Tom Sharpe Biography
Nationality: British. Born: Thomas Ridley Sharpe in London, 1928. Education: Lancing College, Sussex, 1942-46; Pembroke College, Cambridge, 1948-51, M.A.; teacher's training, Cambridge University, 1962-63, P.C.G.E. 1963. Military Service: Served in the Royal Marines, 1946-48. Career: Social worker, 1951-52, and teacher, 1952-56, Natal, South Africa; photographer, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, 1956-61; deported from South Africa on political grounds, 1961; teacher, Aylesbury Secondary Modern School, Buckinghamshire, 1961; Lecturer in History, Cambridge College of Arts and Technology, 1963-71. Since 1971, full-time writer. Agent: Anthony Sheil Associates, 43 Doughty Street, London, WC1N 2LF.
Riotous Assembly. London, Secker and Warburg, 1971; New York, Viking Press, 1972.
Indecent Exposure. London, Secker and Warburg, 1973; New York, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1987.
Porterhouse Blue. London, Secker and Warburg, and Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, Prentice Hall, 1974.
Blott on the Landscape. London, Secker and Warburg, 1975; New York, Vintage, 1984.
Wilt. London, Secker and Warburg, 1976; New York, Vintage, 1984.
The Great Pursuit. London, Secker and Warburg, 1977; New York, Harper, 1984.
The Throwback. London, Secker and Warburg, 1978; New York, Vintage, 1984.
The Wilt Alternative. London, Secker and Warburg, 1979; New York, St. Martin's Press, 1981(?).
Ancestral Vices. London, Secker and Warburg, 1980.
Vintage Stuff. London, Secker and Warburg, 1982; New York, Vintage, 1984.
Wilt on High. London, Secker and Warburg, 1984; New York, Random House, 1985.
Grantchester Grind: A Porterhouse Chronicle. London, Secker & Warburg, 1995.
The Midden. London, A. Deutsch, Secker & Warburg, 1996; Woodstock, New York, Overlook Press, 1997.
The South African (produced London, 1961).
She Fell among Thieves, from the novel by Dornford Yates, 1978.
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Tom Sharpe's comic vision was formed under the pressure of state persecution strong enough to infuriate but not crush him. His initial satires on South Africa set the pattern for all his subsequent fiction. These early works draw their energy from the seditious author's deportation from South Africa in 1961.
Sharpe's first published novel, Riotous Assembly, is as funny as anything he has written. It has as its hero the tormented Anglophile policeman Kommandant Van Heerden. Van Heerden's feud with his scheming subordinate Verkramp (a fanatic Boer) and the murderous blunderings of Konstabel Els are one source of black merriment. Another is the degenerate world of the upper-class English colonials. Bungling authoritarian institutions and the English ruling class reappear as black beasts in all Sharpe's later novels. Indecent Exposure is a straight sequel, with the same principal characters as Riotous Assembly and the same "Piemburg" setting. Its comedy, however, is even broader. (At one point in the narrative the whole of Van Heerden's police force is subjected to electric shock therapy and converted to rampant homosexuality.)
After this novel, Sharpe evidently felt his South African vein was exhausted. Porterhouse Blue is set in a Cambridge college. Most of the plot revolves around the maneuverings of a reform and a reactionary faction. There is the usual play with comic ruthlessness and sexual perversions. (One comic climax has the quad full of inflated condoms.) In the largest sense, Porterhouse Blue can be read as a satire on English life, and its resistance to change. Blott on the Landscape is more straightforwardly funny. The central joke of the narrative is the modernization of Handyman Hall from stately home to theme park. The vivaciously homicidal lady of the house, Maude Lynchwood, is particularly well done.
With his next novel, Wilt, Sharpe created his most durable hero. The first in the series presents Henry Wilt as a henpecked and downtrodden lecturer at "Fenland College" (based transparently on the polytechnic where Sharpe himself taught). There is some effective incidental comedy on Wilt's futile attempts to educate a day release class of butchers ("Meat One"). But the main plot concerns Henry's involvement in suspected murder, following his witnessed disposal of a life-size sex doll which he accidentally came by. This leads to an epic struggle of will with the long-suffering Inspector Flint. Flint and Wilt reappear in The Wilt Alternative, which embroils the hero with international terrorists who mount a siege in his house. Wilt's murderously maternal wife Eva makes a notable comic appearance in this novel. Wilt on High (which brings in Greenham Common-style peace protesters) suggests that a whole saga may evolve around the misadventures of Sharpe's most likeable hero.
The Great Pursuit returns to the high Cambridge of Porterhouse Blue. The title plays on the titles of Cambridge critic F.R. Leavis's best known works. And Sharpe's novel is a jaundiced burlesque on the Leavisite disdain for merely popular literature. The story has a female don of austere critical rectitude who clandestinely writes pulp romance. An ingenuous acolyte, Peter Piper, is manipulated into fronting for her and undertakes an American promotional tour. Cantabrigian snobbishness and transatlantic vulgarity are comically opposed, with the usual fiendish plot complications.
The Throwback is a routine Sharpe comedy on the British rural gentry, and their inextinguishable capacity for survival even among the persecutions of a democratic age and modern world. Ancestral Vices has much the same theme. Walden Yapp, an American professor of demotic historiography, is hired to write the family history of the Petrefacts. In their native Vale of Bushampton, he discovers unspeakable sexual horrors underlying their prosperity. Ancestral Vices is probably the nastiest of Sharpe's novels, with some incredibly tasteless comedy on the subject of dwarves. But the rule of his fiction is that the more offensive to common decency, the funnier it is. Vintage Stuff finds Sharpe in the territory of the English public school. The novel climaxes in a chase across France, and a chateau siege. (Chases and sieges recur in many of Sharpe's narratives.) Again, the novel comically testifies to the indestructibility and the simultaneous awfulness of England's upper classes.
The main influence on Sharpe's fiction is clearly early Evelyn Waugh. Unlike the mature Waugh, Sharpe seems still to be waiting for something to believe in, to ballast the otherwise increasingly brittle negativities of his fiction. But for his admirers (they remain almost exclusively cis-Atlantic, incidentally) it is probably enough that he is consistently the most amusing novelist writing.
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