An hundred pages in and not yet a tenth of the way through the volume I have long ago passed the realization that I have made a great discovery. It leads me to reflect that the best authors are inimitable and the best works stand alone, at least in the realm of the fantastic.
I might say that Mervyn Peake is like Poe, but Mervyn Peake has characters. Peake is like Poe in that Peake has heavy and sinister atmospheres, and the corresponding descriptions of fantastic places; but Peake also has nature and sunlight.
Peake is like Charles Williams without the supernatural. He is most like Williams in being altogether unique, an imaginer whose imagination ranges far beyond the borders of other imaginations. I have read all of Williams’ novels; in one hundred pages of Peake I have found one I am sure is equal.
It is early to judge, but compared with the satisfaction and completeness of Tolkien’s one long work, Gormenghast promises to pay off as well. The most wonderful thing about Tolkien is that when you are done with the story you devour the appendices and after that you are left looking around for more. Only one hundred pages into Gormenghast it is a matter of great satisfaction to consider that I still have a thousand pages to go.
I would also compare Peake to another fantastic writer: CS Lewis. Lewis is always interesting, I do not find him failing to hold my attention by making tedious excursions or including parts that do not advance the story. I do not get that feeling from Peake either, and this is strange considering he writes more like a painter than anything. Yet it is because of this his descriptions are as precise and illuminating, usually, as Lewis always is.
The most fascinating thing about Peake is the way he describes. If you think of each chapter as a painting you will not be too far off. I read in the introduction that Peake was also an artist besides a writer. In his success at both he was compared to Wyndham Lewis. Peake has a most remarkable way with language and a wonderful power of description. This if from the first page:
This tower, patched unevenly with black ivy, arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven. At night the owls made of it an echoing throat; by day it stood voiceless and cast its long shadow.
The kind of description Peake undertakes can only proceed by intuition, and his intuition seldom fails him (I think Dunsany is more unerring). Because Peake writes as if he is drawing or painting, you get a lot of description, a lot of atmosphere, the details are all brought together and then you get the bit of action that it was all being built up to display. It is amazing. I have to put down the book and repeat the sentences sometimes.
So voluptuous is his way of writing, and so glad was I of what I had discovered—and just in time for a week of vacation—that I made myself some hash browns, two eggs and coffee and celebrated at 9PM with a hearty meal.
And last I would compare Mervyn Peak with Susanna Clarke. Like Clarke he has populated his story with the most interesting, disturbing, impetuous, pathetic in an intriguing way, strange and alluring collection of people. He reminds me of Fielding, and is also called Dickensian—but I would not know about that. Like Fielding and like Clarke, he has the proper measure of wit, and uses it as deftly if more sparingly. And what interesting ways Peake has with dialogue! Just like Susanna Clarke.
Well, enough; I am very pleased. The book is so rich that even if I spend three hours every day, I’m unlikely to proceed much further than a hundred pages. I’ll probably spend more since there is nothing to call the heart like a week off and a good, thick book. I’ll probably spend less since I am always stimulated in my writing when I read rich, imaginative works.