Saturday, 24 February 2001

Mervyn Peake: Mr Pye (1953)

Edition: Penguin, 1972
Review number: 767

Peake's most famous work, the Gormenghast trilogy, has autobiographical connections with his childhood in China. Mr Pye, his only other completed novel, is also related to his life. This is more obvious, because the location of the novel is not a fictional place but the Channel Island of Sark. This is where Peake worked as a young artist. (Some of the geography of Gormenghast Castle is also derived from that of the island.)

Mr Pye, which also exists in the form of a radio play, is a strange novel. It begins fairly naturalistically, Mr Pye being an elderly visitor to the island who aims to bring sweetness and light and knowledge of his "Great Pal" to the islanders. Christianity is never mentioned, but it is fairly clear that he represents the positive side of a particular kind of evangelist.

However, about halfway through things change, as Mr Pye discovers that, in some sort of joke by his Pal, he is beginning to sprout wings like an angel. Suspecting that this is a result of the goodness he has been practising and preaching, he begins reluctantly and rather inexpertly to perform evil acts.

More detailed connection between the novel and Peake's life beyond the setting is hard to see. Mr Pye is certainly not him, but he may be intended to be the young painter Thorpe. It seems more likely that neither character is wholly autobiographical. Peake's clear feeling that Sark needs the ministrations of Mr Pye is perhaps revealing of his attitude to the people of the island - though I believe he was reasonably happy there.

As a novel, Mr Pye is fairly unsatisfying. None of the characters are really convincing, the plot is too arbitrary. Unless you are a real Peake fan, stick to the Gormenghast trilogy.

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