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LITERARY REVIEW July 2011
s l ave res i s t ance. Slaver y and the l aw, Judaism and Christianity feature in the Roman essays.
It is a very fertile mix. Peter Hunt argues that the more Greeks took pride in their own achievements, the more they looked down on barbar ians (non-Greek speakers), tending to see them as an inferior species and therefore ‘natural’ slaves. They were unhappy with the idea of Greeks enslaving other Greeks, as Sparta had done to their neighbouring Messenians (their heilôtai, ‘helots’). Even Aristotle acknowledged the argument that someone captured by force in war did not thereby become a ‘natural’ slave.
It is good to see T E Rihll inveighing against the endlessly repeated view that ancient Athenian democracy ‘depended’ on slavery. I have never seen the slightest evidence for it. As Aristotle pointed out, the state paid the poor to participate: it would have to, with probably fewer than half the Athenians able to afford a slave. But if slaves were at the heart of Athenian life and expanded the opportunities of those families that owned them, as they were according to Mark Golden, there is no evidence that Greek slavery enabled goods to be produced more cheaply. Freemen and s l aves worked on the Parthenon at the same rates. But they were still individually a ‘troublesome property’, a constant issue for ‘middle management’, as Niall McKeown characterises it, though mass slave rebellions in the Greek world are unknown.
Sandra R Joshel points out that loyal and obedient s laves are almost a sub-genre of Roman l i terature because, presumably, they were so rare. Romans saw a paradox here: a slave might be loyal, but was it only because he was afraid to be disloyal? Roman comedy is full of tricky slaves. Thinkers like Seneca used slaves as images of subjectivity and dependence to impress on the wealthy that they too were equally dependent on luxur ies and high status. Joshel depicts poor old Pliny the Younger as an evil, paternalistic swine for being kind and thoughtful to his slaves. I wonder what they thought of him. John Bodel sees the ideology of slave ownership as far more important to a Roman than any economic considerations. Meanwhile Stoics and then Christians argued that slavery did not matter because what counted was not the physical or material condition of a person but the spiritual; besides, the stability of society and the family depended on them. The moral implications arose only much later.
The big problem, as the contributors acknowledge, is that we get only one side of the story: that of the educated classes who were all in favour of slavery, and of those who escaped slavery, made good and suddenly saw its great virtues. No slave voices survive. But what can be excavated from the evidence is considered here in a scholarly, detailed, clearly argued and thoroughly worthwhile collection of essays. ❑ LITERARY LIVES
IN 1939 MERVYN PEAKE i nveig l ed h i s wife-to-be, Maeve Gilmore, to his room in Battersea. It was a damp, run-down place on the fir st floor with few facilities. But it had a bed, which was t he important thing. In the middle of the night, however, they were woken by noises from beneath, and when they lit the candle they saw the floorboards were moving. Peake leapt up, and threw back the rug to reveal a trapdoor. He threw that back too. While they were asleep a circus had moved into the ground floor, and an elephant was scratching its back against the beams. For the rest of the night they fed it buns.
are two new books: the longant i c i pated Gor menghast sequel, Titus Awakes (Vintage 288pp £7.99); and his daughter Clare’s memoir, Under a Canvas Sky (Constable 224pp £14.99) – of which more later.
Any Peake review has to s t ar t with the t r i logy. Originated during the war, while Peake drifted ever more hopelessly through a succession of army postings, it is a remarkable achievement. The first sustained fantasy of its kind, it was published to acclaim between 1946 and 1959, but in an age of austerity and modernism it failed to catch the zeitgeist. Not until the Seventies, following Peake’s tragically early death from Parkinson’s in 1968, did it come into its own. Since then it has influenced generations of students – everyone seems to discover Gormenghast at the
Every fan has their favourite moment of Peake quirkiness, and this is mine. Less for the elephant than the trapdoor: anybody can see an elephant, but only Peake could have done so through a trapdoor. In fact, only Peake could have had a trapdoor in his bedroom in the f i r s t place. It is a splendidly surreal image and one that epitomises his career. Mervyn Peake spent his life opening new doors onto unconventional vistas. He i s best known for the Gormenghast t r i logy, a saga that revolves around Titus Groan, 77th Earl o f t he c r umbling ca s t l e Gormenghast, for which he is usually and inaccurately pigeonholed as a Gothic wr iter. But he covered an extraordinary range of disciplines besides. As an author, poet, painter, illustrator and playwright he was a one-man factory of imagination, a fact proved by the variety of books published to mark his centenary year.
Steerpike, from ‘Gormenghast’: on mischief bent age of nineteen – and is recognised today as a classic of British literature. Perversely so, because it doesn’t fit the classic literary mould: purists will find fault with the style, the plot and the character development; and the search for meaning is as tortuous as the castle corridors themselves. Instead, it defies categorisation. An outpouring of pictor i a l imag ination that has been worked into prose by a poet (think Dali, Dickens and Carroll rolled into one), it belongs to a genre of its own.
Again and again, in a story that is already bizarre, Peake flips open the trapdoor. Here you have a white mare and her foal swimming in a pool on top of a tower. There you have Titus’s wet nurse throwing herself off a precipice, her fall illuminated simultaneously by the setting sun and the r ising moon. Hundreds of feet above ground a dead tree pro-
Apart from the Gormenghast trilogy, which is being reissued in omnibus form with a host of previously unseen images (Vintage £25), there are new editions of Mr Pye (Vintage £8.99) and his children’s classic Letters f rom a Lost Uncle (Methuen £12.99), plus the Complete Nonsense (Carcanet Press £12.95), which includes some three-dozen newly discovered poems edi t ed by Rob Maslen and Peter Winnington. The British Library are publishing Peake’s Progress: Selected Writings and Drawings of Mervyn Peake (£25), as well as mounting an exhibition devoted to Peake (The Worlds of Mervyn Peake, 5 July–18 September), while there is also a deluxe ten-volume Complete Works featuring Peake’s original manuscript illustrations, limited to 150 sets and available at an eyewatering price from Queen Anne Press. And then there trudes from a room that was once filled with earth. A naked fireman hoses down a mule and a camel as they pursue their ancient feud. And a deckchair attendant patrols a cliff as people take their seats to watch the sunset. It’s a trip.
Peake never intended to stop at a trilogy: he envisaged a series of books charting episodes in Titus’s life. Illness intervened, however, and he got no further than a few hesitant pages. Nevertheless, long after his death there persisted a rumour that somewhere, probably hidden in a chest in a dusty attic, there lurked a fourth volume. Tantalisingly, there actually exists among his papers a notebook labelled ‘Titus 4’ – more tantalising still, its pages are blank. But salvation is now at hand, for a manuscript has been found in a box in an attic: Titus Awakes,
LITERARY REVIEW July 2011