Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Murdoch and the Gothic, together at last

I'm not sure if you've noticed, but there's a massive upsurge of interest in postwar Gothic satirist Mervyn Peake, whose magnum opus, the Gormenghast Trilogy, is a masterpiece of vicious evil set in a dusty, inward-looking, tradition-bound castle clearly analogous for Britain.

Into the etiolated, hidebound institution comes Steerpike, a vicious, amoral narcissist intent on motiveless malignity, as Shakespeare describes Iago in Othello.

Given recent events with the News of the World, I can't help seeing Murdoch and his minions as Steerpike. Luckily, Zoot Horn sent me his scans of Peake's drawings: these two seem particularly relevant to News International's frantic manoeuvring this week.

Click to embiggen.

'If ever he had harboured a conscience in his tough narrow breast he had by now dug out and flung away the awkward thing - flung it so far away that were he ever to need it again he could never find it'

And on the subject of NI's attempt to pin all the blame on a couple of individuals:
'He had to kill Barquentine in some way which left no trace: to dispose of the body and at the same time to mix pleasure and business in such a compound that neither was the weaker for union'.

I first read Peake's work as an angry teenager, incarcerated against my will in a very poor-quality Catholic boarding school. There were two inspirational teachers: Michael Caswell and Mike Elkin. Cas was an uproarious, tempestuous old-school teacher who triumphantly proved to me (though nobody else in class) that what I thought were boring old classics were actually filled with vim and passion. Elks was the French teacher, and had spent the 60s in bohemian Paris squats. He hated the classics as the detritus of a decadent society, and constantly loaded me down with radical experimental stuff. He gave me the Gormenghast trilogy. Between the pair of them, I became well - if oddly - read.


The Red Witch said...

I think Peake based Gormenghast on The Forbidden City in China. Is there a renewal of interest? I have tried to persuade friends to read these books with no success.

The Plashing Vole said...

He was born in China, so certainly there are elements there.

There has been a big Peake conference recently. Penguin are publishing the final Gormenghast novel, written by his wife from Peake's notes, and the BBC are serialising the series as the Classic Serial from Sunday. The Guardian also did a Peake special as their Saturday Review section last week too.

The Red Witch said...

I wonder if I would like that last book. All those books written by Christopher Tolkien from his father's notes are annoying enough. I never bought the sixth Hitchhiker even though it was written by Eion Colfer.

The Plashing Vole said...

I'm a completist… Totally agree about the Tolkiens. the Eoin Colfer HHGTTG was a travesty, and I'm a fan of his other work.

ed said...

'Embiggen' is a perfectly cromulent word.

The Plashing Vole said...

It is, isn't it? Of course if the pictures are too large, you'll need to use the debigulator.

Zoot Horn said...

It's gotta derive from Lisa Simpson. Splendidular.
Somebody recently said to me that Steerpike was the greatest character in C20th fiction. I find it diseasy to disagree.

The Plashing Vole said...

It is from the Simpsons.
I largely agree about Steerpike. Certainly one of the most malevolent characters in literature.

Peter said...

Erm, if I may:
the Peake conference is the weekend of 15, 16 and 17 July and you can still register to attend:
It marks the centenary of Peake's birth, which accounts for the current flurry of media attention and numerous publications.
Maeve Gimore's attempt to write a fourth Titus book has just come out from Vintage (not Penguin). More about it here:
Steerpike has been called one the greatest villains (rather than characters) of modern fiction, particularly by Sebastian Faulkes in his tv series on fiction early this year (see Faulks on Fiction, published to tie in with it.)
Remember that Peake wrote many poems. A volume of Complete Nonsense is coming out next week, containing all the old favourites from A Book of Nonsense and many, many others, including previously unpublished ones, plus over a hundred Peake drawings and illustrations for his poems.

The Plashing Vole said...

Hi Peter. Thanks for your comment. I shall certainly be buying the poems - I've got everything else.

I'm refereeing the European Fencing Championships next week - but one of my colleagues will be attending the conference.

Zoot Horn said...

Hi Peter and Vole - thanks for that: but no - one of my esteemed colleagues asserted that Steerpike is one of the greatest characters in C20th British fiction... leaving the villain bit aside for the moment, I still tend to agree. I hope the conference is a great success. The new Vintage edition of the trilogy is beautiful, but why are a couple of the marvellous plates that appear in the older Eyre Methuen editions omitted from the new Vintage volume? I still recommend its compact vastness to anyone who has read their old copies to dogeared death though.