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.'
'Yes, father.'
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?' [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 to find a nearby public library which can obtain the titles you're searching for.

  • The pages are organised in the following way:

  • The following key to my mapping conventions is (I hope) self-explanatory:

  • 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


  1. Captain Jack, you've gone quite mad, but I guess you must have always been this way!


    1. Did you one day realise you had the makings of a "collection" or was it your intention to "collect"?

    2. What book started your collection (when it first became a collection or when you first realised it)?

    3. Do you read every book you buy?

    4. How do you decide what books to buy? Must they be your personal favourites? Are there boxes you need to tick before a book can be allowed into the collection?

    5. Would you ever allow Stephenie Meyer or Dan Brown in your collection?

  2. Yes, I guess it's a long-standing malady, but it does have its uses sometimes. In (partial) answer to your queries, though:

    1/ I still don't really think of it as a "collection" - I just gather books which interest me on a number of topics. There's no theme beyond that.

    2/ I remember my father gave me a copy of The Three Musketeers when I was a kid which I read avidly. That was the beginning, I think -- it was a scruffy sort of book, but very satisfying in its way.

    3/ No, I don't. But I never buy one which I don't intend to read. It's taken a while to get to some of them, though.

    4/ Nowadays I do try and confine myself to books which complete sets or are otherwise indispensable. I'm more discriminating in my acquisitions.

    5/ Sure, why not? If you look at the Fantasy & Science Fiction page, you'll see I've got some far less lofty personages there. I quite fancy some of those absurd illustrated and annotated editions of Dan Brown's silly novels. But I haven't yet really felt a really active need to own them ...

    Am I going in your list of weird weekends or eccentric personages you interview on K Rd?

  3. Dear Professor Ross,

    I would like to congratulate for sharing the details of your book collection. I am very happy for you, please keep the books coming, the shelves growing.

    Thank you,
    -Steve B. - Toronto.

  4. Thanks, Steve. Much appreciated.

    A question for you, though. Why do you follow only blogs in Romanian? Are you studying the language, or is it a family history kind of thing?

    Mere idle curiosity on my part, of course.

  5. I really loved the premise of this book, and got about halfway through until things stretched out far too long and became...not boring, exactly, but I was losing interest quickly. With the dead coming back to Henry's mansion, I saw the Ava twist a mile away - same with Mom coming back. The test idea was brilliant but poorly executed, and I felt that Carter didn't quite find her voice.

  6. Obviously this last comment is some kind of a piss-take, with no reference to Mervyn Peake or any of the other books mentioned in the post.

    At first I wasted a bit of time trying to identify the book being referred to. Is "Carter" Angela Carter, for instance? The "dead coming back to Henry's mansion" sounds a bit like "The Fall of the House of Ussher" -- but (somewhat depressingly) it just turns out to be an ad for some kind of self-help website ...