The Great Pursuit by Tom Sharpe (1977)

Sharpe’s longest novel to date, a satire on the worlds of literary criticism and publishing. For the first time it contained what felt like genuine personal concerns and attitudes in the narrator’s fierce animus against the hypocritical literary critic, Dr Louth.

Plot

Frederick Frensic is a successful literary agent who has built his career on inverting everything he learned at Oxford, under the elitist (lady) literary critic, Dr Louth. Out of the blue he is posted an anonymous novel of breath-taking pornographic content describing the love affair between a 17-year-old boy and an 80-year-old woman – Pause O Men For The Virgin – via a firm of solicitors who instruct him to do his best with it.

Now Frensic has had on his books for ten years a no-hoper novelist named Peter Piper, a lost soul thoroughly misled by his literary education into thinking he must only write high-mindedly about ‘significant relationships’ and ‘meaning’ and ‘the soul’, who treats the very same Dr Louth’s masterwork of criticism, The Moral Novel, as holy writ, reading it every night before bed, and who every year rewrites his hopeless account of his sensitive adolescence in the style of one of the literary Greats.

So Frensic and his American partner, Sonia Futtle, decide to pass off the crude novel off as being by Piper and oh what a tangled web this creates, a web of deceits and contracts which determines the rest of the increasingly labyrinthine plot:

Piper is told he will get money and the wretched book he’s been working on for so long will be released as his second novel, so he reluctantly agrees. A firm of posh British publishers which is down on its luck is persuaded to publish the English version because Frensic, correctly, predicts that this high-brow imprimatur will make it easier to convince the American publisher Hutchmeyer, ‘the Al Capone of publishing’, to snap it up and publish and promote it in the States. This the bullish, illiterate Hutchmeyer does, paying an incredible $2 million advance, not least because Sonia flirts outrageously with him.

But things begin to veer out of control when Hutchmeyer insists that this Piper fellow does a promotional tour of the States to do TV and book signings. There is a very funny scene at New York’s docks where Hutchmeyer’s sidekick organises an ‘event’ for Piper’s reception, something that will get him on the news, by inviting activists from widely varying groups to meet him – Jews are told he’s an ex-Nazi Peipmann, Palestinians that he’s a leader of the PLO Piperfat, the Irish that he’s O’Piper the IRA leader, gays something else, with the result there is a massive riot, from which Piper barely emerges in one piece to scramble into a waiting ambulance, where the fixer – MacMordale – grabs a bag of blood from the bewildered nurse and breaks it over the dazed Piper’s head. Any publicity’s good publicity, right?

At the upstate Hutchmeyer residence, actually a vast tasteless mansion, a bloodied and bandaged Piper is introduced to his overwhelming host and his wife, Baby, one-time beauty queen in the 1930s, now the recipient of so many facelifts that, as Sonia points out, if she smiled, she’d scalp herself. In typical Sharpe fashion Hutchmeyer and his wife hate each other and, by a roundabout process, Baby comes to believe Piper is the real thing, a young man of genius and sensitivity who deserves protection from the cruel world.

Sonia, drunk, flirts with Hutch and persuades him to take her out in his yacht in bad weather. Baby takes advantage of the fact to act on impulse and reject the lies and frustrations of the past 40 years. Pack your bags, she tells Piper, we’re getting out of here, as she determines to act out a scene from one of the great historical novels. What makes it Sharpe is she decides to burn down the wretched mansion, so empties cans of petrol across it and sets them afire, but has brought the last one trailing gas down to the quayside and the cruiser where a very nervous Piper is waiting with his bags, so that the trail of flame follows her and leaps into the boat just as Piper accelerates the engines. They both leap off into the sea as the cruiser, now aflame, heads off into the bay where it collides with Hutch’s yacht and explodes. Hutch is rescued by the typically Sharpe Sonia, a big, strong, calculating lady, while Piper and Baby swim ashore further down the coast.

Baby realises she has burnt her bridges (and her husband’s house to the ground) and decides on impulse to head South, to the Deep South, of slavery and mangrove swamps and drags a reluctant Piper along with her. Everyone presumes they are dead and in scenes reminiscent of Wilt for a while Hutchmeyer is suspected of murdering  his wife. Instead Baby persuades Piper – his head still swathed in bandages from the New York riot, to write out a full draft of Pause O Men For The Virgin, which they photocopy and post to Frensic in London.

Frensic had become very nervous about Piper revealing the elaborate scam to Hutch who would doubtless sue for all his money back and more, but when he receives the manuscript of the novel in Piper’s own hand-writing he is very perplexed. He goes back to the firm of solicitors in Oxford who posted him the typewritten manuscript and winkles out of them the name of the secretarial company which typed it up, run by a Miss Bogden.

In the true Sharpe manner this Miss Bogden is a frustrated divorcee and, having had his phone enquiry flatly turned down, he realises he must woo her: so he sends her red roses then phones posing as a long-time admirer from a distance, then invites her to dinner, all the time probing for any proof of the author’s whereabouts. Miss Bogden drops that she had a phone number she could ring if she had problems with the manuscript but then evades the subject and Frensic finds himself forced to accompany her back to her flat and, well, to be engulfed in her consuming sexual appetites in the name of his quest. He goes so far as to propose to her and, next morning, finds himself going to a jewellers to choose a ring before he finally finally gets the phone number out of her and makes his excuses. It is a funny moment when, after all this build-up, Frensic rings the number and it is an Indian takeaway 🙂 He realises he’s transposed the numbers in his excitement, and dials again, A quavery voice answers and says it is is Dr Louth here.

Frensic puts down the phone thunderstruck. So the high-minded and elitist literary critic, whose insistence that her students only read novelists of her Great Tradition – Austen, James, Conrad, Lawrence – and who cast into the outer darkness all mere entertainers, anyone who wrote for money – Dickens and Trollope and Meredith, let alone the entertainers from an earlier era, Smollett and Sterne and Fielding – whose baleful influence ruined generations of would-be writers by making them aspire to an impossible, and irrelevant, high-mindedness, who misled Frensic in his early career until he threw off her influence, and whose damaging influence is embodied in Piper’s unreadable screeds – it was she who wrote this pornographic best-seller. Frensic’s anger at her is real, and bespeaks Sharpe’s own experience at Cambridge in the heyday of the elitist literary critic, Frank Leavis, who similarly insisted on the existence of a Great Tradition. In fact the title of this novel is a simple merging of two of Leavis’s most famous books of criticism, The Great Tradition and The Common Pursuit. And of course, in none of these books or Leavis’s lectures or stern admonitions was there any place for the kind of well-crafted entertainments that Sharpe himself writes.

The novel hints at the journey Sharpe himself had to make, to throw off the stifling high-mindedness of Cambridge, before he could find his own voice and métier as a satirist and entertainer of genius.

Frensic goes on a hateful pilgrimage to Oxford, visits Louth in her ancient house, confronts her with the truth and forces her to burn the manuscript of the novel as going some way to making reparations for all the lives she’s ruined. Meanwhile, we learn that Hutchmeyer, liberated from his nagging wife, has made the umpteenth proposition to tough Sonia and – to his surprise – been accepted, and they get happily married.

In the tiny southern hamlet of Bibliopolis Baby and Piper come across Deep South prejudice and real hellfire preaching. In fact at the first service they are forced by their fanatical landlady to attend, the congregation get so carried away they insist on ‘bringing out the snakes’ which promptly go mad, biting lots of people, in fact killing the preacher himself while Baby, in an orgy of guilt and self-recrimination rips open her blouse a) to reveal her perfect (silicone) breasts b) to let a poisonous coral snake take hefty bites of them – to no effect. This so impresses the good folks of Bibliopolis that they promptly elect Baby their new preacher, and Piper finds himself giving hand-writing lessons to the locals, in time (ironically) setting up an official School of Writing.

Coda

As with many of Sharpe’s novels, you would have thought things could stop right here: The mystery of the book’s author has been revealed; Frensic’s quest is at an end; Hutch and Sonia are happily married; Baby and Piper have found their niche in a sleepy southern backwater.

But no. There is more. It’s a little hard to follow, but Baby has encouraged Piper to continue writing out Pause O Men For The Virgin in his own hand-writing, but each time, making it more in his voice, turning it into his version. Which Piper does, dutifully posting it off to Frensic in London, who is perplexed. Like everyone else, he thinks Piper and Baby perished in the fire at the mansion.

Meanwhile, Miss Bogden, jilted by Frensic (who had used a false name during his 24 hours of passion with her), is set on revenge and tracks him down. Frensic hears her voice on the stairs to his Hampstead flat, grabs his essentials and decamps to Corkadale’s house where he reveals the truth that Piper is not the author of this wretched book. He then takes a plane to new York, on to Miami, and hires a car to drive to this wretched place Bibliopolis. Here he finds Piper a part-time preacher in the Church of the Great Pursuit and there is space for another bitter screed against Dr Louth/Leavis and their deadening, anti-humane influence, before Frensic confronts Piper, lashing out at his wretched ambitions and telling him to stop sending him rubbish manuscripts of his awful novel.

But outside a ‘welcoming committee’ of the local sheriff and assorted hicks await Frensic; they’ve all heard him crticising that nice Mr Piper, a fine upstanding pillar of the community, and drag Frensic before the local judge who turns out to be — none other than Baby Hutchmeyer. She grimly dangles in front of Frensic the prospect of being sentenced to the local chain-gang, which he will survive for, ooh, maybe a month. The alternative is the final stitch-up in a book made up of crooked contracts and devious deceptions. He, Frensic, must allow his name to go on the succession of novels which Piper will send him, once a year, from Bibliopolis. He, Frensic, must arrange for them to be published and promoted.

And so it comes to pass. Frensic arranges for Piper’s first novel to be published, but under his name: he quits his literary agency and goes to live in obscurity in the South Downs and – the final cruel irony – the critics love Piper’s first novel, and it is a roaring success.

Anti-American

The entirely gratuitous excursion into the deep South reminded me a bit of the journey of young Martin and Mark Tapley to a disease-ridden swamp in Dickens’s funniest novel, Martin Chuzzlewit (1844), which was criticised in its day for its surprisingly savage satire on the bad manners, appalling speech, filth and greed of contemporary America. Something similar is going on here. In Wilt the worst excesses of fashionable politics and trendy sexual openness are associated with the American couple, the Pringsheims, who are slowly exposed as hateful liars. The Great Pursuit moves almost all its plot to America the better to satirise the crass commercialism, philistinism, crudity, violence and shallowness of American life.

F.R.Leavis

That said, the real core of the novel’s anger is with Dr Louth, a transparent version of F.R. Leavis, the enemy is English through and through.

The Great Pursuit was Dr Sydney Louth’s latest, a collection of essays dedicated to F.R.Leavis and a monument to a lifetime’s execration of the shallow, the obscene, the immature and the non-significant in English literature. Generations of undergraduates had sat mesmerised by the turgid inelegance of her style while she denounced the modern novel, the contemporary world and the values of a sick and dying civilisation. Frensic had been among those undergraduates and had imbibed the truisms on which Dr Louth’s reputation as a scholar and a critic had been founded. She had praised the obviously great and cursed the rest and for that simple formula she was known as a great scholar. And all this in language which was the antithesis of the stylistic brilliance of the writers she praised. But it was her anathema which had stuck in Frensic’s mind, those bitter, graceless curses she had heaped on other critics and those who disagreed with her. By her denunciations she had implanted the inhibitions which had spoilt Frensic and so many others like him who had wanted to write. To appease her he had adopted the grotesque syntax of her lectures and essays. By their style Louthians were instantly recognisable. And by their sterility. (p.205)

F.R.Leavis was still alive when this novel was published. Was he made aware of its savage criticism of his life’s work? What on earth must he have made of it?

Related links

Cover of the Pan paperback edition of The Great Pursuit, illustration by Paul Sample

Cover of the Pan paperback edition of The Great Pursuit, illustration by Paul Sample

Paul Sample A word about the illustrator of the classic Pan paperback covers of the Sharpe novels, Paul Sample, a prolific illustrator whose grotesquely exaggerated cartoons perfectly capture the excess of Sharpe’s novels. The covers accurately depict numerous details from the texts, and there is a Where’s Wally-type pleasure to be had from trying to match every element of the grotesque tableaux with its source in the story (the cover, above, depicting the riot which greets Peter Piper – centre, thin, looking scared, and being defended by the feisty Sonia Futtle – on his arrival at New York). You can see lots more of his work at Paul Sample’s website.

Tom Sharpe’s novels

1971 – Riotous Assembly – Absurdly violent and frenzied black comedy set in apartheid South Africa as three incompetent police officers try to get to the bottom of the murder of her black cook by a venerable old lady who turns out to be a sex-mad rubber fetishist, a simple operation which leads to the deaths of 21 policemen, numerous dogs, a vulture and the completely wrongful arrest and torture of the old lady’s brother, the bishop of Basutoland.
1973 – Indecent Exposure – Sequel to the above, in which the same Kommandant van Herden is seduced into joining a group of (fake) posh colonial English at their country retreat, leaving Piemburg in charge of his deputy, Luitenant Verkramp, who sets about a) ending all inter-racial sex among the force by applying drastic aversion therapy to his men b) tasks with flushing out communist subversives a group of secret agents who themselves end up destroying most of the town’s infrastructure.
1974 – Porterhouse Blue – Hilarious satire on the stuffiness and conservatism of Oxbridge colleges epitomised by Porterhouse, as a newcomer tries in vain to modernise this ramshackle hidebound institution, with a particularly cunning enemy in the ancient college porter, Skullion.
1975 – Blott on the Landscape – MP and schemer Sir Giles Lynchwood so loathes his battleship wife, Lady Maud, that he connives to have a new motorway routed slap bang through the middle of her ancestral home, Handyman Hall, intending to abscond with the compensation money. But he reckons without his wife’s fearsome retaliation or the incompetence of the man from the Ministry.
1976 – Wilt – Hen-pecked lecturer Henry Wilt is humiliated with a sex doll at a party thrown by the infuriatingly trendy American couple, the Pringsheims. Appalled by his grossness, his dim wife, Eva, disappears on a boating weekend with this ‘fascinating’ and ‘liberated’ couple, so that when Wilt is seen throwing the wretched blow-up doll into the foundations of the extension to his technical college, the police are called which leads to 100 pages of agonisingly funny misunderstandings.
1977 – The Great Pursuit – Literary agent Frederick Frensic receives the anonymous manuscript of an outrageously pornographic novel about the love affair between a 17-year-old boy and an 80-year-old woman, via a firm of solicitors who instruct him to do his best with it. Thus begins a very tangled web in which he palms it off as the work of a pitiful failure of an author, one Peter Piper, and on this basis sells it to both a highbrow but struggling British publisher and a rapaciously commercial American publisher, who only accept it on condition this Piper guy goes on a US tour to promote it. Which is where the elaborate deception starts to go horribly wrong…
1978 – The Throwback – Illegitimate Lockhart Flawse, born and bred in the wastes of Northumberland, marries virginal Jessica whose family own a cul-de-sac of houses in suburban Surrey, and, needing the money to track down his mystery father, Lockhart sets about an elaborate and prolonged campaign to terrorise the tenants out of the homes. Meanwhile, his decrepit grandfather has married Jessica’s mother, she hoping to get money from the nearly-dead old geezer, he determined to screw as much perverse sexual pleasure out of her pretty plump body before he drops dead…
1979 – The Wilt Alternative – After a slow, comic, meandering first 90 pages, this novel changes tone drastically when international terrorists take Wilt and his children hostage in his nice suburban house leading to a stand-off with the cops and Special Branch.
1980 – Ancestral Vices – priggish left-wing academic Walden Yapp is invited by cunning old Lord Petrefact to write an unexpurgated history of the latter’s family of capitalists and exploiters because the old bustard wants to humiliate and ridicule his extended family, but the plot is completely derailed when a dwarf living in the mill town of Buscott where Yapp goes to begin his researches, is killed in an accident and Yapp finds himself the chief suspect for his murder, is arrested, tried and sent to prison, in scenes strongly reminiscent of Henry Wilt’s wrongful arrest in the first Wilt novel.
1982 – Vintage Stuff – A stupid teacher at a minor public school persuades a gullible colleague that one of the parents, a French Comtesse, is being held captive in her chateau. Accompanied by the stupidest boy in school, and armed with guns from the OTC, master and pupil end up shooting some of the attendees at a conference on international peace taking part at said chateau, kidnapping the Comtesse – who turns out to be no Comtesse at all – and blowing up a van full of French cops, bringing down on themselves the full wrath of the French state.
1984 – Wilt On High – Third outing for lecturer in Liberal Studies, Henry Wilt who, through a series of typically ridiculous misunderstandings, finds himself, first of all suspected of being a drug smuggler and so bugged by the police; then captured and interrogated on a US air base where he is delivering an innocuous lecture, on suspicion of being a Russian spy; before, in a frenzied climax, the camp is besieged by a monstrous regiment of anti-nuke mothers and news crews.
1995 – Grantchester Grind – The sequel to Porterhouse Blue, following the adventures of the senior college fellows as they adopt various desperate strategies to sort out Porterhouse College’s ailing finances, climaxing with the appointment of a international drug mafiosi as the new Master.
1996 – The Midden – Miss Marjorie Midden discovers a naked ex-City banker trussed in bedsheets hidden in her rural farmhouse, The Midden, and then the ancestral hall she owns under attack from the demented forces of nearby Scarsgate police force led by their corrupt chief constable Sir Arnold Gonders, in a blistering satire on the corruption and greed of post-Thatcher Britain.
2004 – Wilt in Nowhere – Fourth novel about the misadventures of Henry Wilt in which his wife Eva and the 14-year-old quads ruin the life of Uncle Wally and Auntie Joanie over in the States, while Wilt goes on an innocent walking holiday only to be accidentally knocked out and find himself implicated in a complicated murder-arson-child pornography scandal.
2009 – The Gropes – Driven out of his mind by his wife, Vera’s, sentimental fantasies, timid bank manager Horace Wiley pretends he wants to murder their teenage son Esmond, who is therefore hustled off to safety by Vera’s brother, Essex used-car dealer, Albert Ponson. Albert gets the teenage boy so drunk that his wife, Belinda, leaves him in disgust – locking their bungalow’s internal and external doors so securely that Albert has to call the police to get released with disastrous results, while Belinda drives the unconscious Esmond with her back to her ancestral home, the gloomy Grope Hall in remote Northumberland where – to the reader’s great surprise – they fall in love and live happily ever after.
2010 – The Wilt Inheritance – Sharpe’s last novel, the fifth and final instalment of the adventures of Polytechnic lecturer Henry Wilt, his naggy wife, Eva, and their appalling teenage daughters, all of whom end up at the grotesque Sandystones Hall in North Norfolk, where Wilt is engaged to tutor the lady of the manor’s psychotic teenage son, and Eva gets caught up in complications around burying dead Uncle Henry, whose body the quads steal from the coffin and hide in the woods with dire consequences that even they don’t anticipate.

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