Ellis Sharp: Concrete Impressions
We are in familiar Sharp territory here – post-modern, satirical, bashing non-post-modern novelists, politicians, the upwardly mobile rich, Zionists, the media, the United States and the Establishment. Whatever your views on these things, do not let it put you off as it is very funny and very clever and very learned as we would expect from Sharp.
The key character is Mick Owen the greatest writer of his generation. Clearly the epithet may well be the view of many in this novel but it is equally clear that it is not Sharp’s view. Indeed, Owen will be the butt of Sharp’s criticism throughout the book. Is Owen based on any particular writer? There is evidence that Ian McEwan is at least a partial model. The first reference to Owen is preceded by an oblique reference to Chesil Bank which, of course, recalls McEwan’s On Chesil Beach. At least two of Owen’s books bear similarity to McEwan’s books. Owen’s Restitution has a plot line similar to that of Atonement while Owen’s Sunday Blues about the demonstration against the Iraq War is clearly a pastiche of McEwan’s Saturday. Owen visits Tony Blair and Blair mistakes him, in this case for Salman Rushdie’s guard, though, in McEwan’s case Blair thought he was a painter. There are other casual references to famous British novelists such as Julian Barnes and Martin Amis. However Owen has received a knighthood while none of the other current male British novelists has done so (though Hilary Mantel was made a dame.) In short, Mick Owen is a generic, famous, non-post-modern writer, allowing Sharp to mock the whole lot of them. The fact that he has the same name as a famous footballer is probably not a coincidence.
The novel follows the story of Mick Owen but there is a main plot (actually, as we will discover towards the end, there is more than one plot but that, as they say, is another story). We start with Owen’s third wife, a French woman wittily called Delphine Diderot (I am not sure Denis would have been amused). They live in a luxurious mansion in Suffolk, bought because of the name (Kipling Manor). Owen thought it might be linked to Rudyard Kipling, the first British author to win the Nobel Prize for literature but it was in fact built by a soap magnate. Soap opera? Geddit?). Delphine is sunbathing on a lido in their swimming pool when she hears her husband screaming in his study. Initially she does not react but when the screaming continues she does react. She will run (naked – a certain amount of post-modern prurience in this book but not too much apart, perhaps, from the lesbian romp) to his aid. You may (or may not, depending on your tastes in such matters) be glad to know that she has not shaved her pubic hair. I think Ellis prefers unshaved.
Her run to her husband is not direct. Rather, it is direct for her but not for us. We get a detailed description (Owen is a hoarder) of everything she passes en route. More importantly, every few steps she takes her run is interrupted (narratively speaking) by everything else, meaning the story of Mick Owen and Sharp’s views on everything and everyone, particularly non-post-modernist novelists, politicians, Americans and lots of others from U2 to Tony Blair, from Zionists to The Guardian newspaper, from the Royal Society of Literature to cricket (the game, not the animal). She first hears his scream on page 9 and only arrives at his study on page 94.
It is clear that he is being murdered. It is clear to her because it is something she had feared and she has two main suspects. It is clear to us because we are told what the world reaction to his death is. However, this is a post-modern novel so truth is as short a commodity as it is with the politicians Sharp damns. In a post-modern novel people can die and then undie (nothing to do with underwear). They can die more than once. They can die/not die. Let us just say that death in this novel is not always what it seems. Indeed most things in this novel are not what they seem. However, taking it at face value, we and Delphine are convinced that the hapless novelist is being done in and we will see how and why on page 94 and after, though, of course, we will not.
You will have noticed my terrible comparison above (truth is as short a commodity as it is with the politicians Sharp damns). This book is full of them e.g. The water in the pool is as flat as the prose of this week’s best selling fiction in The Times top 10. (Ellis read The Times? Quelle horreur!) and the accumulated hot air beneath the glass roof is as syrup thick and clammy as a Guardian opinion piece. He does not like the British press. With good reason
So, as Delphine makes her slow/fast way to assist her apparently dying husband, we gradually learn his story, from a very ordinary background to becoming the greatest writer of his generation. We learn perhaps more about his sex life than his literary life, though we do learn of his success, not least because Ellis is often sidetracked as he damns all and sundry. Numerous authors are damed, including the penis writers, Updike and Roth. The latter actually visits Owen and Delphine and behaves very badly. Saul Bellow is another who is viciously damned, partially for his rampant Zionism. Owen gives a talk at Harvard at which he damns Laurence Sterne (too experimental) and Karl Marx as a novelist (yes, really) and even makes an oblique reference to a writer called Sharp, leaving everyone to speculate who he might be, with a couple of fictitious suggestions thrown in (ha, ha).
With all these writers (there are more) condemned, my significant other, with whom I discussed the book, asked whether there were any he praised. Good point. Post-modernists do not do praise. However Owen, in his speech, mildly damns three modern experimental writers – Georgi Gospodinov, Yoshikichi Furui and Simon Sellars – whom we can suspect Ells approves of, as he seems to approve of Sterne. But why these three? Gospodinov has just won the International Booker, though that was well after this book was published. Prior to that he and the other two were very unknown. Moreover, on the whole, Ellis focusses on UK and US writers, though he does compare French writers in general to the sturdy English realist tradition of middle-class professionals suffering First World problems in agreeable domestic and rural settings. However, these three have one thing in common, apart from being experimental and appearing in this book. They are all on my website. Did Ellis ferret them out of my website? I will flatter myself and say that he may well have done.
Moving right long… As well as writers and politicians and the associated chattering classes are damned. Obama is a serial killer. Owen meets Mr and Mrs George Bush Jr and likes them. Ellis does not. The British royal family is damned. Owen has dinner with the then Prince Charles, primarily not for his literary achievements (about which the future king seems spectacularly ignorant) but for his faux environmental work (mocked, of course, by Ellis). Owen behaves badly, One is not amused. Charles, it became clear, was a monstrous narcissist. He was lazy and superficial. He genuinely believed he was a man of infinite wisdom and understanding. In reality he was like a small child, requiring only attention, diversion and complete agreement in all matters. So no Rise, Sir Ellis.
There is one side plot I have not mentioned, namely the wittily named Sam Quiggly (no, not Quigley). He is Owen’s biographer. He has been writing the massive biography for years but cannot publish as he has agreed with Owen to not publish it till Owen dies. He lives in San Francisco but visits regularly to get more info from Owen. He is impressed that Owen always pay for the lunch (this issue comes up more than once and seems to be a sore point with Ellis. I must ask Seth at Zoilus whether he buys lunch for Ellis). Of course, he very much has a vested interest in Owen’s death. As we shall see he is not entirely who he seems to be. But then who is?
No, I am not going to tell you the ending, whether Delphine finds her husband dead or alive or somewhere in-between nor about the unexpected role of Sam Quiggly and Delphine’s late dad (blame the French. Why not?)
I will tell you that this book was enormous fun to read, particularly if you share Ellis’ views, both political and literary, and even if you do not. I am sure there were numerous in-jokes and obscure clues and references that I missed. Perhaps one of the fictitious characters was Ellis in disguise under his real name. So rush out and buy it. £7.49 in the UK and $9.29 in the US with ebook versions available. You will enjoy it.
First published in 2023 by Zoilus Press