Sunday, August 22, 2010


I've been reading sharpe's porterhouse blue since thursday and I'm nearly done--about 80 pages left. it's not the worst example of a campus novel I've read--that would have to be prose's the blue angel--but it doesn't really have a lot to recommend it. it's a snapshot on a moment in british academic history when the old public (by which are meant private) schools shifted from the way they'd done things for centuries to reflect the changing tastes and mores of the younger generation of the late 20th century, if for no better reason than that that was where their future monies lay. it's a bit like watching an old bbc sitcom from that time, the good neighbors or fall and rise of reginald perrin or only fools and horses in which the older generation comes rubbing up against the new and neither comes off looking well.

but it's not a bad book and here is a section from almost midpoint that makes my point. zipser, as the only graduate student at the college, has discovered that he's developed a mad passion for the widowed mrs. biggs, his "bedder"--a term I've never come across before but who seems to be someone who cleans up his bedroom in the mornings. he's taken his problem to the chaplain who suggests that the solution to this unfortunate situation--seeing that mrs. biggs is older, fatter, more caustic and of a lower station than he is--is for zipser to find and have sex with a swedish girl. this being the early 70s, the chaplain of course is under the impression swedish girls are sitting around with their panties off and their legs up waiting for virginal graduates.

zipser goes off in search of a condom first because you can't reliably expect a girl to have sex with you without having the right accessory. his search through the town for a condom is kind of funny, and through a series of misunderstandings he ends up with two gross of condoms. on his return from town he has a run-in with the dean of the college, and afraid he'll be sent down for the combination of the run-in, having the condoms, and the certainty that he's committed some felony by appropriating them, zipser decides to destroy them. he first tries flushing them down the toilet, but prophylactics have a preternatural passivity against being disposed of this way.

"twenty minutes later he was still searching for some method of disposing of his incriminating evidence. he had visited six lavatories on neighbouring staircases and had found a method of getting the things to disappear by first filling them with water from a tap and tyng the ends. it was slow and cumbersome and above all noisy and when he had tried six at a time on j staircase he had to spent some time unblocking the u was one o'clock and so far he had managed to rid himself of thirty-eight. at this rate he would still be flushing lavatories all over the college when mrs. biggs arrived in the morning...put [the remaining foil and plastic packets] behind the gas fire and burn them he thought and he was just wrestling with the gas fire and trying to make space behind it when the howling draught in the chimney gave him a better idea. he went to the window and looked out into the night. in the darkness outside snowflakes whirled and scattered while the wind battered at the window pane...a moment later he was kneeling beside the gas fire and undoing the hose of his gas ring and five minutes afterwards the first of 250 inflated contraceptives bounced bouyantly against the sooty sides of the medieval chimney and disappeared into the night sky above. zipser rushed to the window and gazed up for a glimpse of the winsome thing as it whirled away carrying its message of abstinence far away into the world, but the sky was too dark and there was nothing to see."

this goes on for another 3 pages of closely-written exposition involving much moving of a desk and minute description of the look ceilings get when sooty balloons waltz across them. the paragraph I've quoted from above begins near the top of page 94 and peters out near the top of 97. zipser reckons without the effects of ice on the condoms, so that they don't float much beyond his chimney before dropping to the ground where the dean and others find them. more importantly, he doesn't reckon with the effects of gas. many of the prophylactics become enbedded in the chimney and sharpe doesn't say it but a charitable reading of his adventure might be that zipser's decision to go to bed with the condoms still stuck in the chimney is a result of his having sat over a hissing gas ring for hours.

meanwhile, the dean and another enemy have discovered the bobbing condoms in the courtyard and are trying to collect them all without much luck until they begin poking at them with pins. mrs. biggs, far from being insensate to zipser's interest, has decided to act on it and comes to visit him in his room at 3:30, where she undresses and lights the fire before slipping into zipser's bed with him.

"'wants to spare me,' mrs. biggs thought tenderly and climbed into bed...grasping [zipser] in her arms she pressed him to her vast breasts. in the darkness zipser squeaked frantically and mrs. biggs's mouth found his. to zipser it seemed that he was in the grip of a great white whale. he fought desperately for air, suraced for a moment and was engulfed again."

we are led to assume that mrs. biggs is in the act of taking zipser's virginity when we're treated to this abrupt scene:

"[skullion the porter] had just run a small but agile [balloon] to earth in the rose garden when a dull rumbling noise at the top of the tower made he turn and look up. something was going on in the old chimney. the chimney pot at the top was shaking. the brickwork silhouetted against the morning sky appeared to be bulging. the rumbling stopped, to be succeeded by an almight roar as a ball of flame issued from the chimney and billowed out before ascending above the college. below it the chimney toppled sideways, crashed onto the roof of the tower and with a gradually increasing rumble of masonry the fourteenth-century building lost its entire facade. behind it the rooms were clearly visible, their floors tilted horribly and sagging...a bed on the first floor slid sideways and dropped onto the masonry below. desks and chairs followed suit. there were shours and screams. people poured out of doorways and windows opened all round the court."

in the next chapter we are told that zipser, whose book we have taken this to be or at least the book is partly about him since we have been following him about every other page and are privy to his confusions and concerns as if they were our own, and mrs. biggs have been killed in the explosion and that somehow the investigators have discerned they were caught in flagrante because we are treated to the discussions of the faculty about how more satisfying it might have been had zipser been committing suicide and been on drugs, but at least they can take comfort in the fact he had been a subversive since "anyone who could go to bed with mrs. biggs must have been either demented or mativated by a grossly distorted sense of social duty and to have launched two hundred and fifty lethal contraceptives on an unsuspecting world argues a fanatacism..."

to this point the novel has been a kind of early peter devries kind of thing, the humor being belabored and almost underlined by sharpe (the pages devoted to zipser's maneuvering of his desk back and forth in a vain attempt to get at the condoms that leave those sooty marks on his ceiling is indicative of this) as if we might not have got it. but this sudden explosion changes more than the fates of zipser and mrs. biggs, who we are to suppose were the only victims of the situation since no one else's injuries or deaths are remarked on, and after this both zipser's name and mrs. biggs are never spoken of again. it takes a dark turn here as if sharpe had decided he needed a sacrifice of some sort to make a point that may well have been understood by his peers, but the rest of the novel reverts to the slapstick of people whacking their heads against pipes and falling off of stools and the play on words and counterexpectations I ascribe to brit comedy. but it also serves to reinforce the presumption of classicism, that little tossaway line about mrs. biggs apparently being out of bounds to members of the campus, as if there hadn't been several centuries of people playing master-and-servent previously.

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