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