Keeping faithfully to my pledge to avoid the doomladen headlines about graduate employment emblazoned across the papers this summer, I have been slowly wading through a stack of dust-coated books languishing on shelves in the attic. Despite stellar recommendations from my Dad, when I approached Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, it was with a certain amount of trepidation. With over 1200 pages of small print and narrow margins it looked to be a weighty undertaking. Initially, my hesitation seemed to have been justified: curling up in bed to the opening chapter I found my mind frequently sliding off on a tangent and I ended up having to read the first page several times.
Once critic described the trilogy as ‘a gargantuan feast’, which is an apt metaphor. Though initially daunted by the scale and detail of the books, it wasn’t long before I was swept up and adrift in the mysterious fantasies of Gormenghast, devouring chapter after chapter. Like nothing I have ever read before, the Gormenghast books conjured images beyond my imagination - a creaking kingdom hiding a wealth of secrets and housing complex, idiosyncratic characters, a vast world with an overwhelming aura of mystery, an atmosphere heavy with suspense and anticipation.
I couldn’t help but be amazed at the breadth of Peake's imagination and marvel at how he managed to translate his visions into such stark visual images. He seems to have used words as a painter would experiment with different colours and textures, and I was frequently groping for a dictionary. Curious about the man behind Gormenghast, I recently read ‘A World Away’, a biography of Mervyn Peake written by his wife, Mauve Gilmore. My admiration for Peake grew as I was temporarily immersed in the exciting, artistic bohemia of 1930s Britain, discovering him to be not only a novelist, but also a poet, painter and playwright. However, his wife regretfully describes him as "A shadow. A man with a shadow”. Tragically, he was diagnosed with premature senility at only 46.
Pondering Peake’s sad fate, I began to question whether great artists are prone to suffer or have suffered from some sort of mental turmoil and ostracism from society. Certainly lots of the big names seem to be marked out from the crowd, whether it is by some tragedy in their past, a distinguishing characteristic or an illness. To mention some of those I have studied: the novelist Hermann Hesse was deeply immersed in mental physchoanalysis, journalist Joseph Roth was a Jew living in Germany and author Christopher Isherwood was a homosexual foreigner in 1920s Berlin. Does their artistic insight and sensitivity result in their being slightly removed from the mainstream? Or does their being removed from the mainstream stimulate their art?
I mulled this over for a good few days before realising that I was in fact debating the topic that I wrote my dissertation on. 15,000 words analysing whether the artist is an outsider. Should I be disheartened that I so easily forgot the result of 9 months hard toil? Or should I be reassured that my fascination with the artist still holds strong despite those 9 months?
Either way, I clearly need to reread the conclusion!