Where to begin? runs the writer’s age-old question.
I could begin, for instance, with the day on which Isobel Burton consigned the manuscript of her late husband’s revised translation of The Scented Garden of Sensual Delight to the bonfire. Or I could begin with my growing interest in Burton himself and his final years in Trieste. But I’ll begin instead, near the end, with my conversations with Jean-Claude Mandeville—an individual who struck me, after I had reached so many dead ends, as someone who could shed some light on this mystery that I had stumbled onto.
Mandeville was a wizened old Frenchman who insisted that we meet at his accustomed table at the Flore on the Boulevard Saint-Germain, where he was obviously a fixture. He had once worked, I knew, for the legendary Olympia Press, where his father held some subsidiary position.
‘To be perfectly honest, I ran the occasional errand for M Seaver or M Girodias himself,’ Mandeville explained to me. That phrase—‘to be perfectly honest’—was one that he would use more than once. ‘Nothing more. They tolerated me, and it was a relief from my studies, to which I fear I did not apply myself with any great diligence.’
During this speech, which Mandeville delivered in correct but somewhat old-fashioned English, he was fitting a Caporal into a long, yellowed ivory holder and searching among his pockets. I had made a point of setting my lighter on the table between us, beside my notebook, but he clearly preferred the little box of wooden matches that he eventually recovered.
‘I met them all—Beckett, Donleavy, Burroughs. All true gentlemen, M Burroughs in particular, but oh so cadaverous, that one. He frightened me a little. And M Donleavy always made a point of shaking my hand.’ He smiled to himself, adding, ‘He owns the press now, you know.’
I knew indeed, but it was, and is, another story for another day.
Mandeville had by now finished his glass of beer and was motioning to our waiter, who brought him another immediately. I had barely tasted mine, but there was no doubt that I would be picking up our combined tab, to which Mandeville, in conference with the waiter, was now adding a salad and a slice of quiche. I did likewise, then turned the conversation to the matter at hand.
‘We’ve always understood,’ I began, laying some groundwork, ‘that Lady Burton burned many of her husband’s manuscripts after his death, including The Scented Garden. That was in Trieste, where Burton had served as British consul, in 1890. It was to be a far more explicit version of the work by Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Nafzawi that he had translated so many years before as The Perfumed Garden, and the manuscript would have been worth a substantial sum. But Isobel was scandalized when she read it, and burned it. Said Burton’s ghost told her to do it, begged her to do it. And yet—a copy not only survived but appeared magically at the offices of Olympia Press. Do you remember the year?’
Mandeville waved his hand vaguely over the table. ‘I was young, monsieur, very young. I can fix no precise date to the memory, and then, of course, I ceased to be interested when I learned of its content. I knew the name Burton, of course. Like any youngster, I dreamed of travel and adventure. I had a few of the great man’s books in translation, and of course I had all of Verne’s Voyages extraordinaires.’
He gazed off for a moment into some imaginary jungle.
‘But The Scented Garden … Of course, the time would come, and soon enough, when I would have been more interested, much more interested …’
Now he was gazing at what I am sure was a wholly different scene, and I needed to redirect his attention.
‘You’ve had years to reflect. Have you wondered how the manuscript turned up? What route it might have followed from Trieste to Paris, from 1890 to—whatever the year was?’
Mandeville smiled slyly. ‘I have my ideas. To be perfectly honest, there are gaps that even I cannot fill, but I have my ideas. Take Rolfe, for instance. You know him?’ Without waiting for a reply, he continued: ‘Of course you know of him. The Baron Corvo, he liked to call himself—Baron Crow. Bogus, of course, bogus through and through. Durrell likened him to a huge fruit-bat rather than a crow, I believe—a fruit-bat flitting down the alleyways of Venice. But it was a crow on a bookplate we found marking a place in the MS, only a few pages in. I fear that Rolfe may not have found Burton’s prose up to his exacting standards …’
But our food had arrived at that moment, and it was only afterward that Mandeville took up the story.
‘Rolfe,’ Mandeville explained as he wiped his lips for the last time, ‘would quite naturally—if one dares use the word naturally in regard to anything connected with the man—have found the subject matter of Burton’s manuscript of interest. Could he have bought it from Burton’s secretary when he passed through Trieste on his way to Venice in 1908? He had a bit of money then. Or did his young friend Toto simply filch it? The boy circulated between Trieste and Venice, you know—a slippery fellow, by all accounts.’
Mandeville must have noticed the look on my face, for he waved his hand vaguely. ‘Yes, I know—speculations. But the bookmark was there. And Rolfe ran through his money quickly, of course, so … the manuscript left his hands at some point. And then reappeared in’— he raised the forefinger of his right hand—‘Here.’
Had I heard him correctly? ‘Here?’
Mandeville smiled. ‘“Here” to you Yanks, “Ici” to us, the city of Ici—or so Jullian called it in his Fuite en Égypte. A joke, of course. Not its real name, but you will find it easily enough if you go looking. You will enjoy the challenge. Lawrence, you know—T.E.—showed up there after his bogus accident.
‘And you will see clues in another book, one by de Monfreid, Les secrets de la mer rouge. We can guess that he might have carried the manuscript along with a load of hashish from Greece down the canal into the Red Sea. Or perhaps he merely heard of it in the city. I met de Monfreid in his old age, after he had returned to France, and I doubt that he would have found The Perfumed Garden particularly interesting. His tastes ran to more straightforward …
‘But speaking of running, perhaps my fancies run away with me. After all, Austrian Lloyd’s vessels made frequent runs from Venice and Trieste to Alexandria and Port Said, I believe. Consult Baedeker. To be perfectly honest, the MS may have been consigned as any regular piece of merchandise would have been. But I like to think …’
Whatever he might have liked to think, Mandeville now started to gather up his Caporals and matches and some other piece of paraphernalia, who knows what, that he seemed to think that he had left among the plates. Concluding, finally, that he had not, he stood. We were obviously finished, at least for a time.
‘Tomorrow,’ he said, patting the table. ‘Eleven. I have my ideas …’
He set off then with his cane, haltingly, using his cane, bowing here and there and stopping once, a block away, to greet a clochard and scratch the back of his mongrel.
After sleeping off lunch in my hotel room, I set out my notebook and laptop and got to work. I quickly confirmed that Frederick Rolfe—whom, despite Mandeville’s insistence, I had never heard of—had reached Venice in 1908, living grandly on someone else’s money for a time but eventually retreating to his gondola, where he died under miserable circumstances, in 1913. And sure enough, he had written a collection called Stories Toto Told Me. A possibility …
Jullian’s book, make that Philippe Jullian’s book, had been translated into English as Flight into Egypt—and dismissed in most Anglo-Saxon circles as a decadent fantasy. I also confirmed what I knew, or at least ‘knew’: that Lawrence ‘of Arabia’ had died from a motorcycle accident in 1935. And I learned that one Henry de Monfreid had indeed lived an adventurous life during the 1910s and ‘20s and ‘30s sailing his own dhow in Egyptian and Arabian waters, and that his 1931 book had been translated as Secrets of the Red Sea. However remote the possibilities, the trio reminded me of Burton’s fascination with the Arabian region, and of his lines from The Kasîdah of Hâjî Abdû el-Yezdî:
Do what thy manhood bids thee do,
from none but self expect applause.
He noblest lives and noblest dies
who makes and keeps his self-made laws.
Finally, Mandeville’s comment about Baedeker—a name, at last, that I did recognize!—was undoubtedly a reference to those classic guidebooks published by Karl Baedeker that travelers once carried with them on their own Grand Tours. I could guess, without having to check, that I would find the name Austrian Lloyd in more than one of them. (And I did indeed find it, although much later, in a 1911 copy of Baedeker’s Mediterranean, Seaports and Sea Routes that I ran across in a used bookstore. Sure enough, Austrian Lloyd, along with several other now-forgotten steamship companies, offered regular services connecting Trieste with Alexandria and Port Said.)
Mandeville and I met again the following afternoon, although this time I had taken pains to arrive early enough to pick a different table, one a little less in the public eye, where I hoped he might not be so distracted by the passing scene. As it turned out I was not a moment too soon, as I saw him approaching just as I pulled back my chair. He in turn had spied someone seated near the far end of the sidewalk—a man who looked, if anything, even more wizened than Mandeville himself, although nattily dressed—and was bowing even more elaborately than usual. As I watched, the stranger inclined his head a few millimeters.
‘M Cossery,’ Mandeville explained as he fell, after some fumbling, into his seat, catching the eye of the waiter as he did so. ‘You know the story, I’m sure …’ But I had to wait for the story as he placed an order—our order—for bière, quiche et salade.
‘Cossery, you see,’ he resumed after taking quite a long draught, ‘was Egyptian, and during the war the British suspected him of spying for the Germans. But they had the good sense to question Durrell—the writer, you know, who spent those years in Alexandria and knew Cossery in some capacity—and Durrell assured them that the fellow could not be spying because’— here Mandeville lowered his voice—‘he was too busy shagging.’ Mandeville hissed the word again, sotto voce: ‘Shagging!’
Several customers turned to regard Mandeville, who bowed here and there at the attention. I looked over to Cossery, whose lips twitched slightly as he regarded us. Could the story be true?
‘Durrell, you know, based his character Balthazar on a real doctor, a friend of Cavafy’s. Now Cavafy …’ But here we were interrupted as our waiter placed our food before us and Mandeville immediately asked for another glass of beer, so I never found out what role Cavafy’s friend might have played in the tangled story of Burton’s last work.
‘Orioli,’ Mandeville pronounced after finishing his meal, rolling the name off his tongue. ‘Giuseppe Orioli. “Pino” to his familiars. You must take a careful look at him. You know Florence, no doubt. Orioli ran a bookshop there and published books—important books, of course, but … often controversial.’
It was quite a jump from Alexandria to Florence, I realized, but I held my peace.
‘Several of them,’ Mandeville continued, ‘were by his friend Norman—Norman Douglas—but the first edition of Lady Chatterley as well. A sad work, that. In any case, I feel sure he had access to Burton’s MS at one point, considered printing it, no doubt prevaricated, passed on the opportunity. He preferred to work with his friends: Douglas, Lawrence, Aldington …’
Looking Pino Orioli up later, I saw that he was the author of an autobiography that he apparently published under his own Florentine imprint, the Lungarno Series, along with several other works, including Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Aldington was undoubtedly Richard Aldington, the author of Death of a Hero.
‘How long might he have held onto the manuscript? They were busy fellows, he and Norman.’ Mandeville looked as if he were going to say something more. ‘But in any case,’ he continued after a brief hesitation, ‘he would have been the logical one to pass the work on to Kahane.’
I recognized Jack Kahane as the owner of the Obelisk Press, the forerunner of Olympia, and the father of Girodias himself. Now we were getting closer.
‘Now here we’re getting closer,’ Mandeville continued, as if having read my thoughts. He wiped his lips as he caught the eye of our waiter, and two more glasses of beer were placed before us.
‘Closer because M Girodias inherited the MS after his father’s death in 1939! You see?’ he asked, presumably rhetorically, as he took a generous gulp. Smiling, he patted the table gently, glancing around us at the other diners with a kind of self-satisfied look on his face.
We had finally arrived, back where we had started. ‘So the MS may still be in existence?’ I had been afraid to ask this, the most crucial question.
‘Ah, my friend,’ he responded, smiling a little wanly. ‘I think not. I think not. There was a terrible freeze that winter. I remember we were all standing about the office stove one morning, burning anything we could put out hands on—slats from the courtyard fence, newspapers, waste paper. We were desperate, you see. M Girodias himself pulled several dozen manuscripts out of the cupboard.’
It had been the longest of long shots. ‘And yet you had seen it—actually seen it. Read a bit of it. And found Rolfe’s bookmark. Could one of the assistants have written a report? A summary? Surely Girodias kept some sort of business records.’
Mandeville turned to me, his eyebrows raised. ‘But my good fellow,’ he said at last, laying his bony hand on my shoulder and eyeing me curiously, as if seeing me for the first time, ‘you really should not believe everything you are told!’
And with that he gripped the handle of his cane, pulled himself up, and went hobbling off down the sidewalk, bowing here and there to all and sundry, and more than once to no one at all.
Dedicated to the memory of Rrose Sélavy
Grove Koger is the author of When the Going Was Good: A Guide to the 99 Best Narratives of Travel, Exploration, and Adventure (Scarecrow Press, 2002) and Assistant Editor of Art Patron Magazine and Deus Loci: The Lawrence Durrell Journal. He blogs at worldenoughblog.wordpress.com.