Melancholy, and books I no longer have

Sources of Joy – Day 70

It may have been gifts of money from Christmas or my birthday, but what I do know is that one day early in 1981 I found myself in a bookstore browsing through piles and chaotic piles of sale items. It was a hot day, and I was nauseous, having recently ingested far too many chocolates far too quickly. To complicate matters, my mother was being impatient while I was making weighty decisions about which books to discard if I were to purchase the one and only copy in the entire store of the New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology (soft cover) with an introduction by Robert Graves for the princely half-price sum of thirteen dollars. I had never spent so much on one book before. I did try to read the whole introduction in the shop so that I could tip the scales in favour of the purchase, but while I was immersing myself in the elegant prose of Mr Graves, the maternal eagle eye fell upon me and gave me the look.

I closed the book and held it across my chest with the kind of guilt which should only be reserved for being caught in the act as a teenager of reading pornographic magazines. By the time I was wondering whether I should buy the complete works of John Keats or settle for a slimmer volume by the same poet, my mother had glided over from across the way with remarkable speed and was suddenly reading over my shoulder (if that is at all possible given that she is more than six inches shorter than I). She asked me why I wanted to buy John Keats, since I had already read most of his poems, hadn’t I? There was not time for an adequate response to that question. Besides, I had become acutely conscious once again of my state of nausea. That did it. The Complete Works it was – and the big mythology book.

You see, to gain a complete understanding of Keats, one needs a knowledge of mythology. Scholarship will tell you that Keats often departed from accepted mythological accounts with embellishments sprung from his own imagination. Clearly, a subject which required close examination.  My arms were aching under the weight of these two and other books as I made my other decisions based on the old enemies of desire and financial constraint on the way to the long and painfully slow queue at the cashier’s desk.

Finally we were free. I was forbidden to start reading in the car on the way home. I did not mind so much, for in the years that followed – until I gave up most of my books before emigrating, I had hours and hours of pleasure reading both these and the pile of other books I bought that day.

Possibly I should have bought these two books with me to Portugal. For in times of melancholy, which is often like a sudden fog, reading John Keats is soothing, then uplifting. And I never did commit the entire Greek and Roman pantheon to memory.

It was a well-marked passage in my copy (line 515, more or less, Endymion, Part IV):

There lies a den,

Beyond the seeming confines of space
Made for the soul to wander in and trace
Its own existence, of remotest glooms.

There are about another 30 lines which follow in which, suddenly, having worked through one’s melancholy, a happiness sobered by sadness is achieved. This, too, is joy.  Without this sadness, there is no joy. Our joy is defined and moulded by our sadness.  Dualities such as this one exist everywhere. Today would have been a good day to read 1,000 lines of poetry, or so. That may have encompassed the sadness I feel which dwells “beyond the seeming confines of space”, yet is never too far away that I cannot see it.

Instead of reading poetry, I did as much administration work as I could bear, and packed a few books, for tomorrow I transport a newly-acquired bookshelf and books to their new home: the big books, dictionaries, a few books I love more than the ones discussed above, and a few other slim volumes which have, like tumbleweed, blown into my life. It is time for them to be in order too. I received news yesterday that there is another book in the post – this time, in German, written by a fellow translator for charity – Neue Flügel für Bataar. I will edit the English translation she is currently working on. That thought alone is worth at least a smidgin of joy. I like working with this author; we have worked on things in the past.

The Summer of the Books is about to begin!

Cover: The Kindle version of excerpts of the book are available on Amazon.
Cover: The Kindle version of excerpts of the book are available on Amazon.


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