Mervyn Peake, Letters From a Lost Uncle

Today is Mervyn Peake’s birth centenary, and so for the next week I am going to talk about nothing else. Starting with this short piece on Letters From a Lost Uncle that I wrote for last weekend’s Left of Cool column (read at the site here)

 

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July 9th is the birth centenary of Mervyn Peake, one of the best and strangest writers of his generation. Peake is best known as a fantasy writer because of his (brilliant) Gormenghast books. But to describe him thus doesn’t do justice to a brilliant career. He was a fine artist, a poet and a writer of wonderful nonsense verse. He also worked as an illustrator. His artwork for Lewis Carroll’s “Alice” books does far more to capture the weirdness of these books than anything Tenniel ever managed.

Letters From a Lost Uncle, first published in 1948, is one of Peake’s lesser known works. Yet it manages to combine his skill as an artist, his humour and his ability to invoke odd, unexpected beauty. Purportedly, this is a series of letters from an uncle to his nephew, neither of whom are ever named. The uncle in question decided many years ago to explore the tropics and has never been heard of since. Through the letters we learn that he jumped ship, paddling an upturned table with a chair attached to it, and has since roamed the world in search of a fabulous beast, the White Lion. At the moment of writing he is somewhere in the Arctic with his faithful companion Jackson the Turtle-Dog.

The letters themselves are typewritten, and Peake himself typed them on yellowing paper. This is pasted onto his full-page illustrations (the contrast between the yellow of the typed portions and the black and white of the art makes this book a lovely physical object) of the various sights described. These include portraits (the Lost Uncle’s former wife among them) and self-portraits, and sketches of the animals to be seen in this part of the world. Occasionally a missing word or a note is added in pencil to the typed sections, and sometimes the unfortunate Jackson is blamed for spilling gravy onto the page. But the blotches of gravy (and at one point blood) are the only touches of colour. The cover bears a postage stamp with a representation of the White Lion – and the letters refer the reader to the stamp on more than one occasion.

The White Lion here feels a little like the Questing Beast of Arthurian myth; an impossible, fabulous beast. Some people feel the need to dedicate their lives to its pursuit, but no simple reason is ever given. The White Lion is the central fact of the lost uncle’s life.

Letters From a Lost Uncle is mostly very silly; it’s easy to see links between this work and Peake’s nonsense verse. The sailing around on tables, the use of a swordfish’ “sword” for a peg leg, giant bears that are escaped by tickling; these are all absurd. The illustrations serve to heighten this impression – all of these pencil drawings are intricate and detailed, but their subjects are frequently ridiculous.  And so the Knotted-Tailed Moose is comically benevolent-looking, while a pillar of snow is elevated to something resembling a Doré engraving.

And yet it’s also capable of being very serious and very beautiful. There are glimpses of this possibility throughout the text: startling throwaway lines that feel like poetry. In the later scenes, “uncle” and Jackson enter an even stranger landscape and travel towards the scene of a great “Arctic tragedy”. These sections are almost religious in feel: an ice cave is described as a cathedral, and the watching animals a “vast and silent congregation”. Eventually words themselves become insufficient. “It does not matter what words I use to describe it, for there he was, and there he will be for ever, alone and beautiful”.

The travellers do eventually encounter the White Lion. A reader unfamiliar with Peake might well expect this encounter to be anti-climatic. It is not; it is vast and sad and truly epic.

Reading Letters From a Lost Uncle it’s tempting to suggest that Peake’s true genius lay in this ability to invoke tragedy in the midst of absurdity. This is insufficient (my ideas of what made Peake great will change within the hour) but he was a genius and we were lucky to have him.

 

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