Oh dear. Much as I love Peake (his writings and his art), such whimsy is not to my taste. Sadder still, the wonderfully rich language of the Gormenghast books is largely absent. Consequently, I find it hard to give it a meaningful rating, but have tried to judge it in its own right, rather than as a work of Peake.
Perhaps I should side with Tintagieu, when she asks "Can't a thing just be itself without its having to mean
ART ECHOING LIFE?
It's an odd little book that both reflects and contradicts aspects of Peake, his life and his beliefs.
It is set on the small island of Sark, where he lived for two very happy periods of his life (and where his youngest child was born), and pokes gentle fun at the sort of characters that live there, including an artist. Too many passages in the opening chapters read like a travel guide. I suppose that emphasises the importance of place (as in Titus Groan and Gormenghast), but it's rather too much, not very interesting, detail for those unfamiliar with the island.
The eponymous Mr Pye is an evangelist of an unspecified faith, who refers to God as the Great Pal and wants to bring love and joy to a community divided by petty differences. In contrast, although Peake's parents worked at a missionary hospital, he was not religious at all (though his wife was raised a Catholic, so they sent their children to Catholic schools).
It's more of a situation than a plot; it rambles along, and you keep waiting for something to happen (or some rich descriptions), but mostly in vain.
Middle-aged Mr Pye goes to Sark, and sets about exploring the island, then people's hearts, and then, he hopes, to bring them together in harmony. He uses self-esteem, self-confidence and charm to ingratiate himself: "Not all [islanders] were pleased to be accosted... but their impatience was drained away as [he] smiled back at them with such demonstrable love." That, and a whistle that is callow, saucy and knowledgeable, plus "the electric current of his love"!
His vision is "a Sark purified by its own recognition of the supernatural, purified by the ceaseless battle for self-improvement" but without "private grievance, jealousy and feuds".
We never learn what prompted him to evangelism in general or Sark specifically, and we don't really know what happens at the end of the story. We don't really get to see how he intends to implement his grand ideas or what the consequences would be. We don't really get to know anything much about his beliefs, and no religious books or figures are mentioned, other than his Great Pal.
The most interesting part is when he sprouts angelic wings. As these become increasingly prominent and inconvenient, he struggles to make them go away, eventually concluding that he is too good, and therefore needs to sin a bit. Then, he develops a taste for inept mischief and although the wings go, horns develop. You can guess most of the rest. However, even that feels like a series of anecdotes, rather than anything more.
Despite all the detail of the island and its residents, and its quasi-religious theme, neither of the island's churches is mentioned, and I think a vicar is only mentioned once. You'd think he might feel threatened by the competition and crop up more often.
I guess it's about good and evil and the balance between the two, and also the difference between mere naughtiness and actual evil, but it's not funny enough to be an outright comedy, but it doesn't really seem to have much of a point about these themes, other than comedic.
I found a few:
* "The sun gloating on the unrippled water and the blank and zoneless bliss of an empty mind."
* "The imprisoned harbour where the emerald water had become rippled with expectancy."
* "Everything he did or said seemed curiously out of focus."
* He was so frustratingly nice that "Miss Dredger, fighting down a desire to smash the window to let out her soul".
* "Along the tortuous passages of the caves the hollow echoes rumbled and the billows hissed and slapped the slimy walls."
* "his face naked with integrity"
* "a walk so hesitant as to look almost like a disease of the legs"
* A full moon "ribbed the edges of the precipitous cliffs and was reflected in the sheen of the sands"
* "the gloating light; the rhythm of the rocks"
* "so flat a face that it seemed to have been created by some sculptor who, experimenting with the art of low relief, was inquisitive to know quite how low a relief could go without disappearing altogether."
* "A faint thickening of the horizon implied France, and piled above this tenuous implication there were great domes of cloud."
* "A gaunt, cadaverous man and it was impossible to see him without being reminded of the bone formations that underline the flesh."
* "The charm was still there, but it was now more like the charm of something vaguely dangerous, like a baby with a razor."
* in a "claustrophobic skirt... her legs were screaming for freedom."
* Re painting (remember, Peake was an artist as well as a writier), "colour... is a process of elimination. It is the distillation of an attitude. It is a credo."
* "An absolute silence not only reigned but appeared to extend its empire."