Ada Leverson, Malcolm Bradbury, Tom Sharpe
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Last week a customer asked me to suggest someone like Wodehouse. I made a few suggestions, Joe Keenan, Tom Sharpe (with a caveat that while very much like Wodehouse in plotting and farce replaced the faux-Edwardianism with scenes where a guy tries to scrape napalm off his penis with a cheese grater) and Kingsley Amis (warning: misogyny). I was surprised I couldn’t think of more. Next time John Miller was in I asked him who’d he have suggested. John teaches at The North Carolina School of Math & Science, one of the two state schools for very bright kids. Considering the depth and breadth of John’s reading you could easily assume he was a revered figure in a research university. But he had no desire to have to publish or perish. He likes to go home, spend time with his wife, his books and music (he’s one of the very few people I can talk to about music, we share many of the same obscure tastes in pre-1960s pop and jazz).
Of his several recommendations Ada Leverson was the only author we had on the shelves. Oscar Wilde called her The Sphinx and she was one of his few true friends in Wilde’s horrible last years. We’d had the book for fifteen years but I’d never thought to even open it.
The Little Ottleys comprising her three novels about Edith and Bruce Ottley. Edith is a wholly unannoying paragon of everything a sane person might want in a partner. Bruce is the fifth essence of the dull, self-admiring, boring husband. Leverson gains skill with each novel. In a limited way you could say they are Wilde’s plays turned into novels. The characters aren’t quite so gifted at epigram but you have similar characters and the conflict between sanity and social inhibition and limitation. That makes them sound too serious. They are light romantic comedies and I greatly enjoyed all three.
I first read The History Man about fifteen years ago. Can’t say why I decided to reread it. It is my favorite of Malcolm Bradbury’s novels. I couldn’t put it down either time. This time I ignored Charles, put aside work until I finished. As soon as I closed it I picked up his first novel Eating People is Wrong.
Bradbury’s first three novels all center around academics. In England they are part of a genre called “campus comedies” or “university novels.”
The central character of The History Man is a sociologist with locked in to contemporary jargon and leftish politics. I have a weakness for fiction about educated people. I can rarely bring myself to read about migrant workers, car salesmen or the rural poor. Bradbury’s later novels always feature academics or intellectuals but usually outside the university. They are very much novels of ideas but in a mildly mocking fashion. The narrative and humor never flag even implicit appraisal of postmodern intellectuals in Doctor Criminale.
I don’t usually like ‘novels of ideas’ and would never knowingly open one. But Malcolm Bradbury’s consciously intelligent prose (which again sounds like something damnable) and gently aloof but commiserating humor (which is pretty much how I often see myself) are lots of fun.
After finishing Eating People is Wrong I couldn’t figure out what to read next. After having spent a couple of days with Bradbury I felt a little woozy. I picked up Tom Sharpe’s Wilt thinking I’d read a few pages of a familiar book before opening something new. But I couldn’t stop. Since I have all three of the Wilt novels in a single volume I read all of them nonstop. I really don’t want to exhaust Sharpe and be so familiar with his comedies that I won’t feel like reading them again ten or twenty years from now.
He’s one of the few writers who make me burst out laughing again and again.