The great pursuit, p.1
About the Author
Also by Tom Sharpe
About the Author
Tom Sharpe was born in 1928 and educated at Lancing College and Pembroke College, Cambridge. He did his national service in the Marines before going to South Africa in 1951, where he did social work before teaching in Natal. He had a photographic studio in Pietermaritzburg from 1957 until 1961, and from 1963 to 1972 he was a lecturer in History at the Cambridge College of Arts and Technology.
He is the author of sixteen novels, including Porterhouse Blue and Blott on the Landscape which were serialised on television, and Wilt which was made into a film. In 1986 he was awarded the XXIIIème Grand Prix de l’Humour Noir Xavier Forneret and in 2010 he received the inaugural BBK La Risa de Bilbao Prize. Tom Sharpe died in 2013.
Also by Tom Sharpe
Blott on the Landscape
The Wilt Alternative
Wilt on High
Wilt in Nowhere
The Wilt Inheritance
The Great Pursuit
When anyone asked Frensic why he took snuff he replied that it was because by rights he should have lived in the eighteenth century. It was, he said, the century best suited to his temperament and way of life, the age of reason, of style, of improvement and expansion and those other characteristics he so manifestly possessed. That he didn’t, and happened to know that the eighteenth century hadn’t either, only heightened his pleasure at his own affectation and the amazement of his audience and, by way of paradox, justified his claim to be spiritually at home with Sterne, Swift, Smollett, Richardson, Fielding and other giants of the rudimentary novel whose craft Frensic so much admired. Since he was a literary agent who despised nearly all the novels he handled so successfully, Frensic’s private eighteenth century was that of Grub Street and Gin Lane and he paid homage to it by affecting an eccentricity and cynicism which earned him a useful reputation and armoured him against the literary pretensions of unsaleable authors. In short he bathed only occasionally, wore woollen vests throughout the summer, ate a great deal more than was good for him, drank port before lunch and took snuff in large quantities so that anyone wishing to deal with him had to prove their hardiness by running the gauntlet of these deplorable habits. He also arrived early for work, read every manuscript that was submitted to him, promptly returned those he couldn’t sell and just as promptly sold the others, and in general conducted his business with surprising efficiency. Publishers took Frensic’s opinions seriously. When Frensic said a book would sell, it sold. He had a nose for a bestseller, an infallible nose.
It was, he liked to think, something he had inherited from his father, a successful wine-merchant whose own nose for a palatable claret at a popular price had paid for that expensive education which, together with Frensic’s more metaphysical nose, gave him the edge over his competitors. Not that the connection between a good education and his success as a connoisseur of commercially rewarding literature was as direct. He had arrived at his talent circuitously and if his admiration for the eighteenth century, while real, nevertheless concealed an inversion, it was by exactly the same process that he had arrived at his success as a literary agent.
At twenty-one he had come down from Oxford with a second-class degree in English and the ambition to write a great novel. After a year behind the counter of his father’s wine shop in Greenwich and at his desk in a room in Blackheath the ‘great’ had been abandoned. Three more years as an advertising copywriter and the author of a rejected novel about life behind the counter of a wine shop in Greenwich had completed the demolition of his literary ambitions. At twenty-four Frensic hadn’t needed his nose to tell him he would never be a novelist. The two dozen literary agents who had refused to handle his work had said so already. On the other hand his experience of them had revealed a profession entirely to his taste. Literary agents, it was obvious, lived interesting, comfortable and thoroughly civilized lives. If they didn’t write novels, they met novelists, and Frensic was still idealistic enough to imagine that this was a privilege; they spent their days reading books, they were their own masters, and if his own experience was anything to go by they showed an encouraging lack of literary perspicacity. In addition they seemed to spend a great deal of time eating and drinking and going to parties, and Frensic, whose appearance tended to limit his sensual pleasures to putting things into himself rather than into other people, was something of a gourmet. He had found his vocation.
At twenty-five he opened an office in King Street next to Covent Garden and sufficiently close to Curtis Brown, the largest literary agency in London, to occasion some profitable postal confusion, and advertised his services in the New Statesman, whose readers seemed more prone to pursue those literary ambitions he had so recently relinquished. Having done that he sat down and waited for the manuscripts to arrive. He had to wait a long time and he was beginning to wonder just how long his father could be persuaded to pay the rent when the postman delivered two parcels. The first contained a novel by Miss Celia Thwaite of The Old Pumping Station, Bishop’s Stortford and a letter explaining that Love’s Lustre was Miss Thwaite’s first book. Reading it with increasing nausea, Frensic had no reason to doubt her word. The thing was a hodgepodge of romantic drivel and historical inaccuracy and dealt at length with the unconsummated love of a young squire for the wife of an absent-bodied crusader whose obsession with his wife’s chastity seemed to reflect an almost pathological fetishism on the part of Miss Thwaite herself. Frensic wrote a polite note explaining that Love’s Lustre was not a commercial proposition and posted the manuscript back to Bishop’s Stortford.
The contents of the second package seemed at first sight to be more promising. Again it was a first novel, this time called Search for a Lost Childhood by a Mr P. Piper who gave as his address the Seaview Boarding House, Folkestone. Frensic read the novel and found it perceptive and deeply moving. Mr Piper’s childhood had not been a happy one but he wrote discerningly about his unsympathetic parents and his own troubled adolescence in East Finchley. Frensic promptly sent the book to Jonathan Cape and informed Mr Piper that he foresaw an immediate sale followed by critical acclaim. He was wrong. Cape rejected the book. Bodley Head rejected it. Collins rejected it. Every publisher in London rejected it with comments that ranged from the polite to the derisory. Frensic conveyed their opinions in diluted form to Piper and entered into a correspondence with him about ways of improving it to meet the publishers’ requirements.
He was just recovering from this blow to his acumen when he received another. A paragraph in The Bookseller announced that Miss Celia Thwaite’s first novel, Love’s Lustre, had been sold to Collins for fifty thousand pounds, to an American publisher for a quarter of a million dollars, and that she stood a goo
But if the novels Frensic submitted to publishers needed few changes, those that arrived on his desk from aspiring authors seldom passed his scrutiny without fundamental alteration. Having discovered the ingredients of popular success in Love’s Lustre, Frensic applied them to every book he handled so that they emerged from the process of rewriting like literary plum puddings or blended wines and incorporated sex, violence, thrills, romance and mystery, with the occasional dollop of significance to give them cultural respectability. Frensic was very keen on cultural respectability. It ensured reviews in the better papers and gave readers the illusion that they were participating in a pilgrimage to a shrine of meaning. What the meaning was remained, necessarily, unclear. It came under the general heading of meaningfulness but without it a section of the public who despised mere escapism would have been lost to Frensic’s authors. He therefore always insisted on significance, and while on the whole he lumped it with insight and sensibility as being in any large measure as lethal to a book’s chances as a pint of strychnine in a clear soup, in homeopathic doses it had a tonic effect on sales.
So did Sonia Futtle, whom Frensic chose as a partner to handle foreign publishers. She had previously worked for a New York agency and being an American her contacts with US publishers were invaluable. And the American market was extremely profitable. Sales were larger, the percentage from authors’ royalties greater, and the incentives offered by Book Clubs enormous. Appropriately for one who was to expand their business in this direction, Sonia Futtle had already expanded personally in most others and was of distinctly unmarriageable proportions. It was this as much as anything that had persuaded Frensic to change the agency’s name to Frensic & Futtle and to link his impersonal fortune with hers. Besides, she was an enthusiast for books which dealt with interpersonal relations and Frensic had developed an allergy to interpersonal relationships. He concentrated on less demanding books, thrillers, detective stories, sex when unromantic, historical novels when unsexual, campus novels, science fiction and violence. Sonia Futtle handled romantic sex, historical romance, liberation books whether of women or negroes, adolescent traumas, interpersonal relationships and animals. She was particularly good with animals, and Frensic, who had once almost lost a finger to the heroine of Otters to Tea, was happy to leave this side of the business to her. Given the chance he would have relinquished Piper too. But Piper stuck to Frensic as the only agent ever to have offered him the slightest encouragement and Frensic, whose success was in inverse proportion to Piper’s failure, reconciled himself to the knowledge that he could never abandon Piper and that Piper would never abandon his confounded Search for a Lost Childhood.
Each year he arrived in London with a fresh version of his novel and Frensic took him out to lunch and explained what was wrong with it while Piper argued that a great novel must deal with real people in real situations and could never conform to Frensic’s blatantly commercial formula. And each year they would part amicably, Frensic to wonder at the man’s incredible perseverance and Piper to start work in a different boarding-house in a different seaside town on a different search for the same lost childhood. And so year after year the novel was partially transformed and the style altered to suit Piper’s latest model. For this Frensic had no one to blame but himself. Early in their acquaintance he had rashly recommended Miss Louth’s essays in The Moral Novel to Piper as something he ought to study and, while Frensic had come to regard her appreciations of the great novelists of the past as pernicious to anyone trying to write a novel today, Piper had adopted her standards as his own. Thanks to Miss Louth he had produced a Lawrence version of Search for a Lost Childhood, then a Henry James; James had been superseded by Conrad, then by George Eliot; there had been a Dickens version and even Thomas Wolfe; and one awful summer a Faulkner. But through them all there stalked the figure of Piper’s father, his miserable mother and the self-consciously pubescent Piper himself. Derivation followed derivation but the insights remained implacably trite and the action non-existent. Frensic despaired but remained loyal. To Sonia Futtle his attitude was incomprehensible.
‘What do you do it for?’ she asked. ‘He’s never going to make it and those lunches cost a fortune.’
‘He is my memento mori,’ said Frensic cryptically, conscious that the death Piper served to remind him of was his own, the aspiring young novelist he himself had once been and on the betrayal of whose literary ideals the success of Frensic & Futtle depended.
But if Piper occupied one day in his year, a day of atonement, for the rest Frensic pursued his career more profitably. Blessed with an excellent appetite, an impervious liver and an inexpensive source of fine wines from his father’s cellars, he was able to entertain lavishly. In the world of publishing this was an immense advantage. While other agents wobbled home from those dinners over which books are conceived, publicized or bought, Frensic went portly on eating, drinking and advocating his novels ad nauseam and boasting of his ‘finds’. Among the latter was James Jamesforth, a writer whose novels were of such unmitigated success that he was compelled for tax purposes to wander the world like some alcoholic fugitive from fame.
It was thanks to Jamesforth’s itinerantly drunken progress from one tax haven to the next that Frensic found himself in the witness box in the High Court of Justice, Queen’s Bench Division, in the libel case of Mrs Desdemona Humberson versus James Jamesforth, author of Fingers of Hell, and Pulteney Press, publishers of the said novel. Frensic was in the witness box for two hours and by the time he stepped down he was a shaken man.
‘Fifteen thousand pounds plus costs,’ said Sonia Futtle next morning, ‘for inadvertent libel? I don’t believe it.’
‘It’s in the paper,’ said Frensic, handing her The Times. ‘Next to the bit about the drunken lorry driver who killed two children and got fined a hundred and fifty pounds. Mind you, he did lose his licence for three months too.’
‘But that’s insane. A hundred and fifty pounds for killing two children and fifteen thousand for libelling a woman James didn’t even know existed.’
‘On a zebra crossing,’ said Frensic bitterly. ‘Don’t forget the zebra crossing.’
‘Mad. Stark staring raving mad,’ said Sonia. ‘You English are out of your minds, legally.’
‘So’s Jamesforth,’ said Frensic, ‘and you can forget him as one of our authors. He doesn’t want to know us.’
‘But we didn’t do anything. We aren’t supposed to check his proofs out. Pulteneys should have done that. They’d have
‘Like hell they would. How does anyone spot a woman called Desdemona Humberson living in the wilds of Somerset who grows lupins and belongs to the Women’s Institute? She’s too improbable for words.’
‘She’s also done very nicely for herself. Fifteen grand for being called a nymphomaniac. It’s worth it. I mean if someone called me a raving nymphomaniac I’d be only too glad to accept fifteen—’
‘Doubtless,’ said Frensic, forestalling a discussion of this highly unlikely eventuality. ‘And for fifteen thousand I’d have hired a drunken lorry driver and had her erased on a zebra crossing. Split the difference with the driver and we would have still been to the good. And while I was about it I would have had Mr Galbanum slaughtered too. He should have had more sense than to advise Pulteneys and Jamesforth to fight the case.’
‘Well, it was innocent libel,’ said Sonia. ‘James didn’t mean to malign the woman.’
‘Oh, quite. The fact remains that he did and under the Defamation Act of 1952 designed to protect authors and publishers from actions of this sort, innocent libel demands that they show they took reasonable care—’
‘Reasonable care? What does that mean?’
‘According to that senile old judge it means going to Somerset House and checking to see if anyone called Desdemona was born in 1928 and married a man called Humberson in 1951. Then you go through the Lupin Growers’ Association Handbook looking for Humbersons and if they’re not there you have a whack at the Women’s Institute and finally the telephone directory for Somerset. Well, they didn’t do all that so they got lumbered for fifteen thousand and we’ve got the reputation of handling authors who libel innocent women. Send your novels to Frensic & Futtle and get sued. We are the pariahs of the publishing world.’