Tuesday, May 08, 2007

The Exploits of Engelbrecht

Copies of Maurice Richardson's The Exploits of Engelbrecht are very scarce and very expensive. Right now you can pick up first editions for between fifty and $169 from Abebooks - not exactly First Folio prices but a fair fistful of dosh for a mid-20C hardback by an obscure author. There was a cheaper ($25) 1977 paperback available last week; it now sits on my desk, threatening to distract me from The Paucity of Scope or whatever the title is of the tedious Barack Obama book I'm meant to be reading.

Richardson was admired by Moorcock, Ballard and other New Worlds writers but he is little known today. The only substantial reference I could find online is this article about his meeting Aleistair Crowley. The article describes Richardson as "a sceptical humanist fascinated by freakish religions, and even more by the odd characters connected with them". The Exploits of Engelbrecht, comprising stories that had previously appeared in a magazine named Lilliput, was first published in 1950. There appears to have been no further editions until the paperback reprint in 1977, after which the book again went out of print. In 2000 the brilliant Savoy Books published a new hardback edition; it, of course, is now virtually impossible to find.

"Abstracted from the Chronicles of the Surrealist Sportsman's Club", The Exploits of Engelbrecht offers fifteen surrealist twists on the clubroom anecdote. The first story, "The Night of the Big Witch Shoot", is pretty much what it says on the tin.

The vicar with Bell, Book and Candle and holy water spray leads the choir through the cemetery and they beat about among the gravestones shouting: 'Hi cock! C'mon out of that, granny! Only another half hour till day-break.' Then you hear them yell: 'Witch over! Mark Warlock! Wizard on the left,' and what with the screeching of the witches and the whirring of the broomsticks there's row enough to put up the devil himself.

Engelbrecht himself plays a more active role in the second story, "Ten Rounds with Grandfather Clock". Engelbrecht is a dwarf and a "surrealist boxer", the "champion of all Time" - meaning of course that he's won a lot of fights against clocks. This story describes Engelbrecht's bout against a particularly heavyweight opponent.

Grandfather Clock is hoisted into his corner and he stands there during the preliminaries while they pull the gloves on his hands, wearing his dressing gown of cobwebs, looking a regular champion every minute of him. And when they hand him good-luck telegrams from Big Ben, the Greenwich Observatory chronometer and the BBC Time Pips, he strikes thirteen and breaks into the Whittington Chimes.

The next story is about a round of Surrealist Golf, which is much like regular golf except there's only one "devilish long" hole. "Par is reckoned at 818181, but anything under 1000000 is considered a hot score." Honestly, how can I resist? Barack might just have to keep his American dreaming to himself for a few hours..

Cross-posted at Sarsaparilla.


TimT said...

I so want to read this book.

Literary surrealism never really caught on in England - possibly it's something to do with their isolation from the European continent. Not a bad or a good thing, since English literature is doing quite nicely, thankyou. Anyway, you do still get occasional works like this, some bizarre touches in Chesterton, and things by the Sitwells that show what 'English' surrealism might have been like. At uni I studied 'Facade', a kind of poetry/recitation/dadaist/musical collaboration between Edith Sitwell and William Walton. It's a wonderfully unique piece of work, but in tone it's less 20th-century Daliesque angst, and more Monty Python camp. (You get lots of parodies of 'I do like to be beside the seaside', that sort of thing.) I also seem to recall that there's an interesting section in the book 'The Auden Generation' about literary surrealism in England.

I gather from this review that the book is similar in tone to Facade?

Tim said...

I'm not familiar with Facade but I'll keep an eye out for it now. Ballard is probably the only major postwar English writer who has written explicitly in the surrealist mode, especially in his early work. Odd that the best British humour is so often surrealist in nature.

Tim said...

By British humour I mean non-literary, eg Goons, Monty Python, etc.

lucy tartan said...


Tim said...

Er, yes, him too. But still, it's not a crowded field.

Troy said...

For the people who want to read this book: keep and eye out for a re-print later 2008 by Savoy Books. They did a reprint a few years ago which sold out fast, and are planning on reprinting it with updated illustrations and a new cover. Info about it can be found at Savoy's website at:
This book is part of their series of books from the golden age of pulps; books that many people don't know about but SHOULD. So far they have done the first version of "Engelbrecht", a copy of "Zenith the Albino", "The Killer", and a planned copy of "House on the Borderland" by William Hope Hodgson.