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Mr Pye’s Dilemma

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Our boat journey from Jersey to Sark passes through a dangerous past. The rocks between the two islands are called in Jersey slang the Pater Nosters, for it is said that if a ship were to get too close to them, then prayer was all the mariners had left to save themselves. We notice how Jersey is well defended from the sea: an Elizabethan castle, another fort and then the grinning mouths of German fire-control towers, cadavers of wartime occupation. Jersey has always judged itself worth the effort to defend.

Sark is different. It always has been. The island affects memory as well as scale and time. It is tiny and the clocks seem to run slow. It is always sunny here, even when it isn’t. Sark has no cars. Tractors pull the wider sort of tourist up the hill from the harbour to the houses that might be called Sark’s town. They are the only noise. The rest is seabirds and waves and the hum of people glad to be here. It feels as if nothing can change or ever has. All of which makes Mr Harold Pye seem very strange. He is one of the few who have stepped ashore wanting to change Sark. The eponymous hero of Mervyn Peake’s comic and baffling novel is a short, fat man with a briefcase and a hat. ‘It is just the right size,’ Mr Pye declares as he looks out from the boat. ‘It will do very nicely.’

I first read Mr Pye through child’s eyes, and took a child’s pleasure in the characters Peake draws. ‘Draws’ is the right word, for Peake was a painter and illustrator as well as a poet and novelist, and his characters have vivid images glistening behind the words. I loved Mr Pye and the island characters, drawn huge across Sark’s tiny canvas. I loved the author’s own drawings printed alongside the text, the portly, neat and eager Mr Pye looking towards Sark, the thin and smoking Miss Dredger waiting at the harbour for her lodger to arrive.

The contrast between Mr Pye and Miss Dredger is sharp, and meant to be. An all-important distincti

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Our boat journey from Jersey to Sark passes through a dangerous past. The rocks between the two islands are called in Jersey slang the Pater Nosters, for it is said that if a ship were to get too close to them, then prayer was all the mariners had left to save themselves. We notice how Jersey is well defended from the sea: an Elizabethan castle, another fort and then the grinning mouths of German fire-control towers, cadavers of wartime occupation. Jersey has always judged itself worth the effort to defend.

Sark is different. It always has been. The island affects memory as well as scale and time. It is tiny and the clocks seem to run slow. It is always sunny here, even when it isn’t. Sark has no cars. Tractors pull the wider sort of tourist up the hill from the harbour to the houses that might be called Sark’s town. They are the only noise. The rest is seabirds and waves and the hum of people glad to be here. It feels as if nothing can change or ever has. All of which makes Mr Harold Pye seem very strange. He is one of the few who have stepped ashore wanting to change Sark. The eponymous hero of Mervyn Peake’s comic and baffling novel is a short, fat man with a briefcase and a hat. ‘It is just the right size,’ Mr Pye declares as he looks out from the boat. ‘It will do very nicely.’ I first read Mr Pye through child’s eyes, and took a child’s pleasure in the characters Peake draws. ‘Draws’ is the right word, for Peake was a painter and illustrator as well as a poet and novelist, and his characters have vivid images glistening behind the words. I loved Mr Pye and the island characters, drawn huge across Sark’s tiny canvas. I loved the author’s own drawings printed alongside the text, the portly, neat and eager Mr Pye looking towards Sark, the thin and smoking Miss Dredger waiting at the harbour for her lodger to arrive. The contrast between Mr Pye and Miss Dredger is sharp, and meant to be. An all-important distinction of island life is the gulf separating visitor from resident, resident from native. ‘To be promoted’, Peake writes, ‘[is] an almost mystical procedure.’ It’s one that can take generations. Mervyn Peake, like Mr Pye, arrived with a single ticket. He came to Sark in the summer of 1933, one of a nascent community of artists being gathered by Eric Drake. Peake moved into a studio flat along with his pet cormorant, and there he wrote and drew and painted. It seems to have been a near idyllic time. In 1947, he returned to Sark with his family. His son Sebastian has described that time in Slightly Foxed (see No. 12), and it was during that stay that his father wrote much of Gormenghast, the second book in his unparalleled and wondrous trilogy. Perhaps it was then, too, that Peake senior saw the germ of a Sark novel, the one he wrote back in England in 1952. He needed the money. ‘Have had very poor year,’ he noted during a break from writing. ‘No books to illustrate. Have had to live largely on Maeve [his wife]’s money.’ In this regard, sad to report, Mr Pye was not a success. Like the Gormenghast books, Mr Pye resists efforts to classify it. It is obviously comic and often mordantly observed. As a child I liked the edge of silliness and the extremes of character, not quite the Flay or Lady Groan of Gormenghast but still bearing that great Peake quality of being eternally memorable: Miss George in her hat, the artist Thorpe, the curvaceous free spirit Tintagieu. Just enjoy Miss George for a moment. She is all pleasure, ‘a large, pale-faced woman in a purple hat, half way between a Busby and a tea cosy’. She has a marmoreal face, thick waxen neck, doming and indomitable shoulders and ‘an enormous rear’. Perhaps because of this last asset, we are told that she had ‘unfortunate legs’, leading Mr Pye to offer her his place in the carriage of her mortal enemy, Miss Dredger. Still, her smirk of thanks toward the new arrival was ‘so horrible that Mr Pye helped himself to a fruit drop’. Rereading the same copy, with my 11-year-old thoughts still pencilled in the margin, I found Mr Pye different, darker and more ambiguous. The hero is a missionary, religious but unattached to any creed. His deity is his ‘Great Pal . . . this Alcoran, this Ly-King, this Vedas, this Purana, this Zenavesta, this Shaster, this Zantama, this Mormon’. His goal is not to preach but to bring goodness. He starts with the bitterness between islanders. In the early chapters, Mr Pye reconciles the residents, becoming better than Sark’s tiny parliament at making the island whole and happy. There are pages where the novel reads like a celebration of the power of one man’s love. But Sark is a holiday island. Holidays mean picnics. And holiday picnics are very often a disaster. It is a very island scene. Mr Pye has summoned everyone, their ancient enmities forgotten, to a picnic on the beach at Derrible. It is a beautiful place, and to look down from the cliff is to be drawn to the jewelled sand and to the sea. My friend and I use the steep path to reach the bay. Here Mr Pye gathers all those whom he has touched, even Miss George who will be lowered by ropes down the face of the rock to join the party. The picnic will be his triumph and the appearance of Miss George his miracle. It starts well. Mr Pye has almost succeeded. Until ‘something even more potent than the Great Pal interposed its ugly self and plucked the prize from the palm of his hand’. That something is a dead whale and its stench. Floating off the sea, it ruins the picnic, all but turns Miss George’s descent into tragedy and changes the direction of the book. Love’s achievements fade, and to his horror Mr Pye’s plump body begins to sprout wings, ‘crisp, forceful little feathers, obviously, full of life and purpose’. He asks his Great Pal to explain – it is one of Mervyn Peake’s most poignant illustrations, Mr Pye perched on an old cannon, talking to his god – but there is no answer from the skies. So Mr Pye finds his own solution. If the wings of an angel appear as he does good, so they will shrink when he does the opposite. He decides to become the agent of trouble, small things at first because he is not very skilled at harm – the smashing of a vase, a scratch across a table – that grow to laughing at Miss George’s death, and witchcraft. Sark grows dark. The comic fades. It works, though. The wings shrink. Then horns start to grow. As a child this frightened me. In the novel, the sight of them sends one casual observer to an asylum. There is an evocative parallel in Peake’s own story. He knew evil, had seen it when in 1945 he entered the concentration camp at Belsen as an official war artist. Mr Pye had known exactly who he was and what he needed. Now he is lost. He cries out at being ‘flung from pole to pole, half seraph and half devil’. Wings and then horns, good and then harm – he tries to do enough of both to stop himself from becoming a freak. The attempt fails. He ends up on the floor of the island’s one-cell prison drinking with Tintagieu, while the Sarkese search for him, to string him up or sell him to a circus. In the end . . . but perhaps Peake was not sure what the end was going to be. Mr Pye uses his wings to fly away and, in the version printed in the novel, his soaring flight away from Sark is beautiful. But in a handwritten alternative, the god of goodness withdraws his pardon, so that Mr Pye falls into the sea’. A strange book, then, and easy to read as a sort of moral tale. Peake considered calling his book Duty and the Beast, presumably to make this point. Mr Pye is a representative of the evangelical simplicities Peake knew from his upbringing and education. But Mr Pye is not obviously a Christian and, as a story of good and evil, it makes very little sense. Who wins? Neither side. Has good helped anyone? Not obviously. God, in whatever form, is not a kindly character. Others have read the book as a study in the contrast between Mr Pye’s morality and the amoral physicality of Tintagieu. She is a wonderful character, but she appears late in the novel, and Mr Pye’s difficulties are not those of the mind. Read this way, any message in the story is baffling. I prefer to start with the sea. It is everywhere on Sark, much larger than the land: beautiful, threatening, and the source of the stinking whale that engulfs the picnic. Perhaps one of the book’s oblique, understated points is that Pye’s quest for perfect order, even in so small a place as Sark, can never succeed against chaos. It is a strange fact that, from the beginning of the book to the end, the happy Mr Pye is surrounded by accidental injury and death. I wonder too if Sark is not meant to feel like Gormenghast, a stone prison, wonderful and terrible. Like Steerpike, Mr Pye breaks into an enclosed world and causes anarchy. Steerpike may embody rebellion and Mr Pye goodness, but the result is the same. Maybe, then, Mr Pye is a true island book, a call to be left alone. The boat back to Jersey is boarding. The tractors and trailers that will haul tomorrow’s portly visitors up the steep slope are parked waiting, but the people have gone. There is only the sea. At a guess – and this book, perhaps this author, will always be a puzzle – Mr Pye is about many things, none of them explicit. It is saying something about the limits of goodness and the draw of evil. It is about imprisonment. Sark, like Gormenghast, might have been content to be left without the stranger’s gifts. Peake is suggesting too that the purpose of each of us is not as obvious as fickle gods, of war or faith or whatever, would have us believe. Just as Mervyn Peake was not a soldier so Mr Pye was not, in the end, much of a missionary. He left the island as divided as it had been when he arrived. Peake knew evil. Yet in Sark he seems to have known joy. Mr Pye might be an attempt to understand how such extremes can live in the same world. In one of his post-war poems, he wrote of humanity as:
Split tree-wise, but what alchemy enfolds them. . . This double cargo in a ship, half love.
The book offers no easy solutions as to how an individual or a world built on such contradiction can continue to exist. Mr Pye flies away, maybe to die, maybe to disappear. But that doubt, that open ending, makes this comic and peculiar novel worth reading, and reading again.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 22 © Michael Marett-Crosby 2009


About the contributor

Michael Marett-Crosby has just completed his first novel, based on his experiences of working in a UK prison. With that behind him, he spends a lot of time looking out towards the sea.

The illustrations in this article by Mervyn Peake are reproduced with the kind permission of the artist’s estate.

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