Monday, May 21, 2007

Mr Fenman's Farewell to His Readers

IMPORTANT NOTE, added 18 February 2013.

Much of the original post, 21 May 2007, which follows, is now out of date and the links will not work. However, Mr Fenman, in all his glory (or otherwise) is now available on your local branch of Kindle. In the US you will find him here, and in the UK here. Residents in other countries will have to search for the title of the book.

I would like to introduce you, if I may, to my latest publication. Its title is Mr Fenman's Farewell to His Readers.

As is my usual practice these days, I am making this publication available online as a free pdf file. I will provide a link below. This pdf file is issued under a Creative Commons licence (details are given at the end of the book). It can be printed out (if you wish); it may also be copied and sent to a friend. In short you can use it freely for more or less any non-commercial purpose.

For my part, I wanted to be able to send printed copies of the book to friends and reviewers, so I have made the book available in paperback format through Lulu.com. Anyone who wishes to buy a copy can have one for £4.84 plus postage, or the equivalent in your local currency.

Mr Fenman's Farewell to His Readers is in two parts. The principal part of this short book (84 pages in printed form) is a brief memoir, written in 1836 by the long-forgotten English writer Thomas Fenman. This is preceded by my own introduction to the memoir, which sets it in context.

Mr Fenman's Farewell to His Readers is a title which I have assigned to the text, since Fenman himself did not provide one. And it is a rather mysterious work. Fenman himself assures us that every word of it is true, to the best of his recollection. And yet he himself admits that, if the world is ordered as we think it is, his account cannot be true.

Fenman offers us various explanations of this state of affairs: that he is lying about certain details, perhaps; or that the story is complete fiction from start to finish; or that he is becoming senile; and so forth.

But for the modern reader that is not, perhaps, the principal puzzle. The most interesting question raised by Mr Fenman is this: who was the mysterious Madame de Mentou? She was, we know, the mature and sophisticated woman with whom the young Fenman became totally besotted -- or says that he did. But, whether she was real or a figment of Fenman's imagination, who was she?

Happily, you can read the book and form your own conclusion. And, insofar as there is any pleasure to be had in it, therein lies the reader's interest and satisfaction. But, having read the book, and having resolved the mysteries in your own mind, you may wish to turn to an authoritative and erudite critic for a complete explanation.

Through the good offices of Georgy Riecke, the editor of Underneath the Bunker, I am able to tell you that an advance review of my book has recently been published in that magazine. Underneath the Bunker is a valuable online survey of literature and the arts (mentioned here before), and it has been described (correctly in my opinion) as Europe's premier cultural journal. In this journal, Emeritus Professor R. Gowan Haverges has provided what some might call a postmodernist deconstruction of Mr Fenman's Farewell to His Readers; and this review article is, in my estimation, a sound interpretation of the facts as we have them.

Be warned, however, that Professor Haverges's review reveals certain details and background information which may, perhaps, spoil your enjoyment of Fenman's memoir, if read in advance of the text itself. So a careful study of Haverges's theory is best postponed until after you have read the book (if you ever do).

By way of temptation, a short extract from the beginning of Fenman's memoir is printed out below. But first, here are all the necessary links, assembled in one convenient place:

Kingsfield Publications's page on Mr Fenman, with download link to the pdf file.

Lulu.com page from which you can purchase a copy of the paperback version.

Professor Haverges's erudite review, in which many mysteries are elucidated (just in case you have not worked them out for yourself).

Those who have not previously explored Underneath the Bunker would be well advised to do so. There are few quicker ways to acquire a convincing veneer of culture, and a useful supply of big names with which to impress young ladies (afterthought: or, of course, young gentlemen) at cocktail parties (or, conceivably, the local McDonald's).

And now, as promised, here is a brief extract from the very beginning of Mr Fenman's extraordinary account:

*****

Mr Fenman's Farewell to His Readers


O Muse, great mistress, please assist me now!
O memory, that noted what I saw,
Here shall your value be made plain to all.

THERE WAS PLAGUE in Venice that year. But I did not leave.

I might well have left; I had every intention of doing so. But I was dissuaded by Madame de Mentou.

I had arrived in Venice in early September 1786, just fifty years ago, to the week, as I write these words. I took rooms in a hotel while I looked around for a house to rent for the winter.

At first, all seemed well. True, the bells of the church nearby were for ever ringing; and there seemed to be frequent funerals. But I paid little attention, being distracted by the sights and sounds of a new and extraordinary city.

But then I began to notice (or fancied I did) that the hotel staff were muttering to themselves in the corridors. They had quiet conversations which I could not quite hear, and which in any case were hastily broken off as I approached. And finally, of course, I was told the truth by my French friend, Monsieur Charleroi.

Monsieur Charleroi had been in Venice for some time. Like me, he was a young man on the grand tour, and he had kindly acted as something of a guide to me in my early days. But one afternoon, when I returned to the hotel after a walk, I found him surrounded by bags in the lobby.

‘Monsieur Charleroi,’ I exclaimed in surprise. ‘Surely you are not leaving?’

‘I am,’ he said abruptly. ‘And so should you.’

He pulled me to one side, where we could not be overheard. ‘You remember,’ he enquired, ‘the manager of this hotel, the man who admitted you when you first arrived?’

‘I remember him well.’

Monsieur Charleroi nodded. ‘Three days ago he was as cheerful as you or I. Today he is dead.’

I was shocked into silence. ‘It is la peste,’ Charleroi whispered to me. ‘The plague. You understand? You should leave at once.’

At this, my heart beat faster and I am sure that the blood faded from my cheeks. The plague! Something like panic filled my mouth with hot saliva, and I became as wide-eyed and pale as Charleroi himself.

Charleroi said no more, apart from, ‘Be warned, mon ami,’ and he continued his arrangements to depart. And I, after bidding him farewell, went upstairs to my room to consider what to do.

Now I was nothing in those days if not a well trained English gentleman; and while I had a healthy sense of concern for my own welfare, I also thought of others. And I immediately remembered Madame de Mentou, the French lady to whom I had been introduced by Charleroi himself a week or so earlier.

I went downstairs to find that Charleroi had already gone, depriving me of the opportunity to ask him if he had spoken to Madame de Mentou already. So, in case he had not, and filled with a sense of civic duty, I immediately left the hotel and made my way to the house where the lady was living.

At the door I was told that Madame was with her dressmaker, and that it was not convenient for me to call, but I rudely demanded to see her anyway, insisting that it was an urgent matter. Eventually I was admitted, albeit with a great deal of tutting and handwaving in protest.

Fortunately, Madame de Mentou was quite unflustered by my sudden entry – though few ladies, I am sure, would have welcomed my intrusion upon such an important domestic scene. Venice, I had already been told, was particularly demanding in the number of dresses that a lady must have, and the seamstress was down on her knees, with a mouthful of pins, when I burst in upon them.

‘Why Mr Fenman,’ said Madame. ‘How kind of you to honour us with your presence.’

The gentle irony, and the implicit (and deserved) rebuke, went unnoticed.

‘Madame,’ I blurted out. ‘We must leave Venice at once!’

Madame turned to look at me. ‘Must we?’ she enquired. And she gave me one of her mocking smiles. It was clear that she, at least, was not about to panic, no matter how dreadful the news. ‘And why would we do that?’

I took the liberty – quite unlike a nervous and callow young Englishman – of approaching her closely and whispering in her ear, so that the seamstress should not hear.

‘It is not safe,’ I told her. ‘There is plague in the city.’

I stepped back, astounded by my own boldness.

Madame took the news with remarkable calmness. ‘Is that so?’ she said. ‘And you believe we should leave?’

‘Yes.’

‘And where do you think we should go, Mr Fenman?’

This was not an unreasonable question, but it was one which, in the ten minutes or so it had taken me to rush to her house, I had not had the wit to address.

‘Why, anywhere,’ I spluttered. ‘Rome, Paris, London. Anywhere will be safer than here.’

Madame gave me one of her marvellous laughs; her face lit up with amusement. ‘And what makes you think that?’

‘Why… because there is no… There is not the same… not the same risk there as there is here.’

Madame moved her position, to allow the seamstress to work on a different part of the dress, around the waist.

‘Do you really think so, Mr Fenman? Does no one ever die, then, in Rome, or Paris, or London?’

I was beginning to feel foolish. I could feel myself going red.

Madame was enjoying my discomfiture immensely. ‘I perceive, Mr Fenman, that you do not know the story that the Arabs tell, about the man who tried to run away from Death.’

I did not know it then, though I have heard it several times since, and indeed have used it in my own work. So Madame proceeded to tell me.

In this story, a rich man in Baghdad sends his servant to the marketplace to buy food. But almost immediately the servant comes back, empty-handed and trembling with fear. He tells his master that in the marketplace he bumped into a pale-faced man, whom he recognised as Death – and, what was worse, says the servant, Death recognised him and made a threatening gesture.

The servant begs his master to let him take a horse, and he gallops away to Samarra, which is far enough away, he believes, for him to be safe.

Later, the rich man goes into the town himself, and he too meets the pale-faced man. Taking his courage in both hands, the rich man asks Death why he had made the threatening gesture to his servant.

‘That was not a threatening gesture,’ says Death. ‘It was merely an expression of surprise. I was astonished to come across your servant here in Baghdad, for I have an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.’

Madame laughed out loud when she had finished this story, as if it amused her greatly. And she clearly was not remotely alarmed by the prospect of plague in Venice.

‘So you see, Mr Fenman,’ Madame continued, ‘it would be quite wrong to think that you might do yourself any good by running away from here.’

She approached me, a warm smile on her face: a smile which filled me with admiration and longing. How fortunate I was that this beautiful and sophisticated woman should see fit even to converse with me.

Madame placed her hand on my shoulder, to reassure me.

‘While you are in this city, Mr Fenman, you should think of yourself as being under my protection. No harm will come to you here, I promise you that.’

The seamstress had now either finished her work, or had given up the attempt in the face of my distractions, and was packing away her things.

‘And besides, you have work to do here in Venice. And so have I. We shall work together.’ She smiled again. ‘I have decided to take you under my wing, Mr Fenman. And when I take a young man under my wing, he tends to do rather well. In fact, very well indeed.’

And then she came closer still, and kissed me full on the lips.

After that, of course, I remained.

*****

Reminder: to download the whole of Mr Fenman's memoir, as a free pdf file, follow this link.

7 comments:

Andy O'Hara said...

Well, this is a masterpiece. I won't spoil it for others by offering my conclusions except to say that it's delightful reading--surprising, witty, enlightening and even sweet. Your creative best, Michael--congratulations.

elberry said...

she sounds like quite the MILF, i am intrigued

bhadd said...

Received!!

The Hood Company

Anonymous said...

I am an admirer of what you do, but please note how alienating it is for a female reader to realise that you are not addressing her at all:

"There are few quicker ways to acquire a convincing veneer of culture, and a useful supply of big names with which to impress young ladies at cocktail parties"

Anonymous said...

ignoring the fact that other ladies may wish to impress young ladies, this last point is more than a valid one. After all, one of these 'big names', frequently mentioned at Underneath the Bunker, is a young lady herself (I refer, of course, to Eva Holubk) whose would hate to think that her moniker was being utilised merely as a conduit for sustained flirtation. As a man, I must say that I am often approached by woman with lines such as 'You remind me of a character from Boris Yashmilye's first novel'. And boy, does this impress me...

elberry said...

yes, Grumpy, you should be ashamed of yourself: you should have written:

"There are few quicker ways to acquire a convincing veneer of culture, and a useful supply of big names with which to impress young ladies/boys at cocktail parties"

i am disgusted!

Steph_J said...

I enjoyed this writing very much. It was entertaining and thought provoking.

The nod to Dante in the opening lines of the memoir drew my attention to the similarity between Madame Mentou and Beatrice Portinari (Dante’s muse). While Beatrice was not a mentor, and Mentou/Mentorn may be a fictional character created by a fictional character, both women served as inspiration to writers.

I also thought I saw the shadow of Goethe passing over this piece as I read it. Both Fenman and Goethe chose to make their journey in 1786/87. Both arrived in September, found lodging near the Piazza San Marco, and frequented the Florian. It would appear that many have made the “Italian Journey” and benefited from it…with varying degrees of success.

I found it interesting that Fenman claimed to frown on “serious literary criticism” while at the same time, tipping his hat to Dante (and possibly Goethe) whose work is still being “chopped into tiny pieces”. But perhaps a nod of recognition, a tip of the hat, and a recommendation to a friend is how a book should be passed down through the ages, instead of forced onto each generation by the “literary elite”. In a broader sense (I hope Mr. Allen will forgive my dissection of his work), the main crux of the story for me is an ongoing debate: What is a ‘classic’, and who defines it?

Well done, Mr. Allen!