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May 15, 2017 BOOKLIST
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Come to me, my melancholy baby
Cuddle up and don’t be blue
It’s probably no surprise that a hormonal youngster like myself would fall for the stunningly beautiful Uggams, but my related infatuation with all things melancholic requires a bit more investigation. It started with the word itself. Call me Humbert Humbert if you must, but those four syllables (mel-an-chol-y), flowing like velvet out of Leslie’s mouth, became my personal “Lo-lee-ta,” complete with the attendant fire in my preteen loins. Naturally, I next needed to find out what exactly my new favorite word meant. I asked my mother, of course, and she replied that melancholy described a kind of mood, sad but not crying sad. I didn’t quite get it, but it was a place to start.
I’m sad (but not crying sad) to report that Leslie and I drifted apart over the next few years as the Beatles and the Stones finally caught my ears (as did Monk and Miles), but the idea of melancholy kept popping up in my life. And how could it not, as I was soon enough immersed in what Anthony Powell (more about him in a minute) calls “the crushing melancholy of the undergraduate condition”? Every time during my college years when I encountered the word melancholy in a book—and an English major tends to encounter it plenty—I always thought wistfully of Leslie and our song. But my melancholic education truly kicked into high gear when I took a seventeenth-century lit course and found Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy (1622) on the syllabus. Naturally, I was hooked. It’s true Burton’s opus was rather tough going, as much medical text as work of literature, and it was a bit deflating to learn that such an exquisite word for such an exquisite form of sadness was first used to describe an excess of black bile (even worse to learn that my special word comes from the Greek for, yes, black bile).
I soldiered on through life and literature, never feeling particularly depressed myself but always responding almost romantically to strains of the melancholic wherever I encountered them (Sinatra singing “In the Wee Small Hours”; Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises musing about how it’s “pretty to think so”). And then I read A Dance to the Music of Time (I told you we’d get back to Powell). Books Do Furnish a Room, the ninth novel in the 12-novel sequence, begins with the 40-year-old protagonist, Nick Jenkins, one of my favorite characters in fiction, returning to Oxford to do research for a book about—you guessed it!—The Anatomy of Melancholy.
My entire reading life, it turns out, has been suffused with melancholy. I just did a search on Booklist Online and discovered that I’ve used the word in 103 reviews since 1992, many of them stars. Clearly, my love for noir and crime fiction in general grows directly out of what happened that day back in 1959 or 1960 when I heard Leslie sing about melancholy. Rain-slicked streets, wailing saxophones, shots of bourbon at closing time—they’re the stuff of crime novels, but they’re also black bile in a petri dish. Here’s just a partial list of some of my favorite crime-fiction heroes whom I’ve celebrated for their melancholy: John le Carré’s George Smiley, Michael Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen, Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti, Leonardo Padura Fuentes’ Mario Conde, Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander, James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux, and Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko. It’s not just crime fiction, either. My list of 103 melancholy mentions also includes literary novels by some of my most cherished contemporary writers, including, especially, the great Larry Watson and the equally great Robert Hellenga, whose abiding theme, as I called it in my review of The Confessions of Frances Godwin (2014), is “the melancholy transience of love.”
Thinking about all of that, I believe it’s high time I thanked Leslie for giving me the books I’ve loved for these past fiftysomething years. But not just Leslie. Shout-outs, too, to Ernie Burnett, who wrote the music, and George A. Norton, who wrote the lyrics to “My Melancholy Baby” back in 1912. I’ll even give a nod to the unctuous Mitch Miller for hooking me up with Leslie.
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