H: Hidden Gem
Going off the assumption that there aren’t two prompts in a row for “a book which was better than you expected,” I’m putting on my hipster pants (hahahahaha what a lie) and bringing out a Rather Obscure Book: The Epicurean.
This book, not to be confused with Walter Pater’s Marius the Epicurean or Charles Ranhofer’s cookbook of the same name, was written in 1827 by Thomas Moore, not to be confused with the Lord Chancellor and patron of lawyers. Thomas Moore is best remembered as the lyricist who wrote “The Minstrel Boy” and “The Last Rose of Summer,” but he wrote a lot of things, including this story.
The book frames itself as the translation of a Greek manuscript, found in a monastery around 1800. It follows a young man named Alciphron, right after he is elected as the Chief of the school of Epicurus. He arranges all the delights of their glorious annual festival, which was an unqualified success; still, he is left cold in its wake, as Epicureanism gives him no hope for anything beyond his brief mortal life:
Leaning against the pedestal, I raised my eyes to heaven, and fixing them sadly and intently on the ever-burning stars, as if I sought to read the mournful secret in their light, asked, wherefore was it that Man alone must perish, while they, less wonderful, less glorious than he, lived on in light unchangeable and for ever! – “Oh, that there were some spell, some talisman,” I exclaimed, “to make the spirit within us deathless as those stars, and open to its desires a career like theirs, burning and boundless throughout all time!”
So saying, this Epicurean falls asleep and dreams of Egypt, and a figure bidding him travel there to find what he wishes for. He makes his arrangements and reaches Alexandria, which welcomes him as a “second Athens.” Thereafter he heads to Memphis, in search of pyramids.
Amid festivals and banquets, Alciphron sees a lovely priestess. One night while walking under the moon he spots her again and, retrieving a mirror she dropped, follows her…down steps leading him into a pyramid.
The adventures that follow are exciting, but in an old-fashioned sort of way: rather than adrenaline, it all stirs the nerves. The events are thrilling, intriguing, and capture a sort of metaphysical significance which makes them more dreadful. Or terrible, or awe-full: whatever you like.
Eventually Alciphron meets Alethe, the priestess, and learns that she is secretly a Christian, attempting to escape the mystery rites. They travel together along the Nile; Alciphron becomes a Christian; and they marry, just as imperial edict begins a persecution of all Christians who do not renounce their faith.
The story twines a whole lot of beautiful words around these events, presenting a man of melancholy and his musings on life, death, and what might come after. It isn’t a popular book, but it is a beautiful one.