An Offer I Can’t Refuse

A few days ago my old friend Jean-Pierre Sertin made me an offer I can’t refuse (though I daresay he may withdraw it when he next sobers up). He agreed to transcribe the remaining chapters of my mesmerising memoirs, Conversations with Speyer.

This has come as something as a relief: not only had I feared that the notebooks containing my original text were lost, but I was concerned that my wife would not have the time to copy any of it out, engaged as she is on rather more diverting tasks. Not that I blame her. I am, of course, incredibly proud of her achievements in the field of contemporary poetry. She is six and a half times the writer I shall ever be (and at least forty times the poet). All the same, I shall miss the patient service she supplied. If she wasn’t the most conscientious editor in the world (bearing in mind the fact that English is her third language) she was at least a kind one. Not once did she tell me that the words she was typing up were a worthless stream of driveling nonsense.

I know not whether Jean-Pierre Sertin will be quite so forgiving. His track record suggests not. Nonetheless I do hope that he will lay his criticisms on lightly. Being an editor myself has been scant preparation for being edited, just as being a reader does not prepare one for being read.

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Rather Pointless Cultural Projects

The plot thickens (and, more importantly, my memoirs are, at last, recovered):

Georgy,

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I will not apologise. Not for losing your spare key, not for breaking into your house, not for leaving the window open, not for inviting a taxidermist over to stay, not for the wine she split on your Persian rug, not for leaving a partially mounted dead bird in your study after a small argument with said taxidermist, not for drinking your private stash of Scotch, not for turning up pages in your copy of George Lasmuth’s Diaries, not for blocking your downstairs toilet, not for truing to unblock said toilet and making it worse, not for eating something which I thought was a mint but turned out not to be, not for leaving a dent in the frame of the print that hangs just outside your bedroom, and not (last but not least) for taking a hammer to that very weird sculpture on your living room mantelpiece.

Having said all this, I do have a proposal for you, which comes hot on the heels of a discovery. Yes, yes, yes. I have finally relocated your lost memoirs. They were, believe it or not, hidden in plain sight, right there on the kitchen table, next door to the bread bin. Praise the lords and ladies. You will no doubt be relieved.

My proposal, leading on from this, goes like so. It is of course well-known in literary circles that you have a long-standing habit of making your wife do all your work for you. The magazine which you claim to edit, the blog which you claim to write, the research that you apparently do: all of this is, as any fool knows, largely the work of one Doris Boshchov, a.k.a. Mrs Riecke. For some years now, your friends and colleagues have been aware of this fact, without raising a complaint. The issue is one between you and your wife, no? If she wishes to waste her precious God-given talent on your countless, rather pointless cultural projects, who are we to object?

It matters not to you, I know, that your wife is a celebrated poet, whose work has earned her a prestigious fellowship overseas. Still you insist on making her write up your memoirs, dull word by dull word. No wonder there are so many typing errors! I’m surprised she can keep herself awake. Conversations with Speyer is, compared to her own wonderful work, a very minor piece. A tin-flute melody compared to an orchestral symphony. Nothing, really, when as is said and done. Certainly nothing that she should be wasting her time on.

Which brings me onto the meat of my proposal. Having secured your hand-written memoirs, what say you to my copying them up onto the computer? That is to say, why don’t I take over from your wife, and complete this thankless task myself? I would expect some sort of small payment, naturally, though the real compensation would be the knowledge that poor Doris is free again to pursue her own quarry. How does this strike you, you lazy old so-and-so?

If this idea pleases you, send me a message do. And please ignore what I send in my last two messages concerning your American adventures. I’m not all that interested in what you are up to after all. I was merely being polite.

Yours, and hers, and all the world’s

J-P Sertin

The Meek Seeking of Forgiveness

Part of me wonders whether it is fair of me to post J-P Sertin’s private correspondence on the web.

(Just part of me.)

Georgy,

I will start by staying that I am, by nature, loath to apologise. I find the whole culture of regretfulness self-indulgent to the point of being sordid. My knees can’t stand being fallen upon. I did what I did because it seemed the right thing to do at that moment. One cannot stop the morning flower from unfolding to the warmth of the sun. Contrition is for the domesticated; those content to live under the thumb of others; those who willingly implicate themselves in endlessly evolving power games. We wild ones, on the other hand, work by other rules. Not for us the meek seeking of forgiveness! We did what we did, and refuse to waste any time feeling guilty about it.

Having said this, a brief explanation may yet be required. So here goes.

Somewhere around midnight last night, I took a hammer to one of your sculptures. That is to say, I destroyed a work of art belonging to you. What was once one large piece is now several smaller pieces.

You will have no doubt guessed which work it is I am referring to, for I have related, in previous correspondence, the queer effect that the work has had upon me.  This effect is not one I can underestimate. This piece of art has disturbed my system. It has plagued my mind. It has discomforted my very soul.  I have barely slept, for thought of it. What is it? Where did it come from? What is it saying? Why is it so bad? These questions, and others, have been worming their way, backwards and forwards, through the damp soil of my subconscious.

Something had to be done. The sculpture and I had reached an impasse. We had tried to understand each other – and failed. A more serious step was required.

I realised this late last night, after a glass of two of some rather glorious whisky I discovered in the bottom drawer of your mahogany desk (one of many hidden bottles I have hit upon during my evening rambles through Maison Riecke). You will say that it was the alcohol speaking: they always do! Well, that is simply nonsense. It was instead the alcohol facilitating my heart to speak. The whisky was but the mediator. It carved out a short-cut to my inner thoughts, and opened the way to necessary action.

And so it was I decided to take to your sculpture with a hammer. Some may call it destruction. They are ungenerous. I prefer to call it ‘renovation’. Or, better still, ‘re-creation’. It may look as though I have knocked chunks off the sculpture, in the manner of a bandit. It may seem as though my resolve and senses took a short holiday together, leaving my impulsiveness in charge. In actuality, I have done something rather wonderful. I have created a new work. Several new works, in fact; all of which are, aesthetically, much stronger than the original work. You may think you have lost something. But let me tell you: you have gained, Georgy, oh how you have gained.

This is not, then, an apology. I am not so gross. No, this is merely an explanation of what has passed. Something for the records. Something for future generations to take note of, should they so desire. I, Jean-Pierre Sertin, am now a sculptor. Yes, indeed.

In other news, I think I may know where your misplaced memoirs are. That is, I have a faint memory of having come across them sometime this morning, when trying to find my way back out your house. Why didn’t I pick them up whilst I had the chance? The truth is that I was in a rush. But I shall return forthwith this evening, and do the deed.

Yours in lightly wavering faith,

J-P Sertin

P.S. I’ve asked you this before, but you never answer me: how is America? What in Uncle Sam’s name are you getting up to over there?

P.P.S. Taxidermy is less fun than it sounds. So are taxidermists.

A Very Curious Bird

The house-breaking continues:

Georgy,

There is but one word for it. Chaos.

Wait, no – is that the word I want? Perhaps ‘disarray’ would be better. Or ‘pandemonium’, perhaps? Or even, should you feel inclined, ‘anarchy’?

The long and short of it is that a bird has entered your house. How he/she/it got in remains unclear (further research is needed before I can confirm the sex to which the subject under investigation belongs). My first thought was through the chimney, but then I remembered that you have no chimneys. This prompted a rethink, which led in time to the conclusion that it must, for now, be categorised (like so many dear incidents) under the word ‘mystery’. What does it matter in the long run?

Unless, of course, it made its way through the letterbox. Do you think that could be possible, bearing in mind that we’re obviously dealing with a very curious bird here? What kind of bird, I cannot say; rest assured it is a curious bird. I might even go so far as to say that it is a curiously cultured bird. Quelle surprise, quoth the reader. It would have to be a cultured bird to have decided to enter your house, non?

I say cultured: this isn’t to say that it hasn’t had its – shall we say – ‘lapses’, or ‘difficult moments’. To put it another way, there are droppings all over your collection of antique yoghurt pots (or whatever they are; I have never been able to tell). There are also a few stray feathers here and there. On top of all this, I suspect it might have pecked the stuffing out of your green baize armchair. But otherwise the funny little creature has behaved itself remarkably well. I found it in the guest room, reading a volume from Balzac’s Human Comedy (Illusions Perdues, I think). I say reading: what I really mean is dying on an open page. Not so much dying, now I think of it, as dead. But it amounts to the same thing, given time.

I suppose your first thought will be this: did I give it a Christian burial? To which the answer is this: no, I most certainly didn’t. For it so happens that I have, over the last few days, developed a strong interest in taxidermy (why the surprise, my friend? I am a man of many interests: you know that). It all started on Thursday night at The Crippled Bee, where I met a charming woman who works at the local natural history museum. The rest, as they say, is history. Or natural history, in this case. Which is to say that she has promised to give me a few lessons on ‘mounting’ animals (that’s the official term for ‘stuffing’ them, believe it or not). And where better to start than with our feathered intruder?

So, all in all, you have a lot to thank me for. Not only did I apprehend the dead bird, and remove it from its final resting place, but I promise to return it, fully mounted, to your very own mantelpiece. It was, after all, a cultured bird – and deserves to live its merry afterlife in such cultured surroundings as your house can offer. I will place it, I think, opposite a copy of Balzac, so it can continue its reading where it left off. What a dear bird it was!

This happening has, naturally, put the brakes on my continuing search for your missing memoirs. Once I have mounted Lucien, though, you can be sure that I will turn my attention to this matter. Oh yes, indeed.

Meanwhile, send my love to your wife. Any remaining fondness you may keep for yourself.

J-P Sertin

A Little Light Consoling is Required

J-P Sertin writes again:

Georgy,

I returned to your house last night. It’s not a bad place, all told. A little damp for my liking, but that’s par for the course in this part of the city, is it not? It might also have something to do with the windows. Forgive me for pointing this out, but I do worry about your books. Don’t you think it might be better for me to look after some of them whilst you are away? Granted, my own flat has had its fair share of disasters (three months since the latest fire and counting) but at least they’d go down being read. There’s nothing sadder than a great collection of books sitting in an empty house. It is too cruel of you to have abandoned your babies! If you listen hard enough, you can hear them whimpering away. They miss their owners. They want to be read again; to be held again; to have their spines caressed by your fat stubby fingers.

Needless to say I am doing what I can to soften the blow of your departure. I have always been the consoling sort: you know that. If I see a book, or a woman, in distress, I put on my consoling hat, my comforting jacket, and my calming shoes, and I step forward into the fray. You cannot hold me back when a little light consoling is required. One loves to soothe, does one not? Oh yes, you have left your book collection in a fine pair of hands, dear Georgy. I will cradle your books. When they ask for solace, I shall provide. When they scream for relief, I shall come running. ‘Succour’ is my middle name. Jean-Pierre Succour Sertin. It has a ring to it, has it not?

As I march around your dear deserted house at night I like to think of myself as an officer in the foreign legion, defending a fort in the dark. And lord knows there is much to defend! Perhaps you should have employed an armed guard to ensure that your collection does not fall into enemy hands? We wouldn’t want anyone to get their grubby hands on your complete compendium of early twentieth-century Castilian comics, would we? And that peculiar sculpture of which I spoke last week. The more I see it, the more I am convinced that it is a masterpiece. I mean to say, it’s a horrible piece of work. But this is horribleness of the very highest order. It is the sort of thing which will not, nay cannot, be understood within our lifetime. It is too great for the times – which is why it needs to be looked after carefully. Future generations will thank us, profusely, for having the foresight not to throw it out, however much we feel we should. I only have to glance at it and I feel compelled to smash it to pieces. And yet I resist, if not for my own sake, than for the sake of future generations (god bless their little unborn souls).

When you gave me the key to your house (still lost, by the way: wherever could it be?) I must confess that I wasn’t too excited. By and large I don’t enjoy doing menial tasks for friends. My brother once asked me to water his plants for him whilst he took a holiday. I bowed out after the first day. It wasn’t the job for me. But this one has turned out rather differently. In fact, I would go so far as to say that I am actively enjoying my role as guardian of your property. I am not only enjoying it: I am somewhere close to taking it seriously. It’s not often that one is given the opportunity to snoop around a friend’s house. And to snoop at one’s leisure, over the course of several weeks! This is too good to be true. You have spoilt me, dear Georgy!

I can only hope that you are enjoying yourself as much as I am (though I doubt it, having left all your good books back in England). You must write, you know, and tell me of your adventures. How is your dear wife getting on? How are you coping with her continuing success as a poet – and your enduring lack of progress as a writer and researcher? I simply must know!

Ever yours, in theory,

J-P Sertin

P.S. I suppose you are wondering whether I have tracked down your memoirs, as requested? The truth is that I haven’t yet found the time to step up my search. I’ve been looking, in a casual sort of way, but nothing systematic as yet. Maybe later in the week?

 [see Sertin’s earlier letter here]

An Old Coat Hanger and a Tin of Vaseline

Jean-Pierre Sertin writes from sunny old England:

Georgy,

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!

I Gloss, I Glance, I Glaze Over

I met Jean-Pierre Sertin this morning, riffling through the asparagus stalks at a mid-price grocery in North-West London.

‘I hear your blog has got a new look’, says he, fondling a broccoli.

‘Yes indeed,’ say I.

‘Concessions to your readers?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Well, you know. The old layout was terribly hard to read. Glaring white text on a deathly black background. Luminous orange hyperlinks. All very disconcerting.’

‘I see. Yes, I suppose the new layout will make things more comfortable for my readers’

‘Then again,’ says he, idly caressing a carrot, ‘that sounds remarkably unlike you. Making things easier for your readers! I would have thought this was against your philosophy’.

I smile, as is my wont. ‘I do not seek obscurity for the sake of obscurity,’ I remind the poor man, ‘nor do I bend to the will of the majority. Whither I go, there I am’.

‘Which means what, exactly?’

Changing the subject, I ask him whether he has been reading my blog in recent times.

‘Oh no,’ he says, his hand on a potato. ‘I glance at it every now and again, but I rarely take the time to read it. I’ve never found the internet very conducive to reading. I gloss, I glance, I glaze over.’

‘Oh,’ said I. And I left him alone with the celery.