The blind men come up to the elephant and one of them finds a tail, "The elephant is like a rope," this person says; and another finds a fat leg, "The elephant is like a tree," and a third finds the trunk, "The elephant is a hose," but if they hadn't already experienced a rope, a tree, and a hose, then what would they find? A Ponge from another planet might recognise other qualities in bread. Christina Stead starts The Man Who Loved Children on a specific street, with a specific house, "Tohoga House, their home," and everything she finds from there onwards, is the book. Perhaps each book is a long search. Mervyn Peake goes to a building of his own, larger than Stead's, almost blank at first, a wall and houses outside the wall, and he discovers everything in that one focussed area of land, not walking through it with the personal and monodirected tone of Ponge, but sensing it multipronged through characters, using them to feel the castle as if they were several tentacles. Mr Flay enters the Kitchens to watch Swelter and the author witnesses the Kitchens; one of the Twins walks through a room and he follows her and voila, the room is exposed to him, here are its details. His voice reaches around like a curious octopus, touching here and there. How many rooms does the reader never see because no character visits them?
Peake was grabbed by an octopus once off the island of Sark, or this is what he told his friend Gordon (or Goaty) Smith in a letter, and he had to beat it to death; in Hugo's Toilers of the Sea the hero in similar straits slices the animal's head off. "He had plunged the blade of his knife into the flat slimy substance, and by a rapid movement, like the flourish of a whip in the air, describing a circle round the two eyes, he wrenched the head off as a man would draw a tooth." Parts of Hugo could make prose poems if you picked them out of his novels, for instance, this description of the sea, also from Toilers:
The indivisible cannot be broken up into compartments. There is no intervening wall between one wave and another. The Channel Islands feel impulses coming from the Cape of Good Hope. Shipping throughout the world is confronting a single monster. The whole of the sea is one hydra. The waves cover the sea with a kind of fish's skin. The Ocean is Ceto. On this unity swoops down the innumerable.
This stolen poem works in strong declarations, certain things are so, and other things cannot be treated in that way, but a word like "indivisible" is precisely ineffable and "Ceto" and "hydra" are mythical -- he is declaring the unprovable, he is declaring the air. Then there is a closing mystery and a new idea. What is "the innumerable"?* Then silence after the mystery. There is a tussle between the power of the language to say and its power to mean. It says what it says very directly, but it means what it means very obliquely. And the same goes for Peake's Groan which is not in favour of the aristocracy but not against it either, which is Dickensian but not, which reflects the England of his day but doesn't, and Steerpike is Hitler but he isn't, and the Rituals are army regulations but they're not, and the author, using passionate and heightened language, posits a dry static society that damages its inhabitants, yet places the book's only egalitarian statement between the lips of a selfish arsonist. The book ends with the baby Titus "enter[ing] his stronghold" after an act of symbolic rebellion (it can't be anything other than symbolic, the baby is a baby, we recognise the rebellion, he can't) which the author regards as a kind of mystic heroism, but the stronghold, to which he comes surrounded by triumphant language, is a prison, antithetical to his humanity. It will not, like a stronghold, protect him from harm. It will do the harm. It will warp him. He comes to his triumphant mutilation.
There is another tension in the books. The readers, if they love Peake, love the castle and the society of the castle, and depend on this society to produce and to frame the characters that they also love. These characters are different expressions of isolation. Fuchsia isolates herself in her attic, Swelter isolates himself eminently above a crowd, Gertrude can remove herself from any conversation by addressing a raven, Prunesquallor separates himself from his sister by chattering, and so on, and so on, or to a cat, and so on. Each one of them is a machine that manipulates isolation (and an experiment in isolation management), and they reveal themselves to us by their methods; by their methods we know them. Castle society makes isolation essential; it also makes it possible. If we love the books then the castle is the heart of everything we love. And the hero wants to take us away from it. The hero, the person we're supposed to be supporting, if we support anybody -- he is our enemy, and we are his.
* It's not a mystery in the book. He means "the wind." James Hogarth translated. Malcolm Yorke mentions Peake's letter to Gordon Smith in his Peake biography, Mine Eyes Mint Gold.