An Old Coat Hanger and a Tin of Vaseline

Jean-Pierre Sertin writes from sunny old England:


Many thanks for your message regarding the misplacement of your memoirs. As instructed, I endeavoured to enter your house yesterday evening, only to find that I, in turn, had misplaced my set of keys! Fortunately, as problems go, this was by no means an insurmountable one. There is, as it happens, a long tradition in my family of breaking and entering, which can be traced back to my great great-grandfather, a renowned magician and part-time thief. Of course, we Sertins rarely get the opportunity to indulge in our secret passion these days, but when we do, we invariably prove ourselves more than equal to the task! In light of this I am proud to say that it took me less than ten minutes to get into your house. I shan’t tell you how I managed this; suffice it to say that all it took was an old coat hanger and a tin of Vaseline. Fear not, however: the special procedure is safe with me (although you may want to invest in a burglar alarm one of these days, just in case).

Once inside, I set about the task of finding your memoirs. This did not prove easy, not least because you own so many other wonderful things! Why have you been hiding all these things from me, dear Georgy? It is but two years since I was last invited to dinner, and yet it seems that your book collection has grown faster than a bundle of rustic bindweed. When did you buy the complete collection of Ludomir Birovnik’s poetry – and why didn’t you tell me? And all those novels by Françoise Flamméron, the editions with the illustrations by Gustave Lardé! To have hoarded such treasures without informing me: this was most unfair of you. Thank the gods I have discovered them now, or I fear I should never have done so! (I will return them in near perfect condition, I promise you).

Then we have the art works. Since when have you collected early nineteenth century French sculpture? Or seventeenth-century Dutch prints? And what, pray what, is that porcelain object on the mantelpiece in your living room? Is it meant to represent something? It looks to me like a whale crossed with a giraffe crossed with a telegraph pole. Whatever it is, I have already developed an unhealthy obsession with it. I despise it, I think, but nevertheless find myself drawn to it. I think I shall return at different times of the day to catch it in different lights (isn’t that what you’re supposed to do in such situations?). I have also photographed it, and intend to carry the photographs around with me in my wallet. I will whip them out at bus stops and ask perfect strangers what they think of your strange sculpture. It will, I think, be a fascinating experience.

What else? There is, of course, the whole issue of ‘upstairs’. Did you know I have never even been ‘upstairs’ in your house? Funny how you can know someone for years, but never have cause venture ‘upstairs’ in their house. And when you do! Holy flaming mackerel. It really is an encounter of the most disturbing kind. I’m almost certain I shall not recover from it. The spare room was fine; so too the bathroom. The bedroom, however.  The less said about the bedroom the better…

All of which brings us no closer to the safe retrieval of your memoirs. Which is not to say that I did not try (oh lord how I tried!) I rooted around in your study for at least two hours, finding all sorts of interesting things (personal letters, mostly, more than half of which were mildly scandalous). You never told me you knew Jurgën Vass (or did you? I‘ve never been one for remembering stories). And Natasha Radskov? How in Hercules’ name did you manage to get her to write to you? In any case, I’ve no doubt there’s material here for a marvellous collection of letters and reminiscences. It makes me wonder why your current memoirs concentrate on Johannes Speyer. He was a very minor talent, in my mind, in comparison with these other men and women. Really, Mr. Riecke, you need to sort out your priorities. Stop obsessing over cursory characters!

And yet one appreciates your concern over the loss of your notebooks. ‘Conversations with Speyer’ may not be setting the world alight, but I suppose it would better be finished than unfinished. In the former state you would at least be free to move onto other things; to put dear Speyer aside and concentrate on more important projects (maybe even, dare I say it, to finish your long gestating PhD?) Yes, I fully understand your desire to get your memoirs ‘out there’ as quickly as possible. The only problem is that I haven’t yet located them. Have you any idea where you might have left them? Were you ever given to writing in the loft? Might you have tucked them away in the kitchen, with the beans and the seeds? Could they have fallen down the side of a bookshelf or cabinet? (please, please don’t say they might be in the bedroom). Needless to say, I will continue the search as long as you think fit, or as long as it interests me; whichever comes first.

In the meantime, the warmest wishes to you and your wonderful wife,

J-P Sertin.

P.S. How is America treating you? Remember, they aren’t overly fond of understatement over there. Be direct, Georgy, be direct!


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