Monday, 17 June 2013

Tom Sharpe: an Appreciation

The British novelist Tom Sharpe, who died this in Spain this month, was one of the funniest writers I have read.

I remember reading on the dust jacket of one of Sharpe’s novels a comment by a critic which described Sharpe as ‘Wodehouse on acid’. Presumably the comment was meant to be a compliment. (The epithet, I feel, more aptly describes Joseph Connolly, another superb British comic writer.)

Tom Sharpe himself was known to be passionate about PG Wodehouse. While I have thoroughly enjoyed reading both the novelists, I’d, without hesitation, rate Sharpe higher than Wodehouse. Both have been described as quintessential comic British novelists. There are similarities in that the protagonists in the novels of both Sharpe and Wodehouse get themselves into improbably ludicrous situations (and equally improbably get out of them); both Wodehouse and Sharpe had a great eye for the absurdities in our daily lives and for our foibles which they both brought into sharp focus in styles which were unique. However, Sharpe wasn't just a comic writer, he was a great satirist.  I always related more to Tom Sharpe’s novels, probably because they occurred in a time frame which was more contemporary (I could always relate more easily to Sharpe’s hapless lecturer teaching in a polytechnic in the Fens and getting into all sorts of scrapes than the upper class toff—endearingly foolish as he was—in Wodehouse’s novels who was occupied full time in staving off amorous advances of rich totties with a penchant for going on moonlit walks and murmuring  sweet nothings). Both Wodehouse and Sharpe had a greatly developed sense of the ridiculous, which they embellished with exaggeration. Sharpe’s approach was more bawdy and his language was full of muscle. The scenarios against which the actions in some of Sharpe’s novels take place are very extravagant.

Many of Sharpe’s novels, while they differ in terms of the plots and settings, follow a set pattern. There is always at least one character (often more) that does not concern itself excessively about the niceties, has no scruples, and treats truth as a flexible concept that can be moulded to suit its current purpose. There is at least one gory and painful death that is sprung on the readers unexpectedly. The characters in Sharpe’s novels do not shy away from vulgarity—indeed they embrace vulgarity with open arms—and there is a fair smattering of swear words. There is a lot of sex, not all of which is pleasant. The story gathers momentum pretty quickly and proceeds at a frenzied speed. The protagonists (for example his Wilt novels) get into serious troubles including but not limited to accusations of murder and financial fraud, to name but two. The novels manage to be surreal, creepy, outrageous, indecent, egregious, and side-splittingly funny at the same time. Some of his novels make a serious point (which Wodehouse can never be accused off; a Wodehouse novel is a pure escapism).

Sharpe was a satirist of unparalleled skill and talent. His early novels, such as Riotous Assembly and Indecent Exposure, were savage satires on the policy of apartheid that prevailed in South Africa at the time. Both the novels were inspired by Sharpe’s experience in South Africa where he had lived for ten years (between 1951 and 1961) before he was deported for activities which the regime disapproved of. The novels in the Wilt series were satires—at times deliberately heavy handed, but, still, very, very entertaining—on the educations system in the British polytechnics, inspired, one suspected, partly by Sharpe’s own experience as a lecturer of History at the Cambridge College of Arts and Technology (later elevated to the status of university). 

In addition to his superb early novels Sharpe is perhaps most known for his Wilt novels. Wilt, like his creator, is a lecturer at a polytechnic (in Liberal studies), condemned to teach courses to bored butchers and plumbers, and lives with a wife who is no picnic to live with. In each of the novels Wilt unwittingly gets involved in bizarre disasters but survives with them with the skin of his teeth, not only because he is innocent but also because he is clever. Sharpe wrote five Wilt novels all of which, with the exception of the last, Wilt Inheritance (also Sharpe’s last novel), which I think is weak, are compelling reads.

Sharpe started writing relatively late. His first novel (Riotous Assembly), which was apparently written in less than three weeks, was published when he was in his forties. The publication of Riotous Assembly coincided with Sharpe’s decision to resign his job as a lecturer at the polytechnic in Cambridge, where he had taught for nine years after he was deported from South Africa (where he had worked as a photographer) for his open and vocal criticism of the Apartheid regime, and become a full time author. (I read in one of the obituaries that his publisher offered Sharpe £ 3000 for each of the three years in 1971, a not-inconsiderable sum in those days. The publisher must have had great faith in their hitherto unknown author, and Sharpe proved that their judgment was sound.) After the publication of Riotous Assembly Sharpe did not look back and published hugely popular novels at an enviable frequency. It was only in the last few years did his outcome dwindle. By that time he had grown very old and was plagued with health problems. It undoubtedly affected his last novels. The Gropes and Wilt Inheritance, Sharpe's last two novels, which came out in 2009 and 2010 respectively, were a disappointment. The storylines were limp; the bizarreness not quite of the level I had come to expect in a Tom Sharpe novel, and there were only glimpses of Sharpe’s trademark humour and mordant wit. I had wondered whether the great man’s powers were in decline.

In his long and distinguished writing career Tom Sharpe wrote several novels, of which I have read about a dozen. Below is a list of my top five Tom Sharpe novels.

Porterhouse Blue

My most favourite Sharpe novel, one of the funniest I have read, and one of the greatest comic novels of the twentieth century. The novel set in an academically mediocre fictional Cambridge college called Porterhouse, is a brilliant satire on the world of Oxbridge struggling to keep a balance between tradition and forces of modernity, and a hilarious sexual farce. The late Malcolm Bradbury adapted the novel for a television series in the 1980s.

Wilt on High

As I said earlier, with the exception of the last, all the novels in the Wilt series are hugely entertaining. Wilt on High, like its predecessor, is a reverberant black comedy with just the right admixture of the grotesque (unlike perhaps the later Wilt novels where the violence and sudden deaths tend to dominate.

Blott on the Landscape

This one of Sharpe’s early novels (also made into a television series starring David Suchet), a farce based on the conflict between urban development and its effect on the English countryside. The Blott in question is a German gardner ( a former prisoner of War) who works for an influential politician (Sir Giles Lynchwood) and his formidable wife, Lady Maud. The novel is uproariously funny with just enough luridity (Sir Gile’s fetishes) which were to become more pronounced in some of Sharpe’s later novels.


This is another of my favourite Tom Sharpe novel, what I’d describe as a typical Tom Sharpe comedy. There are outlandish set pieces and more than adequate dose of sexual perversity. Although at times it tends to veer dangerously into bizarreness it does not go over the brink. The comedy is not for the fainthearted, though: dogs get drugged, taxidermists are employed to stuff dead grandfathers, and passages of sewage are reversed in insane plots to blow up houses.

Indecent Exposure

This is the second of Sharpe’s South African novels, a sparkling follow up to Riotous Assembly (also a must read). Underneath the laugh-out-aloud outrageousness, Sharpe makes a serious point about issues such as race segregation, police brutality (and stupidity) and also the British. Absolutely brilliant.

I do not think Tom Sharpe won any literary awards, which, I think, is more a reflection on the biases of the committees doling out literary awards towards what they view as genre novels. That however will not unduly concern the legions of Tom Sharp fans like me. He was one of the finest comic writers of his generation, who wrote novels that brought smiles to faces of people and made their dreary lives a bit more bearable. Of how many writers can we say this? May his soul rest in peace.

When Sharpe died Daily Telegraph published ‘Ten great Tom Sharpe Quotes’. 

Below is my list of ten great Tom Sharpe quotes.
  1. She is a painter. She paints with equal ardour and passion, though, perhaps less equal zeal. (Wilt in Nowhere)
  2. The plumbing system of the hotel might have held some fascination for an industrial archaeologist, but it kept me awake whole night (Blott on the Landscape)
  3. He is a nincompoop. One can only hope that he will, in due course, be promoted, carried forward by the ineluctable wave of inefficiency and the need to save the public the practical consequences of his latest idea, until he reaches that rarefied zone of administration, where, thanks to the inertia of his subordinates, his projects could never be implemented. (Blott on the Landscape
  4. I find his delicate contempt monstrous; there is an insufferable arrogance that views you as if you have been a microbe squirming convulsively upon a slide. (Porterhouse Blue
  5. His lack of scholarship is natural and unforced. She, on the other hand, probably possessed a mind and it has only been by most rigorous discipline that she has suppressed her academic leanings. (Porterhouse Blue)
  6. Not many people like or understand him. He is, like the British, an acquired taste. (Granchester Grind
  7. He is worse than an anachronism, more than an archaism. He is decadent, possesses a diseased arrogance to hide his abysmal banality and lack of academic distinction, and to hide from the outside world the fact that he is morally as well as intellectually bankrupt. (Granchester Grind
  8. He is a bloody word-merchant, a verbal contortionist, a logic-chopper, a linguistic Houdini, an encyclopedia of unwarranted information. (Wilt)
  9. He is as crooked as a second-hand car-dealer who ever welded two insurance write-offs into one single-owned Cavalier. (The Gropes)
  10. Guilt is often a substitute for good honest-to-goodness evil. (Riotous Assembly

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Book of the Month: The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas (Gertrude Stein)

At the turn of the twentieth century, in Paris, a rich expatriate American secular Jewish family of two brothers and their youngest sister was making a reputation for itself as art collectors and patrons of upcoming artists, painters to be precise, who, the siblings were convinced, had great future.

The siblings obviously knew their onions. The painters they supported and whose paintings they acquired included Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. Other painters whose paintings they bought had either died (Cezanne) or were about to die (Henri Rousseau) in relative obscurity, but who, in the subsequent decades following their deaths, would be hailed as masters.

The family was the Steins—the brothers were Michael, the eldest of five siblings, who, in the 1890s, following the deaths of their parents, had inherited the family business of streetcars and, with wise decisions, had made a fortune; one of his brothers, Leo; and a sister, the youngest of the siblings, Gertrude.

In 1903 Gertrude Stein, after abandoning a medical career at Johns Hopkins (she lasted two years), joined her brothers in France. She lived in France for the rest of her life, through two World Wars.

Gertrude Stein lived with her brother Leo at rue de Fleurus, while the other brother, Michael, with his charismatic wife Sarah, lived in the rue Madame. In the first decade of the twentieth century, Gertrude and Leo Stein went on to assemble the most impressive private modern gallery which quickly achieved a formidable reputation; the siblings were intimately linked with the avant-garde artistic movement in Paris. They quickly developed a wide-ranging social circle comprising mainly painters but also poets, and, on Saturdays, presided over gatherings which became famous. Gertrude Stein, who had the personality to match her massive frame, dominated these get-togethers. It was the ambition of many an upcoming artist to be invited to Gertrude Stein’s soirees. While paintings of Picasso dominated the pavilion of rue de Fleurus, Sarah, Michael Stein’s wife was an enthusiastic supporter of Henri Matisse, who, she never tired of telling people, was a genius.

Alice B Toklas was born in California into a comfortably bourgeois Jewish family. Her mother, of artistic temperament, arranged for Alice to have piano lessons in which she became fairly proficient and for a while toyed with the idea of pursuing a musical career. In 1907 San Francisco, where Toklas had lived all her life, was rocked by a massive earthquake. The earthquake brought Michael and Sarah Stein to San Francisco to assess the damage caused by the quake to their income-generating flats, which were supporting their artistic life in Paris. Sarah Stein brought with her paintings of Matisse, amongst them Portrait A la Raie Verte, the first Matisse paintings to cross the Atlantics. The Steins and Toklases were family friends. During their meeting Alice B Toklas saw Portrait A la Raie Verte and was captivated. Sarah Stein, upon learning that Alice wished to visit Europe one day with her childhood friend Harriet Levy (who wrote her own memoir, 920 O’Farrell Street), urged Toklas to return to Paris with them. It didn’t quite materialize at that time; however, a few months later, in September 1907, Alice B Toklas arrived in Paris. Within a week of her arrival Toklas visited Michael and Sarah Stein. With them was Gertrude Stein. More than fifty years after this first meeting, more than a decade after Gertrude Stein’s death, and three years before the end of her own long life, in her autobiography (not to be confused with the book reviewed in this post), Toklas wrote:

 ‘It was Gertrude Stein who held my complete attention, as she did for all the many years I knew her until her death, and all these empty ones since then.’

Soon Toklas moved into rue de Fleurus (much to the uneasiness of Leo Stein), Harriet Levy was dispatched back to America, and Stein and Toklas became partners. The relationship lasted for almost 40 years and ended with Stein’s death in 1946.

Gertrude Stain wasn’t just an art collector; she also fancied herself as a writer; and not just any old writer, but a pioneering modernist writer who was going to be hugely influential, a writer who was a true inheritor of the legacy of Henry James (under the tutelage of whose psychologist brother, William, she had tried ‘automatic writing’ while at the Radcliff in the 1890s). The problem was: no publisher was willing to publish Stein’s works, which were described variously as dense, incomprehensible and inaccessible. She managed to find a publisher for her Three Lives, but no one was willing to touch The Making of Americans, Stein’s epic novel of an American family (written in modernist style, in the continuous present tense and with repetitive phrases—needless to say I shall steer clear of it). After various unsuccessful attempts to have this novel published despite help offered by influential friends (Ford Madox Ford published excerpts from the novel, upon recommendation from Ernest Hemingway, in Transatlantic Review), Stein launched her own publishing firm—nominally owned by Alice B Toklas—the existence of which was devoted to publishing and promoting Stein’s work. Stein sold off one of her early Picasso paintings to fund the venture. The Plain Edition, as the publishing firm was called, limped on for a few years and published five of Stein’s works (including five hundred copies of The Making of Americans) which failed to lift Stein’s fortunes.

Stein was nearing sixty, largely unpublished, and, as a writer, not very well known outside the coterie of her friends and well-wishers. After the acrimonious split from her brother Leo just before the First World War (the cause of which was never made public although Leo was said to have been deeply disapproving both of Stein’s lesbian relationship with Toklas and her writing style), Stein’s decisions to back what she thought were great artists had not paid off. (Indeed, many still believe that Stein owes her fame as a patron of the avant-garde to the astute judgment of Leo.) She was a genius; she had no doubt about it. She had led an extraordinary life—she was sure of it—and had contributed to the development of modern art and literature. The wider public needed to know all this.

Stein told her partner Alice B Toklas to write her, Stein’s, biography. Toklas refused. Stein then proceeded to write it herself, and titled it, tongue firmly lodged in cheek (one imagines) The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas. Of course it wasn’t Toklas’s autobiography; it was Stein’s autobiography. Stein made this clear by (rightly) taking the credit of the autobiography.

The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas, apparently written in six weeks, gave Stein what she had always yearned for: literary celebrity. The book was a success upon its publication and remains the best known (and probably most accessible) work of Stein.

The ‘autobiography’ begins with Toklas’s life in San Francisco before she came to Paris, her arrival in Paris with Harriet Levy, and her first meeting with Stein. From then on Stein takes over. We learn of Stein’s life from before she arrived in Paris, through the pre-First World War years, and through the war to the early 1930s. The book gives a light-hearted, amusing account of artists who visit Stein or whom Stein visits. Pablo Picasso, Henri Mattise, Henri Rousseau, Georges Braque, Francis Picabia, Guillaume Apollinaire (the man who coined the term surrealism), Jean Cocteau, Andre and Alice Derain, Juan Gris, Francis Rose, Ramon Pichot, Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemmingway—they are all here. We also meet artists whose names lay buried under the sands of time: such as the painter and printmaker Marie Laurencin, one-time girlfriend of Apollinaire; Mildred Aldrich, the American journalist and writer (known these days, if at all, for her wartime letters, A Hillitop on the Marne) of whom Stein appears to have been especially fond; and the forgotten British novelist Hope Mirrilees. Fernande Oliver, Picasso’s first famous mistress and the only one to have known him intimately when he was an unknown, struggling artist is there too. Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, the German art gallery owner who supported the cubists, makes a guest appearance. We learn that Stein was one of the first subscribers of the lending library started by Sylvia Beach who went on to open the original Shakespeare and Co, the legendary bookshop of English language books on the Left Bank. The American millionairess Mable Dodge, whose ‘portrait’ Stein wrote and which Dodge published privately and tastefully, makes a cameo appearance. It is a list of Who’s Who in art in the first quarter of twentieth century.

The book has a gossipy, anecdotal feel to it. While telling an anecdote Stein jumps several years in time on a related topic; then goes back in time, before returning to the time of the anecdote which she begins telling. Thus, Guillaume Apollinaire, who died just after the First World War might make an appearance when Stein is narrating an incident that took place is, say, 1926, without any reference to time frame. It gets a tad confusing with regard to chronology. But it doesn’t matter: the inherent energy and insouciance of the narrative carries you through; you go with the flow and enjoy the ride. For example, the description of the party Picasso threw to celebrate a painting of Henry Rousseau is vivid and full of verve.

There are not many personal anecdotes involving these personalities, which stand out (except perhaps those of the mercurial Fernade Oliver); all the great names mentioned in the book seem to treat Stein like a precocious teenager who is overbearing, probably insufferable, but perhaps also a genius. Stein has absolutely no doubt in her mind that she is a genius. With un-selfconsciousness that is so endearing it brings a smile to your face she informs the reader that she wrote poetry that has ‘so greatly influenced the younger generation’. The opera she wrote on Saint Theresa of Avila and Ignatius Loyola (which Virgil Thompson, another admirer of Stein, set to music) was ‘completely interesting both as to words and music’. She is the true successor of Henry James; rather Henry James is Stein’s forerunner. Stein is one of the few who has created the literary methods of the twentieth century. For someone who, until then, was virtually unknown and whose gargantuan novel (The Making of Americans, which gets a mention on every other page in the first half of the book) was rejected by practically every publisher, the self-confidence is astonishing. Stein is also a woman of cut and dry opinions. She does not believe that writers can be proficient in more than one language, and declares: ‘one can only have one metier as one can only have one language. Her [Stein’s] metier is writing and her language is English.’ ‘The African’, according to Stein, is ‘not primitive; he has a very ancient and a very narrow culture and there it remains. Consequently nothing does or can happen.’ At one stage ‘Alice B Toklas’ declares that she has met only three geniuses in her life: Picasso, Whitehead and Stein. Stein is clearly a woman who sees a genius every time she looks into a mirror. (To be fair, when Alice B Toklas finally decided to write her autobiography—thirty years after Stein published The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas—she confirmed that Stein was one of the three geniuses she met in her life.)

On the front of the book is the portrait of Stein by Picasso. When someone commented that Stein in real life did not look like Picasso's painting, Picasso replied, "She will."

The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas is Stein’s autobiography, but not a great deal of information is provided about the life of Stein and Toklas; what we get instead is a near-continuous cavalcade of luminaries with whom Stein socialises. Stein and Toklas were lesbian partners, but not so much as a glimpse is provided into their daily lives. After reading The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas you’d be excused for thinking that all that the two women did every day of the week, every week of the year, year in year out, was hold soirees, visit rich friends, and go on holidays to Spain. Not a word is said about Stein’s acrimonious split with Leo Stein who went on to live in Florence after the split and died a year after Stein’s death; the brother and sister did not exchange a word for more than three decades. In her ‘real’ autobiography (What is Remembered) Alice B Toklas described the split in one sentence: ‘When he [Leo Stein] and Gertrude Stein disagreed about Picasso’s pictures and her writing [so not over Stein’s relationship with Toklas] he became unreasonable and unbearable. (Leo Stein, according to WikiPedia, described The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas as a ‘farrago of lies’.) The other brother, Michael, who was instrumental in bringing first Stein and then Toklas to Paris and who must have funded Stein’s cosy lifestyle (one does wonder while reading the book how Stein, who never worked and whose books didn’t sell, was able to afford it all) is completely ignored after the first chapter. Michael Stein lived in Paris until 1935 before he moved back to America with his wife; their son, Allan (immortalized by Picasso in a 1908 painting) who continued to live in Paris, was approached by Toklas for help in Stein’s last illness.

The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas came out in 1933. Stein could not have known what was in store for her in future. What was in store for her was the Second World War and the occupation of France by the Germany. It is way beyond the scope of this post to write about Stein’s conduct during the occupation years or her relationship with the Vichy regime. Stein and Toklas, both Jews, survived the occupation as did their treasure of paintings. This was possible because of Stein’s friendship with a right wing historian Bernard Fay who protected Stein (even as several thousand Jews marched to their death) during the Nazi occupation of France. (In her autobiography, which came out in 1963, four years before her death, Alice B Toklas—no doubt driven by the desire to protect the reputation of her dead partner—chose to completely gloss over Stein’s Faustian bargain or Fay’s role in saving her skin. Bernard Fay gets a very warm mention in The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas. He is a ‘dear friend’. As subsequent events showed he was also a loyal friend.)

It is a life, you get the impression, steeped in art. As you finish this witty, amusing and agreeably diverting account of an artist’s life in the first half of the twentieth century who was a close witness of the modern art movement, what stays in your mind is Stein’s larger than life personality. Gertrude Stein, in all probabilities, was not the genius she was convinced she was, but this is an eminently readable book.