My review of 50 Writers, 50 Books: The Best Of Indian Fiction is in the most recent Time Out Delhi, and can be read here. I really enjoyed this collection; some essays more than others. And I’ll admit to a certain amount of warm-and-fuzzy that Mervyn Peake (NOT a writer of Indian fiction) shows up in there twice.
Philip Pullman, Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm and Mervyn Peake (illus.) Grimm’s Household Tales
I wrote last week’s column in a bit of a hurry, and had no idea that this week was the 200th anniversary of Grimm’s fairy tales. There’s an adorable Google Doodle today to commemorate this- it tells a version of the Little Red Riding Hood story in which knitting and rule of law triumph over wolfly evil. Video (from youtube) below; fortuitously-timed column below that.
“This is not a text”, proclaims Philip Pullman in his introduction to his new collection of fairy tale retellings, Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm. That these fairy tales don’t operate in quite the same way as other forms of story is something we all know. The basic forms of the stories are familiar to most of us – whether through books and parents as children or Disney films. We become aware quite early on that the fairy tale is infinitely adaptable. For many people I knew, this realisation came in the form of Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes, in which the author rewrote such classic stories as “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” and “Jack and the Beanstalk” to give them much more sensible endings. Dahl’s Goldilocks is caught and punished for her various criminal acts, while Jack learns that simply by bathing he can prevent the giant from smelling him.
Later in life we would all come across more versions of these fairy tales, often written specifically for an adult audience. Angela Carter’s short story collection The Bloody Chamber is the classic of this genre. Carter’s versions of these stories are lush and dark and feminist, and very characteristic of the author’s work. The Bloody Chamber was published in 1979. Since then, fairy tale retellings have become a genre of their own and rather an exhausted one. Writers do occasionally come up with fresh takes on the stories (the Kate Bernheimer edited My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me is a particularly good recent collection). But on the whole, the writerly trend of making a fairy tale one’s own has been mined out.
I’ve recently acquired two collections of Grimm’s fairy tales, both with the names of well-known writers on their covers. And yet both editions do something unusual.
The first is published by the British Library, and is simply titled Grimm’s Household Tales. The cover proclaims that it is illustrated by Mervyn Peake, the great artist and writer. What it doesn’t mention is the name of a writer or translator other than the Brothers Grimm; it’s as if these stories, having been collected by the Grimms, appeared spontaneously in English. It’s as if the author has been eliminated completely – why should one reteller, only the most recent of hundreds, be given credit over all those others who shaped the story in the past? It’s an artistic choice that earlier editions of the Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales) often made, but it’s not one I’ve seen frequently used in my lifetime. In the absence of a visible author, Peake’s weird, intricate illustrations are given even more prominence.
Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm, by contrast, has Pullman’s name featured prominently on the cover. In his introduction Pullman discusses the “tone licked clean” of Grimm’s fairy tales- in the versions of the stories recorded by the brothers there’s no sense of an individual author or style, simply because there is no “single mind” behind any of the stories. Pullman affirms the right of any reader of the Kinder- und Hausmärchen to make the story her own, but he appears to be doing the opposite. There’s nothing about Pullman’s retellings in this collection that makes them quintessentially his own; the author appears to be attempting to obliterate his own literary style in the service of the stories. At the end of each story Pullman adds a few notes on the various ways in which it has been interpreted; again, this is an attempt to embed the stories in their tradition rather than to take them out of it.
It’s convincingly done; to achieve prose this clear and this anonymous is no mean feat. If a child (or adult) were to only ever read one collection of fairy tales, Pullman’s would be ideal. If she was the sort of person who had an entire shelf of them, however, she might find it hard to tell the difference.
From here, Mervyn Peake’s original drawing for Irma Prunesquallor. Included in my copies of Titus Groan and Gormenghast, and for some reason on the cover of one of my copies of Titus Alone (in which the character does not appear).
And the Knitting Sheep, from Peake’s illustrations of Lewis Carroll’s two Alice in Wonderland books. Long before I found a copy of the Peake-illustrated editions for myself, I saw this particular one in a Lewis treasury at a friend’s house. I may have shouted “Irma!”. Now that I see them side by side (or in this case one on top of the other) the differences are slightly more visible- including, obviously, the fact that one subject is a sheep and the other a human woman.
The sheep looks happier.
Technically Maeve Gilmore and Mervyn Peake, but only the fragment at the very beginning is Peake’s, and most of what I’ll be discussing is therefore his wife’s.
The situation as I understand it is as follows: Peake died in 1968 leaving only a fragment and notes for the intended fourth book in the Titus series, Titus Awakes. In the years following his death his wife Maeve Gilmore, with whom he had discussed the book, worked on a manuscript of her own based on these scraps of Titus Awakes titled Search Without End. According to Brian Sibley’s introduction to this book Gilmore did not initially plan to publish the book (though there’s no indication that she was against it). The manuscript was lost for some time but resurfaced early last year and was published in time for Peake’s centenary.
The result is a very strange book, and a very uncomfortable read.
To start with, Titus Awakes is closer in feel to Titus Alone than to the two books set in Gormenghast. Titus Groan and Gormenghast are both deeply strange books in many ways, but the world in which they are set is a self-contained one, and there’s a general sense of knowing where things ought to be (this is something that informs the plot to a great extent as well). Titus Alone represents a massive change stylistically – suddenly we’re in a world that Gormenghast hadn’t prepared us for, but that exists in the same universe. Suddenly we have cars and pretentious literary partygoers and surveillance technology. You don’t know where this world will lead you.
Titus Alone has Titus wandering, and trying to come to terms with a sense of self that isn’t centred around Gormenghast. Titus Awakes has, in some ways, more of the same, but many of the places Titus visits seem to make reference to Peake’s own life – particularly his World War II experiences. There is a meeting with an artist (Maeve herself?), some time spent in a hospital, and at the end of the book Titus travels to Sark (where the Peake family lived for some years) and appears to meet Peake himself. Gilmore sometimes captures the weird, dreamlike quality of much of Peake’s writing. Attempts to write like Peake (if that ever was the intent) fail – often Gilmore has her characters speaking with more like the narrator of the Gormenghast books than actual people.
Sibley states in the introduction that while the book “begun as an act of homage” it evolved into “a highly personal quest to understand her husband’s tragic descent into illness in terms of his artistic and literary brilliance”. This is the real problem – it is intensely personal. I suspect that the writing of it may have been cathartic, but it’s so uncomfortably tied up in Gilmore’s own relationship with Peake that for me, at least, it was hard to separate the two. I felt like an intruder all the time.
Gilmore has written another book about her life with Peake – the autobiographical A World Away. In terms of style and coherence that book is probably a lot better than this one. But what I took from Titus Awakes that I could not see in A World Away was a stronger sense of Peake and Gilmore as both being artists with a great sense of respect and understanding for each other’s work.But this, once again, is less about the book than the Peakes – however hard I try I find myself judging Titus Awakes on what it tells me about the relationship between the authors rather than on its own merits. And that doesn’t feel right at all.
I’ll have a couple of longer pieces up in a few days. For now, though, here are some links to other Peake-ish things:
A wonderful tribute in The Guardian, with contributions from China Miéville, Michael Moorcock, Hilary Spurling and AL Kennedy.
John Holbo at Crooked Timber initiates a discussion on Peake. He also pinpoints one of the things I like about Titus Alone; the genre-bending aspect of it “Like if spaceships had shown up in “The Return of the King”.”
Last year, Paul Charles Smith did a good, in depth reading of the series over the course of six posts. Those are all located here.
Nandini Ramchandran commemorated Peake’s birth centenary on her First Post blog, where she suggested that Peake’s training as an artist and vocation as a poet were what made him brilliant.
An older review, by Adam Roberts, of Peake’s collected poems can be found at Strange Horizons here.
And musically, there’s The Cure’s “The Drowning Man“, which was inspired by Gormenghast. I’d also link to The Strawbs’ “Lady Fuchsia” (and why are they all exclusively fixated on Fuchsia?), but youtube tells me it’s not available in my country.
Next: a “Why you should read Peake” post? A “what is wrong but also what is right with the BBC adaptation” post?
[Links to things I haven't yet read are welcome - tell me in the comments or over email (aishwarya at practicallymarzipan dot com) and I will add them to the post.]
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)
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.
Kindle is a new monthly magazine. It looks good and has some very impressive ideals. I’ve really enjoyed the last couple of issues. Now the nice people behind the magazine have offered me a regular column. Each month I will be reviewing something that is awesome, out of copyright, and available for free online. I’ve been trying to read more old books in any case, and I like being able to justify this as “work”.
In 1897 a certain book is published about a strange, seductive, foreign creature that comes to London and wreaks havoc, and kidnaps women. A group of men (one of whom has already had a harrowing encounter with the creature in its lair) set out in pursuit. It is part detective novel, part horror story. But this book is not Bram Stoker’s Dracula, it is Richard Marsh’s mostly-forgotten classic The Beetle. Dracula was also published in 1897, and Marsh’s book outsold it considerably. It’s strange that the book is so little known today.
A young politician named Paul Lessingham encounters a mysterious cult while traveling in Africa. He manages to escape it, but is pursued to London by a strange and inhuman creature. Along the way Lessingham’s fiancée Marjorie and her friend and would-be-suitor Sydney Atherton get caught up in this mess. As do an innocent clerk and a private detective. Eventually the Beetle kidnaps Marjorie.
One thing that makes The Beetle fascinating to me is that it encapsulates so perfectly everything one might be worried about in Britain in 1897. Imagine; there you are, trying to convince yourself that the British Empire is strong and mighty and invincible. But you’ve conquered parts of Africa (and especially Egypt) that are constant reminders of great empires eventually collapsing. They’re also reminders that the people you’ve conquered are capable of more than you give them credit for, and may even have knowledge that you do not have. It’s an uncomfortable thought.
Back home, things are equally fraught. Feminism has happened. Women are demanding the vote. Even gender isn’t that stable anymore. And in the middle of all this, Richard Marsh writes the character of the Beetle –able to shape-shift, androgynous, African, tanned and genuinely scary. It’s almost as if he purposefully set out to create the embodiment of everything his countrymen feared, wrapped up in one demented package.
And there’s Marjorie Linton. It’s difficult to be sure what the book makes of Marjorie. She’s a feminist, makes her own decisions, and campaigns for the right to vote. She has more personality than any of the other major characters. The inability of this little group of Victorian men to deal with her (Atherton’s moustache-quivering outrage is particularly choice) is occasionally played for laughs, but equally there’s an undercurrent of unease over where all this women’s liberation will end. Marjorie does not get a happy ending.
But you don’t need to be a Victorian to be affected by The Beetle. At its best moments (these generally involve large insects) it is genuinely menacing. It’s also marvelously structured, with its multi-person narrative, its flashbacks and its changing styles. It’s the sort of book that is so tempting to analyse that one often forgets that it is an incredibly entertaining and surprisingly accomplished book in its own right. It’s ludicrous and pulpy, but that could be equally said of books that are far better regarded. At the end of the day, The Beetle is enormously fun to read, and who’s going to turn that down?
And now here is a hint of great change. Great changes are to occur to this blog in the near future. I hope you’ll all stick around.
…a few things I’ve been meaning to link to:
Paul Charles Smith recently reread Mervyn Peake’s Titus Groan trilogy. My love of Peake is well known to those who have been reading this blog for a while, but if I haven’t yet convinced you of his greatness I hope that Paul will.
Adam Roberts has been reading (for the first time, and I suspect it will be the last) Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time books. Fans of the series may not find these posts entirely enjoyable, but I think they’re excellent. A sample:
As Samuel Beckett’s career progressed, his writing became more and more pared down, less and less verbal, increasingly approaching the asymptote that was at the heart of Beckett’s bleak vision: silence. The great, productive paradox at the heart of Beckett was that one of his century’s greatest verbal artists mistrusted the ability of words ever to articulate truth—not just particular arrangements of words but verbal art itself. The Unnameable, in that near-sublime novel, says: ‘I’ll speak of me when I speak no more.’ For him silence is ‘the only chance of saying something at last that is not false.
To step briskly ab sublimi ad ridiculus, Jordan’s career manifests something similar. Insofar as Heroic Fantasy is a fundamentally narrative artform, to which readers go in order to experience the pleasure of following the movement of characters through time, Jordan says: no. Wotix is the closest he has yet come to a book that disperses that force of narrative momentum—that great strength of the novel as a mode—into a great swarm of indistinguishable coexistent characters and non-progressions. If the traditional novel takes the shape of a quest, a linearly horizontal progression through narrative time, Wotix explodes that linearity in a bewildering near-dimensionless knot or tangle of non-progression.
Larry Nolen has also been reading the Wheel of Time books, though in his case these are rereads. He’s generally worth a read, and though he’s kinder to the books than Roberts, these are still thoughtful, critical, and funny.
Casting actors for imaginary movie versions of books is generally great fun (and something I have spent far too much time on). A few months ago Gail Carriger discussed who she would like to see play her characters here. I love most of her choices, except that Paul Bettany would clearly make an ideal Professor Lyall.
Now Celine Kiernan has a competition up on her blog where you get to cast her three main characters for the chance to win the trilogy – which means getting hold of The Rebel Prince many months before the rest of us.
And then I will be forced to hunt you down and commit violence upon your person. Go look.
You’ve probably already read Sridala Swami’s interview of China Mieville. If not, do so immediately. I admire both of them, and they seem like they’re both really enjoying this conversation.
And while on the subject of Mieville, Jonathan McCalmont wrote this epic review of The City and the City. I liked the book rather a lot when I read it last year. But it’s a good review – I’ve only recently discovered McCalmont and so far I’m a fan.
Also, Roswitha (like me) has been keeping a record of everything she reads this year. She’s also (unlike me) a wonderful writer, and her Book Munch posts are a joy to read.
Finally, and not particularly book related: Aadisht is now writing an opinion column for Yahoo India. The first two columns are here (I took that picture!). I may be biased, but I think they are hilarious. Sanjay Sipahimalani and Jai Arjun Singh are also writing for yahoo. Nothing but good can come of this.
In the last three days I have acquired new editions of books I already own purely for their illustrators. The first was a (bright pink) copy of H.G Wells’ War of the Worlds illustrated by Edward Gorey. I did not know that this existed; I was thrilled to find that it did. It’s on my shelf looking pulpy and garish and awesome, and I’m very pleased with it.
The second had more significance because it was something I’d been looking for for ages. Regular readers of this blog have probably noticed by now that I like Mervyn Peake. Rather a lot. At some point in the 1940s Peake did a series of illustrations for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. Some of these pop up in anthologies sometimes, and I’ve always admired them (I’m almost as much a fan of Peake’s art as I am of his writing). Then yesterday there it was in Midland (the Aurobindo Market branch; the bit outside the shop where all the Penguin classics and grubby children’s books are kept), slightly foxed but generally untouched and in good condition. Anyone could have picked it up. I’m lucky it was me.
I learnt a new word today.
I have returned to the motherland for a few days and have spent today meeting people and looking at books. Since I was last here, a number of things that might interest me have been published – I was glad to finally pick up Vandana Singh’s The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet. However, one book whose existence had completely escaped my notice (and the notice of Jai and Aadisht, who were present when it was discovered) was Novoneel Chakraborty’s A Thing Beyond Forever.
The question of why we hadn’t noticed the book before is a difficult one to answer. I suspect it has something to do with the title. I’ve said before that gratuitous ellipses and the word “love” in capitals are important for popularity, and ATBF has neither. It tries to make up for this in its subtitle (of sorts, I wouldn’t think it was a subtitle were it not on the cover and spine), “The reward for every true love is not love…” The reader will immediately perceive that while “love” is written in lower case, it is mentioned twice to make up for it. Still, I don’t think this will prove adequate, even though the ellipses are all one could wish. And my reason for saying so is this – ATBF is simply too difficult a read.
This is not to suggest for a moment that ATBF is a bad book. On the contrary, the dense, lush prose at the beginning of the book reminds one of the opening pages of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast or some of Joseph Conrad’s more evocative passages. Consider:
The girl had never witnessed anything like this before. The place, like future, was an arcanum but, unlike it, there was an air of democracy all over. The view resembled the surreal painting of utopia which the brush of her rapturous wishes had made on the canvass of her heart, since childhood. It wasn’t exactly heaven but something more beatific and specific. It was a dream. And the ambience sprayed a déjà senti feeling on her.
Srishti Publishers’ earlier publication, Tuhin Sinha’s That Thing Called LOVE: An Unusual Romance… and the Mumbai Rain was praised because “no other book will give you as many big words for only a hundred rupees“. That was then. For the same price, ATBF outclasses it utterly. This is clear even on the back covers of the two books. TTCL’s protagonist merely had to “strike a balance between chimera and actuality”; ATBF’s protagonist, Radhika, is not only taken through “a cavalcade of exclusive events”, but even after she receives “the copasetic answers” (this is my new word; after much headscratching over whether it existed the internet informed me that it really does) the book is not over.
According to the back cover, ATBF is about Dr. Radhika Sharma, “an aberrant and arrogant feminist” on the outside. The book offers a frank and unembarrassed look at gender relations. Even the cover has the silhouette of a woman in pink gesturing after the silhouette of a man in a blue tie. Cutting straight to the heart of it, the book tells us that despite her feminism, Radhika attracts men so that “they felt the torch of civililization revolt between their legs” (not my emphasis). During the book’s magnificently written sex scene, Chakraborty explains the difference between men and women, showing a definite familiarity with Freud when he describes “the gap within her – the gap which epitomizes womanhood”. Women do not have torches.
The sex scene itself deserves to be quoted in its entirety (because it is so difficult to find well-written sex) but a few lines will have to suffice.
He put the tip of his thirsty tongue on her back and slithered up like a sexy snake… He descended and touching her breasts with his face reached the belly. He, with the ferocity of a caged carnivore, rubbed his cheeks on it and encircled her belly button with the tip of his tongue that was, she knew, poisoned with indomitable* passion… Next, the figure took her inside the adjacent room which, like the end of the corridor, was brightly lit but with the white luminous bulbs of true love.
*Like the Gauls.