July 19, 2012

THE MORTDECAI TRILOGY


by Kyril Bonfiglioli
519 pages, Penguin

Review by Bill Kirton

I like and am grateful for books that make me laugh. The extremes of the early Tom Sharpe novels, Riotous Assembly and Indecent Exposure (much funnier than the Wilt novels for me), the glory that is Catch 22, the continuing inventiveness and wit of Carl Hiaasen, the over-the-top characters of Janet Evanovich – they’re uplifting, life affirming, even when (as in Hiaasen and Heller’s case) they’re frequently conveying a serious underlying message. The Mortdecai Trilogy, a hit when it first appeared back in the 70s,. is long – 519 pages of smallish print covering three connected novels: Don’t point that thing at me, After you with the pistol and Something nasty in the woodshed. It belongs unmistakably in the Humour section of bookshops and libraries and it should have been an extended delight.

I won’t bother with a ‘but’ because the ‘should have been’ indicates that it didn’t live up to the hype. Oh it’s funny alright, very funny in lots of places, and it’s brilliantly crafted as Bonfiglioli prepares and delivers his gags, observations, asides and other jeux de mots with careful precision. The writing, in fact, is immaculate. He also shows great respect for the reader, often addressing him/her directly and, as he sprays quotations and references about – in French, Italian and Latin – there’s an implicit assumption that you (i.e. the reader) share his elevated cultural space, understand his terms of reference, and feel as comfortable as he and his protagonist do in a context of luxury and sophistication.

That protagonist is The Honourable Charlie Mortdecai and he’s obviously a character in the Wodehouse comic tradition, a louche art dealer caught up in some very dark and dubious activities, pursued by various nasty people and yet surviving through his wits and an indomitable insistence on enjoying the better things in life, many of which are delivered through the good offices of his … er … assistant, Jock Strapp. The plots are convoluted but, in a way, that doesn’t matter because they’re all vehicles to enable Charlie, who’s the first person narrator, to shine. And shine he does. He’s erudite, cultured, witty, highly intelligent and supremely articulate. Bonfiglioli was himself an art dealer and Charlie draws on the fine detail of his knowledge of the business to justify his elevated position in the world of aesthetics and its corrupt underbelly.

Why, then, with all these positives, do I have reservations about the book? Well, it’s actually because Charlie is so relentlessly funny, so concerned to turn his phrases with such care, so persistent with his self-deprecation that, after the first book, he begins to lose his impact. There’s only Charlie, Charlie’s judgements of other people, Charlie’s measured, carefree approach to situations which actually threaten his life, Charlie’s bons mots and one-liners, Charlie being resolutely Charlie. And we know him so well by then that the jokes become predictable, in a way repetitive. And, in fact, his solipsistic view of and approach to everything becomes tiresome. It’s all about Charlie. He’s never boring but it’s easy to see that he could be. Perhaps that’s what’s behind Julian Barnes’s opinion that Bonfiglioli was ‘a writer capable of a rare mixture of wit and imaginative unpleasantness’.

I’m not trying to dissuade you from reading it – far from it, it’s an object lesson in crafting linguistic effects. The humour can be clich├ęd but Bonfiglioli always adds something to enhance it. When Charlie meets a Chinaman, we hear the following exchange:

"Harrow," he said civilly. I glanced at his tie.

"Surely you mean Clifton? Oh, yes, sorry, I see; harro to you too."

It’s the old, Chinese velly solly joke, but here it’s more. As the conversation continues, we see the words ‘colonels’ and ‘bereave’, but it’s nothing to do with the army or death because they mean ‘coroners’ and ‘believe’.

There’s the classic approach to Britishness:

A muscle in his face twitched, almost as though he were a British cavalry officer who is trying to puzzle out whether someone has made a joke and, if so, whether or not it would be good form to smile.

If you want a good tuck-in in Oxford you have to go to places like Pembroke, Trinity or St Edmund Hall, where they play rugger and hockey and things like that and, if you're spotted reading a book, someone takes you aside and has a chat with you.

And there are lots of gems which are very satisfying for people who appreciate words manipulated with self-conscious care:

The coffee having arrived (how hard it is to write without the ablative absolute), we guzzled genteelly for a while.

It all started – or at any rate the narrative I have to offer all started – at Easter last year: that season when we remind each other of the judicial murder of a Jewish revolutionary 2000 years ago by distributing chocolate eggs to the children of people we dislike.’

It seems perverse of me to lavish praise on this and yet, in the end, express dissatisfaction. At first, I settled into enjoying this character and his insights, his attitudes to life and luxury and, above all, his facility with words. But the books need something else – nothing necessarily heavy or serious but something to still now and again, the discreet stridency (yes, that’s deliberate) of his overwhelming presence.

The books are classics, they’re great fun and many reviewers have written of reading and re-reading them again and again. So it’s my own fault. I should have stopped after the first novel and not come back to the others until I’d read something completely different. With so many books in the TBR pile, 519 pages is quite a commitment.

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