Whilst this is a workmanlike biography of Peake, I cannot find it in me to get as excited about it as some readers have. To begin with, it has an annoying layout; it is neither wholly themed nor purely chronological. Instead, each chapter is roughly themed in a roughly chronological manner. Whilst this works all right for Peake’s early life, it gets in the way towards the end as the text is darting back and forth, trying to keep interdependent aspects of his life separate. I found this particularly exasperating during discussion of Peake’s illness as we were offered no insight into how his work and relationships began to break down.
Also annoying was the prissiness. A biographer cannot help but discuss their subject, but any judgements they make should be based on evidence drawn from their subject’s actions and works, not from their own moral fussiness. Goodness knows what Yorke made of Eric Gill in that biography when it is clear he found some of Peake’s work and life distasteful. There are points in the book when you can almost here the rubber gloves go on to avoid too much contamination. Yet none of this springs from Peake.
As an example, we are, on a number of occasions, told that Peake’s writing is cruel and unpleasant. And the imputation seems to be that this is because of something inherent in Peake. Yet other evidence from the same biography seems to refute this. As does a reading of Peake’s work with an open mind. Peake may have drawn, painted, and written of cruel things – it is hardly surprising given the things he saw in China and later in Germany, especially Belsen. You cannot witness such events without them turning up in your creative work, even if indirectly.
Yorke, like many people, seems to confuse the grotesque and the ugly with the unpleasant. He even suggests that Peake was also guilty of this. But I think Peake was far more subtle, knowing that these things are not inherently unpleasant, but that we live in a world where surface ‘beauty’ and fashion are prized above more important values; that such a world distorts and demeans us all. Peake was certainly no stranger to the ways in which fashions in art and literature kept the recognition he deserved from his door.
I make no bones about the fact that I am a Peake enthusiast. I have been since the Penguin paperback editions of the Gormenghast books appeared. They prompted me to search out his paintings and drawings – not an easy task in those days. I have read better biographical studies; his wife and one of his sons have written excellent accounts, John Watney’s early biography is to be treasured. The definitive biography of Peake has yet to be written. In the meantime, and especially if you know nothing of his life and works, this will do.