A Book of Nonsense

Michael Wood writes:

Mervyn Peake, the son of a medical missionary, was born just over a hundred years ago in Kiang-Hsi Province, China. The family moved back to England when he was 12. He attended the Royal Academy and served in the British army in the first years of the Second World War. He suffered from severe mental illness periodically from that time on, spending various spells in a series of remarkably grim-sounding institutions, and was overtaken by Parkinson’s disease. He died in 1968. He had been a well-known designer and illustrator – his Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass (1946 and 1954) are especially memorable. He was a painter, a poet, a novelist and a playwright too. Peake’s Progress, a reissue of a book first published in 1978, brings together a rich collection of verse, fiction, drawings, theatre; and the Illustrated Gormenghast Trilogy reprints his best-known works, the novels Titus Groan (1946), Gormenghast (1950) and Titus Alone (1959). The three books were apparently not designed as a trilogy, but as early volumes in a longer series. Peake wrote only a few pages of a fourth book, and in the 1970s his widow, Maeve Gilmore, continued it. This work is now published as Titus Awakes. Other centenary publications include a reissue of A Book of Nonsense (1972) and Complete Nonsense, a new volume following on from the Collected Poems of 2008.

(LRB 26 January 2012)

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