A delightful little bit of fun for die-hard fans of Peake's illustrations and those who like wordplay.
It's a simple (but beautifully produced) little book of 29 (why 29?) illustrations of figures of speech, with a list of answers at the back.
The one on the cover, illustrated at the top of this review, is "Grin and bear it", which gives you an idea of what it's like.
It could make a good party game (as a one-off): a few are easy to guess, most a little tricky, and one or two, very hard indeed.
There is much overlap between this 1974 book by Peake's widow and a collaborator, and Peter Winnington's "Mervyn Peake: The Man and His Art" (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...) from 2007. This one is limited to black and white, but in addition to his art, it includes significant excerpts of his writings: poems, novels (including parallel passages of an early and late draft of "Titus Groan"), and apparently, the whole of "The Craft of the Lead Pencil". The layout isn't great, so you have to keep your wits about you, but it's worth it; the former is also true of this review!
The tragic and beautiful cover picture is of Jo, a crossing sweeper, from Bleak House, which was Peake's favourite Dickens. See "Sketches from Bleak House" (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...).
This book opens with a three-page biography by his widow, after which it is a sweeping, chronological overview of Peake's works, but linking his works to events in his life, his health etc. I've summarised much of this in my review of Maeve's memoirs, but the key points are that he was born and raised in China until the age of 11, went to boarding school, then art school, did national service but was invalided out after a nervous breakdown, became a war artist and was traumatised by what he saw at Belsen, died prematurely of a combination of Parkinson's, depression and the treatment thereof (but it took a decade).
One key point is that Peake was initially very much an artist (he went to art school and later taught, as well as taking commissions); writing was a private hobby, and most of his writings were illustrated anyway.
Some of his thoughts about art are covered: the fact that the text he wrote is called "The Craft of the Lead Pencil" is significant, as is demonstrated by the content included here. He exhorts students to learn to see and to be expressive - skills that are also evident in his writing.
He also says, "Line... is language" and "Rhythm - a quality inherent in all forms of art". It is possible that Peake was a synaesthete: in her memoirs ("A World Away" -https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...), Maeve mentions that he tended to think of each number as either male of female.
In addition to "The Craft", Peake explained his theories of drawing in a lengthy introduction to a collection of his drawings, but I don't think he ever wrote about writing in the same way.
I've reviewed Peake's writings at length in individual reviews (see my Gormenghast-Peake shelf:https://www.goodreads.com/review/list...). However, I will mention this painful poem, written during a hospital stay:
"Heads float about me, come and go, absorb me;
Terrify me that they deny the nightmare
That they should be, defy me;
And all the secrecy; the horror
Of truth, of this intrinsic truth
Drifting, ah God, along the corridors
Of the world; hearing the metal
Clang; and the rolling wheels,
Heads float about me haunted
By solitary sorrows."
In 1941, poet Walter de la Mare wrote an amusing fan letter about the illustrations to a book of Nursery Rhymes, concluding:
"How many nurseries you may have appalled is another matter. How many scandalised parents may have written to you, possibly enclosing doctors' and neurologists' bills, you will probably not disclose. Anyhow, most other illustrated books for children look silly by comparison."
CS Lewis described "Titus Groan" and "Gormenghast" thus:
"It has the hallmark of a true myth: i.e. you have seen nothing like it before you read the book, but after that you see things like it everywhere."
I'm not sure I agree with that, but it's something to ponder.
In addition, Winnington mentions that Elizabeth Bowen was a fan, and Joanne Harris is one too.
Peake concurrently portrayed contrasting views, such as portraying Swelter (in Titus Groan) as a ship in full sail and a mass of shifting lights and colours.
There is an anecdote about an unpleasant encounter with a camel in China when he was a boy, which is used to explain the number of nasty camels that crop up in his works, and that I hadn't really noticed.
There is a good bibliography of works by and about Peake.
Nonsense isn't a genre of which I'm especially fond, but combined with Peake's drawings, this is a delightful collection.
There is considerable variety: some are very short, while others are longer, narrative poems. Many are illustrated in Peake's inimitable style, and his way with words is given full rein, with a smattering of invented ones, and odd rhymes, such as "horrible" and "deplorable".
There are a few links to other works, most notably, "It Worries me to Know", whose final line is ["Across the roofs of Gormenghast". (hide spoiler)]
Pirates have a mention, of course. The poem "Of Pygmies, Palms and Pirates" lists lots of apparently random things and ends that of these things, "I have no more to say", which perhaps makes it some sort of post-modern meta non-something.
Generally, I prefer fantastical creatures and paradoxes to outright nonsense, and these are present, e.g. "I saw all of a sudden No sign of any ship."
My favourite poem in this collection is "I cannot give the Reasons", for its imagery; here are the third and fifth/final verses:
"In gorgery and gushness
and all that's squishified
My voice has all the lushness
of what I can't abide.
Among the antlered mountains
I make my viscous way
and watch the sepia fountains
throw up their lime-green spray."
Others that stood out for me were "The Trouble with Geraniums", which is fairly traditional nonsense, and the formulaic (but funny) "Aunts and Uncles" ("When Uncle/Aunty X became a Y...").
The most surprising piece is a draft of a narrative poem, "The Adventures of Footfruit". It is about non-conformity in a totalitarian state (echoes of Gormenghast - or am I looking too hard?),subliminal advertising to stoke consumer demand, and where "Priests are the salesmen to whom one confesses not owning".
This edition has a recent forewords (2011) by his son, Sebastian, and ranting poet, Benjamin Zephaniah, as well as the original introduction by his wife, Maeve. Maeve mentions Peake's love of The Diary of a Nobody, saying it "overjoyed his permanent sense of the ridiculous, but he was not immune to the perfections of Jane Austen, the world she presented being equally ridiculous, only more proper". I'm not sure what Janeites would say to that!
A delightful children's book written (handwriting) and illustrated by Mervyn Peake, though like all really good children's books, it can also be enjoyed by adults.
Note that this is unrelated to Mr Slaughterboard, which is a longer, less illustrated story of a bibliophile, and is included in "Peake's Progress" (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...).
This book reflects Peake's familiar love of pirates and islands, though it's really a simple story of friendship, fun and adventure.
The opening strikes a change from the traditional "Once upon a time", yet somehow has a fairytale familiarity:
"Far beyond the jungles and the burning deserts lay the bright blue ocean that stretched forever in all directions. There were little green islands with undiscovered edges, and whales swam around them in this sort of way." (and there is a picture).
The illustrations use a few solid colours (it was first published in 1939), but there is a wealth of detail in the lines, shading and stippling. This is especially true of details: tattoos, body hair, fabric, plants, sea creatures, and patched repairs of people(!), clothes and ship.
The publication date also means there are hints of colonialism, but in context, I have no problem with that. The lack of women reflects the plot and setting, and the gay subtext is just a subtext that will go over the heads of small children and shouldn't be an issue for anyone else (most cowboy stories and many pirate ones have similar, tacit, themes, which is why Brokeback Mountain was startling).
There is a panoply of fantastical creatures, with suitably exotic names, including the lonely Mousterashe, croaking Hunchabil, lazy Guggaflop, melancholy Saggerdroop, loathsome Squirmarins, along with the prosaically named Yellow Creature.
Short and charming.
The memoirs of the childhood of a white girl (Alexandra, known as Bobo), raised on African farms in the 1970s and 1980s, along with her sister, Van(essa). But it's not a gilded, ex-pat life: her parents lose their farm in forced land distribution, after which they are itinerant farm managers, who move where the work is, often to disease-ridden and war-torn areas. They also have their own problems with bereavement and alcohol. It is perhaps closer to misery lit, although the tone is mostly light, and the worst episodes glossed over.
It is told in a chatty and slightly childish and rambling style (she is a child for most of the book), mostly in the present tense. This means the precise sequence of events is not always clear, but overall, it is an endearing insight into some troubled lives and times. It does rather fizzle out at the end, though.
The opening is a startling demonstration of how mundane life-threatening danger can become. "Mum says, 'Don't come creeping into our room at night.' They sleep with loaded guns beside them... 'Why not?' 'We might shoot you.'" Not very reassuring to a small child who might want a parent at night. By the age of 5, all children are taught to handle a gun and shoot to kill. There are many more examples throughout the book. For instance, the parents buy a mine-proofed Land Rover with a siren "to scare terrorists", but actually its only use is "to announce their arrival at parties". At the airport, "officials wave their guns at me, casually hostile".
IDENTITY AND NOT BELONGING
The Fullers are white and apparently upper middle class, but heavily in debt (though they manage to pay school fees). Mum says "We have breeding... which is better than having money", and they're pretty bad at managing what little money they do have. Often, they live in homes that are really dilapidated and lacking basic facilities.
Bobo feels neither African (where she spends most of her childhood) nor British (where she was born). At a mixed race primary school, she is teased for being sunburnt and asked "Where are you from originally?" and when at a white school that then admits African children, learns what it is like to be excluded by language (they talk Shona to each other). She is also very aware of her family's thick lips, contrasting with their pale skin and blonde hair.
One aspect that some have objected to is the attitude and language relating to the Africans. However, as I read it, Fuller is merely describing how things really were: casual, and sometimes benevolent racism were the norm.
As a small child, she resists punishment by saying "Then I'll fire you", which is awful, but reflects a degree of truth, and similarly, her disgust at using a cup that might have been used by an African is a learned reaction. However, as she grows older and more questioning, it's clear she is no racist.
It would be very sad if fear of offence made it impossible to describe the past honestly, though the list of terms by which white Rhodesians referred to black ones might seem unnecessary.
I suppose you could argue she should have done more to challenge the views around her, such as when Mum is bemoaning the fact that she wants just one country in Africa to stay white-run, but she was only a child at this point.
In her parents' defence, they treated their African staff pretty well, including providing free first aid help, despite the fact they were so short of money they had to pawn Mum's jewellery to buy seed each year, then claim it back if the harvest was good. "When our tobacco sells well, we are rich for a day." Only a day.
What to make of an observation like this? "Africans whose hatred reflects the sun like a mirror into our faces, impossible to ignore."
There is beautifully written passage describing driving through a European settlement and then Tribal Trust Lands: "there are flowering shrubs and trees... planted at picturesque intervals. The verges of the road have been mown to reveal neat, upright barbed-wire fencing and fields of army-straight tobacco... or placidly grazing cattle shiny and plump with sweet pasture. In contrast, the tribal lands "are blown clear of vegetation. Spiky euphorbia hedges which bleed poisonous, burning milk when their stems are broken poke greenly out of otherwise barren, worn soil. The schools wear the blank faces of war buildings, their windows blown blind by rocks or guns or mortars. Their plaster is an acne of bullet marks. The huts and small houses crouch open and vulnerable... Children and chickens and dos scratch in the red, raw soil and stare at us as we drive thought their open, eroding lives." Those are not the words of a racist.
DEPRESSION, TRAUMA, ALCOHOLISM
There are some very dark episodes (including deaths), and at one point, even the dogs are depressed, and yet the book itself is not depressing. For instance, the four stages of Mum's drunken behaviour in front of visitors is treated humourously.
More troublingly, a victim of a sexual assault is just told not to exaggerate, and the whole thing brushed away. There is equally casual acceptance of the children smoking and drinking from a young age.
There is fun, but also a lack of overt love, particularly touching (the many dogs are far luckier in this respect!); aged only 7, Bobo notes "Mum hardly even lets me hold her hand". That is a legacy of multiple hurt and grief - and the consequent problems.
Then there is a life-changing tragedy, for which Bobo feels responsible: "My life is sliced in half". Afterwards, "Mum and Dad's joyful careless embrace of life is sucked away, like water swirling down a drain."
A later tragedy has more severe consequences, and these passages are described more painfully:
* "In the morning, when she's just on the pills, she's very sleepy and calm and slow and deliberate, like someone who isn't sure where her body ends and the world starts."
* "When Mum is drugged and sad and singing... it is a contained, soggy madness" but then "it starts to get hard for me to know mere Mum's madness ends and the world's madness begins."
* "She hardly bothers to blink, it's as if she's a fish in the dry season, in the dried-up bottom of a cracking river bed, waiting for rain to come and bring her to life."
* "Mum smiles, but... it's a slipping and damp thing she's doing with her lips which looks as much as if she's lost control of her mouth as anything else."
* "Her sentences and thoughts are interrupted by the cries of her dead babies."
* "To leave a child in an unmarked grave is asking for trouble."
* She is grieving "with her mind (which is unhinged) and her body (which is alarming and leaking)".
* A new home "held a green-leafy lie of prosperity in its jewelled fist".
* When they stop a journey at a fancy hotels, the opulence is unfamiliar: "the chairs were swallowingly soft".
* "The first rains... were still deciding what sort of season to create."
* "It is so hot outside that the flamboyant tree outside cracks to itself, as if already anticipating how it will feel to be on fire... swollen clouds scrape purple fat bellies on the tops of the surrounding hills."
* Captured wild cattle give "reluctant milk" and even after adding Milo milkshake powder, "nothing can disguise the taste of the reluctant milk".
* A German aid worker "is keen on saving the environment, which, until then, I had not noticed needed saving".
* The ex-pat lives were typically "extra-marital, almost-incestuous affairs bred from heat and boredom and drink." When they go to England for good, they remember Africa with "a fondness born of distance and the tangy reminder of a gin-and-tonic evening".
An extraordinary, lyrical book that is about the power of storytelling in - and about - our lives.
Other themes are light/dark/blindness (literal and metaphorical), outcasts, and the contrast between permanence and immobility (symbolised by the lighthouse) and change (people and the sea).
The fictional characters (one of whom has strong parallels with Winterson - see below) have some interaction with real characters and their works (Darwin, Robert Louis Stevenson and Wagner), and a broadly realistic story is sprinkled with slightly fairytale-like qualities, especially at the start, which also has comical aspects! Yet somehow, Winterson conjures this odd medley into something coherent, beautiful and profound.
There are two main narrative strands, both set in the small and remote Scottish village of Salts, and its lighthouse: mysterious Victorian priest, Babel Dark, and Silver, a girl orphaned in 1969.
Silver is the narrator, and the opening chapters reminded me of a Roald Dahl's children's story: she and her shamed mother live outside the village, in a house cut into the hill such that it has a sloping floor, furniture has to be nailed down, they can only "eat food that stuck to the plate", and their dog has developed back legs shorter than the front.
A tragi-comic accident leaves Silver an orphan. After a short spell with a Dahlian spinster, she goes to live with Pew the blind lighthousekeeper, and the book loses the comedy, but retains some magic. "Some of the light went out of me, it seemed proper that I should go and live in a place where all the light shone outwards."
NARRATIVE STRUCTURE, STORIES, STORYTELLING
Don't expect a single, linear narrative of a consistent style. "A beginning, a middle and an end is the proper way to tell a story. But I have difficulty with that method." It doesn't matter because "The continuous narrative of existence is a lie... there are lit-up moments, and the rest is dark."
Pew is a master storyteller, and Silver weaves his stories into the one she is telling. The boundaries of fact and fiction are often blurred within her world (as in this book itself, with its mention of real historical figures): Pew will describe doing something that happened before he was born, and when challenged, dismisses it as his second sight or "well, the Pew that was born then", whilst retaining the suggestion that in some mysterious way it was actually him.
Perhaps part of the reasons for Silver's blending of fact and fiction was prompted by this: a psychiatrist defines psychosis as being out of touch with reality, and her response is "Since then, I have been trying to find out what reality is, so that I can touch it."
The musings on stories are the most lyrical and magical aspects, and suggest the tangled ways in which they thread through our lives. "In fairy stories, naming is knowledge" and that is reflected in this story in several key ways.
Most stories never finish, "There was an ending - there always is - but the story went on past the ending - it always does". Similarly, "There's no story that's the start of itself, any more than a child comes into the world without parents."
"All the stories must be told... Maybe all stories are worth hearing, but not all stories are worth telling... The stories themselves make the meaning."
If you had forty minutes to tell your life story, what would you say? (This isn't a long book, but there's more than forty minutes' worth.)
The final chapters are more overtly philosophical, with less actual story. I think they're none the worse for that, but some may be disconcerted by the chane.
SILVER AS WINTERSON?
Winterson's first book, Oranges are Not the Only Fruit (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...), was explicitly a fictionalised version of her childhood, and recently, she published the more factual "Why be Happy when you Could be Normal?" (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...), but there are many aspects of Winterson in this as well: an orphan born in 1959, who finds solace in stories and libraries, "had to grow up on my own", and forges her own life. Some of the problems Silver encounters in later life also echo Winterson's own [(e.g. consultations with mental health professionals)(hide spoiler)]. She also finds the positive in the hardest circumstances, "We are lucky, even the worst of us, because daylight comes" (in "Why be Happy", she is grateful that the church taught her how important it is to concentrate on good things).
It goes further: the beloved mother in this "longed for me to be free, and did everything she could to make sure it never happened", and in "Why be happy", she makes an identical observation about the awful Mrs W (quoted in my review, linked above).
For such a carefully crafted book, it is a little heavy-handed at times. These are minor faults in the overall context and content and are recorded here more for my personal records than to spoil it for anyone else, hence the spoiler tag.
[In particular, the names Dark and Lux are as subtle as a sledgehammer. Also, the symbolism of the lighthouse is occasionally spelt out more than it needs to be: a birth coinciding with completion of this phallic symbol, and a passage, "He was like this lighthouse... He was lonely and aloof... The instruments were in place... but the light was not lit." (hide spoiler)]
QUOTATIONS AND NEW IDIOMS
* "A silent, taciturn clamp of a man."
* "She was one of those people for whom yes is always an admission of guilt or failure. No was power."
* "I was not much longer than my socks."
* "The wind was strong enough to blow the fins off a fish."
* "Our business was light, be we lived in darkness... The darkness had to be brushed away... Darkness squatted on the chairs and hung like a curtain across the stairway... I learned to see in it, I learned to see through it, and I learned to see the darkness of my own."
* "As dull as a day at sea with no wind."
* "Someone whose nature was as unmiraculous as a bucket."
* "He turned as pale as a skinned plaice."
* "The fossil record is always there, whether or not you discover it. The brittle ghosts of the past. Memory is not like the surface of water - either troubled or still. Memory is layered."
* When contemplating writing Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde, Stevenson posits (in this book) that all men have atavistic qualities: "Parts of themselves that lay like developed negatives? Shadow selves, unpictured but present?"
* "Women raising empty forks to glossy famished lips".
* "The light was as intense as a love affair."
* "I went outside, tripping over slabs of sunshine the size of towns. The sun was like a crowd of people, it was a party, it was music. The sun was blaring through the walls of the houses and beating down the steps. The sun was drumming time into the stone. The sun was rhythming the day."
It feels wrong to give a Nobel prize-winner only 3*, but I didn't enjoy this enough to give it four.
It is based on a true incident in the 1980s (though life is so basic, it's a shock to realise how recent it is), when farmers rioted after the government refused to buy all the garlic it had told them to grow, because there of the resulting glut. I presume the individual characters are inventions, or composites.
Each chapter starts with a few lines of a ballad that outline the bare bones of the story, as sung by Zhang Kou, a blind minstrel.
The main text follows individual characters: how they became involved with the uprising, their relationships with each other, what happened afterwards etc. There are two main timelines, though it isn't always immediately obvious when some sections are set, which I found irritating. Another annoyance was a few passages that suddenly switched to first-person, in a somewhat jarring way.
The main characters are Gao Yang who has a blind daughter and newborn son, and Gao Ma, a younger (and single) man, along with Jinju and her mother, Fourth Aunt Fang.
Because it is describing a political injustice with devastating consequences, along with corrupt officials inclined to torture those beneath them, it is painfully graphic a lot of the time. The brutality of family and neighbours is almost as bad. Such incidents need to be documented, but it's hard to read, at times.
At first, the explicitness is more subtle, conjuring poverty in more subtle ways. For example, instead of saying that Gao Yang is too poor to buy new shoes, it says "Baked earth burned the soles of his feet; the intense heat made his eyes water. With the sun beating down on his bare back, he scraped caked-on dirt from his chest."
The visceral descriptions of pain, flesh and bodily fluids that follow are relentless, although they are counterbalanced with poetic descriptions of plants, birds, and landscapes. At times, the link is explicit, as when one captive "took a last look at the poplar tree where he had been [agonisingly] shackled, and actually felt a tinge of nostalgia." Another time, colourful parakeets are bloodily slaughtered, "clouds of living colour that whirled above... until, wing-weary, they fell like stones, thudding like heavy rain drops".
THEMES AND SYMBOLS
Despite all the blood, pus and urine, tears are probably more important, especially the desperate desire not to shed them (and to deny it when doing so). A typical refrain is "Gao Yang's eyes were awash with tears. 'I'm not crying', he reassured himself".
There are also certain plants and crops that are mentioned in ways that makes me think they contain additional associations that I am unaware of, principally indigo, jute and corn. (The garlic is more obvious.)
It is all so painfully real, a fleeting mention of ghosts - as if they are entirely real - comes as an anachronistic shock.
Of course, the main theme is about the incompetence and corruption of government, and how it is the peasant farmers who suffer. Standing up for what is right is very dangerous. I should probably state that Mo Yan is a pen name that means "don't speak" in Chinese.
The ending was incomplete for many characters (which I don't mind), but the final scene felt forced and clichéd.