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.Reuse content