Mr Pye by Mervyn Peake
I devoured the three volumes of Gormenghast as a student one summer – that was decades ago. I’ve always meant to revisit it as Karen has done recently, but would really like to find a less pressured time so I can enjoy it again at leisure.
However, I spotted another Peake novel on my TBR shelves, Mr Pye, and I vaguely remembered a TV adaptation which starred Derek Jacobi in the title role. The TV series was made in 1986, but the book was published much earlier back in 1953, so that puts it between books 2 and 3 of the Gormenghast trilogy.
As the story begins, Mr Pye is on board the ferry from Guernsey to one of the smaller isles of the Channel Islands, Sark – having surprised the ticket vendor by only wanting a single ticket…
And there she lay at full stretch upon the skyline, her attentuated and coruscated body reaching from north to south, the morning sunbeams playing along her spine and flickering upon the crests and ridges of her precipitous flanks.
Mr Pye, who had for the last fifteen minutes been staring fixedly at the approaching island, joined his hands together beneath his chin, turned his round face to the sky, closed his eyes, sood upon the tips of his toes, and breathed deeply.
‘It is just the right size,’ he murmured. ‘It will do very nicely.’
Yes, Mr Pye falls into the classic trope of a stranger arriving in town, acting as a catalyst for turning the town upside down, and then … well I’m not going to jump the gun.
Waiting on the quay for his arrival is Miss Dredger, with whom he has arranged to lodge. Miss Dredger herself, had been a visitor once, but had now been promoted to ‘resident’ – of which there are just 300 on the island. Miss Dredger is a battleaxe – tall, gaunt and a chain-smoker. Mr Pye perplexes her from the off:
‘What have you brought with you?’ she said. Mr Pye turned his gaze upon her. ‘Love,’ he said. ‘Just … Love…’
Then he perplexes Miss Dredger even more by giving up his pre-booked seat in the cart (Sark is car-free) taking the arrivals up the steep hill to the village at the top of the hill, to Miss Dredger’s most hated neighbour, the plump Miss George. Miss Dredger has to take to her bed once they arrive, she is so rigid with emotion, but Mr Pye looks after her. He wins her over and soon has her eating out of his hand – she calls him ‘Chief’ and he calls her ‘Sailor’.
Ere long Mr Pye is getting to know the island and its inhabitants well, including the local tart with a heart Tintagieu, and a weedy young artist called Thorpe, who is desperately in love with Tintagieu. Mr Pye even manages to patch things up between Misses Dredger and George. He goes about quietly doing good things and encouraging people to embrace the ‘Great Pal’ as he calls God. Miss Dredger is his most fervent disciple.
It seemed impossible that the island could be turned upside down in so short a time. Age-old enmities, age-old feuds, were melting away in the warmth of his sunbeams. A new spirit was aboard in Sark – so much so that old friends of the island who were returning for Easter were amazed to receive as they disembarked at the jetty, so effusive a welcome. ‘There’s something different about Sark,’ they would say, ‘it’s almost as though they like us.’
It is not until nearly halfway through the book that things start to turn. The saintly Mr Pye had organised a picnic on the beach at which he planned to spread more love of the Great Pal amongst his congregation. Things didn’t go quite to plan when the winch they made to get Miss George down to the beach as Mr Pye’s first symbolic martyr couldn’t get her up again.
Later his back is stinging and itching – in two places – one on each shoulder-blade. Yes, he’s growing wings – as the cover of the TV tie-in edition gives away, using the still to your left.
This puts Mr Pye in a quandary. He believes that the people of Sark will not love his wings and he wants them to go away – but they keep growing and are becoming harder and harder to hide under a succession of baggier coats. He believes that the Great Pal is rewarding him for being so good, but he is undeserving of it. Eventually he hatches a plan to make the wings go away, and I shall tell you no more.
This novel has some great characters, notably Miss Dredger and Tintagieu, but I must say that Mr Pye himself began to grate on me. The Gormenghast novels have a huge cast of fascinating characters, grotesques, madmen and schemers. Mr Pye and the few disciples (plus Tintagieu) that are fully described, don’t have the same strangeness that so attracted me in the other books. There were only 300 people on Peake’s Sark, (he actually lived there for a few years after the end of WWII), but only a handful get our full attention, I would have liked to meet a few more of them, whereas Mr Pye is an ordinary, slightly tubby, ageing little man – maybe that’s the point, but he bored me until he turned interesting which was nearly too late.
Having seen the TV adaptation, I could remember the broad story if not the detail, and reading 120 or so pages waiting for the wings to sprout took a good while, and then the second half of the novel went at break-neck speed to its conclusion. I couldn’t decide whether Mr Pye was a satire on religious belief, or just a comic novel about the balance between good and evil. That said, the drawings by Peake, which head each of the chapters, are charming. A bit of a curate’s egg, this novel – but definitely good in parts. (6.5/10)
Source: My TBR
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