Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Cosmic Jesting: Sharpe and Banks

by Mark Richardson
In the space of three days, two British novelists have had their Wikipedia entries amended by adding a death date to their existing entry: Tom Sharpe and Iain Banks. In many ways they are very different writers, with radically different backgrounds, but there is also a curious symmetry involved here, a sort of comic, cosmic jest that is oddly in keeping with central aspects of their art.
I am writing this in part because both writers have been favourites of mine. Neither writer is necessarily very fashionable: many of Iain Banks's novels are unread by the majority of his readers, while Tom Sharpe's novels are not to everyone's taste, often regarded as juvenile and rather overly popular, always a sure sign of being a critical lightweight. But I have devoured Iain Banks's work over the years, and the 70s for me meant being able to read pretty much a book a year that was guaranteed to make me ill with laughter.

Although technically their writing careers overlapped, Sharpe's writing was at its best just before Iain Banks's first novel, The Wasp Factory, was published in 1984. By that time, Sharpe's Riotous Assembly (1971), Indecent Exposure (1973), Porterhouse Blue (1974), Blott on the Landscape (1975) and Wilt (1976) had already established Sharpe as the premier comic writer of the seventies, his books wildly successful and seemingly appearing at a breakneck speed. Banks's first novel was neither wildly popular nor seen as being comic, and appeared to come from a very different sensibility.

Sharpe's novels were hugely successful, and I have never before or since found the experience of reading a book so hugely funny as the time I first read Riotous Assembly, although Sharpe's later novel Wilt was a strong contender. Sharpe had the ability to create absurdly surreal events that were both strongly rooted in contemporary and credible (and definitely humourless) situations such as apartheid South Africa or a police interrogation room, while at the same time being irrepressibly funny. Long before I considered the possibility of teaching as a career, the idea that a lecturer at a local college could, for a variety of complex and interrelated reasons, enjoy and actively prolong being interrogated by police as a murder suspect was amusing in itself. The way that Sharpe managed to sustain the joke was masterful: he had the ability to develop a situation from one comic event to another so quickly that the cumulative effect was devastatingly funny, leaving this reader at least physically tired from reading a chapter because of the humour. His two early novels based in South Africa were set in a more exotic environment, and the seriousness of the situation in South Africa was well known by the mid 70s: protest marches, boycotts of Barcalys and sporting events kept the pressure up on the regime in Pretoria, the capital of South Africa, and the news from there had been relentlessly grim for years. So, to read comic novels that mercilessly pilloried the regime while at the same time being achingly funny was a new experience in itself. As new novels appeared from Sharpe, focusing on further and higher education as well as the aristocracy, his reputation quickly grew, to the point that it was hard to avoid his novels on book stands and in bookshops in both this country and abroad.

Banks's work has been even more diverse: each novel has been unexpected. Several feature unconventional narratives, either being from an unusual narrator or being a combination of different viewpoints or even different stories. Romance, gothic, murder mystery: they are all part of the Banks world, which is vast, and take in personal hells and public crises such as 9/11. But alongside this body of work is a parallel one, featuring a much vaster universe and spanning eons of time: under his 'other' name of Iain M Banks, he has produced a string of science fiction novels (the unread part of his work for many). These are monstrous and detailed and funny and alien: they manage to combine realism with fantasy and explore a myriad of themes while at the same time being, for the most part, "hard" science fiction, full of massive spacecraft and unpronounceable names. He is unique as a writer: his 'literary' novels have impressed critics, while all his many prizes and nominations for prizes have come from the science fiction world (even The Wasp Factory, which won an esteemed award from Germany for the Best Foreign SF novel for the year, despite it not being recognisably SF at all).

Both writers are funny: all of Banks's work is laced with humour, often of the blackest kind, while Sharpe's work has been likened to Wodehouse and Waugh (indeed, it might be said that his best work combined the situations that have a Wodehousian air about them, but written with an acerbic and dark Waugh-like sensibility). The irony is that both their lives were subject to that divine comedy brought both their lives to an end: Sharpe suffered for the longest, with an absence from writing for a couple of decades, possibly as a result of his illness but perhaps also mixed with an inability to compete with the reputation of his earlier work. He became increasingly reclusive, apparently creating several of his own personas in order to brush off enquirers interested in his work. His final death came late, as he was beginning to write an autobiography: perhaps just at that very moment the comic cosmic gods decided to cut him short.

Banks, on the other hand, was cruising in top gear: he had been named among the top 50 British writers since 1945, his novels were eagerly anticipated and all was perfect. He complained to his doctor about tiredness towards the beginning of the year, which was then diagnosed as cancer, and within two months of announcing this, he was dead. Cruel jesting for both.

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