For many, there is some kind of Holy Grail. For the motor enthusiasts, it might be a classic muscle car or an import motorcycle. For the imbiber, there may be a specific and elusive vintage they have always longed for. For the gallerist, it might be that perfect painting they remember dimly from childhood and have sought ever since. For the book collector, it might be the first edition of a certain novel, or a finely designed work of art from an exclusive press.
In spite of my great and obvious love for Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, any first edition, whether that might be the initial printing or the first Rockwell Kent edition, is so far out of my financial range (and likely to remain permanently so unless I win the lottery or enjoy unimagined publishing success in my future endeavors) that any relevance as a Holy Grail to me is lost. And truly, even if I had the money, I don't believe that a first edition of Moby-Dick would hold much allure for me. There is, though, another author whose work means as much, if not more, to me than Melville. It will surely come as no surprise to you readers that this author is Mervyn Peake. Last year, in celebration of the centenary of his birth, a number of new books and editions were published celebrating his work. And finally, as his son Sebastian Peake put it on his blog, "the long wait" has been "vindicated." This, my friends, is my Holy Grail.
If I were allowed to dream, to mentally compose a series of books I would like to see, to design them and decorate their interiors, to create what for me would be the perfect object and the essential representation of those books and those stories for me, that list would be very short. On it would certainly be Moby-Dick and at the risk of sounding monstrously arrogant, my own Moby-Dick in Pictures would be exactly what I would imagine. Standing alongside that would be something celebrating the great genius of Mervyn Peake and would include his novels, his stories, his poetry, his paintings, his sketches, and his notes. That dream too has become a reality thanks to Britain's Queen Anne Press and the Mervyn Peake estate. My Holy Grail has arrived.
Although it was apparently years in the making, the Queen Anne Press has recently released a ten volume set entitled The Collected Works of Mervyn Peake. Strictly limited to 151 sets, there are two versions. The first, a lettered edition of 26 sets, is "finely-bound in goatskin with leather onlay designs featuring crystals, exotic shell and iridescent beetle wings. Further specifications include hand sewn head- and tailbands, top-edge gilt pages and hand made endpapers. Individual, leather trimmed, rounded entry, lined slipcases." Absolutely divine, and although very reasonably priced, well beyond my ability to afford. However, there is also a second version, a cloth binding version. These are "bound in Japanese cloth with gold blocking, the front board of each volume inset with an illustration from the text. The volumes are numbered 1-10 in Chinese numerals on a disc on the back board." This set, although staggeringly expensive for a man of my means, was just close enough to the realm of possibility that I simply could not let the opportunity slip away. So after much saving, consultation with my amazing wife, and communication back and forth to the U.K., I have taken the plunge so to speak, and acquired my Holy Grail, The Collected Works of Mervyn Peake. There is some background, and excellent photos of both sets, at this post on Sebastian Peake's blog. The links on that post will lead you to this page on the Queen Anne Press web site, describing in some detail the books themselves.
My set arrived, after many trials and tribulations, yesterday and since my heart is still singing with joy, I'd like to share at least some of the experience with you. In order to purchase these, I worked with Mr. Michael S. Kemp, an absolutely brilliant, wonderful, and incredibly helpful bookseller from Kent, England. Throughout the entire process, from numerous emails to telephone calls to navigating the maze of U.S. Customs, Mr. Kent was a part of things and I simply cannot say enough kind words about him. He has an astonishing variety of Mervyn Peake books, publications and other ephemera available at his web site and I look forward to investigating his collection further. Mr. Kemp was kind enough to acquire the set from Queen Anne Press, very carefully and securely pack it and prepare it for its overseas trip, and ship it to a good friend's business. Due to the expense of the package, I was concerned about it potentially sitting on my porch for a long day while I was at work, and I knew that there would always be someone at this business to accept the shipment and keep the package safe until I could pick it up.
After nearly racing home with the box, it was time to open it. Here it sits, on our kitchen table, plastered with customs forms and other official-seeming paperwork.
My hands were indeed trembling a bit as I opened it. After removing the lid, bubble wrap as far as the eye can see.
Within the bubble wrap, a carefully wrapped custom-made box.
And finally, the lid is removed! Within, a lovely full color catalogue of Mr. Kemp's Peake offerings, an invoice (good to keep for insurance purposes, our receipt (in Pounds, of course) and, sweet heaven, the books!
A better look at the contents.
And finally, all ten of the books in their beautiful Japanese silk bindings, stacked carefully on the table and ready for their trip to my bookshelf.
The ten volume set is organized as follows, and this text is taken directly from the Queen Anne Press web site.
Volume I: Titus Groan, Volume II: Gormenghast, Volume III: Titus Alone, and Volume IV: Mr. Pye: Peake’s four novels, published here for the first time with their full range of illustrations as well as decorative marginalia taken from the manuscripts.
Volume V: Letters from a Lost Uncle and Volume VI: Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor are two books Peake wrote and illustrated for children. Presented afresh by Libanus Press and printed in four and two colours respectively.
Volume VII: Poems is a collection of Peake’s published verses, reproduced chronologically by volume up to and including Collected Poems edited by Rob Maslen. Where Peake provided illustrations we have included them. Where not we have added appropriate images from the archive. This is the most comprehensive single-volume collection to date.
Volume VIII: Labyrinth is a new title comprising the short stories previously published in Boy in Darkness with the addition of "Mr Slaughterboard" and "Touch ‘O The Ash" from Peake’s Progress. The title is taken from an episode in Gormenghast which struck Peake so forcibly that he illuminated the MS with a burst of labyrinth-themed drawings and even a potential cover illustration. It was as if he was contemplating an entirely new book – and so, with the Peake Estate’s permission, we have taken the liberty.
Volume IX: In Umbra is another new title, a biographically-arranged compilation that combines familiar pieces from Peake’s Progress with unseen or little-known items from the archive. It starts with Peake’s first published work, an illustrated piece written in 1922 for a missionary magazine, and ends with "Foot-Fruit", a verse/narrative that is believed to be his last creative work. In between there are sections containing illustrations from the unpublished "Moccus Book" of 1929; a selection of his work as a war artist; a section devoted to the Gormenghast trilogy that includes the original title pages, drawings of discarded characters, sets for an abortive Gormenghast opera, and glimpses of future Titus adventures; plus an abbreviated short story "Johnny Butterfield." As with Labyrinth the title is influenced by the MS: Peake’s working title for Gormenghast was Titus In Umbra. We thought the abbreviation In Umbra was an apt description of these fragments which have hitherto been overshadowed by Peake’s more famous works.
Finally, Volume X: The Sunday Books: At weekends, while the family lived on Sark, Peake would tell stories to his sons Sebastian and Fabian. With each story he painted a picture in their notebooks. The stories are, alas, forgotten but the pictures are reproduced here in full colour with an introduction by Fabian Peake. As distinct from the recent Sunday Books written by Michael Moorcock.
An absolute treasure. In general, I do not allow myself to get too attached to material possessions. That way lies madness. But books, to me, have such meaning, such value. They are carriers of culture, and their cargo is our dreams and visions. I love these books, fiercely and passionately, and as I told my wife when we completed the order, I almost feel as if I will never need to acquire another book again. The zenith has been reached. The books I have always wished for finally exist.
I will have many many more photos of each volume in future posts as I slowly and joyfully explore each book. I can see myself reading these for years and years to come, discovering new insights with each journey. These books will be a great joy to me.
And finally, I cannot thank my wife enough for this. Any investment of this magnitude requires the blessing of both partners in a marriage. This was not something that either of us took lightly. Knowing of my great love of Mervyn Peake, his work, and fine books in general, she consented to this largely for my happiness. I am fortunate in so many ways, but to share my life with a woman like her is beyond value.