The Late, Sort-Of Great, Georgy Riecke

[Guest author: Jean-Pierre Sertin. Footnotes by Doris Boshchov]

It’s been three months[1], I think, since Doris Boshchov asked me to write this memorial to her late husband Georgy Riecke. I would like to say that it took me all this time to get over my grief, but that would be dishonest[2] – and if there’s anything that Georgy disliked (there were a lot of things, in fact) it was dishonesty. So I’ll lay my cards down on the table: I’ve had other things on my mind. There was this story I was trying to write, for one, this poem I was struggling to finish, for two, and this play I never started but rather fancied was going to make me famous one day, for three.[3] There was other stuff besides, none of which I imagine you want to hear about it, this being neither the place nor the time for messy relationship stories that may or not involve a stricken feline.

The fact that I am now writing said memorial does not mean that said things have been resolved, merely that Doris’s patience has devolved, which is to say that it has broken into shards of frustration, not a few of which have been gathered together and pointed, like a fragmented dagger, in my direction. She has demanded that I knuckle down and do what I should have done several weeks ago, or risk the full force of her wrath, which I took to mean that she has every intention of writing a really nasty poem about me and publishing it in all the major literary journals in Finland.[4] This is the sort of demand, as you can imagine, that I take very seriously. No one likes to be dissed by a Scandinavian poetess.[5] That is the kind of thing that can destroy the sort of middling career I enjoy; or at the very least ensure that I will never ever be stood a drink at The Crippled Bee (the North London public house whose dedication to all things literary and Scandinavian will be very well-known to you, dear reader of mine).[6]

So: to task. You have probably heard by now that the late Georgy Riecke has left his seat in the back row of life’s theatre and stormed through the door marked ‘exit’. I forgot when he died, exactly. A Thursday back in April or May, I fancy.[7] It was definitely a Thursday because I was on the phone to my mother when I got the news – by e-mail no less (I’m not a fan of e-mail, which is why I only check my account once a week, while on the phone to my mother).[8] How did I react? Well, I can’t recall for sure, but I think it was with a mixture of surprise, amusement, disappointment, discomfort and relief. Relief, of course, because I owed Georgy not a little money, and I knew that Doris didn’t know this[9], and probably wouldn’t want it back in any case (whereas Georgy, bless him, had been badgering me about it for years). Discomfort, inevitably, because any death is a reminder of death’s existence, and no man wants to be reminded of that on a Thursday afternoon, no matter how boring the person on the other end of the phone. Disappointment, then, because Georgy, for all his faults, never failed to support me as a writer, against all the odds – and was, now I stop to consider it, the only real supporter I have ever had.[10] Amusement, however, because the guy died from falling out of a tree, which whatever way you look at it is such a Georgy-Riecke-way-to-die. And surprise, because although anyone could have predicted he would one day fall from a tree and cut his brain open – a few of the guys at the TCB had actually put bets on this being the method of his demise – no one expected it to happen so soon.[11]

I’d always presumed, indeed, that Georgy would live to be Very Old Indeed. I pictured him in his nineties, still pottering around in that tired brown blazer of his, looking every inch like the great literary critic he very clearly wasn’t.[12] He always had an air of ragged permanence about him, as if he stood apart from time. A lot of people tell me that Georgy was sensitive, and I certainly experienced this in person. In the long run, however, I wonder how a truly sensitive person could have dedicated his life, as Georgy Riecke did, to the pursuit of obscure European literature. If he had been truly sensitive, he would have backed horses that stood at least an outside chance of winning. He would have devoted himself to things that either a) mattered or b) were popular – instead of things that a) were largely pointless and b) weren’t much liked.[13] Was it just a case of having impeccably bad taste? Maybe so. Certainly Georgy had an ability to see promise where others saw only dross. His enemies liked to say that he sought difficulty for difficulty’s sake; that he was in love with the idea of obscure literature far more than the literature itself.[14] His championing of Yevgeny Nonik is a case in point. Who in their right mind would put so much energy into the inchoate ramblings of a Russian madman? Georgy, however, never gave it a second thought.[15] Either he was extremely farsighted, or he was irrevocably nuts. As one of many writers to benefit from his encouragement, I cannot comment on this, except to say that I would be not a little shocked to find future generations thinking of him as some sort of prophet. To put it another way, Georgy didn’t have bad taste – just very strange taste. He redefined taste, to what end we will never know.

Here’s the point where I should share some sort of anecdote. I spent many evenings drinking cheap wine and eating salty crackers with Georgy: surely I must have a crazy story or two up my sleeve? And yet, when I shake that sleeve, nothing appears to fall out – or nothing worth mentioning.[16] Mostly I talked about myself, and Georgy listened.[17] Occasionally someone else joined us, and tried to steer the conversation onto the subject of themselves. I usually left at this point. Georgy, I am told, would sometimes write about these conversations on his blog, of which I was (like most of his friends) a very occasional reader.[18]

Speaking of reading, this was of course the man’s serious passion – for better or worse. It is appropriate that he died reading (why else would he have been up a tree?) and not a little sad that no one ever recovered the book that was in his hands during that last moment. According to Doris, a magpie stole it from his hands while he was in the tree, which prompted the sudden movement, which prompted the fall.[19] Where is that magpie now? And, more to the point, did it have the good grace to read the book it stole? If so, how did it read that book? This is the kind of question that would have exercised Georgy. How does a bird read?[20] How does a text change when the reader wears a beak? For like his so-called mentor, the equally deranged Johannes Speyer, Georgy was a great believer in the instability of the text. If I knew what that meant, I would probably say more about it. As it is, I will draw to a close by listing some of things I will think of when I think of Georgy.

  1. pineapple juice (for obvious reasons).[21]
  2. the fact that, for all the millions of artists out there in the world, less than one percent of them will ever receive a third of the attention they deserve, and that this doesn’t bear thinking about, which is why for the most part I don’t, except when Georgy comes to mind, which is mercifully rare.[22]
  3. the letter ‘G’, not just because that was the first letter of his name, but because he wrote that godawful book about books by authors whose name also began with the letter ‘G’, which was I think meant to make us think, about what I can’t remember, as I only read the foreword, and that many moons ago.[23]
  4. his literary journal, ‘Underneath the Bunker’, which I appeared in several times, for which I am thankful, and which I otherwise never really read either, because to be quite frank with you I only really read things which I myself wrote. He had a blog as well, which I have already mentioned, and on which I think this memorial is going to be published, as a kind of ‘last post’ sort-of-thing
  5. salty crackers (see above). Having just written this, I wonder now whether the salty crackers were always Georgy’s ‘thing’, or whether it was something he picked up from another of The Crippled Bee’s mildly deranged regulars. Must ask around about this.[24]
  6. Johannes Speyer (again, for obvious reasons, not least that memoir Georgy wrote about him, which I have on good authority is not the very worst thing he wrote).[25]
  7. his house in London, which he let me stay in many times, against his better judgement.[26]
  8. his cottage in Vladivostok, which I never stayed in, and am not at all certain ever existed outside of his imagination.[27]
  9. Aldous Egg, his evil nemesis, who again I don’t think existed, outside of GR’s over-active imagination.
  10. his convoluted metaphors and similes, of which he was prouder than a robin with inadequacy issues who has just laid an egg the size of the grand canyon.
  11. Last but not least, Germany, from which he apparently came, despite the complete lack of accent, and almost no understanding of German culture.[28] Word is he covers all of this in his memoir about Speyer, so if you’re interested in learning more, by all means head there. As for me, I’m done. Georgy Riecke, if not one of the greats, you were certainly among the greatest of those who would have liked to be great, given better breaks, more brain cells and, well, a greater degree of greatness. Enjoy the afterlife, old bean.

[1] Five and a half, actually.

[2] For the record: try as he might to hide his tears behind an embroidered Japanese handkerchief, it was clear to everyone present that Sertin wept copiously at Georgy’s funeral

[3] Georgy once said to me that there was no one in the world who had more creative ideas than J-P Sertin, and no one less likely to complete any of them, to which I would reply ‘why support him then, if he never gets anything done?’ to which he would shake his head and stare at the floor for several minutes.

[4] Sertin knows me better than I thought he did. Over the past few years I have been able to compose a whole suite of nasty poems about him, which I look forward to publishing after his death (or mine, should it come first).

[5] This is very true. See, for instance, the career of Antoine Rallarno post-1989.

[6] If anyone reading this can name an instance in which J-P Sertin bought his own drink – or anyone else’s for that matter – I would love to hear of it.

[7] February 4th, in fact. And it was a Monday.

[8] I tried to phone Sertin eighteen times (leaving at least four messages on his answerphone) before breaking the news to him via an e-mail.

[9] Of course I knew this and, au contraire, I would very much like it back, Georgy having hardly departed this earth in a state of financial hunky-dory.

[10] Were it not for the fact that Georgy, in all his complexity, would probably have loved this self-serving joke for a memorial text, I would dearly love to have cut every line but this one.

[11] Funny: I always thought he would drown, notoriously bad swimmer that he was.

[12] I take it back: I like parts of this line also, though I wish Sertin had said more about the blazer, which had lived more lives than most.

[13] I am determined not to take this line personally.

[14] It is not exactly fair to say that Georgy had enemies – the mysterious Aldous Egg aside. His work was met with either grudging praise or silence, mostly the latter.

[15] Not true: he did once ask my advice re: Nonik. I can’t remember what I said exactly, but clearly it wasn’t strong enough to put him off the project (which, incidentally, is one I have come to value, in unexpected ways).

[16] This, as Sertin knows well, is sheer laziness on his part. I suspect that he is saving up his best Georgy anecdotes for yet another book which he will never finish.

[17] This, however, is quite true.

[18] This may also, sadly, be true. Few of Georgy’s friends read his writing, whether printed or published online, usually citing that well-known excuse ‘I never quite got around to it’. I confess that there are bits and pieces that even I have not read. He wrote a lot, after all, and not all of it was tip-top quality. As for whether he expected, or would have liked, more readers, all I can say is that he checked his website stats relatively regularly, and once claimed that there was ‘nothing sadder in the world than reader statistics’. I once asked a friend to give her honest opinion of the readership of Underneath the Bunker. She replied that all the signs pointed towards it being one of the least well-read journals in the history of time, which was saying a lot.

[19] I have no idea where Sertin got this information from. Georgy’s fall was not prompted by a thieving magpie. He merely slipped (which is what happens when a man in his late fifties tries to climb a tree in flip-flops after a storm). As for the book he took into the tree, I have good reason to suppose that it is still up there, and no intention to ever recover it myself.

[20] I doubt this question ever occurred to Georgy. Speyer, maybe, but that is a different story.

[21] Those reasons being Georgy’s investigations into the hallucinatory power of pineapple juice, the results of which he published online.

[22] No comment.

[23] That book has no foreword. Perhaps he means the acknowledgements?

[24] The salty crackers have nothing to do with Georgy. They are simply something The Crippled Bee has insisted on serving to all its customers, for free, for several decades now, as a means of cultivating their thirst. There is a long-standing rumour that said crackers are imported from Eastern Europe, but I know for a fact that one of the barmen buys them in bulk from the local supermarket, and that they are a cheap American brand. Georgy ate them absent-mindedly, like he ate most food.

[25] I think it is probably the best thing he wrote. Again, Sertin’s vagueness is misleading: in fact, he edited a good portion of the Speyer memoir, and discussed the text in great detail with Georgy.

[26] As discussed here, for instance. Or here.

[27] I haven’t the patience to continue correcting all errors of fact, but this is such a ridiculous assertion, really it is.

[28] See previous note. Note also the lack of note following point 9.

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It is Done

It is done. The memoir, that is. All ten chapters (c.70, 000 words in total) have been published online, free of charge, for your reading pleasure. Could I be more munificent?

Granted, the manuscript is not in perfect form. There are some errors along the way: misspellings, lost words and such-like. This is unfortunate, and not wholly the fault of my restless typists. When time bestows upon me several truckloads of hours, minutes and seconds, I will endeavour to put this straight. In the meantime, I am confident that the book does me proud. I believe that I have tackled a difficult subject to the best of my uncertain ability – and stand by the results, whatever one thinks of them.

In other news, I will shortly be taking another break from this blog. Relocation to a different country, coupled with a surprisingly busy work load, means that this particular blackboard will see little chalk for the next few months.

Whilst I’m away, allow me to remind you that there is always a lot to read (and re-read) in these regions. Over seven hundred posts on this blog alone, and over a hundred edifying essays on my sister site. Browse, by all means, but don’t forget that words are there to be read, not glanced at. It is in this spirit, indeed, that I have decided to stop updating for a while. I have written more than enough on the topic of obscure European literature during the last seven or eight years, yet very few of my ponderings have, I suspect, been chewed over as methodically as they deserve. Perhaps the power of my contribution to his little-watered field has yet to be fully appreciated? Let us hope so.

Experimental

There is no such thing as an experimental novel. All novels are experiments. A novel that takes liberties with the ‘usual form’ of the novel, or the ‘standard rules’ of writing is no more experimental than any other novel. To say that it is so is to insult it; to suggest that it is a lesser form of writing – whereas it is, in fact, the ultimate form of writing. The insult hints at something half-formed; a piece of writing ‘on the way’ to becoming ‘properly completed’. This is ridiculous. No piece of writing was ever properly completed. Everything we do is experimental.

Writing in the Sky

He was a great influence on my work, but the fact remains that Johannes Speyer was not always on speaking terms with ‘the truth’. That is to say, he and ‘the truth’ sometimes fell out. They didn’t always return each others’ calls. They often passed each other in the street without tipping a cap, or asking about the weather. He and ‘the truth’ were not bound together, like bosom buddies. They reserved the right to differ on certain matters; to go their separate ways when circumstances demanded it.

In the penultimate section of my brilliant memoirs, Conversations with Speyer, I dealt with an episode towards the very end of Speyer’s life, in which he recounted to me (and another man) a story about sky-writing. I have always doubted the veracity of this story (also covered here) for various reasons, not least the issue of impracticality. I doubted, in short, that a sky-writer (under Speyer’s orders) could write a full sentence in the sky.

Now I have seen this. Granted, this is present-day skywriting (not 1980s skywriting), patronised by a much more wealthy man. Nevertheless – disregarding the content of the piece – there is no denying that looks good. Which begs two questions: one, was Speyer telling the truth after all? And two, if sky-writing looks this good, why aren’t more writers doing it?

The second question is, I think, the more important one. Indeed, in light of this recent incident, I fully expect Jonathan Franzen’s next novel to be written in the sky. Paper is a thing of the past. Everything, from now on, should be written in the sky. Including this blog.

Readable in Parts

The ‘big talk’ of 2013 (aside from ‘everything else’) was undoubtedly my memoir Conservations with Speyer. Here are some carefully selected quotations from some of the more recent reviews:

‘It takes a while to get going, and once it does, you wish it would stop’.

‘Speyer, an interesting and flawed man, is well served by this interesting and flawed memoir’.

‘Mr. Riecke has an eye for details – usually the wrong ones. When he should be pulling apart the contradictions in Speyer’s philosophy, he is musing about cats in the professor’s garden.’

‘If you’re one of the five people in the world still interested in Johannes Speyer, this book might be for you’.

‘Mr. Riecke has taken the kindly step of publishing his memoir online in installments. Is this because it isn’t good enough to be published on paper, all at once? Most probably – but the act remains a generous one; for the rainforest, if not for his readers’

‘Riddled with typos, and badly in need of a good editor, Conversations with Speyer is nevertheless readable in parts’.

Being a modest fellow I have, of course, held the more positive comments back. Rest assured, they would make a spider blush.

One or Two Finely Tuned Sentences

Towards the end of the day a book of condolences was passed around. No doubt they should have brought it out earlier, for it took a long time to get around the room. The problem with these literary/academic funerals is that almost everyone there takes writing too seriously. Some people there took close to half an hour to construct a single line. I would like to think that they were struggling to capture the essence of Speyer’s personality, or the weight of our loss, in one or two finely tuned sentences. The truth, however, is that they weren’t really thinking of Speyer at all. They were competing with one another…

The last part of my memoir has been posted. Enjoy it here.

The Gaps Between Chat

With some people we live our lives. With most people we talk about lives lived, or lives about to lived, or lives that will never be lived. We talk about the lives we’d like to live, the lives we should live, and what life would be like if we could only live it properly. We talk about action past and action future. To put it another way, life is largely made up of conversations about life. There is very little actual living, and rather a lot talk about it. Life is what happens in the gaps between chat.

The penultimate part: Chapter Ten, Part One

Most Improved

Countless lists of ‘Books of the Year’ have been printed in recent weeks, and I am shocked to see my soon-to-be-completed memoir, Conversations with Speyer, appears on only two of them. Max Doczek of the Prague Times describes the book as ‘memorable, in its own peculiar way’, whilst Julie der Pritzinger of the St Helena Quarterly Book Club Gazette as ‘a law unto itself’. She adds: ‘I have only read two autobiographical works this year, and the other one was by Morrissey. On this basis, Riecke wins the gong for best memoir’. I know not of this Morrissey character, but I will take this as a compliment.

In other news, a literary magazine based in Haapsalu, Estonia, has awarded me the title of ‘Most Improved Critic of 2013’. Considering that I produced almost no criticism this last year, this also comes as something of a surprise.

Festival Spirit

You may not be shocked to hear that our conversation was at this moment interrupted by the arrival of a cat, which Speyer treated warmly, and addressed (to my surprise) as ‘Madame Hanska’. This was the first time I had ever heard Speyer refer to one of the cats by name. No matter that it was, by all appearances, the wrong one (a tag around the cat’s neck, I later noted, read ‘Gabriella’). The very fact that he was admitting the animal’s presence was impressive. Perhaps some of the festival spirit had rubbed off on him after all?

Conversations with Speyer, Chapter Nine, Part Three

And in the meantime, season’s greetings to you all. May your holly be decked with snowflakes etc.

A Frightening Row of Dashes

At certain points in his life he confessed to having an ‘unhealthy obsession with the minutiae of writing’. To put it another way, all he saw was the details. ‘I could let the ideas drift,’ he said, ‘so long as the commas were exactly in the right place. I was in the grips of what an old friend once called “punctuation fever”. I would even dream about punctuation. I once dreamed that I was tied to a post in a large white room. Into the room came columns of commas, semi-colons, and full-stops. They formed circles around me and began to dance to some terrible thumping music. Midway through their dance their ranks were swollen by a phalanx of question marks, exclamation marks and brackets. Last but not least came a frightening row of dashes. Oh it was unbearable!

Conversations with Speyer, Chapter Nine, Part Two

Lost Its Moorings

Within a few pages, however, we begin to enter darker waters. The reader, no matter how conscientious, feels his or herself drifting away from an increasingly inhospitable writer. There are no life jackets, there are no rafts, and there are no goggles. Large waves of largely indecipherable prose crash against us. A thick mist of muddled opinions falls upon us. A fine sleet of ambivalence sweeps over us. The chaos and anxiety is relentless. If ever a book has lost its moorings, this book is it. The further one gets into it, the choppier the water gets. By the end of it, you’d be excused for feeling sick. One can see why it was Speyer’s last book.

Speyer’s book may have lost its moorings, but my memoir certainly hasn’t. No: this boat is watertight – as you can see for yourself, in the latest chapter.

To Stop, In Short, In Order to Start

Not enough thought went into either reading or writing, of that he was sure. People churned out words like endless pats of butter, or snakes of sausage meat – and other people swallowed these words without chewing, or thinking twice about the flavour. ‘We need to slow down’ he noted, ‘or better than that, stop entirely. For a week, for a month, maybe even for a year, we should put down our pens. We need to take stock of everything that has been written already. To re-read what has gone before. To rethink our very attitude to the process of creating and consuming. Writing is a wonderful, wonderful thing, but we are in danger of losing sight of what it means, and of what it can do. We need to stop, in short, in order to start again’.

Conversations with Speyer, Chapter Eight

(Read the whole memoir here)

Fired Up

“Johannes is a deep and thoughtful man; eccentric, yes, but hardly wild. That year, however, the irresponsible teenager in him emerged. And yet it was irresponsibility fueled by what seemed, to me at least, to be genuine passion. He was gloriously excitable, almost deliriously so. He was boiling over with ideas, each more impractical than the last. Like I said, I tried to discourage him, but it was never easy. For the first time, we properly argued. I refused to help him set one up of his experiments. It was great to see him so fired up, if you’ll excuse the phrase, but it was also a concern. I was something of a coward, you see. Too cowardly to be involved for a start; more importantly, though, I was too cowardly to stop him once he’d started..”

Chapter Seven comes to a fiery conclusion.

A Couple of Regular St. Jeromes

‘One day we climbed up a mountain in search of a tarn, just so Johannes could say he’d read in a tarn. Only it turns out that this tarn wasn’t the tarn he was looking for. So we went up another mountain, books stuffed under our arms, in search of another. Once we reached that, he did his reading, whilst I paddled about in the reeds. Then back down the mountain we went. He was never satisfied. Always on the move in those days; always looking for the next opportunity. Did you ever see one of those paintings of St. Jerome in the desert, sitting in a cave, surrounded by books? Yes? Well, we were a couple of regular St. Jeromes, wandering about the wilderness with a portable library…’

Conversations with Speyer, Chapter Seven, Part Three

I Was (Putting Up A) Blind, And Now I See

When I invest, I invest in books. A book is always there for you in times of need. One forms a relationship with a book which is deep, rich and rewarding; a relationship which evolves over the years, in ever-unexpected directions.

You cannot say the same for a power drill. A perfectly useful item, in its way, but with rather – shall we say – limited attributes. A power drill will not entertain, educate or enlarge your mind. It will not transport you to another world. Put it this way: I would rather be trapped on a desert island with a book than with a power drill.

This may explain why I have never invested in a power drill.  When the occasion to utilize such an object arises, I fall back on more primitive methods. My tools are my hands. Indeed, I do not at present even own a hammer, all of which ensures that the process of screwing in a bracket is a slow, sometimes painful one. It is an adventure, no less; one which can last several days, creating as it does a fine collection of bruises and blisters.

There are, however, upsides. Weak old scholar that I am, I find I cannot stick to such tasks for very long. Screwing in a bracket to put up a blind – as I was doing this weekend – takes a lot of energy out of me, for which reason I tend to do it in fits and starts. I ascend the ladder, turn the screw a few times, take a deep breath, turn the screw a few more times, and then back down the ladder I go. Not to take a rest, I hasten to add, or to get myself a cup of tea. No, no, no. At the foot of the ladder I have placed a book of poems. To recover from the business of turning the screw, I turn to a poem. When tired of the poem, I return to the screw. The two activities feed each other: reading the poem prepares me for turning the screw, and vice versa.

The point of all of this is, of course, to serve as a reminder that reading works very well in conjunction with other activities. One might even argue that reading works best in conjunction with other activities (so Johannes Speyer would say). I’m not sure I would go this far. What I would say, though, is that short bursts of reading, taken in the gaps left by another project, are not to be under-estimated. I can quite honestly say that I got more out of my poems in this moment than I would have done had I been, for example, sitting peacefully in an armchair. Reading and life, it seems, are best taken together.