Honour and Orbez

Sharks can smell a drop of blood from many miles away. So what? Some academics can sense when someone, no matter who or where they are, is disparaging their pet subject. Take Dr. Mark Phliger, for example, author of the award-winning thesis, To Honour and Orbez: Maurice Orbez and the Phantom Code.

There I was, thinking that I might be able to put the Maurice Orbez controversy behind me for a few days and sail into the warmer waters of the Luis Funnel hullabaloo, when along comes Dr. Mark Phliger, paddling a raft of new arguments, less-than-neatly packed into the sort of sprawling letter that makes Victorian novels look like haiku.

Here follows a short summary of his claims.

Firstly, regarding the identity of Orbez, he seems to fall into the Carl Stensson camp, believing that, although a man called Maurice Orbez did exist, he probably enlisted the help of one (or possibly two) people in order to create the two books (Life is Sickness and Other Medieval Wall-Scrawlings and Pain is an Everpresent and Yet More Medieval Wall-Scrawlings). One of these people was – as Andrew K has pointed out – most probably a defrocked nun going by the name of Madame De Bouffray-Ticholauz. The other figure may have been Gustav Lamont, poetic prodigy and son of a Parisian butcher.

On the subject of whether or not the aforementioned books are pure fiction, or documented fact, Phliger ambles down a well-worn path, opting for a mixture of both. ‘It is,’ he writes, ‘impossible to imagine that the authors ignored real wall-scrawlings – though equally difficult to suppose that they could have come across so fertile a crop as this’. A tediously fair point.

And then we come to the code. Could it really be, as Andrew K has written, that ‘the location of the Ark of the Covenant or some such great Mystery are contained within the Wall Scrawlings’ ? According to Phliger, nothing could be further from the truth, though he understand’s Mr K’s argument. ‘After all,’ he writes: ‘Orbez’s intention was very much to give the impression of there being a code; a code which both was and was not there: a code that was created in order to make fun of codes themselves. In short, an ironic code.’ To understand the true nature of this ‘ironic’ or ‘phantom’ code we must, it turns out, read Phliger’s thesis (which, if his academic style is anything like his letter-writing style, will probably be a long and tiring read).

Of course, what these comments don’t deal with is why a strange team of two of three authors would want to create a couple of curious books containing ironic codes in the first place? The echoing question is, as ever: enough about the damn authors – what about their audience?

[follow the earlier part of this controversy here, here and, finally, here]

Hay in the Spine

As Stensson wrote last week:

I have it on good authority that this ‘Active Reading’ of which you are so foolishly fond involves such practices as reading in the centre of a haystack, or in a bath of beans, neither of which are, in my opinion, even vaguely safe environments for a poor, defenceless book..

Poor, defenceless book? Come now, Carl Stensson, since when have you battered your heart in a sugary pillow of pathetic sentiment? Books were not made to sit on our windowsills like vases, on our lawns like gnomes, or on our desks like unopened gas bills. It’s how long the words live on in your mind, not how long the book lives on on your shelf. Getting a bit of hay (or quite a lot of hay, as it happens) stuck in the spine won’t hurt one’s chances of understanding any sort of sentence that I know. There may be limits (reading a book under an Indian rainstorm is, I’m told, somewhat counter-productive) but these are blessedly few.

And so I say to you: open wide your glass cabinets, bring forth your first editions and go, go, go, out into the countryside and read, read, read until your little heads explode with words. Up a tree, in a brook, stuck in the mud, on a horse, on a stile, under a bridge, in the middle of a road – I care not where! I care not where….


‘Let’s run through this again,’ said my wife, pouring me a glass of white (though I distinctly remember asking for red).
‘Who is Maurice Orbez?’
‘Well,’ said I, ‘according to Carl Stensson…’
‘He’s the one who smells like a wild boar, yes?’
If you didn’t already know, my wife is incredibly sensitive to smell, ordering all the people she knows according to their personal scent.
‘You’re thinking of A—– d– L——‘
‘Oh. So what about this Stensson chap then?’
‘He’s the guy who thought that Van Gogh faked his death. You said he smelled like a d—- f—‘
She stroked her right eyebrow gently. ‘Oh yes. I remember now. So what’s his line on d’Orbey?’
Orbez,’ I corrected her. ‘It’s Orbez. That’s the problem. d’Orbey is someone else entirely.’
‘So who’s Orbez?’
‘Well, that’s a matter of opinion. Stensson thinks that it’s a man from the nineteenth century who wrote a couple of novels about medieval wall-scrawlings, with or without the help of a defrocked nun.’
‘I see,’ said she. ‘And what do other people think?’
‘Well, Andrew…’
‘Who’s he?’
‘You’ve never smelled him. He’s some blogger fellow.’
‘I see. Can’t he afford a surname?’
‘Perhaps not,’ I said, giving her a look to suggest that, in this fair country, it is frowned upon to make fun of those who cannot afford surnames.
‘And what does he say about Orbez?’
‘He’s all for the defrocked nun,’ I explained. ‘He thinks she wrote the whole bang lot. Not only that, but she wrote them in code.’
‘What sort of code?’
‘I know not.’
She sipped her wine. I sipped mine. Vinegary. As I expected.
‘Are you still reading that new O’Droningham novel?’ she asked.
‘You know I am. Why do you ask?’
‘Well, you know – it’s just, what with you and your naughty monks, and all this stuff about defrocked nuns, I’m just wondering whether or not you might be causing undue offence to certain members of the religious community.’
‘Well, is it really necessary? You don’t want to give the impression that all monks release their sexual frustrations by writing erotic science-fiction, or that European history is full of defrocked nuns assuming false-names and hiding codes inside books about medieval graffiti..’
I scratched my nose wearily.
‘You may be right. In fact, I’m almost certain that a significant proportion of monks don’t fantasize about making love to aliens. Still, what can you do? I can’t risk not risking offending people.’
She spat a mouthful of wine back into the glass.
‘See?’ I said.
She sniffed. ‘ You know I hate it when you say that’.


Stensson replies, via e-mail (for context you are advised to peruse preceding posts):


Firstly: no, you can’t borrow my first editions. I have it on good authority that this ‘Active Reading’ of which you are so foolishly fond involves such practices as reading in the centre of a haystack, or in a bath of beans, neither of which are, in my opinion, even vaguely safe environments for a poor, defenceless book. What’s more I am a selfish and possessive bastard. I wouldn’t let Jesus borrow my Bible.

Secondly: you’re wrong (or ‘off beam’ as my brother’s father’s daughter used to say). My reference was not to Maurice d’Orbey (I’ll come back to him later) but, as written, to Maurice Orbez. That you have not heard of the latter comes as no surprise to those who know you. Luckily I am here, as others have been before, to set you straight (you always did need someone to tie your laces, didn’t you?)

Orbez hailed from Dijon and wrote, in the 1870s, two books. The first one was called Life is Sickness and Other Medieval Wall-Scrawlings; the second Pain is an Everpresent and Yet More Medieval Wall-Scrawlings. I suspect that the titles may provide a clue as to the books’ contents, but I will point out that both works are fiction. Orbez knew nothing of actual medieval wall-scrawlings: he simply made ‘em up – and thank God he did, for both books represent a well-contained riot of historical humour. Should you ever come across a copy – or a less self-interested friend who owns one – I insist that you dive into it (that’s a metaphor by the way: I don’t mean that you should read it whilst diving, which nonetheless sounds like your sort of caper).

Now, concerning d’Orbey, whose first editions I do not, sadly, own, I think you are doing him (and his father) an injustice by referring to the works merely as ‘raunchy ballads’. Most critics have by now agreed that the real strength of the d’Orbey poetry is the range of delicately wrought perspectives it provides on the father/son relationship. So there are a fair few barmaids, sans attire, thrown in: but there’s more to it than that, really there is. Hmmm… yes..

Now where was I? Oh yes. Lastly, though I thank you for drawing fresh attention to my article on the late great Lucas de Boer, I notice you have expressed some uncertainly over my claims to have met Vincent Van Gogh. All I can say is this: if it wasn’t the man himself, it was a mighty fine (and dedicated) imitator. Still, I respect your right to reserve judgment. My body of proof is missing a few limbs, I know.

 Toodlepip then,

C. S

P.S. By the way, you’re going to publish this on-line aren’t you? I wouldn’t have been so polite otherwise, you old **** ***** *********

My response? Well, um, indeed, yes.

More on this later.

Cold Meats and Raunchy Ballads

A little more from Carl Stensson’s ‘obituary’ of infamous death-faker Lucas de Boer (find the full article here):

‘I’ve seen the body, comforted the mourning women (well, someone’s got to do it), taken home the funeral cold meats for my daughter’s birthday party, received my share from the will (his Maurice Orbęz first editions, if you must know) and placed a bouquet of half-price lilies beside the gravestone…’

The first question nestling on all reader’s lips after reading this sentence is, of course, who the heck is Maurice Orbęz? Forgive my ignorance (please do) but I am personally unaware of any writer going by that name; that is unless Stensson is really referring to Maurice d’Orbey, an eighteenth century French writer, who co-wrote a series of raunchy ballads with his father, Eduoard d’Orbey (a retired politician). If so, he is most fortunate to be in possession of his first editions: worth a penny or two, I’m sure.

Indeed, if Stensson should be reading this very post – what are the chances of my borrowing a copy?

Death and All His Fakeries

Some will have struggled to suppress a yawn when reading the contents of my last post. ‘Oh goodness me,’ they might have murmured, post-yawn: ‘Not another fake death conspiracy. Is there anything more tedious?’

Not that I was offering any new information or anything. In fact, the article to which I provided a link (written, I must stress, by Carl Stensson – not by myself) is a few years old now. And, though I am almost certain that his word can be trusted when it comes to Lucas de Boer, I will happily join the ever expanding queue of mockers aiming small packets of scorn at his claim that Van Gogh faked his own death. Not that I’ve looked into the case all that deeply, but the fact remains that I’ve yet to hear any convincing evidence from Stensson, beyond his statement that the old Dutch man to whom he was introduced as a child looked ‘just as anyone might imagine Van Gogh to look at the age of ninety-one’. Quite frankly, it could have been any old mad Dutchman sitting on that deckchair.

As to the tedious nature of death-related conspiracies, I am once again keen to concur. I once knew a man who was convinced that death in itself was a conspiracy – and that people were simply being shipped off to Australia, or possibly the moon. Suffice it to say, he could be tiresome company, until one day someone shipped him off – to where I’m not quite sure.

There are, of course, two sides to the death fakery issue. There are those who, like Lucas de Boer, are alive but pretend to be dead. Then there are those, like Paul McCartney (he says, grasping at a passing butterfly of lies) who are dead but pretend to be alive. Interestingly, Underneath the Bunker was once subject to the latter sort of hoax, whereby we were systemically flooded with e-mails, letters and phone-calls informing us of the death of Constantin Doyez, the great Viennese scholar of Spanish literature. Seeing it as our duty to announce this sad fact to the world, we did so, only to find out (from the mouth of the man himself) that said scholar was still alive.

No sooner did we clear the mess up then it happened again. Someone, somewhere, was strangely obsessed with leaking the news of the death of someone who, as far as the world could tell, continued to feed greedily on the fruits of life. Could it be Doyez himself? It seems unlikely: he has always seemed, to me at least, the retiring type; highly if not insufferably publicity-shy. Indeed, he appears to have found the situation increasingly unpleasant, despite the glowing obituaries we always gave him. He once went so far, in fact, as to suggest that the ‘almost constant and stressful news of my death was directly responsible for sending my mother to an early grave’ – a weird thing to say, perhaps, when you consider the fact that his mother has yet to pop the proverbial clogs.