An absorbing few hours today spent scouring old bookshops for anything interesting, with the usual mixed bag of long-sought books and serendipitous finds. First, the Seven Tragedies of Aeschylus, an 1843 edition of Prometheus Chained, The Seven Against Thebes, The Persians, Agamemnon, The Choephori, The Furies, and The Supplicants. Astonishing really to pick up a 174 year old book for 99p – quite apart from the fact that it will fill in some gaps in my knowledge. According to a pencilled inscription in capital letters, the book once belonged to “CORSON, 398 BADDON ROAD, CHELMSFORD, ESSEX”, and also contained a cryptic torn-off scrap of paper bearing the numbers 65, 64, 56 and 41.
Then there is Gilbert Phelps’ A Short History of English Literature (Folio, 1962), according to many something of an overlooked classic, and in any case a brilliant survey of the context of key English texts, giving us some idea why some famous books, starting with Beowulf and ending with D. H. Lawrence, appeared when they did, why there were written in the way they were, and how they were unique or ground-breaking.
Then there is Geoffrey Ashe’s 1974 Do What You Will – A Short History of Anti-Morality, which takes potentially lurid material (Rabelais’ Abbey of Theleme, John Dee, Hell Fire Clubs, de Sade, Swinburne and Crowley) and shows them in context and with humanity, linking them to contemporaneous culture and politics. Who couldn’t get drawn into chapters with titles like “Occult Wife-Swapping”, “A Dukedom in Hell”, “Bubb and Fred” and “The Gothic Plunge”?)
As a coda, Stefan Zweig’s 1944 The Buried Candelabrum. I have only read his captivating essays before, so am looking forward to this novel about the last days of Rome, as decadent Romans await anxiously the pleasure of Genseric’s Vandals. This copy was a 1959 Purim presentation by the Federation of Synagogues (Bethnal Green Talmud Torah Hebrew and Religion Classes) to one Harvey Shenasky of Class 2 for good attendance. It feels slightly piquant to find this story about a vanished world presented by the elders of a community that even in 1959 was starting to vanish from the East End. I fear the owner has now himself joined the ranks of the vanished…