Slowness by Milan Kundera (1995)

There is a secret bond between slowness and memory, between speed and forgetting. (p.34)

The novel open with the narrator driving down a French highway to a weekend away with his wife in a chateau-turned-hotel. He reflects on the meaning of these little oases of green in a sea of concrete, but another car is breathing down his neck which leads him to reflect on the cult of Speed in modern society (‘speed is the form of ecstasy the technical revolution has bestowed on man’)

This leads him to lament the extinction of walking (‘Ah, where have they gone the amblers of yesteryear?’), which makes him remember another journey out of Paris, that of Madame de T. and the young Chevalier in a favourite novel of Kundera’s, Point de Lendemain (‘No Tomorrow’), by Vivant Denon, published in 1777.

Ah, it is an exquisite work, mon cher, in which the young gentleman is hoodwinked into acting as a front for Madame de T’s real lover, the Marquis. And the plot of No Tomorrow brings to the narrator’s mind that other great masterpiece, Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Choderlos de Laclos, which he adores not because of its amorality, but because it is such a forensic and acute analysis of the powerplays of love, and for the fact it is an epistolary novel, i.e. told via letters. This format highlights the way its characters act the way they do partly so they can tell others about it.

Thus the first eight pages of Slowness, the first novel Kundera wrote entirely in French and in his adopted country, France. Some obvious points emerge. It is split between 1. the ‘present’, where the narrator is on holiday with his wife, scattering thoughts about the crappiness of modern life, and 2. references to literary works of the 18th century, allowing him to scatter thoughts and ideas about the novel and that era.

That’s the basic ‘structure’ of the text, but as you can tell, the actual experience of reading the book is to be subjected to an almost stream-of-consciousness series of brief meditations about speed – car crashes on the French roads – the precise definition of Hedonism – the 18th century novel – the epistolary novel, and so on and so on.

The hotel is nice but where there was once a pretty rose garden, the management have put in a swanky swimming pool. Alas.

They go for a walk through the grounds but are surprised to come across a new road cutting through them with roaring traffic, Alas.

Dinner is ruined by badly behaved children at the next table playing up (standing on their chairs and singing) while their parents beam on proudly. Alas.

Turning on the TV as they retire to bed, they come across ads with loads of starving black children because of some famine and reflect, acidly, that obviously no old people are dying in the famine, only children. Or could it be that the mass media only present images of children in order to jerk our heart-strings? Alas.

This reminds him of two French celebrities, Duberques of the National Assembly, and Berck the intellectual, who are always trying to outdo each other in front of the cameras to display their compassion – Duberques holding a dinner for HIV+ people and rising to kiss them as the cameras zoomed in, while, not to be outdone, Berck flew off to some famine-ridden country in Africa and got himself photographed surrounded by starving black children. Sick children trump sick old people, Rule Number One of the media age. Alas, thinks the narrator.

It makes him think of his acquaintance Pontevin, a history PhD (who is a pompous ass by the sound of it) and likes developing elaborate and stupid theories for the benefit of his hushed coterie of friends at the Café Gascon, in this case the ‘theory’ that those exhibitionists who like performing for the media are like dancers. That’s the theory. Either as satire or reportage this character fails, because he comes over as a shallow smartarse.

Kundera cuts to a précis of Point de Lendemain, namely the highly contrived lovemaking of Madame de T. who seduces the Chevalier in a whole succession of locations, the garden, the pavilion, a room inside the chateau, her secret room of mirrors, and then, finally, in a dark room full of cushions. It is slow and staged and artful. For, as he has said:

There is a secret bond between slowness and memory, between speed and forgetting.

The 18th century author Denon was never identified during his lifetime, and was probably quite content to win the approbation of a small group of intimate friends. Alas how very different from our modern world besieged by fame, where everybody is either over-famous appearing on TV, in magazines and newspapers, or dreams of becoming famous.

Berck is seen on TV shooing flies away from a dying girl’s eyes by an old flame of his at school, who he nicknamed Immaculata. Now she stalks him with a series of letters, and worthy causes, until he is horrified to discover that she is a TV producer and is planning to make a documentary about him.

This reminds the narrator of a book his friend Goujard showed him by a woman journalist who undertook a photobiography of Henry Kissinger, convinced all the time that she was fated to have a love affair with the great man who twigged to her intention and began systematically putting her off, which only made the flames of her passion rise higher.

This woman journalist believes she is one of the ‘elect’, which leads the narrator to a rambling meditation on the nature of the elect in a secular society, to the rise of celebrity and fame, and how everyone dreams of it to lift their lives above the everyday.

Berck has gone to an international conference on entomology where we are told at length the story of a Czech expert on flies who was kicked out of his scientific job by the repressive regime installed in Prague after the Russian tanks rolled in in 1968, and has spent 20 years as a construction worker. Having read Kundera’s essays on the novel I suspect this character derives from the concept of ‘melancholy pride’, which is repeated about him. He is melancholically proud that the woman ticking off names at the entrance to the conference has no idea about the Czech circumflex, the caron which, when placed over a ‘c’ turns it into a tch sound. And melancholically proud that the woman has never heard of Jan Hus, the great Czech religious reformer.

And when he is called to the stage to present his modest scientific paper he is so overcome with emotion that instead he speaks about how he was kicked out of the Czech academy of sciences and forced to work as a labourer, and he starts weeping and the audience applauds wildly. And so he walks back to his seat on the stage having completely forgotten to deliver his paper.

Pontevin’s sidekick tries to repeat a funny story Pontevin told his gang, starting with the statement that his girlfriend wants him to treat her ‘rough’, which, for some reason, made everyone who heard Pontevin say it burst into laughter. Why is it funny?

Berck sidles up to the Czech scientist and, in a sequence which is clearly meant to be very funny, sets off to patronisingly thank him for his speech and being so brave for standing up to the authorities – but makes howling errors, including saying the capital of Czechoslovakia is Budapest and thinking the Czechs’ great poet was Adam Mickiewicz (who was, in fact Polish). Symbolic of the patronising superficiality of ‘the Western intellectual’.

He’s half way through doing this when Immaculata arrives with a cameraman, to capture him for her documentary (having made a number of documentaries, I was struck how utterly unlike documentary TV-making this random attack actually was). Immaculata and the cameraman capture Berck in full flood, and the bar-full of entomologists applaud his speech. This gives him the confidence to take Immaculata to one side and tell her to fuck off, the evil old bag of piss.

From a distance Pontevin’s jealous sidekick Vincent watches all this and launches into a loud speech mocking Berck and his addiction to the TV camera, fame, repeating Pontevin’s idea about extrovert performers for the media being like ‘dancers’. At the end of which a self-possessed young man rounds on Vincent for being a Luddite and reactionary and suggesting he goes back to the 12th century where he belongs.

Is this all meant to be funny? A farce? Vincent had begun chatting up a girl, a secretary at the conference miffed because everyone’s ignored her. Now he returns from the bar with some whiskeys, chats her up, takes her back into the bar to buy some more, swigs them down and takes her for a walk in the moonlight, stopping for more kisses and then deciding to tell her about the Marquis de Sade and his classic, Philosophy in the Boudoir.

The narrator looks out the window of his bedroom in the chateau. He sees a couple strolling in the moonlight. They remind him of the lovers in that book, Point de lemdemain. He is knocked out of his reverie by his wife, Véra, waking from a nightmare. In it a madman was rushing down the corridor towards her yelling, ‘Adam Mickiewicz was not Czech! Adam Mickiewicz was not Czech!’

The comic ‘novel’ Kundera is writing is infecting his wife’s dreams. (It’s worth pausing a moment to acknowledge how important dreams are in Kundera’s fiction.)

The Czech scientist is in his room, feeling humiliated by the laughter against him in the bar, but reflects that one benefit of working on a building site all that time was his excellent physique. He decides to go for a midnight swim in the hotel pool and put these pissy French scientists to shame.

On his walk with her round the chateau grounds Vincent has had a sudden pornographic vision of timid Julie’s anus. He is bewitched. He is transfixed. Characteristically, this allows Kundera to digress about the poem about the nine orifices of woman written by the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire in the trenches during the Great War. In fact, Apollinaire sent two versions, one to one lover, another, rewritten four months later, to another. Kundera makes much of the fact that in the first one the vulva is the ninth and peak of the poem, but in the second one, after four months of meditating in the trenches, Apollinaire has decided the anus is the darkest and most profound erotic site of all.

Vincent, drunk on his vision of Julie’s anus, apostrophises the full moon as the anus of the sky etc, while drunk Julie hangs on his every word and decides to ‘give herself’ to Vincent. Thinking it will be too easy just to go to their room, he decides they will go down to the hotel pool for a skinny dip.

Berck whispered his insults to Immaculata that no-one heard them but her and she staggers up to her bedroom. In comes the cameraman who is – inevitably for KunderaWorld – also her lover, asks her what is wrong and changes into his pyjamas ready to go to bed with her, but she is seething, furious, and takes it out on him, declaring their affair is over, and dresses in a virginal white dress to go back down into the hotel and brave the scorn of the world.

Initially the cameraman stands in her way getting more and more angry, pointing out that they fucked only this morning, and they fucked last night, in fact she begged him to Fuck me Fuck me Fuck me (I am using the words Kundera uses: this is – I think – the first book of his which uses lots of demotic swearwords).

At which point Immaculata becomes incandescent and tells him the cameraman is a useless shit and his breath smells, and she storms past him, leaving him, after a few moments of stunned immobility, to follow after her, still dressed in his pyjamas, like a dog with its tail between his legs.

Vincent has stripped off under the high glass dome of the hotel swimming pool. Being naked intoxicates him and he dives in. Thus he misses shy Julie slipping out of her dress and very tentatively descending the steps into the cold water till it is touching her ‘pubic thatch’ (p.99). She looks exquisite, and with only the all-seeing eye of the narrator to appreciate her naked womanly charms.

Nudity! The thought sets Kundera off on a typical digression wherein he remembers an opinion poll from an October 1993 edition of Nouvel Observateur which asked 1,200 eminent left-wing people to underline key words from a choice of 210 words. In a poll ten years earlier, 18 words had been selected by all of them, representing common ground. In 1993? Just three – revolt, red and nudity. Revolt because of its long association with the existentialism of Camus and Sartre, red for obvious reasons, but nudity? Kundera speculates on the role of nudity in ‘radical’ protest, remembering various groups who’ve stripped off to make a ‘political’ point and what nudity means, in that kind of context.

Drunk Vincent wildly declares he’s going to fuck Julie. He says he’s going to pin her body to the wall. He says he’s going to rip her ass hole wide with his mighty cock. He chases her round the pool, then flings her to the floor and she spreads her legs ready for the deflowering she is so anticipating. Except that:

The penetration did not take place. It did not take place because Vincent’s member is as small as a wilted wild strawberry, as a great-grandmother’s thimble. (p.102)

Now that, I admit, did make me laugh out loud. Not only the unexpected reversal but the vividness of the similes. On the whole Kundera’s writing is dry and factual and grey. There is little colour and little or no imaginative use of language. This little flurry of similes stood out like an oasis of colour in the desert of his over-cerebral prose.

Kundera goes on to give Vincent’s penis a speech in which it justifies its small appearance, reminding me of other comic novels.

Anyway, in a surreal moment of agreement Vincent decides to ‘dry hump’ Julie simply by moving his hips up and down, and Julie silently agrees to play along, making increasingly loud moaning noises.

Onto this odd scene comes the melancholy Czech entomologist who’s come for his swim and determines to go ahead while quietly ignoring the couple dry humping on the poolside.

He’s in the middle of doing some warm-up calisthenics when a woman in an elaborate white dress arrives, and jumps into the pool, obviously intending to kill herself. Unfortunately it is the shallow end and the water only comes up to her waist, so she slowly (held back by the dress) walks into the deeper end, periodically ducking down under the surface in a feeble effort to drown, but always reappearing.

The melancholy Czech dives into the water to rescue her. But the cameraman in pyjamas screams at him to take his hands off her, and jumps in as well. They fight, both in their frenzy forgetting the woman in white, who comes to her senses, climbs out of the pool and waits for the cameraman to join her.

The cameraman punches the Czech who is enraged because it seems to have loosened a front tooth which he had very expensively screwed into place by a Prague dentist.

Suddenly, all the anger and frustration of twenty years or more rise up in the Czech, and he whacks the cameraman so hard he at first thinks he’s killed him, the man disappearing under the waves in the little hotel swimming pool. But when he lifts him back up, the cameraman comes to, shakes himself loose, and also exits the pool.

He climbs out and catches up with the woman in white, who is stalking rather grandly through the now-empty hotel corridors – and Kundera explains how they will be condemned to relive this moment for the rest of their lives, she demanding he leave, he begging forgiveness, she execrating him, he getting angry and smashing stuff, then falling at her knees and begging forgiveness. And then both falling into bed for joyless sex. Again and again forever.

In a passage like this you can see the Jean-Paul Sartre of Huis Clos, the Sartre for whom hell is other people, peeking through the text, underpinning a lot of Kundera’s worldview.

Meanwhile, at the first approach of the other guests, Julie had wriggled out from beneath Vincent, slipped on her panties, grabbed her other clothes and scarpered. Vincent is slower to get dressed and by the time he follows her into the hotel she is nowhere to be found. Feeling tragic he pads damply back to his bedroom where is now – now! – assaulted by an enormous inappropriate erection. For no very good reason the narrator says it is standing up against a hostile universe like Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

For the second time, the narrator’s wife, Véra, awakes from her sleep insisting she is deafened by a full-volume rendition of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and asking him to turn it down. But there is no sound. Once again the fictions of author are invading her sleeping mind. She declares they must leave this haunted chateau.

It is early morning and he is thinking about the last scene of the Denon novella, where the unfaithful Madame de T. takes her farewell of the young Chevalier she has spent the night having sex with. Kundera the literature professor gives the novella a number of possible interpretations:

Is it possible to live in pleasure and for pleasure and to be happy? Can the ideal of hedonism be realised? Does that hope exist? Or at least some feeble gleam of that hope? (p.121)

And in a flash I realised the weakness of Kundera’s position. He identifies ‘pleasure’ entirely with heterosexual penetrative sex. Maybe this is why, reading steadily through his works, I’ve felt increasingly claustrophobic. There is no mention of the ten billion other ways of finding pleasure, having pleasure, of being a hedonist. Even some fairly obvious clichéd ones, such as being a connoisseur of fine wine or fine art, make no appearance. There is no mention of that or any other kind of physical pleasure. Only sex. Only sex stands as Kundera’s notion of ‘pleasure’. It is a stiflingly narrow definition.

The last few pages are the only real ones which lift off, for me, which have that sense of mystery which I look for, or value, in literature.

For Vincent is sneaking out the back of the hotel, trying to concoct a plausible story he will be able to tell his gang back in Paris – inventing the idea that he really nailed Julie and not only that, but triggered off an orgy by the hotel pool! – when he realises that a man in eighteenth century costume is walking towards him. The two men meet and regard each other, then speak and explain that one is from the eighteenth, one from the twentieth centuries.

A moment of mystery. But within a minute they are rubbing each other up the wrong way. The Chevalier can’t believe how scruffy Vincent is. Vincent can’t believe what a ridiculously complicated fig the Chevalier is wearing. When Vincent playfully fingers one of the Chevalier’s ribbons, the latter nearly slaps him, but merely turns and stalks off.

Vincent feels the need to obliterate his night of humiliation with speed. He rams on his helmet and climbs astride his motorcycle.

The Chevalier, in simple contrast, climbs up into his chaise, and prepares to spend the long slow journey back to Paris reminiscing about his night of love, reliving every moment of pleasure and savouring every one, for:

There is a secret bond between slowness and memory, between speed and forgetting.

Quite explicitly, in the book’s last lines, Kundera states that our ‘hope’ hangs on the Chevalier and his slowness.

I beg you, friend, be happy. I have the vague sense that on your capacity to be happy hangs our only hope. (p.132)

Hope for what? Hope to hold back, fight back against, all the forces of stupidity, nonbeing, the ‘dancers’ who dominate the media and play to the crowd, the amnesia of popular culture and everything else which makes modern life, in Kundera’s view, such a moronic inferno? Is that what the slow savouring of pleasure can resist?

Credit

Slowness by Milan Kundera was first published in the English translation by Linda Asher by Faber and Faber in 1996. All references are to the 1996 Faber paperback edition.


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

1967 The Joke
1969 Life Is Elsewhere
1969 Laughable Loves (short stories)

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

1984 The Unbearable Lightness of Being
1986 The Art of the Novel (essays)

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

The Farewell Party by Milan Kundera (1972)

Kundera’s third novel feels shorter and more streamlined than the first two. At 184 pages (cf The Joke pp.267 and Life Is Elsewhere pp.306) it is a slim, quick, funny, if sometimes shocking read. The first two novels, though comic in tone and often in content, contained big wodges of serious, sometimes tragic material about politics and repression under the Czech communist state. In The Farewell Waltz some of this content intrudes, in the character of Jakub the embittered political dissident. But apart from him, the rest of the story feels much closer to a farce, a sex comedy. According to the internet, a farce is:

a comic dramatic work using buffoonery and horseplay, and typically including crude characterization and ludicrously improbable situations

That doesn’t really describe this book, but it does gesture towards the way The Farewell Party begins with a predicament and then goes on to wring as many comic situations and variations out of it as possible, placing its characters in improbable and unlikely situations in order to extract as much comedy, and plain absurdity, as possible.

The plot

First Day (Monday)

Klima is a famous Czech jazz trumpeter. He is happily married. Two months before the action starts he had played a gig at a health spa in the country. He and the band were treated to an after-gig party by a rich American staying at the spa (Bartleff), and Klima ended up having sex with one of the spa nurses, Ruzena. Now she’s pregnant, and on the second page of the book she rings him up at his Prague apartment to let him know it. Thus the ball is set rolling. The book is divided into five sections titled simply First Day, Second day etc. and it all happens over this tight, compressed timespan.

Klima is a coward, a timid man, who takes advantage of his fame to seduce women, but always feels nervous about it beforehand, guilty about it afterwards. Deep down, he is deeply, sincerely in love with his wife.

He tells the band he’s rehearsing with about the call, and his bandmates are sanguine, suggesting a variety of tactics to fob her off. The young guitarist (18) even suggests bumping her off in a supposed ‘road accident’. The reader is a little startled.

Klima thanks them all, then phones Ruzena and says he’ll come and visit her tomorrow. Then goes home and cobbles together a cock-and-bull story to tell his wife, Kamila, about having to play some socialist party youth conference or other. She doesn’t believe a word. She is well-attuned to his infidelities and lies. He knows he doesn’t believe her.

Second Day (Tuesday)

Klima motors to the spa and looks up Bartleff, the American patient with the bad heart, who hosted the party where Klima met the fateful nurse. He shares his problem (he’s gotten a nurse at the spa pregnant) with this bluff man of the world, who offers various suggestions.

Klima is surprised to learn that Bartleff paints religious pictures. There’s a new one, of Saint Lazarus, on the wall of his apartment. Bartleff explains it is blue because real saints’ halos really are blue. Klima is only paying half attention.

Klima phones Ruzena at the bath where she’s working and arranges to meet her after work, at 4pm. Then Bartleff takes him across the way, to the clinic, to meet Dr Skreta, the leading specialist at the spa.

IRONY The spa exists to treat infertile women. The place is packed with well-off, middle-aged women who can’t get pregnant. It is therefore a primal, structural irony that the entire plot rotates around a young woman who has gotten pregnant, after just one act of hurried coitus, but the father wants to terminate it.

Throughout the conversations with his band, and then with Bartleff, and now with Dr Skreta, the men discuss women as a problematic category, in an objectifying way, which I imagine most modern readers would find horrifying. I couldn’t tell whether the guitarist’s casual suggestion that they murder the nurse, and Klima’s casual acceptance of it, was meant to be ironic or straightfaced. The book is stuffed with men casually discussing the trouble with women and the problem with women and how to handle women and the differences between blondes and brunettes – dismissive and gross generalisations, which would give a feminist a heart attack.

Anyway, when Klima and Bartleff explain Klima’s problem, Skreta is immediately sympathetic. He tells them the next abortion committee meeting is on Friday and he can slot Klima and Nurse Ruzena straight in. And he shares a private passion of his which is that he is himself a keen jazz drummer. Could Klima maybe see his way to playing a gig with him and a bassist who also works at the spa?

So anxious is he to secure the decision for an abortion that Klima would agree to anything. Good, yes, whatever. They set the concert date for this Thursday, the day after tomorrow. Galvanised, Dr Skreta vows to set about creating the posters and printing up tickets.

Klima meets Ruzena at 4pm outside the baths and takes her to the spa dining rooms. Here he commences his strategy: he tells Ruzena that he loves her so much that’s why he didn’t phone her at all for two months after their liaison; it was because he was afraid of the intensity of his emotions. He carries on despite her sceptical protestations, to assert that of course he will leave his wife, and wants to marry Ruzena – she begins to soften and swoon – BUT: the first few years of any marriage are the most blissful and he wants to spend them with her, unobstructed, unencumbered with a new baby. And that’s why he thinks she should terminate the pregnancy.

He suggests they get out of the dining rooms – where he is uncomfortably aware that everyone in the place can see him. Ruzena is impressed that he has a car, and so is easily persuaded to go for a drive in the country. Klima puts his arm round her as he drives and presses home his advantage, spinning fantasies about where they’ll go once he’s divorced his wife and married her.

He stops the car at a scenic spot and they walk into the country. He kisses her, a long lingering passionate kiss. He is in the middle of describing how Italy will be the first stop and he’s in the middle of painting the beauties of Italy when she surprises him by giving in. Yes. OK. Alright. She’ll place herself in his hands. She’ll agree to go to the abortion committee on Friday. (p.44)

Klima can’t believe his luck. In the end it was so easy. They walk back to the car, her head on his shoulder, but as they get there realise a motorbike is parked next to it and the motorcyclist looms threateningly up to Klima and starts telling him that, just because he’s famous, he thinks he can get away with anything; well, not this time, buddy! Klima hasn’t a clue what’s going on, Ruzena tells the man to shut up and go away and scrambles into the car, as the man turns towards her side, Klima jumps in his side and accelerates off. She explains he’s a maniac who stalks her. We will, in fact, come to learn that this is Ruzena’s boyfriend, a local rough named Franta, who has had sex with her and who may, indeed, actually be the father of her baby…

Arriving back at the spa, Klima escorts Ruzena to her nurse accommodation in the stylishly named Karl Marx house, before walking thoughtfully to Bartleff’s flat. He knocks and when there’s no answer, tentatively opens the door. For a moment he is awed. The room is lit by a soft blue glow. Remember the dialogue when Bartleff explained that he liked painting religious pictures? And that he had painted St Lazarus’s halo blue because that is actually the colour of saints’ halos? Well… Klima backs out and quietly closes the door, but next minute it is opened by Bartleff looking fresh and wearing the same clothes he had on that morning, who welcomes him inside, rejoices when he hears that Ruzena has given in and agreed to an abortion, and plies him with food (crackers and tinned ham). Then waves him off as Klima leaves, belatedly, to drive back to the capital and explain why his day took so long to his long-suffering wife.

Third Day (Wednesday)

A friend of Dr Skreta’s arrives. This is Jakub, who was in trouble with the authorities in the grim years after the 1948 coup, and for whom Dr Skreta knocked up a blue pill of concentrated poison, so that if Jakub was arrested, before he was tortured, he could control his own destiny and end it all. Now he announces he is leaving the country, he has official permission and is going to a teaching position abroad. He wants to return the pill. Dr Skreta won’t hear of it and pushes it back into Jakub’s hand when it is profferred.

(There is some very casual comedy, when Skreta forces his friend to accompany him into the examination room where a woman is lying on her back, naked, with her legs wide open so Skreta can examine her. It is a feature of Skreta’s character that he takes all this in his stride and tells the nurse to fetch his fellow doctor a white coat, and then confidently asks for his second opinion. So that the lady on the table is not discombobulated by the presence of another man looking at her privates, but quite flattered to have two specialists examining her case. Dr Skreta’s boundless self-confidence will recur at important moments later in the story.)

Jakub is here because he’s come to say goodbye to his ‘ward’, Olga. This young woman is the daughter of a friend of Jakub’s who was arrested and executed by the communists in the purges of the early 1950s when Olga was just seven. Jakub vowed to look after her, became her legal guardian, and when she left school got her a job here at the spa, via his old friend Dr Skreta.

Skreta says Olga is fine and tells Jakub which accommodation block to find her in. He also tells him about a) the famous jazz trumpeter Klima, his problem with the pregnant nurse, and how Skreta is going to play in a concert with him this Thursday. And b) about his latest money-making scheme. You know the rich American, Bartleff? He paints oil pictures. Skreta is trying to persuade Bartleff to let him become his agent and sell the paintings to gullible ladies at the spa, and take a commission.

Jakub shakes his head. He’s known Skreta since school, and he is continually coming up with hare-brained schemes.

We are introduced to Olga. She is bright but not excessively so. She fusses and frets about her appearance and figure. She is called out of the pool by Nurse Ruzena who she cordially dislikes. She makes a fuss about what to wear for Jakub, makes a decision then goes to meet him for lunch in the spa dining room. He tells her he’s leaving the country.

She is sad but, as usual, they end up discussing her father. Recently she’s been receiving letters claiming he wasn’t the political innocent Jakub’s brought her up to believe, but himself a hardline communist and arrester of others, till he himself was consumed.

Jakub’s thread introduces the serious themes of History or, to be precise, the tragic history of Czechoslovakia’s early years under communist rule, when some 100,000 opponents of the regime were imprisoned or sent to camps, and there were successive waves of executions of enemies of the state, traitors and saboteurs. Olga’s questions prompt several basic reflections from Jakub:

1. It was all a long time ago. The Farewell Party was published in 1972, 24 years after the 1948 communist coup, and that’s been long enough for Jakub to reflect that the younger generation can have no idea what it was like and, indeed, even people like himself who lived through it, are starting to forget what it was really like.

‘Time flies so fast, and the past is becoming harder and harder to understand.’ (p.60)

2. And, cynically, he remarks that if he’s learned anything from the experience of living through those times, it’s that, most people spend most of their lives living in a small bubble of family and work, but if History intervenes, and if the situation becomes stressed and difficult, then people will do anything to survive. Now the dust has settled, he thinks there was no ultimate difference between the communist authorities who locked up all those innocent people, and the victims. People are people.

There isn’t a person on this planet who is not capable of sending a fellow human being to death without any great pangs of conscience. At least I have never found anyone like that. (p.61)

Cut to Ruzena’s morning at work, where her fellow nurses flock round her and ask how her meeting with the famous trumpeter went. They are disappointed when she says he’s persuaded her to terminate the pregnancy. One of them gets a tube of pills out of a drawer and gives it to Ruzena, tranquilisers to calm her nerves.

Exiting the building she is again confronted by her young man, Franta, who begs her to be more friendly and loving to him. But Ruzena has set her sights high, on a national celebrity, o Klima, and tells Franta to bugger off. She tells him he’s driving her frantic, he’ll drive her to suicide if he keeps on harassing her like this! (p.66)

Back in Olga’s room, Olga and Jakub continue their conversation. He tells her about his friend Dr Skreta and his eccentric ideas. On an impulse he pulls out the blue pill, the suicide pill, and explains how Dr Skreta made it for him with no questions asked, just before Jakub was hauled off to prison. (He was lucky; he only served one year.)

Blue symbolism The colour blue recurs in key symbols. The sky is blue above this rather fairy tale spa. The mysterious halo in Bartleff’s room is blue. And the pill of death is blue.

The dog squad

As well as an irritating young boyfriend, Ruzena also has an embarrassing old dad, who has joined some cockamamy squad of old codgers who have formed a ‘squad’ to round up all the stray dogs running wild in the town who are pooing and peeing everywhere, or so they claim.

The importance of this for the plot is that it triggers the deep dislike between Jakub and Ruzena. For Ruzena has just finished her shift and is walking between buildings, her head full of thoughts about the two worlds she inhabits: the stifling provincial one of the spa, characterised by hordes of fat middle-aged women and hardly any eligible men, only biker losers like Franta – and the big wide glamorous world of Prague and beyond, with which she associates Klima. Throughout the book she vacillates between going along with his request for an abortion, and then in a panic realising having his baby is her only hope for escaping her sad little destiny.

She is in just such a wavering state when she sees her dad and a few of the other dog squad emerging from bushes where they’ve been hunting dogs with long poles with wire nooses at the end. They’ve captured a dachshund. Suddenly Ruzena sees Jakub walking along the pavement towards her. He was sitting with Olga earlier, Olga who she hates for her superior manner. Now Jakub calls to her ‘Come here, don’t be afraid, come to me’ and is startled until, a second later, she realises he is talking to a dog, to a squat ugly bulldog which was behind her. He has completely blanked her in preference for some ugly mutt! The humiliation!

As Jakub picks it up to protect it from the dog hunters, Ruzena steps forward and grabs its collar, telling Jakub she’ll report him to the authorities.

They engage in an absurd tug of war which is also, Kundera points out, no less than a battle between two worldviews: she, driven by resentment and humiliation and anger at her cramped small-town life, burns to take revenge on this smarmy, self-confident, big city intellectual. He, for his part, sees in her exactly the petty-minded, bureaucratic, vengeful, small-minded party zealot who, in their thousands, supervised the arrest, stage trials and imprisonment of him and a hundred thousand like him, epitome of all those ‘prison guards, inquisitors and informers.’ (p.75)

In fact it’s even worse: Ruzena is the type of the bystander who rushes to help the executioner, rushes to pin the victim down so his throat can be cut, and full of pious self-justifying high-minded rhetoric about society and morals – a type who came to prominence in the century of calamity.

In this moment History returns in the form of a man and a woman absurdly tugging at the collar of a mutty old bulldog. Jakub wins, and yanks her hand away, turning and quickly entering the building where Olga lives. For a moment their eyes meet in a look of pure hatred.

Jakub takes the dog up to Olga’s apartment where Dr Skreta arrives and, with his usual confidence, announces the dog is well known, named Bobis, and belongs to a couple a little way out of town. Now he takes Jakub with him to Bartleff’s apartment, explaining on the way his latest hare-brained scheme, which is to ask the American Bartleff to adopt him, Dr Skreta, so that Skreta immediately becomes an American citizen and can travel freely outside Czechoslovakia!

The three men gather for a convivial chat on many subjects. It is now that we explicitly learn that Bartleff believes halos are a consequence of experiencing oneness with the Godhead, divine delight and are, indeed, blue. Doesn’t think this – he knows it (p.78).

Moving on from this eccentric view, they go on to discuss Klima’s predicament, and then the conversation turns to the topic of fertility in general. Jakub, clearly established now as the Cynic, gives a suite of reasons why he thinks human beings should not procreate, climaxing with the Big One, that procreating implies an absolute affirmation of human life which he, personally, after his life experiences, feels unable to give. After all, as even the usually bullish Dr Skreta is forced to admit:

‘Humanity produces an incredible number of idiots.’ (p.92)

Olga leaves her water treatment and finds a note on her door telling her they’re all at Bartleff’s. There she joins Bartleff, Skreta and Jakub for a convivial private diner, brought to them by a waiter (Bartleff is a rich American, remember) during which he holds forth with a pet theory about the religion of the saints, namely that is was built on a thirst for admiration rather than holiness, as such.

Then the meal is interrupted by a beautiful little girl of 12, in a white dress tied with huge bow behind which looks like angel wings, appears to tell Bartleff he has another appointment. About this stage – what with his knowledge of halos and religion and the arrival of this little angel – I began to wonder whether Bartleff would be a redeeming saving angel in the story: whether it would have a truly supernatural element, as all these little symbols and moments suggest…

Bartleff leaves and Olga, with the callousness of youth, dismisses him as a posing self-dramatist. Skreta and Jakub walk her back to room and then go for a stroll under the big August moon. And it is now that Skreta lets Jakub in on a profound secret: all the women he treats for infertility and who get magically pregnant (including Bartleff’s own wife) – he, Skreta, has created a frozen store of his own sperm, and he is inseminating them all with his own seed. He is creating a world of brothers. No end of communist rhetoric craps on about a world of equality, where brothers and sisters share a common interest, and common values. Well, he, Skreta, is taking steps to really bring it about!

But, as so often in Kundera, his interlocutor, Jakub, is miles away, thinking about his conflicted feelings for Olga, and whether to leave tomorrow or not. He only half hears what Skreta tells him, and thinks it’s another one of his hare-brained schemes.

Fourth Day (Thursday – 47 pages)

Mrs Klima knows all about her husband’s infidelities and they drive her wild with jealousy. As soon as he said some communist committee obliged him to play a benefit gig at some spa resort with a pickup band including a doctor, she knew he was lying. Now, Thursday morning finds them in bed and he lies all over again and can see in her face she doesn’t believe a word. She goes to work. She works in a theatre. She used to be a famous actress but fell ill and her stage career ended. Now she asks if she can have the afternoon off. She’s going to take the train to this bloody spa and confront Klima with his lies!

Olga is having her morning dip in the spa pool among all the naked fat middle-aged women when a young dude in jeans walks in, then a few more follow him. They’re a film crew down from Prague, they’re filming a documentary about the spa. Olga is outraged, gets out and flings a towel round her, before storming off to her cubicle, leaving the woman supervising the pool, nurse Ruzena, fuming.

Jakub has been persuaded to stay on at the spa for an extra day. Dr Skreta has told him that the bulldog which he saved from the dog squad belongs to a young couple who live out in a village. So he drives the dog back to their owners, a young couple with a baby. They’re grateful and give him lunch and present their squawling new baby. What a big nose it’s got, rather like Dr Skreta’s comic banana nose. Hang on! Jakub asks if they were treated by Dr Skreta? ‘Yes! How did he know.’ So maybe Skreta’s hare-brained scheme about breeding a little generation of brothers isn’t mad after all. Maybe he really has been treating all the women’s fertility problems by impregnating them with  his own semen.

For Franta, Ruzena is the only girl he’s ever slept with, she made him a man, she is his world. To watch her swanning off with this big city musician makes him furious. He finishes a fridge repair job (that’s his work) and motorbikes into the spa, heading for the concert hall to watch Klima practice for that night’s gig. For the rest of the day he will be Klima’s shadow.

Jakub drives back to the roadside restaurant where he’s arranged to meet Olga. He doesn’t notice Klima’s car there or Franta’s motorbike. Klima is waiting impatiently for Ruzena and when she arrives he guides her impatiently to a table by the window. She’s been realising Klima is lying to her and begun to be full of righteous indignation. Klima grasps her hand and is half way through telling her how much she loves him when she announces that she’s changed her mind: she’s going to have the baby after all. Klima’s world collapses around him. Glancing out the window she sees Franta peeking out at them from behind some bushes. God, he’s following her everywhere. Feeling harassed she remembers the tube of pills her nurse friend gave her, pulls it out and opens it and pops one of the blue tranquilisers. Klima takes both her hands in his and begins some long speech and then it crosses his mind to take her for a cruise, maybe being in the car will bring back the mood of yesterday.

So up they get and leave. Jakub has been watching all this from across the restaurant and now goes over to the vacated table (the one with the best view in the place). He notices the vial of blue pills Ruzena has left on the table and picks it up and idly plays with it before opening it and being struck how the pills inside are the identical colour as the famous suicide pill Dr Skreta made for him. He gets the suicide pill out. He toys with it in his hand. Playfully he slips it inside Ruzena’s glass vial.

And just at the exact moment Ruzena appears at the table asking for her pills back. She’d got all the way to Klima’s car then realised she’d forgotten them. Jakub hesitates. Ruzena insists. They both recognise each other as the antagonists over the lost dog. Their hatred revives. She reaches out for the vial and he moves his hand up out of reach while he blusteringly tries to think of an excuse not to give them up. But Ruzena screams at him to hand them over, and suddenly something snaps in him. Coldly and ceremoniously, Jakub hands over the vial with the poison pill in it.

For the next seventy or so pages of the book, whenever we come back to Jakub, he will be agonising that he has just condemned the young nurse to death and that – given his political history – this makes him no better at all than the inquisitors and executioners who murdered his friends.

Mrs Klima gets a train to the spa to spy on her friends and is pleasantly surprised to come across the film crew who so upset Olga. They are old friends, they persuade her to come for a lunchtime drink.

On the drive it occurs to Klima that what might persuade Nurse Ruzena that he loves her would be if he made love to her again, if they reconnected on a primal level. Come and see me after the concert, he says, and drops her off.

Ruzena is walking through town at a loss what to do when he hears a voice calling. It’s the three-man camera crew who she let into the pool this morning and so upset Olga. They call her to join them and the pretty woman with them (Klima’s wife).

Jakub hurries his meal with Olga to an end and then rushes to the concert hall where he finds Skreta and Klima rehearsing. He asks if either of them have seen Ruzena, which they haven’t. Suddenly it dawns on him that this is the fulfilment of a deep unconscious wish. He is now proving his most cynical tenet true: there is no difference between the persecutors and the victims. He is thrilled to be murdering one of the petty-minded little bullies. And at the same time he is horrified by himself.

In the nook at the outside pub the three-man film crew are chatting up the two women, the director rubbing Mrs Klima’s thigh with his, while the cameraman puts his arm round Ruzena and accidentally-on-purpose touches her breast. Things are heading towards a drunken orgy when Ruzena suddenly sits bolt upright. She has recognised Kamila as being Klima’s husband. Suddenly it feels like the whole universe is mocking her. The men laugh at her sudden outburst of propriety, and she is longing, longing to tell them she carries the fruit of the loins of oh-so-high-and-mighty Kamila the famous actress. She reaches into her handbag to get the vial of tranquilisers, when she feels a strong hand grip her wrist.

It is Bartleff. His intervention just as Ruzena was about to pop the suicide pill feels a little supernatural, and emphasises even more his magic and mysterious powers. A big, confident man, Bartleff sits down with the crew – who make the resentment they feel at this intrusion prety obvious – and takes charge of proceedings, asking the boy waiter for the best wine in the house, insisting the owner comes to join in a toast, and toasting Ruzena’s beauty. Suddenly she feels transformed from a squalid small town girl to an angel.

Bartleff gets up and accompanies Ruzena off. The party atmosphere of the others collapses. Kamila feels suddenly revolted by the film crew, gets up and leaves.

The concert Jakub takes Olga to the concert. As they settle in, he sees Bartleff and Ruzena sitting not far away and believes more than ever that things have been arranged by a malicious God to torment him. The concert starts and, after a few numbers, Jakub begins to stand up, so he can go and talk to them and warn them about the pill, but at that moment a) Olga grabs his hand and tells him to sit down b) Bartleff and Ruzena themselves get up and swiftly exit the hall. The moment has gone.

Klima had noticed Bartleff and Ruzena coming in and felt confident she was there and he could see her after the show. But when he notices Bartleff and Ruzena exiting, his energy slips, he feels deflated: he just wants the concert to be over. But Dr Skreta is drumming like crazy behind him and won’t let him stop.

Bartleff takes Ruzena back to his apartment and tells her he loves her, he has always loved her. His words are like honey, like magic, she warms and stirs and for the first time for as long as she can remember is not full of self-hatred and doubt. As Bartleff describes how beautiful she is, Ruzena begins to believe it. As he begins to strip her, her body turns to him like a sunflower towards the sun.

As the concert ends Jakub takes Olga back to her room. His mind is obsessed with Ruzena and the pill and he goes round and round in circles trying to decide whether he is a murderer or a hypocrite or an angel of death or the instrument of some higher purpose. He hardly notices when Olga leans forward and kisses him.

Mrs Klima elbows her way through to the dressing room after the concert. She is convinced her husband is having an affair, and expects the arrival of some dollybird any moment, and so is watching him like a hawk. But Klima just seems to be tired, and tells Dr Skreta and the bassist the same. Tired and just wants to go to his room.

Olga kisses Jakub again and leads the absent-minded older man over to the couch where she starts loosening his shirt.

Franta was at the entire concert and now tails the trumpeter to the dressing room, hangs around, and then follows him towards his temporary flat, but… where the devil is Ruzena? Franta just knows she was going to meet the trumpeter after the show, so where’s she got to?

Three acts of love

Kamila and Klima walk to the building and apartment Dr Skreta has arranged for them to stay in overnight. It’s in the same corridor as Olga’s and Bartleff’s. In one room Bartleff is showing Ruzena the most wonderful night of her life; not because of his sexual technique as such, but because he has a magical way of really making her feel beautiful and loved.

Next door Olga has stripped and laid on the couch and Jakub is quietly appalled to find himself in the position of having to make love to her lest he embarrass and humiliate her on the last time they’ll ever spend together. Reluctantly he tries to rise to the occasion, despite a world of details reminding him that she is his ward and charge.

And in the third bedroom, Kamila slowly strips for Klima but he knows she is only doing it, provocatively, because she is convinced he had some erotic escapade lined up. He hates her jealousy and, in his bitterness, his penis shrinks away from her ministrations, convincing Kamila even more that it is not she her husband had been planning to make love to that night.

Meanwhile, Ruzena has never known love like it. She realises she has her whole life ahead of her. There is no need to rush into anything. She falls asleep snuggled in Bartleff’s arms and, when she wakes in the middle of the night, notices the dark room lit by a strange blueish glow. Is he a saint?

Fifth Day (Friday – 34 pages)

Next morning Klima gets up early to go and find Ruzena but she isn’t at her work, or in her dormitory. Unknown to him he is tailed everywhere by Franta, who’s been waiting outside Ruzena’s dormitory all night, frantic with jealousy. Eventually, Ruzena exits from Bartleff’s apartment and is confronted in quick succession by both men, Klima desperate that she is going to come with him to the abortion committee at 9am as they agreed yesterday.

Jakub wakes and immediately calls the bathhouse asking for Ruzena. They say she’s busy right now. An enormous weight lifts from his shoulders, and he thinks: what if the pill Dr Skreta made him was harmless? Yes, that would be the act of a true friend. And he spends a page expanding on this idea that Skreta, the true friend, would never have given him poison. Phew! What a relief!

Klima waits in the waiting room outside the spa pools where Ruzena works till 9. She emerges and he escorts her in silence to the abortion clinic.

Jakub dresses and tiptoes out of the room without waking Olga. He bumps into Mrs Klima who is just leaving their room. They introduce each other and walk downstairs, cross the road into the park. Jakub is absolutely staggered by Kamila’s beauty. Now, on the verge of leaving his homeland forever, he is overcome by a sense that he has never understood the world of art beauty and culture. Suddenly, on impulse, he tells her he is going away, he is leaving the country, he is never coming back, and that she is the most beautiful woman he has ever seen. Then he turns and walks away leaving her standing, watching him, till he disappears from view.

The abortion clinic is grim. Abortion is frowned on in the communist state. The country needs more patriotic citizens. The waiting room is plastered with posters encouraging procreation and praising motherhood.

Jakub returns to Olga’s room. She’s awake now, and inordinately pleased with herself. She is no longer a passive creation of men, somebody’s daughter, somebody’s ward. She has asserted her personhood. Jakub sadly says he really is leaving. He offers to walk her to the pool. On the way she comes over as so gushingly girly, so sweetly indifferent to the fact that he’s leaving his homeland forever, that he realises he has, once again, misjudged the situation. The only thing he knows, is that he knows nothing.

The meeting of the little abortion committee should be grim but is comical. Dr Skreta chairs the session, flanked by two chunky communist party matrons, and he has their measure to perfection. He puts on a tone of aggrieved sternness, and reads the unhappy couple a lecture about the joys of procreation and the needs of the socialist state etc. The matrons nod heavily. But then, with a sigh, he turns to the psychiatric report saying Mrs Klima is in a delicate state, a divorce might kill her. And we don’t want young nurse Ruzena to suffer the indignity of single motherhood. And so, with a heavy heart, Skreta declares that, alas and alack, he is going to sign the form for the abortion to go ahead. The matrons sternly lecture Klima and the nurse and then in turn sign the form. He goes to get up but they say, ‘Not so fast’. They dismiss Ruzena but announce that Klima has to remain behind to ‘volunteer’ to give blood. Cheap at half the price.

Finally, they allow Ruzena to leave, but she finds an angry Franta waiting outside, who blasts her with accusations and follows her down the stairs despite seeing she is distraught.

Having made all his goodbyes, Jakub crosses the spa, and comes across a group of schoolchildren being taken on a nature trail. Looking closely he sees that more than one of them looks like a little Dr Skreta and feels giddy, feels a sense of unreality. All his life he has been close to the centre of things, to the heart of the action, to politics and weighty affairs. What if all that was nonsense? What if the real beating heart of a country, a nation, of the thing we call reality, is miles away and other than we can possibly imagine?

Furious Franta follows Ruzena across the spa and into the hall where she works, up the stairs and along the corridor and into the hall lined with beds where women patients rest in cotton dressing gowns after their dip, shouting all the way that it is his baby and how dare she seek to terminate it. (Franta is under the misapprehension that Ruzena is pregnant with his baby and has somehow paid or blackmailed the trumpeter to pose as its father in order to secure a termination. The much worse reality hasn’t dawned on him.)

At the climax of their argument Ruzena reaches into her handbag, pulls out the vial of tranquilisers, fetches out the one at the top and pops it into her mouth, moments later feels a stab of pain in her tummy, bends double, and falls to the floor, dead!

The aftermath of nurse Ruzena’s mystery death

Franta gets even more hysterical and starts shouting that he killed her, it was him, he drove her to it. Another nurse runs to investigate then goes off to get a doctor. A dozen semi-naked women patients cluster round the figure on the floor. Everyone is pricked with curiosity to see death.

At the very same moment, Jakub is making his goodbyes to his old friend Dr Skreta. He decides to come clean about Olga’s father. He was not the persecuted hero everyone believes him to have been, on the contrary. It was Olga’s father who sent him, Jakub, his best friend, to prison. In fact Olga’s father thought he was sending Jakub to his execution. Olga’s dad felt very heroic about it, because it showed that he could put the principles of the revolution above personal concerns.

Six months later he himself was arrested, tried and executed, and Jakub was eventually released. This revelation leads Skreta to make a complicated analysis of Jakub’s mixed motives in looking after the girl, but Jakub disagrees with it, and then they’re both getting into a big argument when the phone rings, Skreta picks it up and learns there’s an emergency over at the baths, he is needed.

Crucially, they don’t tell him that nurse Ruzena has dropped dead, and so he doesn’t tell Jakub. Instead they do a big handshake and part for ever, walk down the corridor and out of the building, Jakub makes for his car, and Dr Skreta hurries to the halls.

A police inspector has arrived at the scene. He is standing over the prostrate body interviewing witnesses and trying to keep the frantic Franta at bay, who keeps on yelling that he did it, he drove her to suicide. (And indeed, for the rest of his life, he will carry this conviction like the mark of Cain on his forehead.

There is now some sharp comedy for Dr Skreta demonstrates his superhuman ability to grasp a situation and say the best thing. Since Franta is so loudly claiming the baby was his, Skreta immediately falls in with this lie, and then explains to the inspector that Klima had accompanied her to the abortion clinic because he was doing a kindly deed and volunteering to appear to be the father, so that Ruzena wouldn’t be forced to marry Franta.

Jakub drives off in blissful ignorance of how his chance gesture with the poison pill played out. He spends three densely argued and highly intellectual pages worrying about the meaning of his act, and comparing it unfavourably with Raskolnikov’s famous murder in Crime and Punishment. Here, as elsewhere throughout his works, a Kundera character reflects that whereas in the old days life was heavy and tragic, now it seems almost unbearably light, as if it can blow away in a puff of wind. (p.171)

Klima has finally finished giving blood and walks briskly over to Dr Skreta’s office to find the doctor out. When the doctor finally walks in looking a bit ruffled, Klima grabs his hand and thanks him profusely, for playing such a great set on the drums, but for stage-managing the abortion committee so smoothly. Well, it turns out not to matter since Ruzena is dead.

Klima continues shaking the doctor’s hand, his mouth agape, his brain trying to process this news, which lifts the nightmare burden he’s been labouring under for so long. Quickly, Skreta fills him in. It looked like suicide, and her boyfriend has been telling everyone that a) he’s the father and b) she threatened to kill herself if he didn’t leave her alone. So – Skreta explains to Klima – on the spot he devised the story that Klima had done the chivalrous thing in accompanying Ruzena to the clinic, but was in no other way involved.

He’s in the clear! They shake hands a bit more then Klima leaves the office and staggers back to the room to meet his wife. He kisses her face and neck and shoulders and then sinks to the floor and kisses the hem of her skirt, God he is so grateful, more grateful than words can express. They carry the bags down into the car, and he asks her to drive back to Prague and all the way there her beauty fills the car like a fine fragrance.

But then we go over to her mind, and we see her slowly realising, for the first time, that maybe the only thing that holds her to Klima is her jealousy. But that strange man who stopped her in the park and simply told her she was beautiful before walking off… he made her think. She is beautiful, and strong and independent. If she overcame her obsessive jealousy of Klima what would be left? Precious little. For the first time she can envision a future without him. And she smiles.

And Klima, completely misinterpreting her smile, looks over at her smiling and is filled with love and relief.

The inspector

The last ten pages are taken up with a mixture of broad comedy, clever paradoxes and cunning reversals. Olga arrives in Bartleff’s apartment to find him, the inspector and Dr Skreta discussing the death. Bartleff is absolutely firm that the night before nurse Ruzena had undergone a spiritual experience unlike any other in her life, and had seen a world full of new possibilities, and that suicide is absolutely the last thing she would have done.

Several of his remarks irk the inspector who decides to put the American in his place by devoting a page to demonstrating how all the existing evidence could in fact be stacked up to prove in a court of law that Bartleff was the murderer, the motive being to shut the nurse up before Bartleff’s wife arrives later that day. A tense silence. Then the inspector laughs. He was just showing how evidence in such an ambiguous case can be twisted anyway you want (which makes a distant link with Jakub’s remarks at several places about ‘revolutionary justice’ which incarcerated him and thousands like him).

The inspector shakes hands and leaves and Bartleff goes to his room to change. Alone with Dr Skreta, suddenly Olga remembers the blue pill, the suicide pill, which Jakub showed her, could… might it… was that… She asks him straight out: Did he ever prepare a poison pill for Jakub?

‘That’s absolute nonsense. I never gave him anything of the kind,’ Dr Skreta replied with great firmness. Then Bartleff returned from the other room, wearing a different necktie, and Olga took her leave of both men. (p.182)

I love Dr Skreta.

And the end belongs to him. On the penultimate page, as he and Bartleff are strolling to the railway station to meet their wives, Skreta hesitantly asks if Bartleff can adopt him. Initially surprised, Bartleff lets himself be talked into it and announces it will be great fun.

And then, as the two wives get off the train and walk with their husbands, Mrs Bartleff shows them all her new baby. And they all comment on how very like Dr Skreta he looks, ha ha ha. But of course the reader knows this must be because Mrs Bartleff is yet another of his patients who he inseminated with his sperm. The baby really is his son! But also his brother, since Bartleff has just adopted him. And so the two happy couples walk from the train station towards the resort, laughing and joking about the brotherhood of man under a big autumn moon.

Thoughts

Clever, isn’t it? Very clever. Very beautifully assembled. Like a Swiss clock, with all the parts fitting together just so.

The Farewell Party is funny and a little mysterious (the blue halo and the saint) and thought provoking (Jakub’s political musings about human nature and betrayal), but in the end, there’s no getting around the fact that the central premise is how to shut up and repress a difficult woman, so all concerned can go back to their philandering ways – and that the only solution turns out to be killing her.

I came to really like Dr Skreta’s combination of eccentricity with his whip-smart ability to manage situations (the abortion committee, his immediate exculpation of Klima when he is called to the dead nurse). He was the purest comic creation, not least in his plan to create a real brotherhood of man by inseminating all his patients.

Jakub is a more complex creation, like a bitter ghost overthinking everything but, as always, I warmed to his accounts of the political repression of the country, and of the grim logic of revolutions i.e. people betray their best friends in order to show their revolutionary zeal.

I hoped right to the bitter end that the mystique surrounding Bartleff (blue halo, painter of saints, big hearty ability to put people at ease, the angelic little girl who appears at his dinner party…) would mean that he would somehow, magically, be able to revive Ruzena. After all, the point is made at the start of the novel that he has just painted a portrait of a saint named Lazarus, named after the man Jesus raised from the dead. I can’t overcome a deep sense of disappointment that this didn’t happen, that he didn’t somehow raise Ruzena from the dead… Maybe, on reflection, that is the point.

Klima is a cipher – the harassed philanderer. It’s often the minor characters which intrigue and linger in your mind. Mrs Klima – Kamila – doesn’t appear much but when she does her jealousy, her own status as once-famous actress, and her dawning realisation that she might be able to go it alone, these make for a potent character. And Olga is a minor character but has a lingering effect: Jakub is appalled that she takes their act of love so lightly; but in this she represents precisely the lightness and inconsequentiality of the young generation.


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

1967 The Joke
1969 Life Is Elsewhere
1969 Laughable Loves (short stories)

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

1984 The Unbearable Lightness of Being
1986 The Art of the Novel (essays)

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

The Joke by Milan Kundera (1967)

‘A melancholy duet about the schism between body and soul’ (Milan Kundera in the Introduction)

Czech history – a postwar snapshot

Kundera was born in 1929 in Brno, Czechoslovakia. When he was ten the Nazis annexed his country and imposed Nazi rule, when he was 16 the Russians liberated his homeland, and when he was 19 the Russians supported the February 1948 coup which brought a communist government to power. Initially, many of the brightest and best in the country celebrated a new era which promised to deliver a new world of freedom and justice and equality for all. Soon enough the government showed its Stalinist colours, rounding up not only conservatives and capitalists, big landowners, bankers and so on, but also socialist and liberal writers and critics. Hundreds of thousands were sacked from their jobs, around a hundred thousand were imprisoned and tens of thousands executed as spies and traitors and saboteurs, including friends and colleagues of Kundera’s.

After putting up with nearly twenty years of oppressive rule, in late 1967 and early 1968 rising protests against the regime was met by a new, more liberal generation of party leaders, who set about loosening communist policy, reining back the dreaded secret police, and allowing a flowering of expression and political criticism in the media, newspapers, radio and TV, and among artists and writers. Which all became known as ‘the Prague Spring’.

The growing political, economic and cultural liberalism of Czechoslovakia led to fears that it might be about to leave the Soviet-backed security and economic alliances, and that its example might undermine Russia’s grip on all Eastern Europe. So in August 1968 some 500,000 Russian and other eastern bloc soldiers rode tanks into Czechoslovakia, occupying all the cities and strategic points, overthrowing the liberal government and reinstalling a hardline Stalinist regime. Over a hundred thousand Czechs fled the country, and another massive wave of repression and punishment threw an entire generation of professionals out of their white collar jobs, forcing them into menial labouring jobs.

Kundera, just turning 40, was among this group. Back in 1948 he had been an enthusiastic communist, joining the party when still at school. He welcomed the 1948 coup and the arrival of a new world, and went, as a student, to study film at university. But his outspoken wit and anti-establishment stance got him in trouble with the authorities and he was expelled from the party in 1950. After a hiatus in his studies, he was, however, readmitted to the university, completed his studies in 1952, and was appointed a lecturer in world literature. In 1956 he was readmitted to the Communist Party. For the next ten years he was a dutiful communist and academic.

Kundera played a peripheral role in the Prague Spring, looking on as his students went on strike, organised meetings and rallies, devised slogans which they printed on posters and banners and carried on marches and spray-painted on the walls of the capital. But even after the Russians invaded, he continued to defend the Communist Party, engaging in polemical debate with more thoroughly anti-communist intellectuals, insisting that the communist regime was capable of reform in a humanist direction.

Only in the early 1970s, as it became clear that the new hardline government was imposing an inflexibly authoritarian regime, did Kundera finally abandon his dreams that communism could be reformed. In 1975 he moved to France, taking a teaching job at Rennes, then moving on to Paris. He was stripped of his Czech citizenship in 1979, and legally became a French citizen in 1981.

By the 1980s, when his novels began to become widely popular in the West, Kundera had, in other words, been on a long gruelling journey of personal and intellectual disillusionment.

Themes in Milan Kundera’s fiction

Communism

This all explains why, although the main action of the novels is often set contemporaneously – in the later 1960s and 1970s just before they were published – their root is in that 1948 coup. Again and again, in all of his books, he returns like a soldier revisiting the scene of his post-traumatic stress disorder, to the primal trauma of the revolution (in The Farewell Party, Jakub – a key character – describes it as the obsession of someone who’s been in a bad car crash to endlessly relive the trauma). Again and again he examines all its aspects, reliving the jubilation and sense of emotional awakening he and his generation experienced, and then – in the rest of the text – generally delineating the long, grim consequences the advent of communist rule had on so many people and so many aspects of life.

So Kundera’s work is characterised by his obsessive return, again and again, to relive aspects of the coup and re-examine what it meant, recasting the events as fable, fairy tale, allegory, in a host of genres and forms, in order to try and work through what was for him, the primal imaginative and psychological trauma.

Cynicism and the absurd

There’s no-one as cynical as a disillusioned revolutionary. All Kundera’s books bespeak an immensely jaded cynic, with a bitter view of human nature. What makes them interesting is he keeps his corrosive cynicism under control, and deploys it strategically to dramatise and emphasise his plots. What I mean is – he will often create one particular character who is extremely jaded and disillusioned and cynical, and let that character give full vent to (what we can guess is) Kundera’s own bitterness, against optimism, against utopian politics, against idealistic revolutions, against unimaginative party apparatchiks who carry out orders without reflecting. BUT – these characters are often set in juxtaposition with other characters, often with sunnier, happier outlooks, and often the cynical characters are proved to be completely wrong.

So he creates dramatic structures in which his bitter cynicism can be forcefully expressed but is always careful to balance and control them with other points of view. Eventually, as we shall see in our analysis of The Joke, what emerges is less cynicism as such, than an all-consuming sense of the utter absurdity of human existence: that nobody’s intentions come out as they mean them to, that all human perceptions, understandings, analyses and goals are absurd.

And this doesn’t necessarily mean bleakly, nihilistically absurd. it can mean ridiculously, comically, even light-heartedly absurd.

The personal and the private

If the communist government could nationalise entire industries, dispossess the rich of their belongings, collectivise the farms, determine what jobs each citizen is allotted, take over control of all newspapers, radio and TV, and monitor everything every citizen published or wrote, even in private letters and diaries – the one area of life it could not easily control was the citizens’ love lives, in particular their sex lives.

Sex plays a huge role in Kundera’s fiction, on one reading it is arguably his central theme, and some of his descriptions of sexual encounters between characters are immensely powerful and erotic. And, if you are a card-carrying feminist, I can see how the unrelenting emphasis on the predatory sexual stance of almost all the male characters can become claustrophobic and, eventually, oppressive. I am a heterosexual man, and I have gotten a little tired of the way all of the male characters are obsessed with sex, and with very straightforward, vanilla, penetrative sex, at that. Many elements of his obsession with male predatory sexuality now seem very, very outdated to modern readers.

Nonetheless, it’s clear that sex performs two other functions in Kundera’s fiction.

1. Given that it was impossible for citizens of Czechoslovakia to write or publish what they felt, to write poems or plays or novels or stories that wouldn’t be censored by the authorities, let alone make films or TV documentaries or radio programmes, or even put on festivals or meetings which didn’t go unmonitored by the authorities – given that almost all forms of expression were banned or heavily censored and controlled – then sex – the sexual encounter between a man and a woman (that’s all it ever is in Kundera’s traditional mindset) can be a theatre of the intellect and the emotions, a place where all kinds of thoughts and moods and opinions which are utterly banned in the public sphere can be expressed in the private realm of the bedroom.

2. But the most dominant idea which emerges is Kundera’s fundamental concept of absurdity, the absurdity of the human condition. When I mentioned to a friend that I was rereading all of Kundera, she said, ‘Oh my God, he’s so sexy, so erotic!’ But the odd thing is that, studying the texts, you realise that many of the sexual couplings which take place are actually quite repugnant. In several of the novels men force themselves on women who are very very reluctant to have sex. There is at least one instance of brutal gang rape. And most of the other couplings take place between people who have ludicrously misjudged each other’s intentions. A good example of which lies at the heart of The Joke.

The Joke – structure and style

The Joke was Kundera’s first novel. The end page states that it was finished in December 1965, when Kundera was thirty-six i.e. it is not a young man’s book, it has been long meditated on. In fact, towards the end, the protagonists’ age itself becomes a topic of reflection, see below.

The Joke is divided into seven parts which are listed on the Contents page.

  1. Ludvik (10 pages)
  2. Helena (10 pages)
  3. Ludvik (84 pages)
  4. Jaroslav (34 pages)
  5. Ludvik (40 pages)
  6. Kostka (30 pages)
  7. Ludvik, Jaroslav, Helena (58 pages)

Which tells us straightaway the names and genders of the main protagonists, and that the main figure is going to be Ludvik, who has more appearances, and more pages devoted to him (134 of the book’s 267 pages), than all the others put together.

Kundera’s prose style is flat and factual…

The sections are named like this because each one presents a narration in that character’s voice, and Kundera makes an obvious effort to distinguish their voices. Ludvik, for example, is self-centred and factual in his approach. Helena’s style is immediately different, in that her sentences are made up of numerous clauses which all run into each other. Maybe this is an attempt to capture a more ‘feminine’ stream of consciousness, and noticing this reminds me of James Joyce and Molly Bloom’s famous soliloquy at the end of Ulysses. However, Kundera is a very different writer from Joyce.

Joyce had a miraculous, Shakespearian grasp of the infinite range of the English language and, in Ulysses, made it explode into a multi-coloured firework display, melting and reforming words and phrases, and mixing them with other languages to create an extraordinary verbal extravaganza.

Kundera is the opposite. His language is pretty flat and boring. Maybe this is the fault of the translation, but I don’t think so. No, the interest of the book doesn’t stem from the words but from:

  1. a complex, farcical and thought-provoking plot
  2. from the complex interplay of the handful of characters caught up in the plot
  3. but most of all from what the characters think about the events they’re caught up in and activate; the characters are endlessly reflecting, thinking, pondering and analysing their motives

…because Kundera is not a descriptive writer but an intellectual, analytical author

This is what it means to say that Kundera is an intellectual writer. We barely find out what any of his characters look like (having read to the end of the book I have no clue what Ludvik actually looks like, what colour his hair or eyes are, whether he’s tall or short or fat or thin).

1. Analysis Instead we are incessantly fed with what the characters are thinking. And their thinking almost always takes the form of analysis. Even when they’re thinking about their love lives – and they spend most of their time thinking about their love lives – they are thinking about them in an analytical way. When they think about other people, even their supposed beloveds, the people they’re married to or in love with or planning to have an affair with – they tend to think of them as categories of person, as types which fit into certain typologies, and must be managed and handled as types.

Thus Ludvik thinks of Zemanek as The Betrayer and of Zemanek’s wife, Helena, as Instrument For Revenge, and remembers Lucie as being Ideal Pure Femininity.

2. Deconstruction But the book is intellectual in another way, which is that the entire story has been dismantled and analysed out into separate elements. The text itself is made up of parts like a jigsaw puzzle. As the index indicates, Kundera conceived a story – then he dismantled it into a set of disparate narratives given from the points of view of four main characters. Like a forensic scientist investigating a complex chunk of organic matter by submitting it to a set of procedures designed to identify the basic elements which make it up.

3. Multiple points of view So, although – as per point 1 – all the characters tend to think of each other as types or categories – the use of multiple points of view almost always undermines their analyses, showing just how wrong they are. Thus it’s only about page 100, when we first hear from a completely different character outside Ludvik’s worldview, Jaroslav, that we see things from a completely different perspective and learn that Ludvik is not the master narrator of events but is himself also a type – the Cynic, the Man Who Abandoned Folk Music For The Revolution – and a type very much caught up in events, misunderstanding and misreading other people.

In some ways the heart of the book only comes with the thirty pages devoted to the character named Kostka, where we see the world through his eyes and gain a completely different perspective on Ludvik’s history, and on his pivotal relationship with Lucie, showing the Ludvik was completely wrong in everything he thought about his one true love.

Thus:

  1. not only do the characters obsessively analyse their own motives and other peoples’
  2. and the narrator analyses his characters’ analyses
  3. but also, by juxtaposing characters’ analyses against each other, Kundera performs a further level of analysis, a kind of meta-analysis of the analyses

See what I mean by a very intellectual author.

The Joke – the plot

The book is set around the time it was published, the mid 1960s. But to understand it you have to realise that its roots lie 15 years earlier, at the period of the 1948 Communist coup and its immediate aftermath.

The fateful postcard

To be precise, the summer of 1951. Ludvik Jahn is one of the generation of young students caught up in the idealism generated by the Communist Party’s seizure of power and he is still a staunch communist, but also an intellectual and wit and joker. In his circle of friends is a particularly po-faced and unimaginative woman student named Marketa. She never gets any of their gags or references, which tempts her friends to spin all kinds of jokes on her, for example the time they were all down the pub and Ludvik invents the notion that the hills of Bohemia are home to a shy and elusive race of trolls – which Marketa accepts with open mouth and wide eyes.

So when she goes away to summer labour duty, helping with the harvest, as all young zealous communists do, and when she sends him a series of letters each more po-faced and staunchly patriotic and communist than the last, Ludvik decides to pull her leg by scribbling a quick postcard with the sentiments most guaranteed to shock her, namely:

Optimism is the opium of mankind!
A healthy spirit stinks of stupidity!
Long live Trotsky!

The card is intercepted on the way to Marketa’s camp. The authorities call her in for questioning. Then Ludvik is called into a kangaroo court where he slowly realises that his quick jeu d’esprit is being interpreted in the most sinister way possible. How long have you been an agent for enemy powers, his interrogators ask him. With horror he realises that merely making a joke, of any kind, is – to these people – an insult to the 100% earnest, patriotic, communist fervour required from the entire citizenry.

Things reach a peak of horror when he is hauled before a roomful of his peers at the university, fellow students and communist party members. Ludvik is briefly heartened when he learns the chair is to be his good friend and fellow wit Zemanek. However, Zemanek rises and gives a thrilling and brilliantly damning indictment of Ludvik, kicking off by quoting the prison diaries of a young communist, Julius Fucik, who was arrested, tortured and executed by the Nazis but who died knowing he gave his life for a noble cause. Having let that sink in among the tearful audience, Zemanek then comes to another text, and reads out Ludvik’s postcard. At which point Ludvik realises he is lost. When it comes to a vote, 100% of the arms of his friends and colleagues stretch up to expel him from the university and from the communist party.

In those heady revolutionary times, Kundera explains, it was thought that human beings had a fixed inner essence and that that essence was either for the Party and with the Party, or it was against. Black or white. And a single slip, a chance remark, in a conversation or article or meeting – might suddenly reveal the terrible fact that you were not for the Party. And just that one slip revealed to all the party zealots, to the police and to all society who you really were. Just one slip of the tongue, and you were categorised and condemned for life as an enemy of the people. You would be fired from your job, unable to get a new one, all decent respectable people would shun you.

(Reading Kundera’s bitter and extended explanation of how the young, clever, intellectual communist zealots of this day took a fierce delight in policing everyone’s speech and writing, and pouncing on the slightest example of unrevolutionary sentiments… the reader can’t help reflecting that this is exactly the fierce, young university student zeal which drives modern political correctness.)

In the mining camp

It was only the fact that Ludvik was a student that had exempted him from military service. Now he’s kicked out of university, he is immediately conscripted straight into the army and, because of his misdemeanour, into a punishment battalion which works in the coal mines.

There follows a long passage describing the grim lives of the coal miners and the barbed-wire-encircled barracks they live in. Slowly Ludvik gets to know the other criminals and ‘social deviants’. I like prison camp memoirs (the twentieth century was, after all, very rich in them; the prison camp memoir is a major twentieth century genre) and I found this extended section powerful and moving. For the first time Ludvik is forced to pay attention to the lives and fates of people outside himself, and to sympathise with their plights.

Once a month they all get a pass to go into town on a Saturday night and spend the money they’ve earned in the mine, getting pissed and shagging the local prostitutes. Ludvik describes this in some detail.

But then he also describes meeting a shy girl who is different from the rest and who he conceives something resembling true love for, a young woman named Lucie Sebetka. He can only meet her once a month, and comes to project all his sensitivity and soulfulness onto her, turning her into an image of frail purity.

But Ludvik is a man – and a man in a Milan Kundera novel – so sex is ever-present in his mind and it isn’t long before he wants to – needs to – possess her, and make her his.

This sequence is written very convincingly, the way Ludvik’s thoughts slowly morph from worshiping Lucie’s purity to needing to possess it. Thus, on several successive dates – spread months apart – he tries to have sex with her, despite her refusing, clenching her legs together, pushing him off, and bursting into tears.

Maybe it’s because I’m so much older than Ludvik (he is, after all, only 20 at the time) or because I’ve read so many hundreds of accounts of #metoo-type rapes and assaults – but I quickly suspected that she had been abused earlier in her life and this explains her paradoxical behaviour: she loves Ludvik, she brings him flowers, she visits the camp and says hello to him through the wire mesh – in every way she is devoted to him; and yet on the two occasions where he manages to engineer meetings (at some risk – for the second one he manages to escape through a hole in the wire, and devise an elaborate set of arrangements whereby he borrows the bedroom of a civilian miner he’s befriended down the mines for just one evening) she is OK kissing, and sort of OK taking her clothes off but… absolutely and completely refuses to go any further, driving Ludvik into paroxysms of frustration, and then into a fiery rage.

He eventually shouts at her to get out and throws her clothes at her. She dresses and leaves in tearful silence. Ludvik waits an appropriate period of time, goes back downstairs to find the friendly miner has got a few mates round and they’re all a bit drunk, so he regales them with an entirely fictional account of what wonderful championship sex he’s just had with his girlfriend, before riskily sneaking back into the camp, and going to bed in his miserable bunk.

He never sees Lucie again – on his next furlough he discovers she’s simply left the dormitory she was sharing in with two other girls and left no forwarding address – but he never stops being haunted by her memory.

His mother dies while he’s doing his time and when it’s finally over, he is so heartlost and forlorn, that he signs up for another three years hard labour. The loss of Lucie – the stupid bungling lust of that one night – plunges him into years of ‘hopelessness and emptiness’ (p.104).

The Revenge

It is fifteen years later. We are in the mind of plump, middle-aged Helena. She is fed up with her husband Pavel and his philandering. She hates the petty bickering at work – she works in a government radio station. She resents all the fuss they made when she got some little hussy who she discovered was having an affair with a married man, sacked from her job. All her staff rounded on her, some even muttering ‘hypocrite’. But what do they know about all the sacrifices she’s made for the Party? And for her country? And for Truth and Justice?

OK, she herself flirts with younger men but that is completely different. And anyway, now she has met the love of her life, a wonderful heartfelt passionate man named Ludvik. And he has invited her for a trip out of Prague, to a town in the country where there is an annual folk festival. She has combined business with pleasure, as she’ll cover the festival for her radio station (accompanied by a loyal young puppy of a sound engineer named Jindra) but her real motivation for going is that Ludvik has told her he can’t contain his passion any more and must have her. She is thrilled to her fingertips. She has brought her best underwear.

And so she proceeds to check into the hotel in this rural town and then to meet Ludvik. It is only half way through this passage, and half way through the book (on page 151) that we casually learn that her last name is Zemanek. When I read that sentence I burst out laughing and everyone on the tube carriage looked at me. Yes, Zemanek, the name of Ludvik’s smooth-talking friend who was the first to betray him and led the meeting which had him expelled from university and the party, who ruined his life.

Now Ludvik is taking his revenge. Having eventually returned to Prague and found white collar work he is suited for, he one day meets Helena who comes to interview him for her radio programme and her surname makes him perk up. He does background checks and establishes she is the wife of his persecutor and contrives for them to have another meeting, at which he uses all his wiles to seduce her. The seduction proceeds apace and is now due to reach its climax in his home town, the setting of the annual folk festival.

And the heart of the novel (arguably) is this grand, staged, ceremonial act of sexual intercourse between the aggrieved Ludvik and his blissfully ignorant, plump adorer, Helena. It is described in great detail and is, I suppose, very erotic.

The two standout features of Ludvik’s technique are 1. He insists she strip naked for him, until she is standing there before him, starkers – without pulling the curtains or turning off the light. She is initially reluctant but eventually strips, and this has the psychological effect of making her truly really completely accept the reality of the situation. Rather than hiding under a blanket and letting something unspeakable happen to her, she is made completely complicit, willing and responsible for the act of sex.

Number 2 is that half way through coitus, Ludvik gets carried away and slaps Helena and, to his and her amazement, she likes it, it makes her howl louder, so he slaps her again, and soon he is slapping her face at will, then turns her over and spanks her big wobbly bum, while she howls and groans in ecstasy.

All very erotic, and written with an intense erotic charge, but – as I’ve emphasised above – also all wildly absurd. Because the forced stripping and the beating unleashes in Helena a deeper level of erotic experience than she could ever have imagined possible, with the result that her love and adoration of Ludvik goes from high on a normal counter, to off the scale, into slavish, super-deotional Shades of Grey territory.

BUT, as the process unfolded, Ludvik found himself more and more overcome with disgust and hatred. With the result that, once they are totally spent, Helena can’t keep her arms off him, is all over him, kisses him all over his body, while Ludvik, thoroughly repulsed and now ashamed of himself, shrinks like a starfish at her touch, and only wants to get dressed and flee.

So the idea of the joke has multiple levels. It refers to:

  1. the original joke postcard that Ludvik sent
  2. and this elaborate ploy he sets up to ravish, ransack and steal from his bitter enemy, everything that he (the enemy) loves (p.171)

However, there is more to come. Namely that Ludvik makes the tactical error of asking Helena to tell him more about her husband. He does this for two reasons a) he wants to hear more about their deep love, so he can savour the idea that he (Ludvik) has ravaged it, b) it will stop Helena pawing and fawning all over him.

What he hadn’t at all anticipated was that Helena proceeds to tell him that her marriage to Zemanek is over. Zemanek doesn’t like her. He has been having affairs. They have ceased living as man and wife. True they share the same house, but they have completely separate lives.

In a flash Ludvik’s entire plan turns to ashes, crashes to the ground. It has all been for nothing. Worse, Helena now enthusiastically tells Ludvik that now she can announce to Zemanek that she has a lover of her own, and he can go to hell with all his pretty dollybirds because she, Helena, has found the greatest, truest love of her life.

Appalled, Ludvik finally manages to make his excuses, plead another appointment and leave.

Jaroslav and the Ride of the King

The book is so long and rich and complex because there are several other distinct threads to it. One of these is about Czech folk music. It turns out that the provincial town where this folk festival is taking place is also Ludvik’s home town. As a teenager he played clarinet in the town’s folk ensembles and was deeply imbrued with the folk tradition. He became very good friends with Jaroslav, a big gentle bear of a man, who emerged as a leader of the town’s folk musicians and a one-man embodiment of the tradition.

Jaroslav’s monologue allows Kundera to go into some detail about the Czech folk tradition, what it means, why it is special, and the impact the communist coup had on it. Surprisingly, this was positive. After all the Czechs were forced to copy the Stalinist model of communist culture – and this emphasised nationalist and folk traditions, while pouring scorn on the ‘cosmopolitianism’ of the international Modernist movement, then, a bit later, strongly criticised the new ‘jazz’ music coming in from the decadent West.

The communist government gave money to preserve folk traditions and to fund folk traditions like the one taking place on the fateful weekend when Ludvik and Helena are visiting his home town. Jaroslav is not backward in expressing his contempt for Ludvik, who abandoned all this to go to the big city, who turned his back on the true folk tradition to celebrate a foreign, imported ideology. Once best friends, they haven’t met for many years, and Jaroslav in particular, harbours a deep grudge against his former band member.

Jaroslav describes in some detail the ‘Ride of the King’ which is the centrepiece of the festival, when a young boy is completely costumed and masked to re-enact the legend of the almost solitary ride of an exiled king in the Middle Ages. It is a great honour to be chosen to play the ‘king’ and Jaroslav is thrilled that his own son was selected by the committee to play the king.

Admittedly the ride itself, as witnessed through the eyes of both Jaroslav and Ludvik, is a rather shabby and tawdry affair. The authorities don’t even close off the main street so the characters dressed in bright traditional costumes and riding horses, are continually dodging out of the way of cars, lorries and motor bikes. And the crowds are the smallest they’ve ever been. (At this point you realise this novel is set in the early 1960s, as radio-based rock and roll was just coming in, as the Beatles were first appearing – and the reader can make comparisons between this Czech novel lamenting the decay of traditional folk festivals, and similar books, describing similar sentiments, written in the West.)

Jaroslav puts a brave face on it all, decrying the horrible noisy modern world, insisting on the primacy and integrity of folk music and traditions and still beaming with pride that his son is riding on a horse through their town dressed as the King of the Ride.

Except he isn’t. Later on in the book Jaroslav makes the shattering discovery that his son has bunked off, gone off on a motorbike with a mate to a roadside café to drink and listen to rock’n’roll. And his wife knew all about it and helped cover it up, helped arrange the dressing up of a completely different boy, and then lied to Jaroslav!

No greater betrayal is conceivable. Stunned, the big man stands in their kitchen, while his wife faces their stove, continuing to fuss over the soup she’s making while her husband’s whole world collapses in ashes. Then, one by one he takes every plate on the dresser and hurls them at the floor. Then he smashes up each of the chairs round the table. Then he turns the table over and smashes it down on the pile of broken crockery. While his wife stands trembling at the cooker, crying into their soup. Then he leaves, dazed and confused, wandering through the streets, and beyond, out into the fields, out to the countryside and eventually sits down by the river which flows through the town, the Morava, then lies down, using the violin case he’s brought with him as a pillow. Lies and stares at the clouds in the sky, completely forlorn.

Kostka’s story

Kostka’s story comes toward the end of the novel, but it provides an important centre and touchstone. As you read it you realise that although Ludvik may be the central consciousness, he is powerfully counterbalanced by first Jaroslav and now Kostka.

Kostka was also of Ludvik and Jaroslav’s generation, the 1948 generation. But Kostka was and is a devout Christian. (Christianity, Christian faith and Christian terminology crops up throughout Kundera’s fiction. Readers [correctly] associate him with meditations on politics and communism, but Christian belief is also a substantial theme in his books.)

Kostka’s inflexible religious belief meant that he, too, eventually found it impossible to stay in university, though he differed from Ludvik in voluntarily quitting and being assigned to a state farm as a technical adviser (p.184) where, being highly intelligent and hard working, he was soon devising more effective ways to grow crops. It was then that a rumour spread about a wild woman of the woods, stories circulated about milk pails being mysteriously emptied, food left out to cool disappearing. It wasn’t long before the authorities tracked down the young woman to her shad shabby lair in a disused barn and brought her in for questioning.

It was Lucie, Ludvik’s pure young woman. This is what happened to her after their tragically failed night of sex, after he threw her clothes at her and told her to clear out. She did. She left her job and the dormitory she shared, and travelled across country sleeping rough, and ended up in a rural area, living off berries and food she could steal.

The authorities take pity on her and assign her to the communal farm. This is where she comes under the protection of Kostka. And very slowly we learn how she relaxes and opens up and tells him her story. As I had suspected, she was abused, to be precise as a teenager she hung round with a gang of boys and on one pitiful occasion, they got drunk and gang raped her. Even the quietest, sweetest boy, the one she thought was her special friend. He was the most brutal, to show off to his mates that he was a real man.

That is more than enough explanation of why she couldn’t give herself to Ludvik. It was precisely because what she needed wasn’t sex, but protection. In her mind, she was forcing Ludvik to conform to the role of Lover and Protector. Having sex destroyed that image which is why she couldn’t do it (over and above the sheer terror the act revived in her mind). And of course, in his mind she was pure and virginal, and he had worked himself up into a young man’s romantic state where he thought of her as especially his, and the act of love as a sacred blessing on the altar of her unsullied beauty.

So both were acting under pitiful delusions about the other.

In fact, we had been briefly introduced to Kostka right at the start of the novel because when he arrives back in his home town for the festival and to deflower Helena, Ludvik looks up one of the few friends he can remember in the place, Kostka, who is now an eminent doctor at the local hospital. In an amiable but distant way, Kostka agrees to loan Ludvik his apartment for an afternoon (for the fatal act of sex). It is only later, when they meet up that evening, that they share a drink and Kostka ends up telling him about his life.

Now Kostka remembers another meeting, by chance, on a train, in 1956. Kostka had been forced to quit the collective farm because of political machinations and had ended up becoming a labourer. First they shared the irony that two young men, both so idealistic about their beliefs, had both been dumped on from a great height by… by… by what? By ‘History’ is the best they can come up with. By the impersonal forces of society working to a logic nobody really understands, certainly nobody can control. In fact Ludvik was so incensed by the unfairness of Kostka’s fate that he moved heaven and earth and used all his old contacts, to get Kostka appointed to the hospital where he still works.

This is why Ludvik looks Kostka up when he arrives back in his hometown in the book’s ‘present’. This is why Kostka agrees to lend him his flat for the deflowering of Helena. And this is why, later that night, when the two old friends share a drink, Kostka tells Ludvik about Lucie, without realising he knew her: about the gang rape, the flight. How she found one man she could trust, a miner in a god-forsaken mining town. But how he, too, turned out to be just like all the rest. How she had turned up the collective farm all those years ago, how Kostka took her under his wing and how, despite himself, he too took advantage of her and began a sexual relationship with her – about which he now, older and wiser, feels cripplingly guilty.

Soon after this revelation, Kostka’s section ends and we are returned to the mind of Ludvik, in the present, walking back from Kostka’s flat late at night, and absolutely reeling. What? Everything he ever believed about Lucie, both during their ill-fated affair and for fifteen years since – turns out to be utterly, completely wrong (p.210).

Back to Helena

But there are still more acts to go in this pitiful black farce. For to Helena’s own surprise no other than her suave philandering husband, Pavel Zemanek, turns up for the festival. He is now a super-smooth and successful university lecturer, adored by his students for his fashionably anti-establishment (i.e. anti-communist) views. And he’s brought his latest student lover along, a long-legged beauty – Miss Broz – perfectly suited to Pavel’s stylish sports car.

Helena takes advantage of her recent mad, passionate coupling with Ludvik, to tell Zemanek that she’s met the love of her life, that she doesn’t need him any more, and generally take a superior position. She goes so far as telling Zemanek her marvellous lover’s name, Ludvik Jahn, and is puzzled when he bursts out laughing. Oh they’re old friends, he explains.

Helena recounts this all to Ludvik when they meet up the next morning, and it is all Ludvik can do to conceal his dismay. Just when he thought things couldn’t get any worse. And then a few hours later, in the throng of the bloody festival, in among the crowds packing the streets to watch the Ride of the bloody King, suddenly Zemanek emerges from the crowd, accompanied by his long-legged dollybird and Helena is introducing the two enemies, face to face for the first time in 15 years.

And, of course, whereas Ludvik is strangled by an inexpressible combination of rage and hatred, Zemanek is unbearably suave and cool, well dressed, well-heeled, hair well-coiffed, gorgeous student on his arm – unbearable! And doubly unbearable because he realises his revenge on Zemanek has not only failed, but epically, massively failed. Not only did he not ravish and desecrate the body of Zemanek’s beloved wife – because Zemanek doesn’t give a damn who his wife sleeps with – but Helena falling so deeply and publicly in love with him (Ludvik) has done Zemanek a big favour. For years Helena has been a burden round his neck – now at a stroke Ludvik has done him the favour of removing that burden!

Farce is laid over farce, bitter black joke on top of bitter black joke.

As if all this wasn’t bad enough, yet another layer is added to the cake of humiliation – because as Ludvik is forced to swallow his rage and join in the polite chit-chat going on between Helena and Zemanek and Miss Broz, he realises something from the latter’s talk. As she witters on praising Zemanek for standing up to the authorities and bravely speaking out about this or that issue and generally becoming a hero to his students, Ludvik is subject to a really shattering revelation: the past doesn’t matter any more.

As she talks on Ludvik realises that, for her and her generation, all that stuff about 1948 and purges and executions and party squabbles and ideological arguments: that’s all ancient history – ‘bizarre experiences from a dark and distant age’ (p.232) which is just of no interest to her and her generation, who want to party and have fun.

Not only has Ludvik failed utterly to wreak his revenge on his old antagonist – but the entire world which gave meaning to their antagonism, and therefore to his act of revenge, has ceased to exist. He has been hanging onto a past which doesn’t exist anymore. It sinks in that the entire psychological, intellectual and emotional framework which has dominated his life for fifteen years… has evaporated in a puff of smoke. No one cares. No one is interested. It doesn’t matter.

Alone again with Helena, Ludvik lets rip. He tells her he hates her. He tells her he only seduced and made love to her to get his own back on her husband, the man who sold him down the river when they were students. He says she repulses him.

At first she refuses to accept it – she has just thrown away her entire life with Zemanek, the security of their house and marriage – for Ludvik and here he is spitting in her face. Eventually she wanders off, dazed, back to the village hall where she and her sound engineer, Jindra, have set up base to make their radio documentary. In a dazed voice, she says she has a headache and the engineer (still virtually a schoolboy, who has a puppy crush on Helena) says he has some headache tablets in her bag. She sends him out for a drink and then, rummaging in his bag, comes across several bottles full of headache pills. She takes two and then looks at herself in the mirror, at her fact tear-stained face, contemplating the complete and utter humiliation she has just undergone and the shattering of her entire life.

And, as she hears Jindra returning with a bottle from a nearby tavern, she hastily swallows down the entire contents of not one but all the bottles in the engineer’s bag. She emerges back into the hall, thanks him for the drink and writes a note. It is a suicide note addressed to Ludvik. She pops it in an envelope and scribbles Ludvik’s name on it and asks Jindra to track Ludvik down and deliver it.

Now, Jindra has got wind of Helena and Ludvik’s affair and was present when Zemanek and his student were introduced to them, so he knows Ludvik by sight. Reluctantly he goes off with the letter. The observant reader might notice that the story commences with a missive – a postcard – and is ending with another, though I can’t quite figure out the meaning of this – something about misunderstood messages.

Jindra fairly quickly finds Ludvik in the beer garden of the most popular pub in town. He grudgingly hands over the letter. Now a message from an angry upset Helena is about the last thing Ludvik wants to have to deal with and so, to delay matters, he invites Jindra to join him in a drink. He calls the waiter. He orders. The drinks arrive. They drink. They toast. The letter sits on the table unopened. I really enjoyed this little sequence.

Eventually and very reluctantly Ludvik opens the envelope and reads the message. He leaps out of his chair and demands to know where Helena is now. The engineer describes the village hall they’ve borrowed and Ludvik sets out at a run, zigzagging through the crowds and avoiding the traffic.

He makes it to the hall, bursts in and it is empty. Down into the cellar he goes, amid the cobwebs and detritus, yelling Helena’s name. No reply. They check every room on the ground floor, then realise there’s an attic, and find a ladder and go up there, Ludvik convinced at any moment he’ll see a mute body dangling from a rope. But no Helena – so another frenzied search reveals a door into a back garden, and they burst out into this quickly realising there is no body prone in the grass or hanging from the trees.

But there is a shed. Ludvik bounds over to it and beats on the door, which is locked. ‘Go away’ they hear Helena’s anguished voice, and Ludvik needs no bidding to kick open the door, smashing its flimsy lock to reveal…

Helena squatting on a toilet in agony, angrily begging him to close the door. Those headache pills? They weren’t headache pills. The puppyish engineer now sheepishly admits to both of them that he often gets constipated and so keeps a supply of laxatives ready to hand. Only he’s embarrassed about people seeing them so he keeps them in old headache pill bottles.

Ludvik steps back, surveys the situation and closes the door on Helena’s humiliation and stands lost, dazed, staggered. What… What is life about? What is the point? Could he be any more of an ironic plaything of Fate?

He walks away from the outside loo, from Helena and Jindra, back through the church hall, out into the hectic streets, along busy roads, across town to the outskirts, where the houses peter out, and on into fields, farmland, lanes and hedgerows and trees. Eventually he finds himself walking along beside the river Morava, and then makes out a figure lying down beside it. As he comes closer he is astonished to see it is his old friend and fellow musician, Jaroslav. He greets him and asks if he can sit down beside him.

And so the two lost men, their lives and their illusions in tatters, sit out in the empty countryside contemplating the absurd meaningless of existence…

Summary

The Joke is the longest of Kundera’s books, and also the most dense. The plot is intricate, ranging back and forth over the fifteen-year period and some of these periods are described in great detail, for example the long passage describing life in the miners’ punishment camp. As his career progressed, Kundera was to compress passages like this, making them ever shorter and punchier.

The Joke also feels dense because it includes large sections packed with very intellectual meditations – about music, folk music and Christian belief, as well as politics, communism, and human life considered from all kinds of angles. Kundera doesn’t hesitate to lard almost every action in the book with a philosophical commentary, some of which lift off from the text entirely to become stand-alone digressions in their own right.

And if it is a traditional form of literary criticism to describe the patterns in a novel’s narrative, particularly in terms of the growth and development of its characters – then you could easily do the same and analyse the patterns in Kundera’s deployment of ideas which, like the characters, seem plausible enough when you first meet them but then, slowly, over the course of the book’s intricate windings, themselves are undermined and contradicted. To put it another way – in a Kundera novel, the ideas have as many adventures as the ‘characters’.

It’s true there are a number of sequences acts of copulation and, more to the point, the male characters in particular, obsess about sex almost continually – which can, if you’re not careful, become very tiresome. But, as I hope I’ve shown, this focus on the private act of sex itself is continually opening up into more philosophical and psychological speculations about human nature. It’s as if sex, the sex act, is itself merely a stage on which much deeper philosophical and fictional questions can be raised and explored. There may be a fair amount of sex in the book, but if you look closely, you’ll see that hardly any of it is happy and fulfilling; most of it is fraught and tragic. Or tragi-comic.

And fundamentally, beneath the meditations on History and Communist power, beneath the stories of the individual characters and their worries and experiences and plans, and beneath the erotic layer of lust and sex which lards much of the book – at bottom the message, for me, is one about the complete Absurdity of human existence.

For me the message is that: Humans are the meaning-making animal, condemned to waste vast amounts of energy trying to find meaning and purpose in the grand narrative of their lives as much as in the slightest event or accident which occurs to them… But at the same time – because we are limited to our own very narrow points of view and relatively tiny number of lived experiences – our interpretations of the world and other people are more often than not howlingly inaccurate and ridiculously self-centred.

It is this mismatch between the will to understand, and the completely incomprehensible reality of the world, which is the Absurdity of the Human Condition. It’s all a big Joke.

The plot of The Joke is itself a joke. And not only its plot. Its ‘philosophy’ as well: man, caught in the trap of a joke, suffers a personal catastrophe which, when seen from without, is ludicrous. His tragedy lies in the fact that the joke has deprived him of the right to tragedy. (Introduction)

Because what if the ‘aberrations’ and ‘mistakes’ and miscarriages of justice aren’t aberrations from History at all? What if the aberrations and mistakes and miscalculations, which people are continually dismissing from their thoughts, are the norm? What if everything, if all human endeavour and effort, is one vast continual ongoing misunderstanding, just one big stupid joke? (p.240)

Most people willingly deceive themselves with a doubly false faith: they believe in eternal memory (of men, things, deed, people) and in the rectification (of deeds, errors, sins, injustice.) Both are sham. The truth lies at the opposite end of the scale: everything will be forgotten and nothing will be rectified. (p.245)

Another view

A friend of mine is mad about Kundera. She says I miss the point, or miss her point, about him.

Reading Kundera showed her that even the most grim and sordid events – the kind she was familiar with from her unbookish, working-class upbringing – can be redeemed by thought and imagination. Reading Kundera transported her into a world where even the most crude and barbaric behaviour was translated into intellectualism, into dazzling insights and memorable formulations. The act of reading Kundera was in itself an escape into the company of a highly educated, urbane, confident, man of the world, who could deploy ideas and quotes from the great names of European literature with a light touch, to bring out hitherto unsuspected aspects of even the most mundane situations (two reluctant lovers groping in a shabby bedroom). He sprinkled a magic dust of insights and ideas over everything, making her realise that every minute of her day was just as capable of being analysed, just as susceptible to witty insights and psychological revelations. Reading him made her own life feel full of imaginative promise and intellectual excitement.

And she was dazzled by the way the reader feels they know the characters via their interiority, going straight to the heart of their affairs and dilemmas. She loves the way Kundera plunges you straight into their psychological depths and complexities. It doesn’t matter at all that they remain undescribed physical shadows, in fact it’s a big plus, it helps you focus all the more on their minds and characters.

As a woman she didn’t feel at all patronised by the focus on sex-driven male characters. After all, she grew up in a world of sex-driven men. What riveted her thirty years ago, when she first read Kundera’s novels, and has stayed with her ever since, was the revelation that even the most humdrum moments of the most humdrum lives can be transformed by the imagination and intellect into wonderful luminous ideas. This opened doors into a whole new way of thinking and helped inspire her go to university, and beyond.

It’s hard to think of a more moving and profound tribute to an author, which is why I include it here.


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

1967 The Joke
1969 Life Is Elsewhere
1969 Laughable Loves (short stories)

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

1984 The Unbearable Lightness of Being
1986 The Art of the Novel (essays)

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

The Wilt Inheritance by Tom Sharpe (2010)

Another Tom Sharpe novel (in fact, the last one) and so another big country mansion full of grotesques – in this case the vast, architecturally bizarre Sandystones Hall in which reside big, roaring Sir George Gadsley – who is partial to very fat lady cooks (like Philomena Jones, who makes him roast pork with all the trimmings) and his long-suffering wife, Lady Clarissa – who has an idiot son by her first marriage, Edward, who has failed every exam ever put in front of him.

Which is why Lady Clarissa, learning that the nice woman who helps out sometimes with one of her charities, Eva Wilt, has a husband who’s a lecturer at the local Uni and might be prepared to tutor Edward during the summer holidays, offers to pay him a generous £1,500 a week, and let the whole family come to stay in a cottage on the estate for the summer.

Thus does Henry Wilt, Head of the ‘so-called Communications Department’ at the former Fenland College of Arts and Technology – now, of course, upgraded to a university – enter the frame, still being harassed by his wife, nowadays nagging him to show some ambition and get a better job so he can pay for his horrible teenage quadruplet daughters to go to private school. Instead he gets disgustingly drunk with his old mate Peter Braintree or goes down the allotment with old Peter Coverdale, who had the sense never to get married.

The book runs multiple plotlines in parallel, told in short, punchy chapters:

  • Lady Clarissa has an Uncle Harold, a retired Colonel, who needs to go into a nursing home but refuses to. He is finally decanted into the ‘Last Post Rest Home’ and hates it, shouting angrily at all the staff until he stumbles on the fact that Lady Clarissa takes advantage of her frequent journeys into town to bonk her chauffeur at the local Black Bear pub/hotel. The manager of the hotel is an old army man and tips the Colonel off. And so the Colonel blackmails Lady C, claiming the room she uses at the pub is fitted with cameras and he has plenty of evidence of her high jinks, plenty to show Sir George. And so Lady C is forced to let the old colonel permission leave the rest home and hole up in the Black Bear itself, where she is wondering what the hell to do next, when he very conveniently drinks himself into having a stroke and dying.
  • At St Barnaby’s school for young ladies Wilt’s daughters, the quadruplets, now around 15, are causing mayhem in true St Trinians manner. They stuff a potato up the exhaust and put sugar in the petrol tank of the car belonging to a teacher they dislike, Miss Young, the multiple complications of which give her a nervous breakdown. They watch a naturist swimming in the nearby lake and have the bright idea of stealing his pants and trousers – and adding a used condom found in nearby bushes – and sneaking them into the bedroom of their headmistress, Mrs Collinson, for her husband to find when he gets home late that night, leading to a massive drunken row.
  • When Wilt finally makes it to Sandystones Hall he is astonished by its raw ugliness, by the way it is stuffed with furniture from Imperial-era India and by the way Lady Clarissa makes a blatant pass at him which, in true Wilt style, he runs away from, red-faced.

After that it gets complex with the endless running on and off stage of different characters getting lost, shouting and swearing at each other, getting drunk and passing out, corpses and coffins and vicars and coppers all increasingly enmeshed in the tangled farce.

Briefly, Uncle Henry’s body is brought to the Hall to be buried but Sir George refuses permission to let it lie in the family chapel. While he and his wife argue, Wilt’s wicked teenage daughters steal the body from the coffin and replace it with a log – which surprises the local vicar when he and a pall bearer open it, and even more so the police who are called in to add to the general confusion.

The quads drag the colonel’s body off to a clearing in the wood, intending to burn it, but are interrupted by Edward the psycho son stalking towards them firing one of his step-father’s many guns, oops. Until one of the quads hits him a lucky blow on the head with a stone, Edward trips, and blows his own head off. Double oops.

So the quads mock up the scene to look as if it was Edward who stole the body in order to do macabre target practice at it, but then stumbled and accidentally killed himself (the last part being more or less true), and then the police – called by the horrified vicar – turn up with sniffer dogs and even Wilt’s old nemesis, Inspector Flint, arrives from Ipford. The bodies are found which leads to an orgy of recriminations in which everyone blames everyone else – Sir George, Lady Clarissa, Wilt, Eva, the quads – until all concerned break for a nice cup of tea served by the housekeeper, Mrs Bale…

And when they reconvene Sir George and Lady C have come to an arrangement. She will testify to Sir George always keeping the gun cabinet locked, but that Edward must have found the keys, stolen a gun, purloined Uncle Henry’s body and been using it for target practice when he had a terrible accident. (In return Sir George allows Edward’s body to be buried in the family crypt and pays for Lady C to take Uncle Henry’s corpse back to Kenya, where he wanted to be buried – and where she stays on for a three-month holiday, being shagged senseless by the chauffeur. While she is away, Sir George takes advantage of her absence to invite the obese cook, Philomena Jones, back into the kitchen and then into his bed where, a few months later, he dies happy, whether from all that pork crackling or from more strenuous exercise or from both, who can say?)

Inspector Flint – who thought he had finally implicated his old enemy, Wilt, in a particularly bizarre murder – is foiled once again. Eva extracts full payment for the tuition to the now-dead Edward from Lady Clarissa and uses it to pay for the quads to return to their private school, having fulsomely apologised to their headmistress. Relieved to have escaped yet another adventure, they drive back to their nice quiet home at 45 Oakhurst Evenue, Ipford.

And Wilt? He goes back down his local, the Hangman’s Arms, for a ruminative pint with his old mate, Peter Braintree, Head of English at the Tech – only to be told that the Tech is finally being closed down and that he and Peter will be made redundant. What does the future hold, for him, for them, for anyone?

Who knows?


Credit

The Wilt Inheritance by Tom Sharpe was published by Hutchinson Books in 2010. All quotes and references are to the 2011 Hutchinson paperback edition.

Related links

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 with the unconscious Esmond 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.

The Gropes by Tom Sharpe (2009)

Sharpe was 81 when this book was published and had, according to the dedication, survived a serious illness which nearly killed him in 2006. We’re lucky to have the book at all.

Although not one of his best, The Gropes trundles along at a kind of guaranteed basic level of comedy without ever reaching the heights of maniac hysteria which the two South African novels, for example, ahieve in their first chapters. But it is genially amusing.

The Wileys

The book is in two parts, set in two locations. In boring suburban Croydon live timid bank manager Horace Wiley and his sentimental wife Vera. It is a funny idea that Vera lives her life entirely through the prism of the romantic novels she has consumed since childhood, seeing in her mind’s eye dashing heroes with their blouses slashed open to the waist revealing manly chests, while their black locks blow in the wind which is also whipping up the storm-tossed waves of the sea, and so on and so on.

The way Vera forces timid, knock-kneed, big-eared Horace to drive all the way to Beachy Head and propose to her is funny, as is the way he gabbles out his speech and then grasps her to his heaving bosom (i.e grabs hold of her) because he is terrified of being blown over the cliff edge and Vera is, whatever she thinks of herself, very solidly built and a good object to cling onto in a gale at the top of a cliff.

They have a son, Esmond (named after the hero in one of Vera’s simpering romances), who is the spitting image of his dad and who grows into an unprepossessing youth whose habit is lurking in unexpected corners. He looks so exactly like his father that Horace becomes more and more upset at looking at his own mirror image every day and when Esmond takes up the drum, Horace finally snaps, getting drunk one evening and going to attack Esmond with the nearest thing to hand, a carving knife, before tripping over and then bursting into tears. His puzzled wife and son put him to bed.

The Ponsons

Vera calls her brother over to help. Albert Ponson is known in his part of Essex as an extremely dodgy second-hand car dealer, with a reputation for violence. Still, even Albert is horrified when he goes up to Horace’s bedroom and listens to the mild-mannered bank manager raving about chopping up his son and dissolving the body in a vat of acid. In fact, this is a ploy by Horace to achieve precisely what then follows: Albert offers to take the boy off Vera’s hands for a bit till Horace calms down.

The reluctant Esmond is piled into Albert’s swish Aston Martin and driven back to the Ponson bungalow in rural Essex. Sharpe gives a funny description of how it is stuffed from top to bottom with the latest gadgets – plasma TV, microwaves, designer kitchen, swimming pool with jacuzzi – and a slightly more unsettling description of how it is only surrounded by this army of kitchenware that Albert’s wife, Belinda, can manage to keep her sanity, in the wide flat boring landscape of Essex.

Apart from his criminal friends, Belinda knows that Albert is routinely unfaithful to her and she’s been wondering whether young Esmond would make a suitable toyboy lover. With this in mind she not only shows him the jacuzzi moments after he’s arrived, dazed and confused at the new house, but strips off and gets into it, scaring the boy – as timid, knock-kneed and shy as his father – witless.

So when he and Belinda return to the bungalow’s shagpile living room half an hour later, Esmond is grateful to accept a whisky from Albert, even though he’s never drunk spirits before in his life. And then another. And another. When Belinda walks back into the room after preparing dinner it is to find Esmond lying unconscious in his own vomit and Albert only barely capable of talking. That does it. He’s a pig and a bully for getting the boy into this state and she has had enough.

Belinda packs her bags, lugs the unconscious Esmond into the Aston Martin, then locks all the bungalow’s internal and external doors, sets all the alarms, and drives off, leaving her unconscious husband forever. When Albert regains dim consciousness later that night, with an appalling hangover, he finds all the doors and (bullet-proof) windows are locked so is forced to pee into the ornamental pot plant in the corner. Then he starts banging and hammering for release. And eventually uses the handgun he keeps in a drawer to shoot off the lock of the door into the garage. It’s about now that the concerned neighbours call the police, alarmed by the sound of shots.

The police

The police are exactly the same kind of dependably burly, straightforward, easily confused coppers who have populated all Sharpe’s novels – in fact are a vital ingredient in all of them – since Wilt. They are thrilled to be called to the bungalow, since they’ve been looking for an excuse to lock up Albert Ponson for some time.

When Albert yells through the garage door that everything’s locked from the outside and he can’t get out, they reassure him that they’ll get a nearby digger truck to hook a chain over the top of the garage door and wrench it open. ‘Don’t do that,’ he yells, ‘because…’ but – too late! As the digger pulls the garage door open the whole side of the house falls onto it and the house collapses in a pile of rubble, leaving a dazed and dust-covered Albert surrounded by sparking electric wires and spouting broken water pipes. His beautiful house!

The police are always, in Sharpe, not agents of law and order but the opposite – stirrers up of confusoin, misunderstanding and anarchy.

Horace does a bunk

At the same time, and interspersed with Albert’s adventures, Horace the bank manager has decided he’s had enough. He too packs his bags and slips out the back door of his nice semi in Croydon, to elude his distraught wife. He goes to his own bank, rummages through the deposit boxes and steals the passport of a customer who looks vaguely like him. After a few nights in an anonymous London hotel, he pays for a berth on a tramp steamer to Latvia where he thinks his wife will never track him down and he can start a new life, thousands of miles away from her endless yacking about Regency heroes and heroines in tight bodices.

This is all easy to do because Vera is contacted by the police in Essex who tell her about her brother’s plight. Thinking her beautiful son is trapped in the house with Albert she drives across the country to be there.

The Gropes of Grope Hall

But Esmond is miles away. Belinda has abandoned her marriage and life in Essex in order to return to her ancestral home, Grope Hall, stuck away in thousands of acres of inhospitable Northumberland moorland. Because, it turns out, she is herself one of the Grope family, the legendary lords of the manors of this remote fastness. In fact the ‘lords’ of the manor have been female ever since a timid Viking, around 900 AD, feeling seasick after the long voyage from Denmark, was assaulted by the ugliest woman in the Saxon village his mates were looting, one Ursula Grope, and carried off back to her village.

That founding abduction of a feeble man by a strong woman set the tone for a dynasty which is a true matriarchy, where power has been handed down from mother to daughter, and where men have been abducted, used for their sperm to fertilise the Grope women, then kept on as chattels and servants.

For a thousand years the Grope women have ruled the roost, through political and industrial revolutions and Belinda, wondering why she ever left for the boring flatlands of Essex, is back with the latest in a long line of kidnapped men, poor Esmond Wiley.

Parallel storylines

In the second half of the novel these storylines proceed in parallel, in brisk comic chapters dominated by frenzied dialogue:

  • Horace Wiley leaves the tramp steamer at Holland and catches trains to Germany, picking up spare passports and identity papers wherever he goes, sometimes catching local buses, sometimes walking remote tracks, south into Italy and then across into France, all the time driven by a (frankly not very believable) desire to evade his ghastly wife. He ends up blundering more by luck than judgement into Catalonia in northern Spain where he comes to rest in a hotel with a fine view of the beach and the thousands of scantily-clad young women who spend the day sunbathing on it. He buys a pair of binoculars and devotes his days to letching at their nubile bodies then, one night, is accosted in the bar by a middle-aged woman, Elsie, who, improbably has been watching him watching her. She boldly invites herself up to his hotel room, quickly strips and gives Horace the first sexual experience he’s had since the act of love which conceived Esmond, seventeen years earlier. Hooked, intoxicated, they eat a big lunch, then retire for more championship sex but just as he is getting into bed for yet another session, Horace drops dead of a heart attack. Panic stricken, Elsie rummages through Horace’s belongings, tidies up the room as best she can and bolts back to her room.
  • Meanwhile, Esmond has come into his own at Grope Hall. Far away from his fussing mother and hate-filled dad, taken under the wing of Old Samuel the groundsman, Esmond turns out to be a natural at all kinds of practical tasks to do with running the farm, looking after the pigs and even the two enormous bulls, bought years ago, to stop any nosy parkers intruding. Belinda decides that she too (like Horace) needs to elaborately cover her tracks and asks Old Samuel to think of a way of disposing of Albert’s car, the one she drove up north in and, to Esmond’s delight, Old Samuel conceives the idea of driving it into one of the many abandoned coal shafts (source of Grope Hall’s wealth in the Industrial Revolution) and then blowing up the mine with dynamite, which fulfils a lifetime of weedy Esmond’s fantasies of violence and destruction.

Taken together these two plotlines reveal the strengths and weaknesses of the book.

The strength is their absurdity, the lengths to which Sharpe can ravel out lunatic conclusions for initially fairly plausible beginnings.

The weakness is that neither really comes to the explosive climax which characterised his earlier books: In the old days Horace Wiley wouldn’t just have dropped dead of a heart attack, he would have been caught in the middle of some kinky bondage position and his girlfriend would have been hand-cuffed to him, as the wardrobe fell over and the hotel staff smashed the door down – something like that. Whereas in this muted version, Horace just drops dead and Elise sneaks off without even discovering that he has a huge sum in cash stashed in his bags. Here, as on many other occasions, it feels like Sharpe is missing a trick to create the kind of mayhem he used to revel in.

Similarly, as soon as I read the word ‘dynamite’ I imagined that Old Samuel might blow up not just a mine shaft but the whole network of disused mines under Grope Hall, ideally at just the moment the entire Grope Family (of mainly women) was assembled in the main hall, at the climax of a great feast to celebrate the return of long-lost Belinda from the wastes of Essex, etc.

But no. The dynamite causes a little explosion which is just enough to cover the stolen car and then he and Esmond block the entrance with barbed wire and a warning sign. Er, that’s it. Compared to the mayhem of Sharpe’s earlier novels, very disappointing.

  • The blundering police blunder on for quite a while, blaming Albert for murdering his missing wife and nephew, and call in a brace of psychiatrists who have no trouble declaring Vera – now hysterical at the unexplained disappearance of her beloved son and husband – clinically insane. One of the dim coppers mistakenly things he overhears the words ‘al-Qaeda’ and so, for a while, there’s the promise that Albert will somehow get involved or be blamed for acts of Islamic terrorism. But this promising idea is never really developed, and he is just subjected to long, wearing interrogations which have none of the comic energy of, say, the battles of wits between the canny Henry Wilt and the hapless Inspector Flint from the first Wilt novel.

Conclusions

The book dawdles towards the marriage of Belinda and Esmond.

Esmond has grown in stature through working the land and making a genuine friendship with Old Samuel and he goes through with the small wedding ceremony to Belinda despite misgivings about making his new wife a bigamist.

Meanwhile Old Samuel digs up the ancient brass plaque in the church and discovers a big bag of gold sovereigns beneath it and gives it to Esmond – who promptly declares they must both share it.

And when Esmond finally nerves himself to make the big speech to Belinda which he’s been preparing for weeks – saying that he rejects the ancient matriarchal traditions of Grope Hall and that he, Esmond, will refuse to be slipped sleeping pills and treated like a skivvy – she agrees! Belinda agrees that the old traditions are barbaric. They are both equals. If they have a baby girl, so be it. If it’s a boy, fine. Let them live equally and happily ever after.

And so, without anything blowing up or burning down, without the police, army, bomb disposal or the air force being at all involved in a massive firefight and the reckless devastation of the entire neighbourhood i.e. without any of the characteristics of a classic Tom Sharpe climax – the novel ends on a quiet sensible note of domestic happiness. Which makes it by far the weirdest ending of any of Tom Sharpe’s novels.


Credit

The Gropes by Tom Sharpe was published by Hutchinson Books in 2009. All quotes and references are to the 2009 Hutchinson paperback edition.

Related links

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.

Wilt in Nowhere by Tom Sharpe (2004)

This is the fourth in the series of novels about hapless polytechnic lecturer Henry Wilt, his wife Eva, and their incorrigible four little girls, now aged 14, at convent school and bubbling over with an unhealthy interest in all things sexual.

The plot gets going when Eva receives an invitation for her and the girls to go visit her Aunt Joanie who lives in the US of A, in the town of Wilma, Tennessee, with husband Uncle Wally, head of Immelmann Enterprises. They own a big town house and an even vaster mansion out by the lake.

On the flight over to America a nice man who introduces himself as Sol Campito stealthily stashes a capsule in Eva’s hand luggage. It contains a super-powerful and super-addictive new narcotic manufactured in Eastern Europe. The US Drug Enforcement Agency, tipped off in advance, stop and search Sol at US Customs, but to their disappointment he is clean, so their suspicions shift to the fat woman and four unruly kids who were sitting next to him on the plane. Their suspicions are confirmed when they contact the cops in Wilt’s home town and examine Eva Wilt’s impressive record of shenanigans, as chronicled in the previous three Wilt novels.

Soon the DEA have staked out and bugged Uncle Wally’s mansion – nicknamed ‘the Starfighter Mansion’ (to the chagrin of the local cops who don’t like being treated like hicks). And since Sol himself had carefully taken down the name and address where Eva would be staying, we can expect him and his colleagues to make a visit. It all promises much mayhem and chaos.

Wilt in Nowhere

Where’s Wilt? Well, our Henry had successfully managed to extricate himself from the invitation and from going to America at all, by pretending he’d been tasked with mugging up revolutionary communist movements in order to teach a new course on it at the Technical College – something they both know would be a red rag to Uncle Wally’s good ‘ole boy, Republican beliefs.

On this flimsy excuse Wilt is left behind and puts into action a much-longed-for fantasy – of putting on walking boots and walking clothes and donning a light backpack, catching a bus to somewhere on the Welsh border and then setting off, without even a map, to follow his instincts and discover the beauties of the English countryside.

At first this goes well, tramping the open country by day and sleeping in village b&bs by night – but on the fourth day he finds himself in an exposed heath just as storm clouds gather and the heavens open. By the time he’s made it to shelter under a copse of trees he is soaked to the skin, so he pulls out the bottle of scotch which he brought along for medicinal purposes and drinks some to warm up. Then some more. Then just another nip. Staggering to his feet as darkness falls, Wilt blunders through the gloom, trips over some roots and falls down into a deep lane, in fact straight into the back of Bert Addle’s pickup truck, where he is knocked unconscious.

Bert Addle, Bob Battleby and Ruth Rottecombe

Bert Addle? Yes, because now The Farce Begins. Bert is the nephew of old Martha Meadows, who was cook and housekeeper to nice General and Mrs Battleby who loved at Meldrum Manor. But when they were killed in a collision with a lorry, the old manor went to their nephew, Bob Battleby, an offensive drunk. Not only that, Bob is having an affair with the wife, Ruth Rottecombe, of a local politician, the Shadow Minister for Social Enhancement, Harold Rottecombe. Not only that, she and ‘Beat-me’ Bob indulge in bondage sessions where Ruth is transformed into ‘Ruth the Ruthless’, ties him up and whips the drunk, sobbing Bob.

What sets the plot going is that Bob has got roaring drunk one too many times and insulted good old Martha to her face and sacked her, leaving her without an income to look after her husband, incapacitated by a stroke. (Although in a different tone and setting, this trope reminds me of the worthy Madge Walker, devoted to looking after her bedridden husband, in Kingsley Amis’s final novel, The Biographer’s Moustache.) Martha tells her sorrows to nephew Bert Addle, recently laid off at a shipyard, and together they cook up a fiendish plan for revenge.

Bert drives over to the Manor one night when they know the Bob’n’Ruth will be out at the Country Club, drinking and playing cards. Bert assembles flammable items in the kitchen bin, and sets fire to it. But he hadn’t reckoned on a bunch of aerosol air fresheners the couple had thrown away, lurking at the bottom of the bin, which explode rather noisily, blowing out the windows with a boom and alerting the neighbourhood to the fire.

When the fire brigade arrive they find Ruth’s car – which Bert has thoughtfully stolen and parked to deliberately block the drive to the house. When the firemen break into it to move it they discover a pile of the vilest S&M magazines, cuffs, whips and equipment on prominent display. (Martha, being their housekeeper, knew all about these and had told Bert where to find the couple’s porn stash in the nearby barn.) But farce in Sharpe must be savage, and so thrown in among the adult porn are photos and magazines about paedophilia – with some particularly grim examples of children being violently raped and abused which Bob kept in his most secret hidey-hole. But now his secret is out.

When the police arrive they conclude that the fire is deliberate arson and, when shown the magazines, arrest Bob – who’s arrived drunk and abusive from his club – along with Ruthless Ruth, who has quickly seized up the situation and – stone cold sober – realises she has to separate herself from her doomed partner-in-lust.

Where’s Wilt?

Where is Henry Wilt in all this? When Bert discovered Wilt unconscious in the back of his pick-up as he was nicking Ruth’s car, he unceremoniously dumped our man in the Rottecombe garage. When Ruth finally gets back from the all-night interrogation of herself and Bob Battleby at the police station to her home, Leyline Lodge, it is to discover her politician husband Harold incandescent with anger at the shitstorm she’s stirred up – the phone is ringing off the hook from journalists following up the story about ‘Shadow Minister’s Wife In Kinky Sex and Arson Scandal’ – but also demanding an explanation for the body of a man he has discovered in their garage: just another one of her and Bob’s pick-ups’, is he? For once Ruth is totally innocent and knows she has to do something drastic!

Comic developments

Having created two pots bubbling over with comic potential and a ripe collection of grotesque characters, Sharpe spends the second half of the book stirring them and adding extra farcical ingredients to maximum comic effect.

1. American grotesque

The most Sharpe-esque is in America, where Uncle Wally and Auntie Joan take Eva and the quads up to their place in the country, a big ‘cabin’ by Lake Sassaquassee, in grounds cleared of trees so no grizzly bears can sneak up on Joanie.

Uncle Wally guilelessly shows the quads his various types of US can-do technology, including an old fashioned reel-to-reel tape tape recorder he has hooked up to a mega sound system which can deafen the neighbourhood with Abba or Frank Sinatra or machine gun fire, depending on his mood.

That evening the quads, with a wickedness nice Uncle Wally couldn’t begin to suspect, hide the tape recorder under his and Joanie’s bed and set the timer to go off after dinner. It starts recording just in time to perfectly capture a prolonged argument the couple have, with drunk Wally insisting he wants to make love to Auntie Joan, who refuses and then heaps all sorts of abuse on Wally, with scornful references to his tiny member and his inability to get it up, before, in a rage, he forcibly mounts her but appears to be prodding the wrong hole – whereat she screams even louder at him, in a diatribe which manages to bring in references to the Bible and even to their lawyer, who happens to be Jewish.

Next day the quads sneak the tape recorder back, stick a label claiming it’s Abba’s Greatest Hits onto the tape which recorded last night’s fight, and carefully put the machine back in place, hooked up to the cabin’s vast loudspeakers system. And set the timer on the whole thing.

A bad-tempered Wally, Joanie, Eva and the quads get in the car and drive back to town. It is only hours after they’ve arrived that the tape automatically starts playing and projects over Wally’s 1,000 decibel sound system his argument about wanting to fuck his wife and her refusal to take it up the back passage, so loudly it can be heard for a distance of over ten miles all around.

The local police are called and drive out to the cabin can’t even get near because the volume shatters their windscreens and deafens them. An Army assault unit tries to clamber over the barbed wire fences into the grounds, but here a typical bit of Sharpe takes place. Earlier we had learned that the country cabin sits amid Uncle Wally’s huge collection of instruments of death, including Sherman tanks, various armoured combat vehicles, even a B-52 – all hideous reminders of America’s ability to hand out mega-death to all and sundry. What the Army assault squad don’t know is that these things are primed to react to intruders. So as they climb over the perimeter fence, deafened by Auntie Joanie’s shrieks of pain as she receives Uncle Wally’s penis in an unnatural place, the machine guns on all the tanks and armoured cars swivel towards them and start firing.

Now this is more like the Tom Sharpe we know and love. This is like the hysterically improbable and wildly violent climax of so many of his other farces. However, oddly, this scene comes half way through the book and, after the troops have backed off, a squad of Army bomb disposal experts, deafened in the Iraq War, manage to make it through the defences and finally turn off the tape. I was expecting something more apocalyptic – at the very least a fleet of helicopters strafing the cabin like in Apolcalypse Now, preferably with Wally, Joanie, Eva and the quads still inside.

Thereafter the narrative switches between America and Britain, but the US storyline winds down after this not-quite-mad-enough climax. Despite bugging his town house, searching his swimming pool and raiding his country cabin, neither the FBI nor DEA find anything to do with Sol’s drugs on Uncle Wally.

Admittedly the broadcasting of the most humiliating drunk sex conversation possible over a radius of 15 miles hits Wally so hard that he has a heart attack and is rushed to hospital. Where he has barely recovered, before he discovers that the quads had, in another quiet moment, hacked into his computer and sent foul-mouthed rants and obscene requests to everyone on his email address list – thus pretty much destroying  his company. Which gives him another heart attack.

So it comes as no surprise that by this time Wally and Joanie have had enough of their English visitors, kick them out and pay for the taxi to the airport and the air fare home.

Harry Rottecombe’s death

Back in England, with the nation’s press moving in on their house, Leyline Lodge, to follow up on her relationship with the disgraced Bob Bartleby, Ruth had set her two Rottweilers (wittily named Wilfred and Pickles) on the most foolhardy pressmen, the so-called Butch Cassidy and the Flashbulb Kid who had been snuck into the garden and were planning to get photos through the windows. They are severely mauled, their screams for help successfully deterring the rest of the pack.

But when she goes back inside the house, Ruth realises that husband Harold has done a bunk. Wise move, she thinks, and gets on with things. While Ruth was supervising the savaging of the journalists, Harold had snuck out the back of the house and down to the local river which runs at the bottom of their garden. But the river is too high and fast-moving to row on (partly due to the very storm which had prompted Wilt to take shelter and get drunk a few days before).

So Harold sets off walking along the river heading for the nearest town and then on to some safe haven for a while. But after a few miles walking he is shattered, his shoes pinching and chafing but, when he stops to examine his feet, one shoe rolls into the river, he scrabbles to retrieve it, the tree stump he’s leaning on snaps, he tumbles into the river and bangs his head on the pier of a nearby bridge. Then drowns. And his supine body is washed out into the Bristol Channel.

Where it is eventually found by the police, who identify it and open a murder case.

All this feeds into the Wilt plotline adding another layer of confusion and complication. The narrative certainly becomes complex but is ultimately disappointing. In fact as you read on you realise the whole book has suffered from having its climax – the armed assault on Wally’s country fortress – in the middle.

Ruthless Ruth loads the still unconscious Wilt into her Volvo estate and drives to a run-down part of the nearest town, Oston, and dumps him there half-naked. A little later some skinheads come by and give his unconscious body a good kicking for no particular reason, then stroll on. Eventually an old lady in the nearby high rise flats – a testament to local authority greed and corruption – phones an ambulance which collects Wilt and takes him to Oston hospital.

And eventually word gets through both to Eva and to Wilt’s old sparring partner, Inspector Flint of Ipford police, that Wilt is somewhere in Oston hospital. There is then a lot of satire about the bureaucracy and incompetence of the National Health Service with Wilt being moved from one department to another faster than Eva and Flint can track him down, hampered by unfriendly or gormless secretaries, receptionists and nurses.

When Wilt finally regains consciousness, he complicates things further by deciding to pretend he’s lost his memory, in order to provoke the shrinks who are treating him. Which also has the effect of winding up his old nemesis, Inspector Flint – who’s finally tracked him down through the vast labyrinthine hospital.

After some initial fencing and sparring between the old foes, Wilt eventually comes clean about the events leading up to his drunkenly tripping over a tree root. But as for the rest, including the mysterious disappearance of a member of the shadow cabinet, he genuinely has no knowledge.

Meanwhile, Ruth has been subjected to days and days of questioning without sleep or a lawyer, both about the fire and the death of her husband. The cloud of suspicion hanging over her is not helped when it is revealed that she is in fact a former prostitute who specialised in bondage, who fled her patch when a client died from a little too much whipping years earlier, adopted a fake identity and then cosied up to the repellent but well-connected Bob Battleby as ‘cover’.

Finally she cracks and tells the cops everything she knows – she was involved in S&M with Battleby but knows nothing about the arson, she found Wilt in her garage with no idea who he was or how he got there, it’s true that she took his body to a nasty council estate and dumped him there but that’s the sum total of her activities regarding him, and she has no idea where her husband the Shadow Minister is or – when his body turns up drowned – how on earth it happened.

A shadow of guilt covers her for a while – after all, Wilt is suffering from a blow to the head very similar to the one on dead Harry’s corpse – but eventually this nexus of circumstantiality unwinds and dissolves. Forensics show Harry probably drowned in an accident (as we know happened). All the evidence (including the empty whisky bottle where he said it would be) exonerates Wilt of any wrongdoing, notably the arson of Meldrum Manor.

Although Wilt and Eva and Flint and various policemen, doctors and nurses all get their knickers in a twist, shouting and insulting and abusing each other at the drop of a hat, in the event the plot fizzles out, all charges are dropped (the true arsonist, Bert Addle, covered his tracks well and gets away scot-free) and the last pages find Wilt happily ensconced back in the family home at 45 Oakhurst Avenue and determined never to leave it again.

From the way it was set up I expected at the very least that Sol and his mafia colleagues would lay siege to Uncle Wally’s house; I expected someone to accidentally consume the vial of new super-powerful narcotic (Auntie Joanie? Eva Wilt?) and go on a demented spree; I expected the DEA and FBI and the local cops – who all resent each other – to break out into fisticuffs if not armed conflict. Disappointingly, none of this happens.

And the climax of the English section is really only caused by Wilt’s stubborn refusal to come clean and give his story to the cops. It is only him faking amnesia and giving deliberately confusing replies to the psychiatrists and police which causes even a whit of farce, and this is limited to him being put into a mental home for a bit – and as soon as he decides to come clean and tell what he knows, he simply walks out.

Author’s message

In this final section, when Wilt has been transferred to a mental home while the psychiatrists try to sort out his amnesia and other confusions, we the readers know that he’s faking, so there’s no risk or charge involved.

When he decides to leave he pretty much simply walks out the door with Eva at his side. The best Sharpe can come up with by way of comic climax is to have one of the quads, Emmeline, do her party trick of slipping her pet rat Freddy under her jumper and encouraging him to move around, thus giving anyone she encounters the impression that she has a mobile breast moving around her chest.

This is all it takes, in this fictional world, to spark an outbreak of panic and hysteria at the mental hospital. Eva and Wilt have only just made it to the car when a crowd of demented patients runs screaming out of the main door, trampling the unfortunate Inspector Flint underfoot.

It is at this point that Flint has in insight into the ways of the universe:

Tripping on the gravel and then being trampled over by a herd of maddened lunatics had given him fresh insight into Wilt’s inconsequential view of life. Things just happened to people for no good reason and, while Flint had previously believed that every effect had to have a rational cause, he now realised that the purely accidental was the norm. In short, nothing made sense. The world was as mad as the inmates of the hospital he had just left. (p.269)

This is a useful, if rather pedestrian, summary of the worldview of Sharpe’s books.

But how much better when an author’s worldview is embodied in the narrative and text, rather than pinned at the end like a post-it note. At his best Sharpe’s novels are full of a genuinely outrageous comic madness, violence, obscenity. This one has moments and ideas which hint at the true Sharpean madness, but nowhere really achieves it.

Contemporary references

As with The Midden, Sharpe sprinkles the text with topical references – to 9/11 and al-Qaeda or to Harold Shipman (the GP who was found guilty of 15 murders in January 2000) and these certainly add to Sharpe’s anger and ferocity, but they don’t really improve the design or effectiveness of the plot. They just show that he reads the papers and is appalled at the same kinds of things the rest of us are.


Credit

Wilt in Nowhere by Tom Sharpe was published by Hutchinson Books by 2004. All quotes and references are to the 2005 Arrow paperback edition.

Related links

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.

The Midden by Tom Sharpe (1996)

Thatcher’s legacy

Sharpe is revolted by the power, corruption and lies in British society. Since this book was published in 1996, he’s talking about the power, corruption and lies which rose during Mrs Thatcher’s premiership, 1979 to 1990 and the book contains a number of surprisingly cutting references to her and her policies, specifically the privatisation of public utilities. The Midden is the name of a place in the novel, but it is also a not very subtle reference to the shitheap England has become under Tory rule.

Sir Arnold Gonders had learnt the political catechism of Thatcherism very well indeed: only money mattered and preferably the newest money that talked about little else and cared for nothing. (p.89)

Thus Sharpe looks back at Thatcher’s 1980s as the Triumph of Greed when idiots in the City could earn a fortune, when heads of newly privatised companies found themselves being paid millions of pounds, when a new breed of amoral multi-millionaire arose who could use all the forces of law to silence their critics – exemplified in the figure of Robert Maxwell (died 1991), vilified in this novel as he was in the previous one.

Timothy Bright

It is against this real historical background that we’re introduced to the comic character Timothy Bright, scion of the family of Brights who have undeservedly made fortunes down the ages from the entire catalogue of dodgy British behaviour, starting with the slave trade. Young Timothy is just the kind of cocky dimwit to thrive in the City of London, where he is duly – as per the family tradition – made a Name at Lloyds, and dishes out all kinds of reckless and useless advice to clients while himself prospering obscenely.

Until the train hits the buffers and the Recession of the early 1990s strikes. There are a series of big claims about asbestosis which bankrupt fellow Names he had introduced to Lloyds, and then Timothy himself loses everything: his flat, his car and his job at a big bank. He goes to a casino with his last reserves of cash but loses heavily and is taken to meet the threatening owner: he must pay back the £30,000 he now owes within the week or the boys will be round.

Not coincidentally, Timothy gets a phone call from someone he doesn’t know and is invited to go to a nearby wine bar, where he is astonished to be confronted by a vicious foreign criminal, Mr Markinkus, who tells him the boys are very unhappy at the way his uncle, the High Court judge Benderby Bright, has been locking some of the lads away. Therefore, they are charging Timothy with taking a ‘package’ down to Uncle Benderby’s holiday yacht, moored off the Spanish coast, and taking the ‘package’ aboard and hiding it somewhere. The alternative is… and Markinkus passes over a photo of a pig which has been eviscerated for the abattoir, flesh hanging off, dripping in blood. Shaking with shock, Timothy emerges into the street clutching the ‘package’ and with a down-payment of £5,000 for carrying out the ‘mission’.

OK. So be it. Timothy now steps over the line into criminality y using his position as financial adviser to sell off shares of various aged Bright relatives and draw the cash.

Cornwall

He packs the money in a light bag and drives his motorbike down to Cornwall to stay a night with his uncle Victor Bright en route for Spain (one of the comic ideas is that the Bright clan is so vast it has branches everywhere). Uncle Victor’s house is the bucolic Pud End near Fowey and he just happens to have his jolly decent nephew, Harry Gould, staying with him.

They are both so repelled by Timothy’s boorish selfishness that within 24 hours Harry conceives the naughty plan of lacing Timothy’s special tobacco with ‘Toad’ – essence of Toad, the most powerful hallucinogen known to man – which he happens to have bought on his recent trip to Australia and was bringing back as a favour for a friend who is a toxicologist.

The mad motorbike ride

Thus, without realising it, Timothy smokes a portion of Toad and goes bonkers. Suffering fantastic hallucinations he jumps on his motorbike and drives at 170 mph north up the motorway, off onto a random side road, before crashing into sheep, landing amid fir trees, but surviving all this with the reckless invulnerability of the very stoned, before climbing over some wall – accidentally squelching the snarling guard dog – through the open front door of the nearest building, up the stairs and into a completely strange bed, where he passes out. Quite a funny sequence.

Sir Arnold Gonders

Which is where he is found late that night by the Chief Constable of Twixt and Tween, the very corrupt Sir Arnold Gonders, who runs his police force for the benefit of local property developers and crooks, going to great lengths to frame the innocent and cover the backs of local drug dealers and criminals. The police in his earliest South Africa satires had been brutal and stupid, but Sharpe goes to great lengths to depict the corruption and immorality of these comic policemen. Gonders is a vile, corrupt specimen who placates his conscience by being highly godly and regularly giving the sermon at  his local church – a reference, for those who remember him, to James Anderton, a former chief constable of Greater Manchester, England, sometimes referred to as God’s Cop for his frequent references to the Almighty, who retired in 1991.

Gonders He had been at a piss-up of his police force, complete with numerous strippers, when the jackals of the Press invaded and he stormed out the back, got a patrol car to drive him up to his country house near Scarsgate, and drunkenly stumbled up the stairs only to discover his horrible but posh wife, Lady Vy, in bed with an unconscious naked man (Timothy). He bludgeons Timothy with a heavy bedside lamp – blood everywhere – but in doing so wakes Lady Vy so suddenly with his shouting and raving that she seizes the gun she always keeps at her bedside and lets off potshots at her suddenly terrified copper husband.

Hiding Timothy

When he’s calmed Lady Vy down, the Gonders tie up the unconscious Timothy in bedsheets and manhandle him down to the cellar, grab a few hours’ kip and then dress up to host a party of the revolting nouveaux riches – the crooks and property developers and TV presenters – who they count as friends. One topic of conversation is the persistent refusal to allow local property development by the old fuddy-duddy family, the Middens, who live across the reservoir in the huge monstrous Middenhall, whose main representative is Miss Marjorie Midden, presented as something like an upholder of old-school values and decency (as much as anyone is, in a Sharpe novel).

Pud End

Meanwhile, uncle Victor and Harry Gould, feeling a little guilty at Timothy’s probable fate, discover that he left in such a hurry that he left behind a ‘package’ and bags. These they stash under the stairs, expecting Timothy to return at some stage, eventually, maybe.

The Midden

It’s here, 100 or so pages into this 340-page-long book, that we finally meet The Midden. It is a house belonging to the Middens, a large and ancient family. It is near to the monstrosity named Middenhall which was built by ‘Black’ Midden, so-named because of the techniques he employed and the people he worked to death to build a vast fortune in South Africa at the turn of the century. When Black Midden returned to the north of England at the turn of the century, he sent several architects round the bend with his request for a vast, indestructible and grotesquesly ugly hall plonked down in the middle of the north country fells. As if this wasn’t enough, the long drive was lined with twenty-foot-tall statues of classical characters performing explicit sexual acts on each other. (pp.120-124)

When he died as a result of a fashionable monkey gland operation to restore his flagging virility in 1931, Black Midden’s will stipulated that Middenhall must become a sanctuary for all members of the Midden clan who wished to live there. He hadn’t anticipated the post-war collapse of the British Empire which resulted in all sorts of arrogant colonial shits retreating from abandoned colonies across Africa and the Far East, to seek sanctuary in what rapidly became a kind of multi-roomed madhouse, bullying the staff and calling the local cooks and cleaners ‘kaffir’ and ‘boy’.

However, Black Midden’s great grand-daughter Miss Marjorie Midden put a stop to all this nonsense. Miss Midden restored some order to Middenhall and made the horrible Middens behave with a semblance of decency. She herself preferred to live in a converted cottage in the grounds, known as The Midden, along with a cook and a puny non-Midden character, a Major McPhee. In fact McPhee is given something like a sympathetic back story, explaining that he was always a hopeless small time crook, who was dazzled by the glamour and decisiveness of Army officers he met after running away to sea. And so he set out to copy their manners and dress and slowly succeeded in becoming known as ‘the Major’ despite having never been in the army. (pp.136-140)

Timothy is moved

Middenhall is not far from the Boathouse home which corrupt cop Sir Arnold Gonders has bought and renovated, and where he found Timothy’s drug-blasted body. Now, in the dead of night, Gonders packs the tied-up body of Tim into his Land Rover drives without lights into the grounds of Middenhall and down to the Midden – having rung ahead and established that Miss Midden was away from home – and manhandles Timothy through an open window, up the stairs and under the bed of Major McPhee (also away from home).

Briefly, after some comic misunderstandings, Miss Midden discovers Timothy and forces him to tell his story: the threat to his life, the mission to take the ‘package’ aboard Benderby Bright’s yacht, his stopover at Pud End where it all goes blank.

Puzzled, Miss M motors down to Cornwall to Uncle Victor’s house. Here she masquerades as a nurse at the hospital where (she claims) poor Timothy is recovering from a terrible motorbike crash (putting the willies up Uncle Victor and Henry), and collects Timothy’s clothes and bags, before returning north to Middenhall. (And that’s the last we hear of the Cornish connection.)

When she opens Timothy’s bag, sure enough, there is posts of cash, and the ‘package’ – I wondered if it was a bomb – turns out to be full of drugs i.e. Mr Markinkus and his crew were going to tip off the authorities and get Judge Benderby a taste of his own medicine, either that or blackmail him.

Instead, Miss M travels all the way to London to confront the judge, to give him Timothy’s written deposition of the plot against him, and to hand over the cashed shares stolen from the Bright family members. Order is restored. She sweeps out, leaving the judge speechless.

God’s cop

Meanwhile God’s Cop has not been inactive. There is a richly, disgustingly farcical scene where he is attacked by his wife’s lesbian lover, the shrivelled Auntie Bea, who whisks Lady Vy off down to her posh father’s house in London. In a now permanent state of half-drunk incandescent anger, Sir Arnold comes to the completely erroneous conclusion that the only person who could have placed the body of a naked stoned young man in his wife’s bed must have been that wretched Midden woman from across the reservoir. He’s got his own back a bit by dumping the wrapped-up body of said man in her house. Now he goes one step further to concoct a vicious revenge.

Urnmouth Hydro

First he travels to the nearby seaside town of Urnmouth and to the old hydro building, built by the moralistic Victorians as a health centre and now converted by a sleazy American immigrant, Maxie Schryberg, into a sado-masochistic brothel. Each of the rooms is equipped with an array of bondage equipment but, unknown to the users, also hidden cameras.

Sir Arnold is shown to his usual place, the Video Room, by the servile owner, from which he can watch all the activities going on in each of the rooms. The extent of Arnold’s corruption is rammed home by stories of the various local MPs and dignitaries who have been filmed in the dungeon rooms, being tied up and whipped etc, and who Arnold has then been able to blackmail into framing innocent citizens or to getting crooked drug dealers or property developers off the hook, or letting crooked property deals go by on the nod.

The prolonged visit to the Hydro (pp.202-212) is justified in the plot because Sir Arnold is supposedly looking for ideas with which to frame Miss Midden and stumbles across the idea of framing her for child pornography and pedophilia. But there are three pages or so devoted to the vile Schryberg describing in salacious detail two particularly extreme cases he’s witnessed: the client who asked for a priest to be in attendance while he was actually hanged by the neck by a woman in bondage gear, and another who wanted to be completely wrapped in cellophane and have a whore crap and pee on his face.

Sharpe’s thing is farce, savage farce, extreme farce, farce which seeks out and pushes the sensitive buttons and so which has been devoted from the beginning to depicting the most bizarre and grotesque sexual misadventures. What gives it extra piquancy in this book is the way the nasty brothel-keeper is not only a Yank – like the vile drug dealer and his team in Grantchester Grind – but a keen fan of Mrs Thatcher.

‘You wouldn’t believe it but I am a believer always in family values. Sure, you laugh but it is true. Like the Great Lady say, “What we need is family values like the Victorians.”… Some great lady. I drink to her. The Iron Maiden.’ (p.205)

Something has gone very badly wrong with the whole Thatcherite project if it’s staunchest supporters include corrupt cops and American brothel-keepers.

Operation Kiddywink

So, anyway, Sir Arnold decides to frame Miss M and the inhabitants of Middenhall for child sex abuse. He sets his most devoted and dumbest officer, Superintendant Anscombe on the case, who Sharpe viciously says would have made an excellent supervisor of an Execution Squad when the Nazis invaded Russia. Instead, living in England in the 1990s, he takes his boss’s orders to stage a raid on Middenhall very literally and organises a Rapid Response Unit to creep up on the hall, ready for a raid.

Sir Arnold had prepared the way by anonymously posting to Major McPhee a big package stuffed with child pornography which McPhee opens to his horror – though not as much as Miss Marjorie’s, who is standing by when he opens it.

But reality exceeds Sir Arnold’s wildest dreams because the ‘raid’ happens to coincide with the annual visit to the large grounds of Middenhall by children from the Porterhouse Mission for deprived East End children, set up under Black Midden’s high Victorian ancestors, in co-operation with the very same (fictional) Cambridge college, Porterhouse which is, of course, the subject of Sharpe’s previous novels, Porterhouse Blue and Grantchester Grind. (p.278) (In an intriguing example of recurrence, Lady Mary Godber’s solicitors from that novel, Lapline and Goodenough, recur in this one as Marjorie’s solicitors, p.291).

The officers hiding in the bushes and filming all this report back to Stagstead police HQ that an entire mini-van of children has arrived, that some are skinnydipping in the lake, and that – my God! – there’s a man dressed up as a priest being rowed across the lake to some kind of makeshift altar carrying a kind of cross. Good God! They’re going to perform a black mass! What the officers on the spot fail to convey is that the priest in the rowboat really is a priest and he really is going to try and conduct a Christian service, even though most of the ‘deprived children’ are in fact hulking teenagers who are more interested in bunking off to smoke fags or explore each others spotty bodies in the undergrowth, and the remainder are mostly Muslim so watching in boredom.

But this doesn’t prevent dim, worked-up Inspector Ranscombe of course thinking these demons are about to stake out a helpless child on the ‘altar’, then rip its heart out and drink its blood. So he sends in the Armed Quick Response Team, who grab their guns, race to the hall, and make their way from bush to bush and tree to tree to intervene in the disgusting bloodbath.

Firefight

Nobody knows any of this is happening until old ‘Buffalo’ Midden, legendary hunter back in Africa, spots men in camouflage outfits infiltrating themselves into the grounds and goes up to the roof of Middenhall with his trusty Lee Enfield .303 rifle and start sniping them, at which point all hell breaks loose. He shoots quite a few of the AQRT, whose screams send the vicar and social workers in charge of the deprived children ushering them as far away as possible, while members of the AQRT inevitably start firing back, wounding and indeed killing various harmless old members of the extended Midden menagerie who happen to look out the window to see what’s going on.

In other words, the story reaches a bloody climax in an extravagantly violent shootout, leaving the park strewn with the dead and dying – a climax which powerfully recalls the bloody shootouts which have featured in almost all his best work (Riotous Assembly, Indecent Exposure, Blott on the Landscape, The Throwback).

But that isn’t enough. Because – of course! – cook left several pans full of fat heating on the hob to make breakfast. And it’s around this point that a kind-hearted old lady – Mrs Laura Midden Rayter – realises she ought to put them out and does so by chucking cold water at them. With the result that boiling fat goes everywhere including the flames and – whoosh! – the whole house becomes a raging inferno, rapidly consuming even more Midden hangers-on.

But even this isn’t enough, because Sharpe throws in a convoy of vehicles carrying social workers and Child Abuse Trauma Specialists who had been attending a conference devoted to ‘The Sphincter: Its Diagnostic Role In Parental Rape Inspections’ who had overheard police radio chatter about the break-up of the biggest pedophile ring in a generation and so have come rushing to lavish their hard-faced ‘care’ to the young victims. A couple of pages are devoted to excoriating white-hot anger directed at so-called sex abuse experts, and directly references the Orkney child abuse scandal of 1991 when a load of children were taken from their parents over what turned out, in the end, to be completely baseless allegations. And so Sharpe’s Child Abuse Trauma Specialists include:

witchcraft experts from Scotland, sodomy specialists from south Wales, oral-sex-in-infancy counsellors, mutual masturbation advisers for adolescents, a number of clitoris stimulation experts, four vasectomists (female), and finally fifteen whores who had come to tell the conference what men really wanted. If they were anything to go by, what men wanted was anything, but anything, with two legs, a short skirt and a mouthful of rotten teeth. (p.310)

You can feel Sharpe’s anger and disgust erupting from the page.

The whole point of Sharpe’s style of farce is that wherever he sees a boundary line, a barrier, a limit of decorum or restraint, he is compelled to smash it to pieces and push the destruction, sexual depravity, moral corruption and pointless violence to the max.

In the aftermath of the bloodbath and enormous fire, there are enquiries and post-mortems on the various corpses and:

  • Miss Midden is secretly joyous that the responsibility and the curse of Middenhall has been lifted from her shoulders.
  • She is visited by her patronising neighbour, stout Phoebe Turnbull who is obsessed with traditional field sports, and tells her she knows of a nervous young man, one Timothy Bright, who’s had a nervous breakdown after working too hard in the City. Could she take him to her bosom and relieve his spirit by learning country ways and sports?
  • And Sir Arnold Gonders? Realising the poo he’s landed in he takes drastic steps, deciding to feign illness, misremembering from somewhere that eating lots of toothpaste brings on severe symptoms. It does, but when they rush him to hospital and pump his stomach to reveal pints of Colgate, he emerges as even more of a buffoon than the Middenhall fiasco has painted him. His career is over.

Mrs Thatcher

It is striking the vehemence with which Sharpe links Thatcher’s name with the rise in Greed Culture and public amorality, with the privatisation of public utilities which immediately doubled their prices and the pay of the senior executives, and with numerous other forms of corruption. Making the vilest character, Maxie Schryberg, into her greatest fan is a hard dig. But when Lady Vy’s father – Sir Edward Gilmott-Gwyre (p.238) – thinks about his son-in-law Sir Arnold, he thinks of ‘a man who was as brazenly corrupt as any police officer promoted and protected by Mrs Thatcher’ (p.244). I’m surprised that’s legal.

Then Sir Edward downs a drink in readiness for meeting an old pal to whom he wants to expound his latest theory about why Mrs Thatcher is so keen for the government to arm the Muslim Croats during the Yugoslav civil wars.

Her son was an arms dealer and by backing the Muslims so openly she was bound to help dear little Markie’s standing in Saudi Arabia. (p.246)

Very personal attacks, these. In the final pages, Sir Arnold delivers a two-page sermon to a nearby congregation (blissfully unaware of the holocaust taking place at the Middenhall), ‘a series of admonitions which made God sound like the Great Lady herself at her most mercenary’ and which consists of calls to the congregation to unleash free enterprise and free endeavour, crack down on spongers and beggars, and help the police with their holy work. (pp.329-330) Her successor appears in a cameo scene, too, when news of the disaster obviously hits the Home Office and Prime Minister’s office and they discuss what to do with the now radioactive Sir Arnold. Hang him out to dry, obviously. But we mustn’t rock the boat, cautions the PM. ‘He really was a very weak man.’ (p.336) This can only refer to John Major, Prime Minister from 1990 to 1997.

But there are other contemporary references too. There was an eleven year gap in Sharpe’s novels between Wilt on High (1984) and Grantchester Grind (1995) and it is as if Sharpe has been saving up his rage and despair at the human race for all that time ready for it to burst forth, not only in the gruesome plot, but in a text which is unusually larded with contemporary references.

As well as Mrs Thatcher and Robert Maxwell, and the Orkney child abuse scandal, the book references the utter stupidity of the Oklahoma bombing (April 19, 1995) as a comparison for the boom which can be heard across the county when mad old Buffalo Midden decides to shoot the big propane tank behind Middenhall. And the devastation which greets the solicitor Lennox Midden as he makes his way through the smoking ruins of Middenhall Park is reminiscent of the ‘devastation unnecessarily and barbarously inflicted on the Iraqi convoy north of Kuwait City’ (February 1991).

Conclusion

Though not as gut-wrenchingly outrageously funny as the novels from the 1970s, this is nonetheless a lot funner that Grantchester Grind and something of a return to demented form.

Only when old ‘Buffalo’ Midden starts taking pot shots at the cops in the grounds and they return fire, mortally wounding various ancient members of the Midden family, did I remember how much the we’d been missing by way of Sharpe’s comically insensate violence.


God’s cop

Sir Cyril James Anderton CBE, KStJ, QPM, DL (born 1932) served as chief constable of Greater Manchester from 1976 to 1991. He was nickname ‘God’s cop’ by the popular press for a series of controversial statements he made, most notoriously about gays and AIDS, in which he invoked the authority of God and the Bible. This led the Manchester pop band the Happy Mondays to write a song about him.


Credit

The Midden  by Tom Sharpe was published by André Deutsch in 1996. All quotes and references are to the 1997 Pan paperback edition.

Related links

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.

Grantchester Grind by Tom Sharpe (1995)

The Praelector waited in the drawing-room, staring out into the pulsating night and thinking about the May Balls he had known in his youth. They had been sedate affairs and he had enjoyed them enormously, swinging round the Hall doing the quickstep or a foxtrot and, most daringly of all, the tango with a polished liveliness and delight that was a world away from the mechanical Bacchanalia the young now seemed to crave. Not that he blamed them. They were drowning out a world that seemed to have no structure to it and no meaning for them, a monstrous bazaar in which the only recognised criteria were money and sex and drugs and the pursuit of moments of partial oblivion. (p.475)

The front cover and title page describe this as ‘A Porterhouse Chronicle’ as if it’s one of a whole series of novels about the fictional Cambridge college which made its first appearance in Sharpe’s 1974 novel, Porterhouse Blue. But it took 21 years for this sequel to appear and, in the event, there are only two Porterhouse books, this being the second and last one.

It’s a bit long for a comic novel, at 490 pages in this Pan paperback edition, and it is not as funny as its predecessor. Sharpe is still capable of rising to moments of savage farce, but they’re fewer and further between. And – crucially – the kind of swearing and sexual explicitness which felt taboo-breaking and transgressive in the 1970s, were no longer nearly as shocking in the mid-90s, and now – in 2016 – feels run-of-the-mill. Characters saying ‘fuck’ or dressing up in PVC sex outfits is no longer at the far edge of respectability.

The Plot

The fictional Cambridge college of Porterhouse has a reputation as being the most reactionary college in the university, but its finances are in a dire state. Much of the infrastructure is peeling and dropping off. The college is run by a council of Senior Fellows and the plot consists of following their bumbling and farcical attempts to drum up new financing for their alma mater. They are:

  • the Dean (a small round man with a red face, p.224)
  • the Senior Tutor
  • the Bursar
  • the Praelector (tall and thin, p.224)
  • the Chaplain – amiable, bumbling and deaf – giving rise to numerous comic misunderstandings
  • and the Master

The Master is in fact the former Head Porter, Skullion, who we saw, at the end of Porterhouse Blue, have a major stroke. In fact ‘Porterhouse Blue’ is college slang for just such a stroke. Now Skullion is permanently ensconced in a wheelchair and only intermittently capable of speech.

So off they go to find money. The Dean goes to visit Old Porterthusians around the country who, predictably, turn out to be various shades of nasty, drunk, impoverished and violent, notably the Honourable Jeremy Pimpole of Pimpole Hall, Yorkshire, who was once a gay blade but has turned into a violent alcoholic with a vicious cur.

The Senior Tutor is contacted by Lady Mary Evans, the widow of the former Master, Sir Godber Evans, who we saw dying at the end of the previous novel. Although the coroner ruled it accidental death caused by excess of alcohol and then Sir Godber tripping and cracking his skull, Lady Mary is convinced his death was murder. To confirm her suspicion she gives her dubious lawyer six million pounds to endow a new position at the college, the Sir Godber Evans Fellowship and, after some comic business with various unsuitable candidates, appoints the earnest and upright Dr Purefoy Osbert to the post. Osbert is an expert in capital punishment – author of a classic account of the subject, The Long Drop – and he’s given a remit to write the history of Porterhouse, with special attention to the fate of her late husband. She hopes Osbert will expose the murder and turn up enough evidence to convict the whole pack of Senior Fellows who she loathes.

Meanwhile, in what becomes the major storyline, the Bursar attends a conference on ‘funding ancient institutions’ where he is introduced to the slick American representative of a big TV company – Transworld Television Productions – one Karl Kudzuvine. At TTP’s shiny big London headquarters the Bursar is surprised to realise everyone is wearing an identical outfit of moccasins, white socks, polo neck sweater and shades. And when he meets the sinister head of the operation, Edgar Hartang, he learns they are all copying him.

The TV people say they love the idea of making a documentary series about Porterhouse, and will pay handsomely for using the facilities and persuade the Bursar to let them make a ‘recce’ or preliminary visit, where they swarm all over the ancient buildings, outraging the staff, and onto the roof of the chapel which begins to collapse under their weight, during an actual service, prompting a stampede for the exit in which Kudzuvine is trampled underfoot.

There now begins a lengthy sequence in which the foul-mouthed gangster Kudzuvine is put to bed by the cabal of doddering senior officials – the Bursar, Senior Tutor – while the college doctor casually injects him with a range of new drugs he’s been dying to experiment with. They set the speechless, wheelchair-bound gargoyle, Skullion, to watch over him, so that every time Kudzuvine wakes, befuddled and disorientated, he thinks he’s hallucinating and shrinks further into paranoid terror.

In this deranged state, he eventually reveals what we sort of suspected, which is that Transworld is a front for massive involvement in drug smuggling, but not actually making the shipments – TTP uses its offices worldwide and its international documentary operation to launder and clean drug money for various clients: the South Americans, the Mafia, the Russians. This line of business brings with it a serious risk of kidnapping or assassination from rivals, and it’s this which explains why the paranoid boss makes everyone dress like him – so that potential assassins getting past security in TTP’s Canary Wharf offices, will be confused long enough for him to get away.

All Kudzuvine’s confessions are taped by the wily officers. And the college solicitors send a lengthy claim for damages to college infrastructure and to the finer feelings of staff and students to Hartang personally, seeking £20 million! Obviously, his first reaction is to consider hiring contract killers to wipe out these limey motherfuckers, but he is restrained by his own lawyers, who advise actually paying up. It’s a fraction of his illegal takings. In fact Sharpe shows us the lawyers themselves taking steps to distance themselves from their criminal client.

Complications

Having established all these plotlines by half way through the book, Sharpe spends the next 200 pages detailing their increasingly out-of-control complications. This is one of the things that makes Sharpe’s novels farces – the sense of the plot developments spiralling beyond the sane, beyond the feasible, into a fantasy world of comic hysteria.

Thus the now thoroughly cowed Kudzuvine discovers that everything he’s said about his boss has been recorded, transcribed and witnessed: he can’t go back. Terrified, he is whisked away to the country house of Old Porterthusian, General Sir Cathcart D’Eath, there given work in the abattoir where – in a minor revelation – we learn the General slaughters horses and turns them into cat food. Knives and blood. Hmm. Wouldn’t be surprised if there aren’t some comic consequences…

At his Induction Dinner, the fellows get Osbert drunk and are worried to discover what his real mission is and how much Sir Mary already knows, or suspects. They need to curtail the fellow’s activities – but how?

For his part, once he’s settled into his new quarters at Porterhouse, Osbert discovers that the wheelchair-bound Skullion likes to lurk in a corner of the quad where he’s brought food and bottles of ale by the college chef and they have a good natter. Intrigued, Osbert conceals himself nearby and overhears their conversation. Apparently Skullion has heard rumours that the Senior staff may be trying to replace him as Master and is infuriated. No sooner has ‘Cheffy’, as they call him, gone away than the Dean strolls past and is surprised to discover Skullion hidden in this corner. Their conversation takes a nasty turn, though, when Skullion – unusually drunk even for him – reveals that it was he who murdered Sir Godber at the end of the previous book, and threatens to tell all and ruin the college if the Dean and the other Senior Fellows try to get rid of him, Skullion.

The Dean blusters that no such thought has crossed their minds and walks on to his rooms, appalled – but not as appalled as Osbert. He has discovered the the truth Sir Mary wanted revealed after only a few weeks. But what proof could he bring in court? Everyone would deny it. What should he do with this knowledge?

Now the Dean has accidentally discovered that Sir Godber was murdered, and that Skullion is the cuplrit, the Senior Fellows realise they must do something to nobble Osbert’s enquiries before he finds out. They rifle through his desk and correspondence and come across the fact that Osbert has an unrequited romance with a Mrs Ndhlovo. One night, long before and much earlier in the novel, Osbert had attended an evening class given by Mrs Ndhlovo which he thought was going to be about penal reform in Sierra Leone but turned out to be about Male Masturbation Technique. Taken aback by the explicitness of the material, the naive Osbert fell comically in love. Since then he has romanced Mrs Ndhlovo assiduously but she, in fact already married once and from Uganda, has steadfastly refused his advances until he is ‘a proper man’ with ‘real money’. This was Osbert’s motivation for taking the job at Porterhouse, despite his many reservations.

All this is revealed to the Fellows from Osbert’s correspondence and so they concoct a comic scheme – thinking Osbert has a weakness for black women generally, they commission General D’Eath to find a black woman they can lure Osbert into bed with and photograph, and then blackmail to ensure his silence. The General fails – his old soldier friends turning out disappointingly thin on black prozzies – but he is recommended the services of an ageing white barmaid, Myrtle Ransby, the married mother of nine kids who’ll do anything for cash. So, in increasingly preposterous scenes, the General finds himself dressing – or rather laboriously squeezing – her into a PVC cat suit and then blacking up the exposed parts of her body.

A den of denouements

Of course, things dramatically worsen before anything can get better.

Osbert reconciled with Ndhlovo Unaware of the scheme to entrap him, Dr Osbert meets again with his lady love Mrs Ndhlovo, who reveals that that isn’t her name and tells a long complicated story about how she and her sister were abandoned at birth in Argentina, adopted by nuns, ran away to Europe and smuggled themselves around the Mediterranean using various stolen identities until they fetched up in England, where she mugged up on sexual peculiarities and made a living lecturing about male masturbation and female genital mutilation. Now she’s bored. She wants to be married to a Fellow at Cambridge. So the odd couple come to an understanding. In fact they become an item and the reader almost comes to think of them as real characters who are a little bit in love.

The humiliation of Sir Cathcart With his honeypot scam in place, the General posts a card inviting Osbert to a rendezvous with Myrtle, who gets all dressed up in her PVC suit in readiness – but, in a comic misunderstanding, the Senior Tutor, who is not in on the plot, is handed the invitation by the porter to pass on and, in a fit of irritation against Osbert, tears it up. Therefore Osbert never gets it, never keeps the appointment, and so Myrtle spends a humiliating night on her own in the little ‘love nest’ the General has arranged – drinking a little, then a bit more, then lots – to solace herself, waking up the next day with an appalling hangover. In this raddled state, half falling out of her PVC sex suit, she phones her cousin to come and pick her up and, when the latter has stopped laughing at her grotesque appearance, the pair drive on to Sir Cathcart’s country house. Now, to ensure maximum comic impact, the General just happens to be welcoming a selection of the county’s poshest gentry as dinner guests. In full view of the county’s finest, Myrtle storms up, fat and angry and hungover with various boobs and bulges extruding out of her PVC suit and proceeds to yell abuse at the General in front of all the guests – ‘Yes, he acts all la-di-da, but he likes fat birds in PVC painted black to look like Africans – but he stood her up and now she’s here for her money’. The General’s humiliation could not be more complete. Until the police turn up and ask him to accompany them to his little ‘love nest’ in a suburban street in Cambridge where they have discovered a wealth of sex aids and a one-way mirror with a video-camera behind it. Ooops.

This is an example of the way sexual satire no longer has the same bite. In Sharpe’s novels from the 1970s, a large part of the comedy comes from the way the curtain-twitching neighbours and the police and society at large reel in shock and horror at the protagonist’s sexual misadventures. The fact that Wilt is in ownership (by accident) of a blow up sex doll has the potential to end his career. 20 years later, when this novel was published, post-AIDS, in an era when everyone was encouraged to talk more openly about sexual practices, none of this has the same sense of shock, and therefore the risk of social stigma etc to the protagonists is hugely reduced. This explains why the scene where the police show the General all the sex equipment seems oddly muted and is very brief. This kind of thing no longer had the same charge in 1996. Now, 20 years later, post 50 Shades of Grey, it has almost no comic impact at all.

Skullion’s revenge Surprisingly, given his earlier opposition, Sir Cathcart successfully persuades Skullion to quit as Master. He is promised he can go and stay at Sir Cathcart’s country house. However, it is a trap. The ambulance which comes to collect him instead takes him off to the feared Porterhouse Park, a grim boarding house overlooking the bleak north Norfolk coast, where other super-annuated college staff have been sent to eke out their last days.

Osbert, surprised that Skullion has disappeared, discovers his fate and goes to visit him with Mrs Ndhlovo. Skullion begs to be helped to escape, so Osbert and girlfriend return with a transit van and some rope, liberate Skullion and spirit him away to a safe house in the suburbs of Cambridge. Here, in exchange for his freedom, Skullion begins dictating to the historian Osbert, an ‘alternative’ history of Porterhouse College, its history seen from the servants’ point of view, a very warts and all account. For days on end Skullion talks non-stop into a tape recorder. He dates the start of the decline in standards to after the war, when all the men who came up were returning from National Service, older, less malleable, more likely to be stroppy and ‘bolshy’.

This storyline has stopped being at all funny, but Skullion’s comments are quite interesting as social history.

A drug lord as Master There’s a world of confusion and misunderstanding among the senior staff about who knows, and doesn’t know, about Skullion being the murderer, and his stealthy removal to Porterhouse Park. To everyone’s surprise the weedy Praelector emerges as the strong man in this unclear situation and travels down to London to meet with Hartang’s lawyers and then with the foul-mouthed crime boss himself. And offers him the Mastership of the college!

The Praelector shocks the College Council with his plan at their next meeting, but by bullying and blackmail manages to swing the vote to get Hartang accepted as new Master. Hartang will get cachet and safety from the various forces pursuing him. The College will get a vast amount of money. Hartang comes down from London to check out his new domain and begins to be coached by the senior fellows on the manners and etiquette that will be required. Stop saying ‘fucksake’ all the time, for example.

British Intelligence Behind all this, Hartang wonders if there are deeper forces at work, and so does the reader. Because, coincidentally, four British intelligence officers visit him at this Canary Wharf headquarters. He agrees to co-operate with them in exposing all he knows about various drug-smuggling cartels, so long as they agree to him becoming Porterhouse Master. A week later his most dangerous enemy, one Dos Passos, is found dead in a mysterious car crash in South America. Then a load of computer disks found at Dos Passos’s house turn out to be bursting with incriminating information, their exposure all blamed on the dead man – rather than on Hartang, who was the one who in fact handed them over to the authorities. The security forces have done their job well.

None of this is particularly farcical or even comic. In fact it could come from a Frederick Forsyth novel.

Comic climax

I thought the climax of the novel would be the annual May Ball. It’s a traditional big event, we learn that security men are swarming all over it – I wouldn’t have been surprised if the South American mafia had turned up and run riot through the gayly attired undergraduates, seeking to machine gun their enemy, Hartang.

But nothing like that happens. In fact, throughout the novel the undergraduates are conspicuous by their absence. They are actually there – it is term time – but not a single one is referenced by name. the plot takes place entirely among the doddery ageing dons and senior fellows.

In fact the climax comes a week or so later when there is the grand feast to inaugurate Hartang as Master. His British security minders are protecting him in exchange for the masses of information he’s imparted about international drugs operations and the college is already benefiting from his munificence, with the chapel having extensive repairs. Osbert and Mrs Ndhlovo have finished listening to Skullion’s dizzyingly disillusioning version of the real history of Porterhouse and are busily editing the manuscript into shape.

Against this background, there is this huge feast with all the fellows and students in their gowns and regalia when, at the climax of the meal, the waiters sweep through the magnificent doors of the Grand Hall bearing vast platters carrying numerous roasted boar. Now, the Senior Staff had learned from their taping of Kudzuvine’s confessions hundreds of pages earlier, that Hartang has a loathing amounting to a phobia, a real panic-fear of pigs. Even mention of the name makes him go pale and fumble for his medication. Now, as the waiters spread out and approach the High Table bearing huge pigs at him from all sides, Hartang staggers to his feet, has a heart attack, and dies. That’s the climax of the novel.

Epilogue

Then there’s an epilogue which ties up the various storylines.

Both Skullion and the Praelector are now seen resignedly residing at the retirement home looking over the sea.

As his last act Skullion named his successor to be the Honourable Jeremy Pimpole, the appalling alcoholic who the Dean encountered early in the book. The surviving fellows put up with his boorish manners confident in the expectation that he will soon drink himself to death with the help of the college’s bottomless wine cellar.

Osbert delivers a first draft of Skullion’s history to Lady Mary’s lawyers, who both consider it so scandalous they quietly decide to suppress it. Neither Lady Mary, nor the world at large, will ever read it.

And Mrs Ndhlovo confides in a lady friend that Osbert is just too scholarly, too kind and considerate. So she is going to quietly leave him.

That’s it.


Anti-modern and anti-American

Broadly speaking, satirists tend to be conservative and right-wing in their thinking, preferring the old ways and satirising trendy new-fangled notions. This is very much how Sharpe’s earlier novels struck me. Thinking the modern world has gone to pot is part and parcel of the performance – and so the crusty old dons lament Harold Wilson’s honours list and Mrs Thatcher’s ennoblement of businessmen, the need for hospitals to treat high-spending foreigners in order to subsidise operations for long-suffering Brits, and other iniquities of the kind to be found in the pages of the Daily Mail.

More striking is the strong vein of anti-Americanism which runs through the book. Hartang and his various trusties express themselves in a harsh barely literate mafia-speak, and evince a brutal amorality, ready at a second’s notice to ring up hitmen and assassins to eliminate anyone who stands in their way. This crude criminality is combined with, especially in Kudzuvine’s case, a repellently gung-ho American chauvinism – ‘USA! USA!’. The combination provides endless opportunities for the fuddy-duddy English college officials to tut about American ‘culture’, American violence, and then wander off to discuss recent American foreign policy foul-ups, which, it is implied, arise out of its domestic violence and criminality.

Since the book was written in the early to mid-1990s, these now seem very dated, but include:

  • the Gulf War, during which US ‘friendly fire’ shot up some of our tanks and killed some of our troops
  • the US air strikes on Libya – codenamed Operation El Dorado Canyon – on 15 April 1986, which resulted in 40 Libyan civilians killed (p.208)

Sharpe punishes this crudity in the person of Kudzuvine, who starts off brashly yelling at everyone that he’s a ‘free-born citizen of the Greatest Nation on Earth’ etc etc – but is systematically reduced to a quivering wreck, at his nadir kneeling before the gibbering wheelchair bound figure of Skullion, and ending up hacking dead horses to pieces in a cat food factory. It is a deliberate humiliation of him and all he stands for – amoral billionaire American criminality.

This dislike of insufferable American chauvinism combined with its increasingly aggressive foreign policy reminds me of John le Carré’s post-Cold War novels with their growing hatred of America. Although it’s interesting, none of this is really very funny.

Sharpe died only recently, in 2013. I wonder what he made of this century’s turn of events – 9/11, the American invasion of Afghanistan, the American invasion of Iraq and other foreign policy triumphs. I wonder what his cast of comedy dons and duffers from Porterhouse would have made of it. I wonder whether these topics crop up in his final novels…


Credit

Grantchester Grind by Tom Sharpe was published by André Deutsch by 1995. All quotes and references are to the 1996 Pan paperback edition.

Related links

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.

Wilt On High by Tom Sharpe (1984)

‘And don’t get the idea I’m on a right-wing, flog ’em and hang ’em reactionary high because I’m not… I’m just mister stick-in-the-middle who doesn’t know which way to jump.’ (p.138)

Third outing for Henry Wilt, bilious lecturer and Head of Liberal Studies at the Fenland College of Arts and Technology (‘the Tech’). The brilliant first novel (Wilt, 1976) rotated around the consequences of Wilt’s mishaps with a blow-up sex doll, which managed to spawn enough comic consequences to fill a book. This one, like later Sharpe generally, has its moments but struggles to be as funny.

The plot

Dead junkie A student dies of a heroin overdose at the college (straightaway, not that funny), prompting panic among the various time-serving lecturers and officials. Wilt is inadvertently involved because it was his secretary who reported seeing the young girl shooting up in the ladies loo, prompting Wilt to go running to the nearest toilets, where there is no junky but an outraged female Physical Exercise lecturer, who accuses Wilt of being a peeping Tom. She assaults him very violently and makes an official complaint. (Later, too late, Wilt’s secretary tells him she meant the upstairs toilets. Oops.)

A little later the poor girl is found dead in the boiler room and the police called. Turns out she is the daughter of Lord Lynchknowle, a cold-hearted aristocrat who doesn’t care much but has to make a show of grief to placate his ghastly wife, and so asks his good chum, the Home Secretary, to bring pressure to bear on the Chief Constable to sort out the drug problem in the county.

‘Fireworks’ Harry Wilt, meanwhile, has been picking up extra money by giving tuition to prisoners at Ipford prison. When a particularly unpleasant crook (‘Fireworks’ Harry McCullum, p.60) gets angry with Wilt, threatening to break out to come and ‘do’ him, a shaken Wilt – a few hours later from the safety of his local pub – phones the governor to ask if there’s been a breakout. It’s a bad line and the governor thinks Wilt has inside knowledge that there’s about to be a breakout and he moves to the prison to battle stations. All the prisoners on the higher floors are transferred down into the already cramped lower cells, prompting actual outbreaks of violence, fights and mattress burning. The over-officious Chief Warden decides to issue double strength tranquilisers to the inmates in their cocoa, which has the unfortunate result of killing ‘Fireworks’ Harry when he drinks his own and his cellmates’ portions.

Bugging Wilt The prison authorities find a load of heroin in Harry’s mattress and decide to hush up the tranquiliser angle and emphasise the illegal drugs. Which brings things to the attention of the local constabulary. Here, Wilt’s old nemesis, Inspector Flint, always on the lookout for ways to nail Wilt, stumbles on the idea of giving all this incriminating evidence (Wilt somehow involved with the dead student, Wilt giving tuition to the dead convict) to the stupid, over-ambitious head of the drug squad, Inspector Hodge. Hodge, along with his idiot sidekick Sergeant Runk, promptly bugs Wilt’s house and car, from that point onwards misinterpreting everything which happens in the (admittedly bizarre) Wilt household, as further evidence incriminating Wilt, who ends up seeming like a drug-smuggling criminal mastermind.

Painful penis In a separate plotline Wilt’s wife had been persuaded by her friend the militant feminist, Mavis Mottram, to pay a visit to a disreputable herbalist, Dr Kores, seeking a remedy for Wilt’s low sex drive. She slips the resulting potion into Wilt’s home brew, which he drinks rather too much of after a crappy day at work with the result that, for the rest of the novel, Wilt’s penis gives him a lot of trouble – at first burning, then feeling like it is full of broken glass, then marching ants.

There’s an archetypal ‘Sharpe’ scene where the pain drives Wilt to go down to the kitchen in the middle of the night desperate for any kind of relief, in his desperation even using Eva’s icing cake syringe to try and inject cream up his penis. It is at this unfortunate moment that Eva walks in and catches him – which is bad enough – but he’s in the middle of explaining his behaviour to his wife when his four daughters burst in and see their daddy in this compromising position! Even after a few days, the painful penis is still liable to go to full erection at the drop of a hat – or the bending over of a pretty woman.

US Air Force It is in this state – liable to instant hard-ons at the most embarrassing moments and in a car stuffed full of bugging devices – that Wilt motors off to the nearby US Air Force Base, Baconheath, to deliver his regular Friday evening lecture about British culture. Except the base security officers locate the sonic devices planted by Inspector Hodge in Wilt’s car and, while he is lecturing, call a full scale security alert, sending in a SWAT team with immobilising gas (the new and experimental ‘Agent Incapacitating’) which sends lecturer and audience into a drug-induced delirium.

Interrogation Wilt comes round to find himself being interrogated by the dim but madly ambitious Major Glaushof who is convinced he is a Soviet spy and threatens him with such violence that Wilt eagerly co-operates, supplying him with the names of fake Russian contacts. Meanwhile, the much more sensible Head of Intelligence, Colonel Urwin, works out the truth that Wilt is under surveillance by the local cops.

But not before, in a characteristically wild scene, Glaushof takes Wilt back to his house to ever so cunningly get him seduced by Glaushof’s randy wife, dolled up for the occasion in bra, stockings and suspenders. Mrs Glaushof enters into the spirit of the thing much too enthusiastically, locking the bedroom door and taking Wilt’s swollen penis in hand, at which point the Major tries to abort proceedings, banging loudly on the door. As his wife manoeuvres herself to sit on Wilt’s face, the latter in disgusted desperation bites her thigh, drawing blood, at which she goes for the service pistol kept in the bedroom, shooting wildly through the door and injuring her own husband in the shoulder, before Wilt clobbers her with the bedside table.

When the unhappy trio are dragged before the base commandant (nickname: ‘old B52’), he is not impressed and swings behind Colonel Urwin’s more boring interpretation of Wilt’s innocence.

Mothers Against The Bomb Meanwhile Eva, sick with worry about her missing Henry, makes enquiries and is upset to discover Henry’s been deceiving her about teaching at the USAAF base: he told her he was teaching at the prison on Friday nights. Eva’s friend, Mavis Mottram puts the blackest possible interpretation on this deceit, accusing Wilt of visiting a mistress there (whereas Wilt simply didn’t want to prompt an anti-nuclear, anti-American diatribe from his trendy lefty wife). After driving out to the base and being turned away at the gate, Eva returns more determined, along with the quadruplets, and co-ordinating her arrival with Mavis calling up coachloads of ‘Mothers Against The Bomb’, the anti-nuclear pressure group, and arranging for local TV, radio  and journalists to report on the ‘protest’.

While the Mothers set up loudspeakers and start dancing the can-can, the quads attack guards who have come unwisely near them with a variety of home-made weapons, seizing their guns and then managing to threaten the driver of an oil tanker into pouring a massive slick of oil over the entrance gates. Think the mayhem of a St Trinians movie. The oil causes Major Glaushof’s car to skid and crash into the fencing, while the Attack Alert siren is set off, and the redoubtable Eva lays into the troops trying to restrain her. The whole riotous scene climaxes in the Mothers setting off an enormous inflatable penis – a symbol of the oppressive patriarchy – to float serenely over the chaotic scenes below and which, at the click of a switch, sheds its its skin to reveal underneath an enormous (balloon) nuclear missile. It’s at  this moment that dim Inspector Hodge arrives in a police car which skids over the oil and crashes into the TV vans.

Wilt was being questioned by the relatively benign camp commander when all this breaks out and it is he who – as in his previous novels – suddenly shows a burst of common-sense heroism. Into the mayhem he wades, retrieving his wife and daughters from the gatehouse and is joined by the practical Colonel Urwin who hustles them over to a waiting helicopter which, in moments, flies them high up over the scene and away to peaceful Ipford. As they alight in a field well clear of the base:

In the distance there was a sudden flash and a small ball of flame. Major Glaushof had fired a tracer round into Mavis Mottram’s inflated penis. (p.246)

Aftermath A short epilogue ties up all the loose ends: Wilt is back at the Tech. After fraught negotiations between US lawyers and MI5, Wilt and Eva agree to sign the Official Secrets Act in return for secret damages from the Americans, which Wilt uses to pay for a quarter of a million pounds worth of books for the Tech, from a supposedly ‘anonymous’ donor, but credited to Wilt’s influence. The Principal is gutted. He’ll never get rid of Wilt now.

Hodge is busted back to sergeant and Inspector Flint emerges as not such a shouty stereotype after all: quietly in the background he had been tracking down the real circle of heroin smugglers, work he shows to the Chief Constable who is duly impressed, even if he doesn’t realise that Flint is now going to get his convictions by framing the guilty men, planting heroin and equipment at their homes…

Mavis’s ‘Mothers Against The Bomb’ shoot to nationwide fame after TV pictures show them being gassed and dragged about by brutal US guards, and women flock from all over Britain to set up a ‘peace camp’ outside Baconheath. ‘Old B52’ never recovers from the sight of a giant penis morphing into a floating nuke and is retired early to a rest home for the demented in Arizona. And so peace returns to Ipford and the Wilt household. Until his next adventure…


Penises and Police

are both stock features of Sharpe’s savage satires. His first (and arguably best) novel, Riotous Assembly, is a madcap satire on the South African police and features their burly leader, Kommandant van Heerden, being tied up, dressed in plastic fetish outfit by a perverted old lady and threatened with having a syringe of novocaine plunged in his penis. In the sequel, Indecent Exposure, the ambitious but dim Luitenant Verkramp has the mad idea of attaching the entire police force’s penises to electrodes and giving them electric shocks at the sight of naked black women, in a crazed attempt to cut down on miscegenation.

The plot of Blott leads to the involvement of the police and then the Army in the bizarre goings-on at Handyman Hall, and a good deal of the first Wilt novel consists of the prolonged (and comically frustrated) interrogation of Wilt by Inspector Flint. The Throwback involves the police being called in to besiege Flawse Hall in Northumberland before the tremendous scene where various sections of the Army open fire on each other in the explosive climax at the Close. The Wilt Alternative shows the shambolic police handling the kidnap of Wilt and his wife by international terrorists, though the early section dwells long on Wilt’s penis after he has a drunken pee in a rose bush and badly gashes it, resulting in comic visits to his doctor and hospital.

This quick review suggests that it’s a close run thing, but although penises supply a useful comic topic of embarrassment, pain, shame and humiliation, in the long run it’s the police and the army which seem the most consistent feature of Sharpe’s satires. Again and again the protagonists – the unwitting victims of wildly improbable sequences of events – are hauled in for prolonged and humiliating interrogation at the hands of the authorities.

Is this because Sharpe has a Hitchcock-like fear of the police, or because there is something fundamentally comic about the Interrogation of an Innocent Man by Incompetent Cops?


Hysteria instead of comedy

Early on in the novel an observer from the Ministry of Education visits to monitor teaching at the college prompting the ever-obstinate Wilt to quickly become obstructive and abusive. Pages later Wilt’s nemesis on the local police force, Inspector Flint, meets his doctor to discuss his problems with his waterworks. Neither situation is particularly funny and nothing particularly funny happens. What does happen is the characters swiftly become seething with anger and aggression, start swearing and insulting everyone they can think of.

… a sense of grievance against Henry fucking Wilt… Wilt had buggered his career… The little sod was sitting pretty… and a right smart-arse he was too… the number of brainy bastards… ‘I don’t want any more of the piss pills… The bleeding things are dehydrating me. I’m on the bloody trot all the time… I’m not some bleeding dog you know… Fucking awful is all I know… have a prick parade and  ask the victims to go along studying cocks… I couldn’t get the fucking thing up even if I wanted to…’ (pp.29-32)

And so on and so on, almost all the characters effing and blinding, routinely referring to each other as sods and buggers and bastards, throughout the book. I’ve got nothing against swearwords, I enjoy them when deployed with style, but these characters are swearing at each other for no real reason. In the first half of the book, at least, there is a gap between the unnecessary maliciousness of the language and the relatively banal, not to say boring, underlying situations.

For me that gap lasts throughout the book, which is written in a frenzied style, describing characters constantly going off the deep end, effing and blinding at each other – when the storyline and the scenes don’t really justify it. Only in the last quarter of the book, the scenes set in the USAAF base, does the mayhem of the plot catch up with the profanity of the swearing when, ironically, the swearing actually drops off, as if it’s not needed; as if the madcap plot is now enough.

Sharpe’s earlier novels concocted fantastic, farcical, grotesque scenarios which fully justified their characters’ hysteria and mania. In the later novels the scenarios tend to lag behind the characters’ frenzied language. Put another way: although the storylines reliably build up to grotesque climaxes, it is jarring that the characters start at an unnecessarily high pitch; it would be more effective if the characters’ swearing crept in, if previously restrained people started losing it in proportion to their world going to pieces.


Social history

Only intermittently funny – at least until the climactic fiasco – the novel is often more as interesting as a record of social attitudes seen through the eyes of a rather right-wing, 56-year-old, public school-educated man. What’s most striking for me is the way so many of these issues are still with us:

  • Crisis in higher education It’s a time of austerity and the college faces swingeing cuts.
  • Bureaucracy Wilt is driven to distraction by endless meetings which generate long pointless documents full of impenetrable management speak about ‘aims’ and ‘values’.
  • Feminism Eva Wilt’s friend Mavis Mottram is a militant feminist constantly lecturing Eva about the awfulness of men, about evil multinational corporations, about the wickedness of the wars men start and the weapons of mass destruction they have created, never losing an opportunity to point out the everyday sexism of the book’s male characters.
  • Kids education Wilt is impoverishing himself and working overtime to pay fees to send his four daughters – the fiendish quadruplets – to a School for the Mentally Gifted, lacking faith in the state education system.
  • Computers Wilt jokes that the kids are better at computers than the adults, in fact worries that his girls are addicted to their computers.
  • Porn Eva and Wilt discuss (well, shout at each other about) the tide of video nasties and pornographic filth washing over the country.
  • Drugs Although, as with other Sharpe novels, the initial plot is soon lost sight of, the whole book does start off being about a tragic death from a heroin overdose and Flint’s detective work tracking down the drug smuggling ring continues right up to the last pages.

It’s as if, in the late 1960s and early 1970s there was a kind of hinge or turn in history, and a lot of ‘issues’, along with related stock social ‘types’, first appeared – trendy lefties, strident feminists, tiresome vegetarians, environmental activists, anti-nuclear marchers, alongside social features like the widespread availability of drugs (producing the stock figure of the ‘junkie’) and the proliferation of hard-core pornography.

These don’t appear in the fiction of the 1940s, 50s and early 60s – but have been permanent features of newspapers, magazines and middle class conversation ever since the 1970s, ‘issues’ and social types which have been with us for at least forty years, but – and this is the really puzzling thing – are continually treated as if unprecedented, front page news.


Author’s message

Right at the end of the book, as the helicopter lifts Wilt, Eva and the terrible quads high above the fray, Wilt has a moment of insight, an epiphany, which we can’t help but reading as also reflecting Sharpe’s view. It’s worth quoting at length for at least two reasons:

a) it’s a reminder that, although he pokes fun at trendy lefty lecturer, at feminists etc, Sharpe can’t be easily pigeon-holed as a right-wing writer; his satire, his contrarianism, is more wide-ranging than that;

b) it shows the mental pressure, the weight of anxiety, that the threat of nuclear war pressed down on everyone who lived through those years, and especially the sense of heightened fear that characterised the era of President Reagan and Mrs Thatcher, when many, maybe most, people genuinely thought there might be a world-annihilating nuclear war. (For some reason I think of Raymond Briggs’ deliberately shocking animation, When the Wind Blows, 1982. Or compare with the other novel from 1984 I’ve just read, Frederick Forysth’s The Fourth Protocol, which boils down to a plot to detonate a nuclear weapon at a US Air Force base in Suffolk and also features a march by largely female peace protestors. It is interesting to compare Forsyth’s attitude to these women – unmitigated contempt – with Sharpe, who sympathises with them.)

Ten minutes later Wilt looked down from a thousand feet at the pattern of runways and roads, buildings and bunkers and at the tiny group of women being carried from the gate to waiting ambulances. For the first time he felt some sympathy for Mavis Mottram. For all her faults she had been right to pit herself against the banal enormity of the airbase. The place had all the characteristics of a potential extermination camp. True, nobody was being herded into gas chambers and there was no smoke rising from crematoria. But the blind obedience to orders was there, instilled in Glaushof and even in Colonel Urwin. Everyone in fact, except Mavis Mottram and the human chain of women at the gate. The others would all obey orders if the time came and the real holocaust would begin. And this time there would be no liberators, no successive generations to erect memorials to the dead or learn lessons from past horrors. There would be only silence. The wind and the sea the only voices left. (p.245)

Reading both books made me realise how completely this terrible anxiety has disappeared from the culture of our time, 2015, and how impossible it is to convey what it felt like to anyone who didn’t live through it.

Related links

Pan paperback cover of Wilt on High, illustrated by Paul Sample

Pan paperback cover of Wilt on High, illustrated 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 shows: top left Ipford prison where Wilt starts a riot; middle left Mothers Against The Bomb doing the can-can; bottom left a canister of Agent Incapacitating releasing clouds of gas which have knocked out a couple of the nice ladies who attend Wilt’s lectures at USAF Baconheath; at right the frenzied faces of the US security officers during the climactic riot, one of them being lustily kneed in the balls by an outraged Eva Wilt; all dominated by the figure of Wilt, the skinny terrified man being mounted by Major Glaushof’s randy wife, at his feet the icing-cake syringe which he used to try and inject moisturising cream up his penis, and the revolver with which she shoots her own husband, and over it all the image of the giant penis-balloon shedding its skin to become a nuclear missile. It’s a mad world.

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.

Vintage Stuff by Tom Sharpe (1982)

Either I’ve changed or Sharpe’s novels have changed, but I haven’t enjoyed the last few as much as the earlier ones. The farce seems forced.

The setting

For authors who went to public school, public schools hold an infinite fascination, hence the number of novels about them from a profession dominated by former public school-educated pupils. Funny how many of them are comedies or gruesome memoirs of cold showers, buggery, incompetent masters and compulsory games. Funny how many authors of these diatribes then send their own children to the same schools.

Sharpe went to Lancing College then Pembroke College, Cambridge. The Oxbridge part of his education is satirised in Porterhouse Blue; it took till his ninth novel to get round to sticking the boot into public schools.

The plot

According to Wikipedia, Groxbourne, the very minor public school where the novel is set, is based on Bloxham school which Sharpe attended before progressing to Lancing. The masters are a bunch of freaks, the headmaster is only bothered about money and the school’s reputation, there is compulsory games and lots of buggery among the boys. Matron gets caught shagging Major Featherstone. And so on…

One particular master, Slymne, hates another one, the slightly freakish one-eyed Glodstone (he has a glass eye and is fond of wearing a monocle over the other one). Glodstone is a besotted fan of boys adventure stories – Rider Haggard, Henty, Buchan, Bulldog Drummond – which Slymne uses to cook up a witty prank. He forges letters from one of the posher mothers, a certain Comtesse de Montcon, resident at the chateau Carmagnac, addressed to Glodstone, claiming she is in great danger, that her son has told her how brave and bold he is, that only he can rescue her.

Inspired with chivalrous thoughts, obsessed with re-enacting the derring-do of his heroes, Glodstone determines to rescue her. Term has just ended, almost everyone has gone home except for one odd pupil, Peregrine Clyde-Browne, an unusually dim, literal-minded boy who was meant to go on an outward bound course which has been cancelled. A pupil in Glodstone’s form, Peregrine had taken to borrowing from Glodstone’s large library of boys stories, had been infected by these tales of derring-do, and now asks to be taken along.

The result is mayhem. Slymne had gone to great trouble to drive across France a few weeks earlier leaving clues and letters at hotels on the way, and now arranges for Glodstone and Peregrine to find them. Abruptly he has second thoughts and tries to cut them off and the middle of the novel is a quite frankly confusing list of small towns in central France which the two characters race between, writing faked letters and finding them, and re-arranging their plans.

But eventually Glodstone – who has been getting colder and colder feet – and Peregrine – who in a teenager way has become more and more over-excited by the mission – arrive at the chateau Carmagnac. By a series of farcical accidents Glodstone falls into the nearby river and is saved and taken into the chateau to be tended. Peregrine thinks he has been captured by the baddies who are holding the beautiful Comtesse prisoner and so breaks into the chateau, creeping along corridors and terrifying at gunpoint the innocent guests he meets.

For the chateau has these days become a conference centre where a cross section of international intellectuals have gathered to discuss world peace. [This gives Sharpe an opportunity to satirise the attitudes of a whole range of national sterotypes circa 1982 – the oil-rich Arab, the Israeli, the ex-Nazi German, the over-intellectual Frenchman, the suave Brit, and especially the Soviet spokesman and the gung-ho American. It is useful to be reminded that clever people were wringing their hands about international terrorism and third world poverty 35 years ago…] After scaring the guests witless Peregrine escapes out of the chateau via the roof and considers his next move.

The delegates call the police who arrive and set up guard with a police van on the only bridge across the river to the chateau. Next night, determined to rescue his master (and the beautiful Comtesse) Peregrine slips under the van and lights the calor gas stove he and Glodstone had been using to cook with, placing it under the petrol tank. BOOM! Several of the French cops are set alight and the van flies into the river gorge.

The international intellectuals pause mid-argument at the moment when a masked assassin bursts in, starts shooting and all hell breaks loose. In that excess which differentiates farce from comedy, the disguised school boy, fired up on 1930s fiction, shoots the American professor dead and nips the penis of the Russian attendee. Delegates run everywhere screaming, Peregrine eventually finds Glodstone and the terrified Comtesse and hustles them down the road to ‘freedom’.

The Comtesse

Except she isn’t a Comtesse. She is a con artist, born Constance Sugg in Croydon, who was a beauty queen, then hussled her way to America, landed in Las Vegas where she got involved hustling marks for the Mafia, until she hussled and blackmailed the Conte de Montcon and ended up marrying him and moving to his chateau, where a little later he died leaving her penniless. Nowadays she works in the kitchen alongside the staff, as well as organising the conferences which are her only source of income.

Their high-falutin’ romantic dreams pretty crushed, Glodstone and Peregrine find themselves taken under the control of this bossy, manipulative woman. Once back at their car she takes charge. While the French police are activated and begin a nationwide search, Constance navigates the boys in their vintage Bentley back to England.

Not a minute too soon because the French police – convinced they have an international assassin at large – find their own security services trumped once the CIA arrive to sort out the murder of their delegate at the conference. Unfortunately, something of the truth of Peregine and Glodstone’s absence had come out ie Mrs and Mrs Clyde-Browne arrived home from holiday to find a letter saying Peregrine’s outward bound course was cancelled but no Peregrine in sight. When they motor to the school and confront the headmaster, he calls in Slymne and Major Fetherington (who runs the school’s Officer Training Corp and manages the school’s armoury) and the shocking truth emerges that Glodstone has gone on a hare-brained mission to France and taken the psychotic simpleton Peregrine with him.

Slymne’s fate

The headmaster instantly orders Slymne – the master who originated this jolly prank – and the Major to motor non-stop down to the chateau to stop Glodstone and Peregrine causing any trouble. They are, of course, far too late to do that but arrive just in time to be caught and questioned by the French police. Then French security. Then the CIA. The cocktail of drugs these three Forces use on Slymne means he never again fully recovers his sanity.

Glodstone’s fate

Back in England, the Comtesse takes the terrified Glodstone to a plastic surgeon on Harley Street who makes him completely unrecognisable – then marries him, thus ensuring an alibi and she can keep her eye on him.

Clyde-Browne’s fate

Constance/the Comtesse confronts Peregrine’s parents (he is a solicitor who loathes his son) with the fact their son is a murderer and terrifies them with the threat of blackmail, until Mr Clyde-Brown agrees to call in his brother, something in Whitehall. This gives rise to a particularly incomprehensible conference involving the British police, Foreign Office, MI5 and Prime Minister on how to defuse the international incident which is brewing…

And the net result is that MI5 show the visiting American CIA officers a man they claim is Peregrine and a top secret SAS operative. For reasons I didn’t quite follow, this appears to placate them and to close the incident for the Yanks and the French.

Peregrine’s fate

The novel ends rather forcefully, I thought, with a last few pages describing Peregrine’s new job as an undercover agent in the British Army in Northern Ireland. Living wild off the land, killing, gutting and cooking his own livestock from his base in a disused well, he is living the Buchan-Rogue Male-Bulldog dream, and has already assassinated five IRA men, two poachers and an off-duty RUC officer, such that the entire neighbourhood lives in fear.

Parting thought

Although a lot of the plot doesn’t make any sense at all, although people behave like imbeciles and shout and swear at the slightest provocation, although the violence seems forced and excessive and the central part of this novel – Slymne chasing Glodstone round central France – was confused and boring — still, there are moments with a kind of Swiftian intensity which leap out and clutch your throat, and which make this book just about worth reading.

But if I was recommending a Sharpe novel for a newbie to read, this one, along with The Wilt Alternative and Ancestral Vices, would be bottom of the list.

Related links

Pan paperback cover of Vintage stuff with illustration by Paul Sample

Pan paperback cover of Vintage Stuff with 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 shows the one-eyed schoolmaster Glodstone at the wheel of his vintage Bentley with psychotic schoolboy Peregrine Clyde-Browne next to him. Top right is the French chateau, scene of so much violence, including an American professor being thrown from the battlements into the river, the French police van being blown up on the bridge to the chateau, and the English holidaymakers’ car flipping over.

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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