What a wonderful, lavishly illustrated, insight into Peake and his works.
Despite the title, it is almost as much about Peake's words as his life and art, though all seen in relation to his art; as Anthony Burgess said, Peake's novels are "aggressively three dimensional", so it's a good pairing. The book is split into themes, which are roughly chronological, and each is written by someone who closely identifies with that theme.
John Howe sums up the interdependence of the man's works brilliantly, "Few other modern authors have opened up such a kingdom to wander in. Few authors have painted in such a vivid landscape, and fewer still have created a genre that they alone occupy. Peake paints in words... There are no words that are right to describe Peake's words; only images will do."
A common theme is the boundary between beauty and grotesque. Michael Moorcock says that in Titus Alone, "Mervyn was confronting and trying to reconcile his faith in human goodness with his personal experience of grotesque and brutal human evil" (in Belsen) and G Peter Winnington says that "what makes his work so special is his intense awareness of the borderline between beauty and ugliness".
I already knew that Peake lived in China till he was twelve, and it's easy to see Chinese influences in Gormenghast, but I hadn't realised that his missionary doctor father had visited the Forbidden City shortly after Pu Yi's abdication and written about that and life in China more generally, complete with photos. It is also delightful to see some of Peake's own earliest published writings and illustrations. Michael Moorcock points out that from childhood, Peake was fascinated by ritual, but also suspicious of it.
It also covers Peake's family (Maeve and children), time in Sark, teaching art, as an illustrator and war artist, as a writer and includes details and photos of a stage adaptation and storyboards from the TV series. It ends by discussing "Titus Alone" and how, contrary to popular perception, the inconsistencies and quirks of the originally published version were more to do with poor editing than Peake's Parkinson's disease.
The book makes a strong case for the importance of Peake as an artist and a writer, with some suprising supporters. As an author, Joanne Harris is particularly insightful about his writing. She accepts that the Gormenghast books have a fantastic element, but points out that there is no trace of the supernatural and that they are "imbued with a profound sense of realism. Some of this comes from the hallucinatory attention that Peake gives the smallest details." She also explains how the Gormenghast books appeal across a wide range of ages: teens loving the detail and rebellion, while older readers see parallels with Jung and Kafka, and parents have another angle again.
A more surpising fan was Elizabeth Bowen (another favourite author of mine, but very different from Peake). But the beauty of the book and its contents are Peake's strongest advocate.
All my Peake/Gormenghast reviews now have their own shelf:
LIFE RELATED TO WORKS
For analysis of how Peake's life is reflected in his works (written as well), I recommend Winnington's "Vast Alchemies", http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/597014341