Mervyn Peake: Titus Groan (1946)
'How many shelves have you built for your father?' said the Earl to his daughter with a ghastly smile.
'Seven shelves, father,' said Fuchsia. Her eyes were very wide and her hands trembled as they hung at her sides.
'Three more shelves, my daughter - three more shelves, and then we will put the volumes back.'
Fuchsia, picking up a short branch, scored across the needled ground three long lines, adding them to the seven which already lay between her father and herself.
'That's it, that's it,' came the melancholy voice. 'Now we have space for the Sonian Poets. Have you the books ready - little daughter?'
Fuchsia swung her head up, and her eyes fastened upon her father. He had never spoken to her in that way - she had never before heard that tone of love in his voice. Chilled by the horror of his growing madness, she had yet been filled with a compassion she had never known, but now there was more than compassion within her, there was released, of a sudden, a warm jet of love for the huddled figure whose long pale hand rested upon his knees, whose voice sounded so quiet and so thoughtful. 'Yes, father, I've got the books ready,' she replied; 'do you want me to put them on the shelves?'
She turned to a heap of pine cones which had been gathered. 'Yes, I am ready,' he replied after a pause that was filled with the silence of the wood. 'But one by one. One by one. We shall stock three shelves tonight. Three of my long, rare shelves.'
'Yes, father.' ...
- Mervyn Peake. Titus Groan. 1946. Introduction by Anthony Burgess. Penguin Modern Classics. 1968 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975): 345-46.
The most poignant piece I know of about the after-effects of the death of a library is this passage from Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast trilogy (worse even than the final moments of Elias Canetti's Auto-da-fé). Perhaps its effectiveness comes from the fact that Peake himself may already have known about his own Parkinson's disease. It's hard not to feel him imagining the successive loss of his faculties, both as artist and author.
Building a library is always, as Canetti reminds us, an act of faith. One one level, of course, it's at the mercy of so many factors: fire, flood, domestic turmoil, and all the other vagaries of life. On another, it needs a logic and a raison d'être to justify its existence. But without some kind of catalogue or indexing system, can it really be said to be a library - or just an opportunistic huddle of books?
A website seems to me not such a bad place to compile such a catalogue raisonnée. The pages can be edited and re-edited as often as one wants, and (what's more) decorated with the other people's art. With the aid of labels, hypertext and sidebars, it can even be effectively cross-indexed.
This blog, then, A Gentle Madness (the title borrowed from Nicholas Basbane's entertaining account of the vagaries of eccentric bibliophiles throughout history) is the result. It's very much a work in progress (but then what library could ever be said to be finished? Only when people stop writing new books, or re-editing old ones, I suppose). It's not - I suspect - of particularly absorbing interest (or use) to anyone but me, but, for what it's worth, it's now accessible to all.
'My books .. .' he said.
'I have them here, father. Shall I fill up the first long shelf for you?'
'With the Sonian Poets, Fuchsia.'
She picked up a cone from the heap at her side and placed it on the end of the line she had scored in the ground. The Earl watched her very carefully.
'That is Andrema, the lyricist - the lover - he whose quill would pulse as he wrote and fill with a blush of blue, like a bruised nail. His verses, Fuchsia, his verses open out like flowers of glass, and at their centre, between the brittle petals lies a pool of indigo, translucent and as huge as doom. His voice is unmuffled - it is like a bell, clearly ringing in the night of our confusion; but the clarity is the clarity of imponderable depth - depth - so that his lines float on for evermore, Fuchsia - on and on and on, for evermore. That is Andrema ... Andrema.'
The Earl, with his eyes on the cone which Fuchsia had placed at the end of the first line, opened his mouth more widely, and suddenly the pines vibrated with the echoes of a dreadful cry, half scream, half laughter.
Fuchsia stiffened, the blood draining from her face. Her father, his mouth still open, even after the scream had died out of the forest, was now upon his hands and knees. Fuchsia tried to force her voice from the dryness of her throat. Her father's eyes were on her as she struggled, and at last his lips came together and his eyes recovered the melancholy sweetness that she had so lately discovered in them. She was able to say, as she picked up another cone and made as if to place it at the side of 'Andrema': 'Shall I go on with the library, father?'
- Peake. Titus Groan: 347.
[Mervyn Peake: Alice]
- Requests for the loan of any of the books or materials listed here will not be entertained seriously. It seems most unlikely you won't be able find a nearby public library which can obtain the titles you're searching for.
- The pages are organised in the following way:
1, 2 … = shelf numbers counting downwards
[b] = back row of a double row
i, ii = partition / section number (left to right)
• = on top of other books (left to right)
[…] = bound Xerox copy