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Surprisingly happy

Under a Canvas Sky: living outside Gormenghast Clare Peake

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trepidation. It isn’t just the soft focus black-and-white cover photo of the author as a child, or the dusty pink typeface, both implying girlish vulnerability. It is also its subtitle: outside Gormenghast might not be a very jolly place to live. The early omens all point, ominously, to misery memoir. Nothing could be further from the truth.


Misery does come into this memoir of the daughter of author and painter Mervyn Peake, and in forms so monstrous – loss of sanity, liberty and life – that even Peake’s own pen could hardly have imagined them. But somehow, despite this, the family themselves, and this memoir, are far from miserable. As Clare explains: “I didn’t want to cry. My luck had been fathomless.” Though her parents would one day epitomise 1940s bohemian London (Dylan Thomas, Augustus John and Graham Greene were friends), their lives began conventionally enough. Her mother Maeve was the prettiest and youngest daughter of a Catholic family in Brixton, while Mervyn was the son of Ernest Peake, a doctor (“Mervyn Peake” was his real name: its Gothic jaggedness simply serendipitously suited his prose). Mervyn’s extraordinary


Perfect pitch The Stranger’s Child Alan Hollinghurst

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that provoked barely a single sniping or a carping voice. The Stranger’s Child, Alan Hollinghurst’s latest novel, his fifth, is in a gentler, more ambivalent and dolorous register and won’t, I think, make quite the same stir. But it is Hollinghurst’s most rounded and satisfying book, and confirms his place at contemporary literature’s high table. The first of its five long sections opens in 1913 with 16-year-old Daphne Sawle lying in a hammock waiting for her shy brother George to return from the station with his glamorous aristocratic friend from Cambridge, the young poet Cecil Valance. The suave, rangy and slightly feral Cecil

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he Line of Beauty was that astonishing literary event, the Booker Prize-winner

ne could be forgiven for approaching Clare Peake’s autobiography with some

Mervyn and Clare Peake in 1952

ability soon overcame

ordinariness. An early obsession with drawing came to be seen as a career rather than a curious hobby, and he

enrolled at the Royal Academy, where he was judged as “approaching genius”. Not only was he brilliant, he also looked it, wearing unusually bright clothes for the era and gold hooped earrings. He was, writes Clare, “the perfect Byronic romantic figure”. As such phrases hint, this is not an entirely unbiased account. But it survives such filial flattery, partly because Mervyn clearly was brilliant and attractive (Vivien Leigh ranked, rather to Maeve’s dismay, among his admirers). And partly because the bias is more than balanced by the – equally frankly recounted – darker episodes. At least initially, everything in the Peakes’ lives seemed brightly promising. Maeve and Mervyn, having fallen in “love at first sight” at art college, quickly married. In these early years, work came easily and Mervyn produced Gormenghast as well as one of his smallest works (but perhaps the one for which most people unknowingly know him best): the logo for Pan Books. Maeve meanwhile produced three children. Clare and her brothers grew up in Chelsea in an atmosphere rich in cigarette smoke and

smoothly crashes into this bourgeois family, pawing in turn at George, Daphne and, we later learn, Jonah, the family servant. On the morning of Cecil’s departure he scribbles a poem in Daphne’s autograph book that is anthologised after his death in the war and lodges itself in the popular imagination, in the way that duff but evocative lines sometimes do. The four later episodes are set at intervals of several years, the last a memorial service in 2008 at which Cecil’s ham-fisted biographer (his work completed in the 1980s, when, as a mourner remarks, “outing gay writers was all the rage”) is one of the speakers. The novel doesn’t bowl along with any great narrative drive, but in each episode we catch up with the surviving Sawles and Valances and the bit-part players in their orbit. A very minor character called Nick Powell pops up, as if in acknowledgement of the debt to Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. The strength of the book is its near-perfect pitch and tone. With a greater range and timescale than Hollinghurst’s previous novels, there is a more poignant sense of release and a simultaneous wry disappointment and disconnection. We see the heavy human

creativity, an atmosphere of “such intense security that [she] could have stayed in it forever, and been happy”. She would not have the chance to. In

1957, a play of Mervyn’s was staged in London. His hopes for a success were “uncharacteristically high” and the family began celebrating – with a modestly bohemian treat of fish and chips – before the run had even begun. The celebrations were premature: the reviews “ranged from lukewarm to sneeringly unimpressed. The dismissal was final”. Final, too, were the consequences. Mervyn “sat in his leather armchair … and shook uncontrollably”. He would never recover. Though doctors could never give a confident diagnosis (suggestions ranged from sleeping sickness to breakdown and dementia), they applied treatments with much greater confidence: Mervyn was sedated, hospitalised and then finally given a lobotomy, which made things “only worse”. The man who had once chatted with Graham Greene and charmed Vivien Leigh now stumbled when he walked and “dribbled when he ate”. And yet, somehow, the rest of the family were not themselves miserable – or not often. Poets and painters, acolytes and admirers of Mervyn continued visiting them in Chelsea, and their house continued to be filled with laughter. And Maeve continued visiting her broken and beloved husband in hospital every other day until he finally died 11 years later, on each visit “taking as much care with her appearance as if this were a first date”. So, Clare Peake’s is not a misery memoir but something much harder to write, and much more moving: she has written a happy one. Catherine Nixey

cost over a lifetime of smothered desire, but we see, too, as the old secrets tumble out and gay relationships become unremarkable, a lowering of the temperature, a loss of charge. The intense, beaming misery of the first half of the book softens into the relative banality of sexual satisfaction. Hollinghurst’s writing is always luxuriant and precise, but the sonorous padding of Cecil’s verse even begins to find its way into its creator’s own prose. Like every good writer, Hollinghurst brings a particular angle of vision to his novels. It’s easy enough to offer readers a different vantage point, to move them a few seats along to a different place at the table. But with great novels we find ourselves inhabiting a different world, not only seeing things from a stranger’s point of view but wearing the stranger’s shoes. This is the sense in which Greene and Waugh might be called “Catholic novelists” or Hollinghurst be recognised as a “gay writer”. They are not only novelists who happen to be Catholic or gay, or who happen to write about Catholic or gay characters; they are magicians who transport readers, at least for a few hundred pages, inside a new sensibility and experience. Brendan Walsh

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