational. I doted on the Gormenghast books when I was a teenager, and although that doting grew quieter after I discovered Christina Stead and other authors -- big, billowing people who bulged into the spaces Peake had occupied -- other eccentrics -- and he was my first real eccentric, one of those people, like Hodgson, or Eddison, who seemed to have found a piece of themselves that was not like any piece of anyone else -- and who trusted it so faithfully and stubbornly that they pursued it until it took on the shape of a book -- and there it is, now, the nugget left behind -- giving me hope that this was a thing that could be done, in spite of so many books being somewhat similar, in spite of media fretting about branding, marketing, the author-as-franchise -- here was evidence that books like this could appear, and that the unfamiliar could be loved --

Because a thing is difficult for you, do not therefore suppose it to be beyond mortal power. On the contrary, if anything is possible and proper for man to do, assume that it must fall within your own capacity.

-- wrote Marcus Aurelius, and here was proof, in these books, that things like this could exist, and might one day fall within my capacity -- although so far they haven't.

Now this was being turned into a coffee table book. "Nostalgia branding," I growled -- "my nostalgia" -- and as I type this I think back to my first paragraph and realise: it wasn't his father I felt the new promoter chewing at, it was me.


  1. Thanks. That post used to have two hundred words in it about how much I dislike Titus, but I saw the light and chucked it out.