Mortdecai Tidbit #3 - The Honorable Kyril Bonfiglioli

by Kyril Bonfiglioli

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Mortdecai Tidbit #3 - The Honorable Kyril Bonfiglioli

Unread postby Liz » Thu Jan 15, 2015 4:09 am

KYRIL (CYRIL) BONFIGLIOLI

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Kyril Bonfiglioli…..an interesting man, and maybe not all that different from the Honorable Charlie Strafford Van Cleef Mortdecai.

At the beginning of his first Mortdecai novel, “Don’t Point That Thing at Me” Bonfiglioli informs us that:

“This is not an autobiographical novel: it is about some other portly, dissolute, immoral and middle-aged art dealer.”

Bonfiglioli described himself as “an accomplished fencer, a fair shot with most weapons.” By his own admission, Bonfiglioli was “abstemious in all things except drink, food, tobacco and talking.” And he claimed to be “loved and respected by all who knew him slightly.”

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Kyril Bonfiglioli was born as Cyril Emmanuel George Bonfiglioli. He changed his name to Kyril later in life. He was born in Eastbourne on the south coast of England on May 29, 1928. He was the son of an Italo-Slovene immigrant, Emmanuel Bonfiglioli, and an English mother, Dorothy Pallett. Cyril’s father dealt in antiquarian books.

In early 1943 (when Cyril was 14) WWII was raging and frequent air raids were quite common in the South of England, at which time most would run to an air raid shelter. On one particular day, Cyril was out playing in the streets when the siren went off. His mother and 8 year old brother sought safety in a local air raid shelter. Unfortunately, the shelter took a direct hit and Bonfiglioli's mother and younger brother were killed. Cyril was the one who had to give the news to his dad. Bonfiglioli would recall later that his dad’s response was: “If it only had been you.” (Carey) Bonfiglioli’s been quoted as saying something to the effect of “The good perish and the mischievous survive.” (Carey) I’ve also seen it as, “The honest perish while the mischievous survive.” (Kumar)

After leaving school at 16, Bonfiglioli served in the Army for 5 years. He became an inter-regimental sabre champion. He married, but his wife died shortly after the birth of their second child. Two years later, a father of two small children, he was admitted to Balliol College, Oxford, to study English. He was accepted on the strength of his thesis on Heraldry. (If you'll remember, he went off on that topic a couple of times in the book)

He lived in Oxford for only 15 years. But even today he is remembered. He was known at the time as Bon. The poet Craig Raine described Bon as having “real if faltering charisma” and likened him to “a great musical touring the provinces—a master of ceremonies whose sequins were beginning to fall off.” (Carey)

He was at Oxford when he met his second wife, Margaret, with whom he would have three more children. After graduation, he worked at the Ashmolean Museum as an assistant to the art historian Edgar Wind. He then began dealing in art, setting up his own company Bonfiglioli Limited in 1960. Margaret has talked of their old Victorian home being filled with a number of art objects – paintings, antique firearms, Dutch marquetry, Chinese porcelain, stuffed birds and more. Bonfiglioli had a good eye for a deal. “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 salable eighteenth-century bottles bearing the college arms in molded glass. The highlight of his career came in 1964, when he managed to buy a Tintoretto at a country auction for forty pounds.” (Carey)

Among the antique clutter in his Victorian house were also a string of lodgers. This (as you might expect) was to bring in extra income. It’s quite clear that Bonfiglioli liked to drink. Margaret has indicated that he had some “legendary parties where he held court like a decadent Roman emperor, filling everyone with fine spirits and filthy anecdotes.” (Kumar)

In addition to his art dealing, Bonfiglioli edited Science Fantasy magazine for a period from 1964 to 1966.

By the end of his second marriage in 1969, Kyril had moved in with his former secretary, Judith Todd, in the Lancashire village of Silverdale. His art dealing had pretty much ended by this time. But this is the time he began writing his novels. By the time the first Mortdecai novel was published (“Don't Point That Thing At Me”) he had left Judith and began living in Ireland, then Jersey.

Over the next few years he would write two more Mortdecai novels (Something Nasty in the Woodshed (1976) and After You With the Pistol (1979). This would complete the Mortdecai Trilogy. But there was a fourth……. The Great Mortdecai MoustacheMystery, which as you know, Bonfiglioli did not complete. It was completed by Craig Brown and published in 1996. There was one additional novel that Bonfiglioli completed (between Something Nasty in the Woodshed and After You With the Pistol). It was an historical prequel about one of Mortdecai’s Dutch ancestors, entitled, All the Tea in China (1978)

His novels seemed to have reaped little financial reward, however, as he was perpetually broke. He moved back and forth between Jersey and Ireland (where writers were tax exempt). Sometimes he lived alone, sometimes he lived with friends, sometimes in poverty. He subsequently declined into depression, alcoholism and eventually died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1985 at the age of 56.

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Leo Carey has some telling commentary in his article about the author in The New Yorker, September 20, 2004:


’Among his papers at his death was an article on “Drinking and Creativity,” clipped from the British Journal on Alcohol and Alcoholism. On a list of forty-five heavy-drinking writers, Bon had inserted his own name between Berryman and Boswell, appending a marginal note: “At what age did these die?—Check.”

The undertow of pain and despair is what gives the books an emotional charge beyond their surface urbanity, and makes them stick in the mind long after you’ve quoted all the funny bits to your friends. There is a moving passage toward the end of “Don’t Point That Thing at Me,” in which happiness is suddenly seen to repose in all the drab, suburban mediocrity that Mortdecai despises. Hunted down by those who want to kill him, Mortdecai flees across a darkened moor near his boyhood home in Lancashire, alone and with death an apparent certainty:

“Above me and to my right shone the lights of the honest bungalow dwellers of Silverdale: I found myself envying them bitterly. It is chaps like them who have the secret of happiness, they know the art of it, they always knew it. Happiness is an annuity, or its 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.”

Silverdale is where Bonfiglioli was living when he wrote these words, a home he was about to leave, and the last home of any permanence he would have.

Mortdecai concludes, “Happiness is easy: I don’t know why more people don’t go in for it.”’


Bonfiglioli was apparently a huge fan of P.G. Wodehouse. Some say he modeled Charlie Mortdecai and his manservant Jock Strapp (did you notice that was his last name? I didn’t) on a slanted version of Bertie Wooster and his manservant Jeeves. More on P.G. Wodehouse in a couple weeks.

Bonfiglioli’s novels, although not garnering much financial success, won critical acclaim in the 70s and 80s, and attained cult status since his death. Two of these fans are actors Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie.

Margaret Bonfiglioli wrote and compiled a posthumous anthology of works and anecdotes, called The Mortdecai ABC published in 2001.

I want to point you to a blog by a former acquaintance/friend of Bonfiglioli who first met him in 1954. Years after Bonfiglioli’s death Don Wells began a blog called The Bonfiglioli ABC. The following two blogs are quite interesting, but there’s much more if you explore:





References:

Carey, Leo. THE GENUINE ARTICLE: The strange case of Kyril Bonfiglioli. The New Yorker. September 20, 2004.

Grosset, Philip. Clerical Detectives: Charlie Mortdecai.

Kumar, Mohan. Making of Mortdecai - The Curious Life of Kyril Bonfiglioli. Hubpages. 2014.

Wells, Don. Bonfiglioli Remembered. 2013.

Wikipedia.

You can't judge a book by its cover.

The only thing that matters is the ending. It's the most important part of the story.

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Re: Mortdecai Tidbit #3 - The Honorable Kyril Bonfiglioli

Unread postby nebraska » Thu Jan 15, 2015 9:54 pm

He strikes me as a rather tragic person, not the sort who would come up with the high style of comedy in Mortdecai. :-/

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Re: Mortdecai Tidbit #3 - The Honorable Kyril Bonfiglioli

Unread postby SnoopyDances » Fri Jan 16, 2015 12:06 am

Thanks, Liz! :mortdecai1:

Interesting little life there. Not too surprising to me, I guess. A lot of very funny people led very sad lives.

And you gotta love that moustache!

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Re: Mortdecai Tidbit #3 - The Honorable Kyril Bonfiglioli

Unread postby Don Wells » Tue Feb 17, 2015 1:32 pm

When I knew Bonfig (1954 - ancient history to most Depp fans, I guess) he was not yet a tragic figure. He was full of life and full of contradictions - supportive, snobbish; generous, vindictive; laid-back, edgy. Life around Bonfig was never dull.
I knew him for only a few months but he had an influence on me that has lasted to this day.
Many thanks, Liz, for mentioning my blog on the man. I provided the fencing picture too.

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Re: Mortdecai Tidbit #3 - The Honorable Kyril Bonfiglioli

Unread postby Liz » Wed Feb 18, 2015 1:48 am

Don Wells wrote:When I knew Bonfig (1954 - ancient history to most Depp fans, I guess) he was not yet a tragic figure. He was full of life and full of contradictions - supportive, snobbish; generous, vindictive; laid-back, edgy. Life around Bonfig was never dull.
I knew him for only a few months but he had an influence on me that has lasted to this day.
Many thanks, Liz, for mentioning my blog on the man. I provided the fencing picture too.

OMG. Welcome, Don! :wave: How nice of you to post here. I really enjoyed reading your blog. And I hope you don't mind me using your fencing photo.

As Fireflydances mentioned in the thread on moustaches, we plan to begin our discussion of the book next week. I do hope that you will join us.

And what a fun little anecdote that you shared on THE moutstache!
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Re: Mortdecai Tidbit #3 - The Honorable Kyril Bonfiglioli

Unread postby nebraska » Wed Feb 18, 2015 2:16 pm

Welcome to ONBC, Don!

If the discussion begins next week, this may be a good time for me to go back and read the book again, with all these tidbits in mind and the glossary in hand. :mortdecai1:

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Re: Mortdecai Tidbit #3 - The Honorable Kyril Bonfiglioli

Unread postby Don Wells » Wed Feb 18, 2015 6:02 pm

Thanks for the welcome, Liz and Nebraska
I'm quite happy for the fencing pic to be used as you wish. I'll track down the full team photo, complete with 19 year old me.

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Re: Mortdecai Tidbit #3 - The Honorable Kyril Bonfiglioli

Unread postby Liz » Wed Feb 18, 2015 11:51 pm

Don Wells wrote:Thanks for the welcome, Liz and Nebraska
I'm quite happy for the fencing pic to be used as you wish. I'll track down the full team photo, complete with 19 year old me.

Looking forward to that....
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Re: Mortdecai Tidbit #3 - The Honorable Kyril Bonfiglioli

Unread postby SnoopyDances » Thu Feb 19, 2015 10:21 am

Don Wells wrote:When I knew Bonfig (1954 - ancient history to most Depp fans, I guess) he was not yet a tragic figure. He was full of life and full of contradictions - supportive, snobbish; generous, vindictive; laid-back, edgy. Life around Bonfig was never dull.
I knew him for only a few months but he had an influence on me that has lasted to this day.
Many thanks, Liz, for mentioning my blog on the man. I provided the fencing picture too.

:welcome: Don Wells!

Nice to have you aboard for this discussion. :mortdecaiheart:

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Re: Mortdecai Tidbit #3 - The Honorable Kyril Bonfiglioli

Unread postby Don Wells » Sun Feb 22, 2015 5:46 pm

/home/don/Pictures/fencing team.pdf

I found the fencing team pic I promised you. I've tried to copy and paste it here but all it puts up is the file name. Perhaps someone can tell an old dinosaur what he should be doing.

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Re: Mortdecai Tidbit #3 - The Honorable Kyril Bonfiglioli

Unread postby Joni » Wed Feb 25, 2015 12:40 pm

Don Wells wrote:/home/don/Pictures/fencing team.pdf

I found the fencing team pic I promised you. I've tried to copy and paste it here but all it puts up is the file name. Perhaps someone can tell an old dinosaur what he should be doing.


Don, if you can post the picture on your blog, then I can copy it from there and post it here for you.

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Re: Mortdecai Tidbit #3 - The Honorable Kyril Bonfiglioli

Unread postby Liz » Wed Feb 25, 2015 5:57 pm

That works too.

I sent him a PM yesterday suggesting he PM me a jpeg, and I'd take it from there. Hope you got my message, Don.
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Re: Mortdecai Tidbit #3 - The Honorable Kyril Bonfiglioli

Unread postby Don Wells » Wed Feb 25, 2015 6:35 pm

Sorry, guys. My fencing team pic is stored as a pdf in my Dropbox. I've tried various ways to copy it to where it can be accessed. No luck so far. Tomorrow I'll contact son no 1 and see if he can help.



Well, looky here. I've managed to copy a link. Give it a try. Good luck.

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Re: Mortdecai Tidbit #3 - The Honorable Kyril Bonfiglioli

Unread postby Joni » Wed Feb 25, 2015 6:58 pm

Don Wells wrote:Sorry, guys. My fencing team pic is stored as a pdf in my Dropbox. I've tried various ways to copy it to where it can be accessed. No luck so far. Tomorrow I'll contact son no 1 and see if he can help.



Well, looky here. I've managed to copy a link. Give it a try. Good luck.


You did, and it works! Well done! :applause2: And which dashing fellow would be the 19-year-old you?

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Re: Mortdecai Tidbit #3 - The Honorable Kyril Bonfiglioli

Unread postby Don Wells » Wed Feb 25, 2015 7:33 pm

I'm on the right of the picture - deep lunge; calm, rather smug expression; solid calves; mucky tennis shoes. I still have the calves; can still do the lunge; can't bring the hair back.


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