Ellis Sharp: Neglected Writer
If I had to sum up this novel in a few words it would be Dashiell Hammett meets Sigmund Freud meets Ellis Sharp.
First off, we get what seems to be a spoof Dashiell Hammett story/film, starting in September 1932 in Hollywood and peopled with a host of real people, some you may know of and others you may not. Our hero is Eliot Blount. Eliot is English and born at the turn of the century in Coxwold , North Yorkshire. Coxwold is best known as where Laurence Sterne wrote Tristram Shandy. The novel will make an appearance in a glib literary remark by Eliot. You want life to be War and Peace but it ends up being The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy .
The book opens with his dream interrupted by a phone call from a woman, whose voice he vaguely recognises but cannot place. She tells him that Burns is dead. He is aware of this, as Robert Burns died one hundred and thirty-six years previously. However, she is not referring to the Scottish poet but someone apparently called Burn. He then realises she is referring to Paul Bern, a very real film director, perhaps best-known for having married the actress Jean Harlow just two months previously. Who is this woman? Why is she telling him about Bern’s death? And what should he do?
A good part of the book is about these questions. However, he does head out to Bern’s house, where he sees various people. They are clearly not police. He tries to sneak in but is caught, They offer him a beer and, not for the last time in this book, we, who have seen enough gangster films, know that it is drugged. He wakes up back in his room.
It does turn out reasonably well, as the people who drugged him were MGM employees and he is bribed to keep quiet, with a job developing scripts and instructions to find out who the woman caller was.
However, this is Ellis Sharp so we know that, firstly, it is going to be somewhat experimental, somewhat erotic and with lots of obscure references. Throw in a lot of satire and all sorts of film and literary references and this novel becomes very interesting.
Eliot now has a good job with MGM and is under the protection of the legendary Irving Thalberg. Thalberg was the inspiration for F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s The Last Tycoon and Fitzgerald will make an appearance in this book towards the end. However, Eliot decides to adapt some of his favourite novels by a relatively new and unknown author – Virginia Woolf. This is one of the many places in this novel where Sharp enjoys himself. Jacob’s Room becomes Jacob:Gunman which is a gangster film. Other Woolf books get similar Hollywood-style treatment. Woolf would be turning in her grave.
We follow Eliot’s journey through Hollywood where he meets various legendary and less than legendary characters, with Sharp having enormous fun mocking all and sundry. We also follow Eliot’s subsequent story as he tries to become a great novelist. The title suggest how that works out, unless, of course, the title is Sharp satirising himself. Simply for the plot, this is a good Hollywood-style story.
There are numerous in-jokes. For example he goes to a bookshop, and walks down Zoilus Avenue. Zoilus is the publisher of this book. The bookshop is called Korzienowski, which is the real name of Joseph Conrad. I found that I felt that every name was some obscure reference I was missing, which may well have been the case.
Sharp is an experimental writer and we see this most in Eliot’s frequent dreams, all of which are peculiar and often erotic. Indeed, a new expert makes an appearance in some of them – Sigmund Freud, giving rise to a few double-entendres.
Meanwhile back at the plot, Eliot is looking for the caller, trying to find out why Bern really died. Was it suicide? Why would a man kill himself when married to Jean Harlow. There was no indication of any dissent between the two. Who else is involved? And will MGM make films of Eliot’s Hollywoodisation of Virginia Woolf’s novels?
This really was a fun book. It has a clever plot, based (I stress based) on actual events, it tells the story of an Englishman trying to make good in Hollywood. It satirises Hollywood and the film industry, while having a certain amount of reverence for it It has numerous literary references,some oblique, some less so. It has lots of in-jokes, some obvious, some less so. It has sex (How would it not in Hollywood?) Sharp shows his experimental side but certainly not enough to put off a lover of more conventional works. Indeed, if you have resisted Sharp up or now, this novel could be a good place to start.
First published in 2021 by Zoilus Press