A Life

By Malcolm Yorke

Overlook. 368 pp. $37.50

A writer who is known for a single work excites the imagination in ways a Faulkner or a Hemingway cannot. He is mysterious, and the sources of his masterpiece are a matter of speculation. Mervyn Peake lived as a painter, supported himself as an illustrator and is remembered for one of the great eccentricities of English literature: Gormenghast, a "trilogy" that is, in fact, nothing of the sort. Titus Groan and Gormenghast tell one immense, astonishing story, while Titus Alone, though it takes up where Gormenghast left off, has only the protagonist in common with the others. Peake planned a series of novels following Titus into old age but died leaving the project barely begun.

To call Gormenghast a castle is like calling Tokyo a hamlet. Vast, endlessly recomplicated and endlessly narcissistic, populated by grotesques and tangled in a dreary cycle of meaningless ritual, Gormenghast is a self-contained world, and the star of the first two books. But where did it come from?

Mervyn Peake was born in 1911 in China, to British missionary parents, and spent his first 11 years in a compound in the port of Tientsin. He had as conventional a middle-class English upbringing as his parents could arrange, with cricket games, boy-scout meetings, the Boy's Own Paper and tins of McVitie's biscuits. But he grew up in two worlds simultaneously: Just a short bicycle ride from his parent's Victorian-style house lay China in all its exotic splendor and misery.

As an adult, Peake was the perfect bohemian. He was witty and charming, published poetry, had critically acclaimed exhibitions, lived in picturesque squalor (hearing noises under the floor of his flat one day, he opened a trapdoor and discovered an elephant stabled beneath), and cycled between the excitement of London and the scenic isolation of Sark. His Byronic good looks made him catnip to the ladies; his conquests were legendary, even after he met and married his one great love, artist Maeve Gilmore. He was a butterfly on the winds of life.

Then came World War II. Drafted, temperamentally unsuited for army life, and prone to saluting with the wrong hand, he kept his spirits up by beginning to write what became Titus Groan. A nervous breakdown later, he found himself in Belsen, sketching Holocaust survivors -- some of them young and dying. The guilt of having exploited their suffering in the name of art stayed with him for the rest of his life.

Peake should have prospered. He was the most popular book illustrator in England. Alas, he was feckless when it came to money. He squandered a book advance on jewelry. He signed papers for a house he could not afford. He bought an automobile and was amazed to learn it required insurance and a license.

This self-induced poverty was his artistic undoing. His Titus novels were popular but slow in the writing, so he wrote shorter, less successful books instead. He turned to the theater, for which he had little affinity, and wasted seven years on unprofitable plays. It was the worst possible time for him to come down with Parkinson's.

Peake was institutionalized, drugged and given electroconvulsive treatment -- all worse than useless. Home again, he continued working, with his wife picking up his brush when he dropped it and leading him back to the drawing table when he wandered away. His last book, Titus Alone, which follows young Titus into a world that is a shattered parody of our own, was written during this illness. It has half the length and twice the number of chapters of either of its predecessors. Nevertheless, the book retains flashes of his old power. Peake's fans cherish it not as a completed structure, perhaps, but as the ruins of something magnificent. Peake died in 1968.

All this information comes from Malcolm Yorke's admirably lucid life of Peake. This is an artist's biography, one that judiciously examines Peake's drawings within the context of the art world of the times. Most valuably, the book is generously illustrated with examples of the works discussed. There will never be a clearer explication of Peake's progress as a visual artist. The literary chronology is murkier, though Yorke's readings of the works themselves are both sympathetic and sound.

At one point, Peake considered writing an autobiography. His terse notes include entries such as this: "The invisible man. The watchers. Jewels inside hooting like an owl. The sleepwalkers. The fire in the small room." This is far beyond anything in Yorke, and its loss must be mourned, along with the unwritten volumes of "The Life of Titus." Nevertheless, if we cannot have Peake's life of Peake, we must be grateful for Yorke's. *

Michael Swanwick is an award-winning author of both fantasy and science fiction; his most recent novel is "Bones of the Earth."

Mervyn Peake in 1952