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Festival of Ideas

Peake on Peake

Reprinted from the Festival of Ideas blog. Mostly because I suspect you’re not reading it, and this one fits here too:

Sebastian Peake believes his father’s contribution to the literature, arts and poetry of the 20th Century has been overlooked as a direct result of his multiplicity of expression.

Now that might be an essay title when someone gets around to writing a course addressing the role of the fantastic in post-Enlightenment fiction, but for now it’s just a theme, albeit a provocative one, that dominated the talk on Peake at the City Museum last night. Peake (the younger) makes a convincing case, and it’s one I’ve heard before, certainly with regard to the hierarchy of the arts (illustration – Peake’s principal professional output – being perceived as a lower, more commercial form of expression than fine art with a capital F and A). His output as a writer (which I’m not an expert on – aside from Gormenghast) was undoubtedly varied, and prolific, his work as an illustrator (both of his own work, and of classic novels) stands as one of the more recognisable styles of the last century. What impressed me about last night’s talk though, was the sheer variety of work Peake produced. He’s best known for the scratchy, almost overworked caricature style evidenced in Gormenghast, but the fluidity of line on display in his sketches, the quick, almost hurried work of a man seeking to capture form and weight inside of a few minutes, or seconds, was astonishing to see.

What I’d suggest, though, is that Peake wasn’t actually sidelined by virtue of his being too prolific, rather his legacy is underrated for committing the sin of genre. The academic and literary response to work that deals with the fantastic can be summed up by Tzvetan Todorov’s noted reluctance to entertain the notion of ’suspension of disbelief’ in his study of the form.

(Or as a wiser mind than mine expressed it: “just as theories of the “pure” novel can end up describing only ‘Middlemarch’, Todorov’s theory ends up describing (insecurely) little more than ‘The Turn of the Screw.’“)

Mervyn Peake, then, is sidelined in the history 20th century literature for wanting to engage the imagination. He’s arguably a better world-builder than Tolkien (largely because he draws from a wider palette, and knows how to use it), and he’s a satirist in the tradition of Rabelais. He does deserve more recognition, but not, I think (as one questioner put it last night), because the British are bad at seeing a range of talent in one man, rather because we’re often looking in the wrong place.


2 comments for “Peake on Peake”

  1. “Peake on Peake” – Spying on the uppermost part of a mountain.

    Posted by mongo | May 14, 2008, 10:42 pm
  2. I very much appreciated your coments on my recent talk in Bristol which throws and new
    and interesting light on my late
    father. Regards, Sebastian Peake

    Posted by Sebastian Peake | June 13, 2008, 5:43 am

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