Thursday, 14 August 2008

Mr Pye - Mervyn Peake

Drawing on his own background (his father was a missionary doctor and Peake lived on Sark for a few years with his wife and children), this work is a real contrast to the Gormenghast books that Peake was writing at the same time. There are some similarities. They are, for example, about closed societies where generations of settled existence are overturned. Yet the difference in tone is startling and suggests that Peake had the potential to produce a corpus of written work every bit as wide ranging as his graphic work and painting.

In a many layered text, the story tells of Mr Pye and his evangelical mission to the isle of Sark. We are presented with a beautiful pen portrait of the island. Its fictional inhabitants (no doubt based on real inhabitants) are also beautifully drawn, as is the society in which they live. It is, of course, an outsider’s view, but done with great affection and an artist's close attention to the details. He also has a wicked sense of humour. This is well illustrated with a long description of one of the islanders at a picnic. He finishes the paragraph with: ‘The effect was pure Little Miss Muffet until one saw the face which was concentrated spider.’

On the surface, this is a comedic romp. As Mr Pye does good, he begins to grow wings. Alarmed at this, he decides to do bad things (kicking over children’s sandcastles, for example) and is at first relieved when the wings shrink and disappear; only to be equally alarmed when he finds he has gone too far and has started to sprout horns on his forehead.

There are, of course, deeper layers. It is a story of friendship and love; it examines the motives of evangelists; there is a hint of the psychology of island life. Yet, like all great artists, Peake never allows this to get in the way of his story. He may have had serious points to make and we are free to extract them, yet nowhere are these forced on the reader and nowhere do they distort the structure of work.

Like the Gormenghast books, Mr Pye was well ahead of its time. It prefigured magical realism although keeping to a conventional narrative text. One can only imagine what wonderful works he might have produced had he not died so young and the world had had a chance to catch up with his idiosyncratic view of the world. He deserved a much wider audience in his lifetime. He still deserves it now.