Possessed by Peake

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Giving the right book to the right person at the right time can be magical, though one should always be wary of the possible consequences. Ambitious young boys, good at chess and board games such as Risk and Monopoly, may devour classic studies of power like Machiavelli’s The Prince, Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian War and Orwell’s 1984. When they have grown beards and an interest in hallucinogens and Celtic mysticism, they will be equally grateful to the hand that fed them Graves’s The White Goddess and Huxley’s The Doors of Perception. Anything by Salinger will enhance your standing in the eyes of a 15-year-old niece, while I know a father who discreetly cautioned his daughter by providing her with a trousseau of Benjamin Constant’s Adolphe, Maurice Baring’s Cat’s Cradle and Laclos’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses for her honeymoon. (These three studies of the shifting nature of male desire might have constituted literary overkill, but the marriage in question has triumphed.)

For a young adult setting out into the world, however, leaving behind either college or close-knit community, I would instinctively choose Mervyn Peake. Not any Peake, mind; it has to be Titus Groan and Gormenghast without the so-called third volume of the trilogy. (Titus Alone is one of the most pronounced examples of a failed sequence; a disconnected series of passionless adventures that leaves one longing for the acutely drawn cast of characters and the haunting eloquence that suffuse the first two books.)

I first became aware of Mervyn Peake through the covers of two Penguin paperbacks, on which appeared Peake’s own drawings of his invented characters. I was familiar with the thick lips of the heroine Fuchsia and the cadaverous high brow of the anti-hero Steerpike years before I read so much as a line. They have power. Peake was an artist and only took to writing aft

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About the contributor

Barnaby Rogerson was conceived on a yacht and spent much of his childhood following in the wake of his naval father. He has written half a dozen guidebooks, a History of North Africa, a biography of the Prophet Muhammad and an account of the early Caliphate, The Heirs of the Prophet. With his partner Rose Baring he now runs Eland Publishing which specializes in keeping
the classics of travel literature in print.

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