Rhys Hughes: The Book I Would Like To Be Buried With…
The twenty-sixth Bury Me With… features Welsh scribe Rhy Hughes, who, (I promise), does eventually decide which book to take with him to the grave. And what a choice it eventually proves to be…
“I have considered this question quite a lot and deemed it probable I would try to come up with a “clever” answer not strictly in keeping with the spirit of the exercise. For instance I thought about insisting on cremation rather than burial and that my funeral pyre should be fuelled with books I don’t like, works by Jane Austen, Henry James and Ian Fleming, among others.
But that is too glib an answer, so my second idea was to insist on a mausoleum rather than a simple grave, a monumental tomb that would contain enough room to house the 44 volumes (deluxe price $3000) of the Vance Integral Edition – every work of fiction ever published by Jack Vance. My corpse could then recline among them like a bloated and stinking bookmark, leaking the occasional stream of purple fluid like a ribbon.
But no, it is better in the final analysis to treat such a topic with the seriousness it deserves. I thought I had fixed definitely on The Complete Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino as my canopic book of choice, a blessed volume published as a Penguin Classic hardback in 2009. Calvino is probably my favourite author of all and the “cosmicomic” genre that he invented (a particular blend of fantasy, science fiction, absurdist humour and serious philosophy) is one of the greatest contributions to imaginative literature in any century.
But ultimately I have chosen a different book, a slim volume published in 1950, a set of linked stories featuring a dwarf surrealist boxer who fights against ghosts, witches, clocks, zombies, gorgons, mechanical brains and sundry impossibilities in his efforts to remain the miniature champion of the Surrealist Sportsman’s Club. The Exploits of Engelbrecht was the product of the febrile mind of Maurice Richardson, that punchy, funny, hard-drinking journalist and satirist, and it remains, to my best knowledge, the only Gothic spoof on sport ever written.
It is truly a magnificently odd book and I still find its peculiar whimsy menacing: the Old Id, the mythical chairman of the Surrealist Sportsman’s Club, comes over as a cross between Aleister Crowley, Alfred Hitchcock and Père Ubu; the endless drug taking of the other members evokes irresponsibility and darkness as only the strangest pre-hippy trippers – who masticate mescaline while wearing tweed and sitting amongst mahogany furniture – can do; the mischief makers Chippy de Zoete and Tommy Prenderghast are lighthearted jokers in the most devious and catastrophic sense. And among this dubious company Engelbrecht the dwarf stands out like a sore thumb swollen a thousand-fold because of a manticore sting: he never holds a grudge, is up for anything, contains all the sangfroid of a flock of dandies compressed to extreme pressure under his modest frame. He’s ready to explode with nonchalance – a pleasing paradox. Engelbrecht is a battler, a noble and generous soul. His Britain is seedy, crumbling, sinister, saturated with the feedback and echoes of a dying or never-really-existed courtesy and respect, enmeshed in ritual webs as intricate and pointless as those of Gormenghast; but the castle is a clubhouse and the conspiracies are amusements, mere pastimes that warp time, space and sanity.
The original limited edition hardback was illustrated by James Boswell – a man who should be even more famous than the other James Boswell (the biographer). I once came across a Boswell exhibition by accident while killing time in London. Boswell’s satirical work is second to none, his grotesques as moving as those of Mervyn Peake, his elaborations no less intricate than Heath Robinson’s. A New Zealander by birth, he spent most of his life in England, eventually becoming the art editor of Lilliput magazine, perhaps the finest ever Fleet Street publication.
The Exploits of Engelbrecht remains, for me, the ultimate work of British comic surrealism. I liked it so much I wrote a sequel, Engelbrecht Again!, which seems fated to become even more obscure than Richardson’s original. Quite an achievement!”
About Rhys Hughes:
Rhys Hughes is Wales’s best kept literary secret. Championed by the likes of Michael Moorcock his unique fantastical fictions have already achieved the level of cult-status. Influenced by Borges, Calvino and Stanislaw Lem, Hughes’s fiction is both intellectual and hilarious with plenty of jokes, puns and satirical side-swipes to keep the reader constantly amused. His most recent book is the novel Twisthorn Bellow. And his next two collections, The Impossible Inferno and Tallest Stories, are both due out in 2010.
- Visit Rhys’ blog