Monday, 11 August 2014

Careful With That Pen the Ink Ain't Dry - Kyril Bonfiglioli.


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Had P.G. Wodehouse arisen one dark morning the worse for wear following a night of drunken debauchery, or had E.W. Hornburg awoken to discover he'd contracted syphilis but couldn't remember the where, when and who, or Ian Fleming realised he'd much rather eat for Great Britain chomping his way through several courses of French cuisine, then perhaps this gives you an idea of how the nearly forgotten Kyril Bongiglioli created one of literature's overlooked anti-heroes - the spectacularly politically incorrect, and a member of the English Nobility too - Charlie Mortdecai. 

You see the aforementioned Charlie, and his sidekick Jock Strap is nothing less than a gluttonous, sexually predatory, sexist chap who is passionately in love. The focus of his affections is himself for Charlie really is that self-centred. Jock on the other hand, the Jeeves to Charlie's Wooster, is a loutish thug who finds the solution to any given problem is to either crush, maim or kill it. They don't half make a pair. Like Bertie and his gentleman's gentleman or Raffles and Bunny Manders, they go together like bread and butter even if they are chalk and cheese in every respect.

There were three books that formed a debased trilogy with a spin-off novel featuring one of Charlie's ancestors and then another with Charlie and Jock that had to be finished by satirist Craig Brown following Bonfiglioli's death. Yes, the man who is now a cult figure died before anyone really knew who he was. First though his birth...

"This is not an autobiographical novel.
It is about some other portly, dissolute, immoral and middle-aged art dealer." 

Cyril Emmanuel George Bonfiglioli was born on a May day in 1928. It was England, specifically Eastbourne, East Sussex. Emmanuel Bonfiglioli the elder was an Italian-Slovene hence the unlikely surname. The Cyril was altered later to add some air of exoticism. His mum, Cyril's that is, Dorothy Pallet, was the English half of the bloodline.

The war brought with it, as it did to many Brit's personal tragedies. In 1943, a bomb fell into the Bofiglioli's  air shelter killing both his mother and his eight-year-old brother. Fortune favoured the fourteen-year-old who was out in the street playing football. The duty of informing his father fell to the teenage boy who was  mortified when hearing his father's response - "If only it had been you."

Too young by half to fight in the Second World War he nonetheless enlisted in 1947 just in case there could be a third. There wasn't. He served from '47 to '54. During his time in service of King, then Queen, he became adept at the sabre becoming the inter-regimental champion. This was a fact he often used when writing his own myth. He was after all in every sense a self-made man even though he remained skint virtually all his life.

He married whilst in the army but his wife died shortly after the birth of their second son then, two years later aged 27 Cyril Bonfiglioli went off to Oxford, joined the Balliol College, where he studied English. It was whilst studying that he met his second wife Margaret. The couple went on to have three children taking the maker of Mortdecai's offspring count to five.

Cyril's father was a dealer in antiquarian books. It was a trade not dissimilar to that chosen by his son who, as a lover of art, turned his hand in as an art dealer. It was armed with this knowledge that Cyril set about making a living. It was not to prove any more of a success than his other profession, that of an author.

"I don't much care about tea-drinking in the afternoon; in the morning the stuff Jock brings to me in bed is like that Nepenthe which the wife of Thone gave to Jove-born Helena, but in the p.m. it always makes me think of Ganges mud in which crocodiles have been coupling."


His chosen carer was not to prove the success he had hoped, mush less his wife and family's. The contrast between author and Mortdecai could not have been more stark bearing in mind the similarities they shared. The fictional character was wealthy, the son of a Lord whilst the creator was a struggling art dealer, poor as a church mouse. His wife recounted, after his death, this...“..shifting contents of a home in which everything was potential stock—antique firearms, Dutch marquetry, Chinese porcelain, and dozens of stuffed birds in a questionable state of preservation, which Bon had bought from a Welsh natural-history museum, convinced that they were a bargain. As a dealer, Bon was resourceful. One day, he saw someone clearing out empty bottles from the cellars of All Souls College and offered to take them off his hands, having noticed that they were highly saleable eighteenth-century bottles bearing the college arms in moulded glass. The highlight of his career came in 1964 when he managed to buy a Tintoretto at a country auction for forty pounds.”



His books though were, and remain, something else. Spiteful, thuggish but beautifully written. His love of Wodehouse along with his misfortunes in life seem to have given birth to a curious mutant. This bastard offspring was, of course, Charlie Mortdecai.

Mortdecai was a rogue. A lover of fine art, fine food and fine women with all the moral rectitude of a sewer rat, He was also a serial womaniser. So was Bonfiglioli. His champagne tastes but water money led to him having affairs, eating himself into obesity and giving himself cirrhosis. If the reality of the authors life were sad then his books were the reverse. The sparkled with a wicked wit and caustic sense of humour that was as dark as pitch.

"“Married again and again; one died; one I deserted; one threw me out.
You can’t really want to know their names even if I could remember.” 

After the collapse of his second marriage and the parting of the ways with his lover, Bonfiglioli's life descended into an unholy mess. Broke, grossly overweight but unable to stop eating, liver rotting from alcohol consumption but unable to stop drinking he churned out this off-beat, off-whack and utterly compelling works of fiction. The sadness of his life makes his lifetime achievements all the more poignant.



For me, it is his 'bark' that I enjoy. It is a thoroughbred 'woof,' deep and dirty coming straight from the gut. The English are divine, the characters as twisted as corkscrews and the one liners the thing it takes other authors a lifetime to think of. Perhaps in some perverse way as his life crumbled into what must have seemed to him a complete waste of time he then poured all he had, all his very being into these prickly but amusing works of fiction. There are moments of contemplation as and when the funny bones been tickled that Bon, as he was fondly known, reflects on life, particularly his life. It is here, between the wisecracks and the deliberately incorrect parlance that a glimmer of how thwarted a life he felt he had lived.


“Happiness is an annuity, or it's shares in a Building Society; it’s a pension and blue hydrangeas, and wonderfully clever grandchildren, and being on the Committee, and just-a-few-earlies in the vegetable garden, and being alive and wonderful-for-his-age when old so-and-so is under the sod.




He died aged 57 in 1985. 






2 comments:

Cara H said...

Some people have such a difficult lot in life. This poor man was one of those people. Obviously he couldn't catch a break no matter what he did. I'd love to read his work and I'm glad you've introduced him to us.
I've been literally grieving over the senseless awfulness that plagues the life of one of my son's friends. Yesterday he lost his four year old son to an anaphylactic reaction from a bee sting. He has had more misfortune than anyone should have to bear.
I don't see how people can praise a god that brings such horror into people's lives, and then ask others to praise said god as well. I actually believe in a higher power, but it isn't one that engages in the lives of its creations. It created the universe, then fucked off. It's uninvolved. I believe this makes me a deist rather than a theist.
Keep on bringing the knowledge of such treasures to us. They deserve to be remembered!

Russell Duffy said...

So sorry to learn of the four years olds death. His parents must be devastated. I know I would be.
Yes, I believe there is something bigger then me or us, something that created this universe we live in but not a controlling, malignant, dictatorial deity like that of the Monotheists. Love, peace and understand are the only watchwords we need. God doesn't have those on the menu.