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Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this report to editor@pnreview.co.uk

This report is taken from PN Review 241, Volume 44 Number 5, May - June 2018.

from The Notebooks
of Arcangelo Riffis
Marius Kociejowski
My friend, several months before he died, asked if he could request a favour of me and, mindful of the extraordinary demands he made from time to time, I said it depended on what that favour was. ‘When I die,’ he whispered, ‘I want you to plunge a dagger into my heart.’ It would have to be a dagger, of course, a poetical blade, and not an ordinary serrated kitchen knife. This once most physically strong of men slowly moved his weakly clenched fist to his chest three times in a stabbing motion. There was some particular awfulness in his eyes. ‘I don’t want to be buried alive,’ he murmured. I waited a little. I waited a bit more. ‘Why are you depriving me,’ I asked him, ‘of the pleasure of doing it now?’ Arcangelo Riffis smiled the flicker of a smile he often made when caught between resignation and sheer exasperation with me.

*

At seven in the morning, 6 March 2008, just two days after his sixty-eighth birthday, I knelt on the floor over his still-warm body, an ungainly heap of flesh and bone, more bone than flesh, the contents of his ashtray spilled about him. Other matters connected to that scene I won’t go into here. We may rid the brain of certain things by speaking of them, so say our guides to emotional welfare, but it’s not always the healthy exercise they say it is. Arcangelo’s eyes were still open, fixed upon nothing in particular yet carrying within them the desperate petitioning of a few months before. Where was that kitchen implement with the serrated edge, the black handle?

Three things only I had to get out of his room for fear something might happen to them in his absence: the 1952 Oxford University Press edition of Shelley’s Poetical Works, Arcangelo’s notebooks, fifty in all, and the silver Parker ballpoint pen with which he wrote, always in blue ink, every single word that went into them. I must take care of his precious pen, he told me, which he’d owned since the age of thirteen, which he bought at a reduction because, a manufacturer’s fluke, the clasp on it was put on backwards. Over the years it had come to assume a talismanic value in his eyes. All the women he ever loved, he told me, held that pen at least once and it was with it that he wrote his carmina. If poetry was this quixotic knight errant’s shield, he’d say, that pen was his lance. The volume of Shelley was that with which he courted his first, perhaps his only, true love. The notebooks became mine by default, there being nobody else for them to go to, and, besides, he had already said to me I’d be surprised by some of the things I’d find in them after he’d gone. Yes, I would be, I was, I am. They’ve become the character with whom I now wrestle. The notebooks of Arcangelo Riffis, all fifty of them, sit on the shelf behind me as I write, the majority of them Prussian blue, his colour, narrow feint, nine by seven inches, smelling of cigarette smoke. I have begun to regret the gradual disappearance of that smell as if soul were somehow inextricable from it. When I visited him every Sunday afternoon, from one to three-thirty p.m. precisely, it was all I could do not to choke in that visibly white atmosphere, so thick sometimes I’d ask him to open the window a little. One day he sprayed air conditioner, claiming it would displace the smoke, atom for atom, and, of course, all it did was to perfume the choking haze. I asked him who he thought he was kidding. Yet now I’ll raise one of those notebooks to my nose, thinking, with regret, one day the smell of tobacco will be completely gone. All will be gone, all we ever were will cease to be.

The narrow feint notebooks predeceased him. When they were no longer produced it almost drove him and, by extension, me, to distraction. Confined to his room for the better part of two decades, he pleaded with me to find him more of those notebooks. They had to be Prussian blue, narrow feint, nine by seven inches, but, try as I did, in a world gone metric, a world already close to done with paper, a world shot through with obsolescence, I’d come back empty handed, and then desperation would fill his eyes, as if enough of it would bring those precious notebooks back into existence.

‘What can I do,’ I protested, ‘they’re not being made anymore.’

‘But there must be some somewhere,’ he pleaded.

Any time I went abroad I was to search for narrow feint notebooks. Ottawa, Rome, Damascus. Damascus, I was to look there of all places. (Damascus, old stomping ground for my enquiries into human nature, what would Arcangelo say to the news from there?) I did come close one time, acquiring through an American contact ten clothbound notebooks that were narrow feint but not as wide, nine by six inches, and they were of a sandy colour, not his manly Prussian blue. They would not do, he argued, they would not accommodate his prose style. The dimensions of those earlier notebooks, he explained, took on perfectly the measure and rhythm of his thought. And then, curled up on the bed that misfortune had made the greater part of his domicile, he gave me a demonstration, not with the Parker ballpoint in his hand but rather as if he were holding it, which made me think what a pain in the neck you are, and as he reached the end of his invisible line of prose his hand went off the edge of the page and onto the bed. Come now! I guffawed. ‘The pen is balanced in such a way,’ he wrote in one of his Prussian blue narrow feint notebooks, ‘so that the cartridge treads the paper with a gentle steadfast sound, letting the night and silence itself know you are stirring there. It has always been that way with old pens, from the goose quill to the nib, whereas a typewriter profanes silence, shunts and rattles, jars against the night. I’ve often wondered if the decline of the lyric and nuance in modern writing has anything to do with that unlovely, mechanistic noise.’ He was nothing if not particular and so he went on to describe, yet again, and in precisely the same words he’d employed so many times before, the physical properties required of his notebooks. Yes, I muttered, yes, yes, yes.

‘So you won’t even give them a chance,’ I cried, seizing back the sandy-coloured notebooks that are now on my shelves. I felt growing inside me a small dust devil of annoyance that without much further ado would become a cyclone of rage. All I want is to enter my House justified. I was ready to blow up his metaphorical house. And yet deep down I knew he’d persuaded me. We really do need that which accommodates our style. A couple of months later, I found red notebooks, wrong colour, of course, but of the desired height and width and thickness. They were not narrow feint, not quite, just a tiny bit too much space between the ruled lines. Again these would not do and it was then I abandoned the search. When I suggested he learn to adapt a bit more, Arcangelo glowered at me. Certain things were sacrosanct or, to use his phrase, in the realm of the sacramento. So it was with everything. When, in his final months, he moved from the dark and miserable room he had occupied for close to two decades into one where the light fell in heaps through a big window he bemoaned the absence of the trapezoid of dusty sunlight that at a certain hour fell across the foot of his bed in the ill-lit room where previously he wrote, when quickly he’d get the words down onto the page before the patch of light moved on. Now there was too much light.

‘Well, draw the curtains then!’

Arcangelo did not like curtains. Maybe they were overly imbued with significance. And then there was the want of birdsong. Truly it was inexplicable. Why, although the place into which I moved him could not have been more than a quarter of a mile away from where he lived previously, were there trees outside and no birds in them? I looked down into the rectangle of gardens, hemmed in by the surrounding houses, and saw not even a flicker in the branches. This seemed to him a deathly omen of some kind and I who place great store in birds as harbingers of both good and evil could not but silently agree with him. ‘The sedge has wither’d from the lake, / And no birds sing.’ (Strangely we hardly ever spoke of Coleridge.)

So then, those narrow feint notebooks, the moving patch of sunlight, birdsong: there was never a man more specific in his needs, which, though few, were not extravagant for he was a man who lived on very little, who wanted for very little, and for those very few things to be taken away from him it was as if the very supports of his existence, all that had ensured the strict conditions of his several degrees of existence, were being kicked away from under him one by one. When finally they were gone then surely he, too, would have to take his leave. I took the Shelley, the pen with the inverted clasp, and the notebooks home.

*

A preliminary glimpse at the notebooks took me directly to the bitterest pages of our relationship. Why there? Why, from out of a total of fifty notebooks, did I have to open that particular one only to have ripped from my memory its many layers of soiled bandages? I almost reeled from the savagery with which he attacked me. It wouldn’t have been so bad had his aim been true, I might have felt deserving of it, but the fact I had become for him, at that early stage in our relationship, the embodiment of all that he most hated in the world, the world as it had become for him – Swift’s Laputa, its deity ‘the whore reason’ – made it difficult for me to read those passages with equanimity. Surely he knew me better than to lay those charges. But I must begin at the beginning where at the head of the first page of the first notebook he writes what surely, for him, were the most ironic of words – Deus nobis haec otia fecit:

Bruxelles, February 26, 1969, 7.42 a.m. Drizzly. Pitched four notebooks into the Tiber before leaving Rome for Genoa – a twitchy, spasmodic sort of Italian Journal, & three sheaves of London scribbling – in one of which must have been enfolded the jealously guarded poetic fragments culled from Chelsea. This has happened three times since… the Hejira. These last three days have been a sombre parody of what happened in ’Frisco in the first week of April 1966 – a wild search for blue-markings, rummaging through clothes & papers, fitful leafings through books, over & over, and two days of black despair & bitter cat-sleep.

England again within two months – Kensington this time, Earls Court. I shall seek permanent residence. That sad, outraged, mutilated & betrayed land, contemporary England is such a dismal place for an Anglophile – I dread to think what it must be like for a patriotic Englishman with its duckling of Bedford – I’d prefer the career of Sigismundo Malatesta to the britling duck’s obscene antics a thousand times over – and its matriarchy of a parliament rattling & shambling to the leers & grimaces of that obscene little stumblebum Wilson. There is no more cheaply sordid, weakly vicious, thoroughly rotten type of degenerate humanity than that which is met with quite frequently there. I could call forth a roll of outstanding public examples & relate personal experiences that would go on for pages but it’s too, too bloody depressing. Great Britain, once the proudest, mightiest, freest realm the world has ever seen, has become Mr Wilson’s flea circus. God grant I’ll be there when that smelly little rotter sinks, blinking, back into the mire from which it crawled. The present situation there is certainly unprecedented & a throwback to nothing in her history. But what is there on the horizon? Mr Heath? A colourless crustacean if there ever was one.

London swings, to be sure, to the rafters, by both wrists, like one of de Sade’s females, brutalised silly, giggling, whimpering, simpering, whining, howling with mirthless hilarity under the lash. Harold (‘over to you’) Macmillan’s bathetic, blubbering oration over the body of ‘Bobby’ Kennedy, pouring relentless libations of saccharined mucus into the microphone. (I became literally queasy.) Imagine what Dryden, Swift, Pope, Walpole or Lord Byron would make of the scene, Macmillan blowing through his moustache to the effect that ‘Britain has been great, is great, and will continue to be great.’ A more ludicrous performance could scarcely be imagined. Macmillan seemed, in his very person, to embody the national decay he supposed himself to be confuting. He exuded a flavour of mothballs. His decomposing visage & somehow seedy attire conveyed the impression of an aging & eccentric clergyman who had been induced to play the part of prime minister in the dramatized version of a C.P. Snow novel put on by a village amateur dramatic society. He goes on for four more hilarious paragraphs in this vein, in the finest, most classic, tradition of British wit but then suddenly fizzles out in blustering incoherence as the best of things British tend to do these days.

This report is taken from PN Review 241, Volume 44 Number 5, May - June 2018.



Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this report to editor@pnreview.co.uk
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