George Melly - a memoir of the Surrealist poet, collagist and art-dealer ELT Mesens and his wife Sybil.

George Melly, Don't Tell Sybil: An Intimate Memoir of ELT Mesens, Heinemann, 1997.

In this memoir, the author remembers the times he spent in the company of E.L.T. Mesens and his wife Sybil. The text is a homage to a largely neglected figure and a period of the post-war British art world.

Welcome back to Mellyland, where characters are more eccentric, chance is chancier and appetites are more all-embracing than in the duller, smaller places inhabited by you and I. Although billed as a memoir of the Surrealist poet, collagist and art-dealer ELT Mesens, aficionados will be glad to hear that Don't Tell Sybil is really, or also, yet another instalment of George Melly's autobiography.
The story opens on Mesens' deathbed, with various possible beneficiaries nervously wondering who will receive his enormous and valuable collection of Surrealist paintings (answer: he died intestate and they were divided between two cousins, the "nice" and the "nasty"). The rest of the book works back to that occasion via Mesens' and Melly's intertwined lives in a detailed and affectionate portrait of the extraordinary Mesens, his enthusiasms (Surrealist painting and poetry, drink, sex), his friendships and enmities, his meannesses and generosities. As the title indicates, his formidable wife, Sybil, plays a scarcely less important part, both in the story and in the life of the young Melly.
Melly and Mesens met at the end of the war as Mesens was about to re- open his Surrealist gallery. Aged 16, in 1920, he had visited Rene Magritte's first exhibition, and been bowled over. The two became friends; and from then on, Surrealism guided Mesens' life while Magritte became one of its best-known exponents. Meanwhile, Melly was a naval rating with two great passions: Surrealism and revivalist jazz.
Previous memoirs have described his induction into the jazz scene, with Surrealist sidelights. Now (with one or two overlaps) we get the other side of the story, from Melly's first view of Mesens at a Surrealist meeting in an upper room of the Barcelona restaurant in Beak Street, to Mesens' final alcoholic collapse. This gives the book a satisfying shape. At the start, Mesens and Sybil are the young George's mentors in the art world and the world of heterosex; at the end, Melly is an increasingly successful musician, collector and writer, and he and his sister Andrea are the chief support of the declining and widowed Mesens.
Vivid pictures emerge of Surrealist life, characters and politics, of the art scene and the idiosyncratic Mesens menage, mostly held together by Sybil's earnings as she rises up the hierarchy at Dickins and Jones (known affectionately as Dickie and Johnny). But most vivid of all is Melly's own gargantuan life, crammed with sex, food, art, music and interesting observations. He appears to have total recall. Did it all (in the way of youth) seem quite normal to him at the time, or did he realise even then that he was having more than his share of adventures? At any rate, here is the mixture as before, uproarious as ever, and - as the book draws to its close - unexpectedly moving. - Ruth Brandon

George Melly was a character impossible to ignore in London cultural circles between the 1950s and 1990s. He first came to attention as a jazz singer, notable for risqué songs performed with verve rather than with great technical ability. An arresting personality, Melly also dressed the part: his outrageous suits became a trademark, and his talents as a raconteur soon brought him fame as a TV talkshow guest, though usually late-night for reasons of propriety… His three-volume autobiography is a classic that seems unlikely ever to go out of print, and the cheerful bisexualism it describes first scandalised, then delighted a public whose own sexual attitudes changed over the course of these decades.
Don’t Tell Sybil is a supplementary volume of autobiography which treats in more detail Melly’s youthful and long-lasting attraction to Surrealism, and his equally lengthy friendship with the contradictory character who headed up the English Surrealist group: E.L.T. Mesens. Their adventures and vicissitudes form the core of this book (adventures ELT was keen should not get back to his wife, Sybil, hence the book’s title). Mesens was a perfect subject, an extravagant prankster who could nevertheless be as punctilious and stingy as the most respectable bourgeois. Anecdotes of the artists who showed at Mesens’s gallery — especially Schwitters and Magritte — pepper the narrative, a hugely affectionate memoir by a character who was truly larger than life…
This new edition is augmented with previously unpublished photographs relating to Melly and to English Surrealism. -

Edouard Léon Théodore Mesens (1903-1971) was a Belgian artist and writer associated with the Belgian Surrealist movement.


Popular posts from this blog

Steven Seidenberg - a dramatic intensification of Seidenberg’s career-long blurring of fiction, poetry, and philosophy—an accomplishment recalling the literary contributions of Blanchot, Bernhard, and pre-impasse Beckett

Leon Forrest - Fabulous, wildly comic, and Ulysses-like. a huge oratorio of the sacred and the profane, set in bars, churches, and barbershops .

Futures and Fictions - In what ways could we imagine a world different from the one in which we currently live?