Thursday, August 26, 2010

skullion uber alles

for decades I've made a point of finding at least 1 insight in every book I've read, no matter how trashy or silly, even going to the extreme when I was younger of typing lines onto index cards and taping them to a door I passed in and out every day. but there is precious little I've found worth remembering in tom sharpe's porterhouse blue. it's not that it's a bad book; it's just not a very good one.

the hero--and by "hero" I mean the person whose conduct is least nasty among a slew of nastier people, an equation I realized 21 years ago when I read harry crews' all we need of hell, and have had reiterated recently by the graphic novel cry for justice--turns out to be skullion. skullion is bigoted, petty, mean-minded, narrow and at least accidentally responsible for a death. but it's skullion's view which prevails.

"skullion lay in bed and stared at the pale blue ceiling of his hotel room. he felt uncomfortable. for one thin the bed was strange and the mattress too responsive to his movements. it wasn't hard enough for him. there was something indefinite about the whole room which left him feeling uneasy and out of place. it wasn't anything he could put his finger to but it reminded him of a whose he'd once had in pompey. too eager to please so that what had started out as a transaction, impersonal and hard, had turned into an encounter with his own feelings. it was the same with this room. the carpet was too thick. the bed too soft. there was too much hot water in the basin. there was nothing to grumble about and in the absence of anything particular to assert himself against, skullion's resentment was turned in on himself. he was out of place...skullion...couldn't pretend even for a moment he was other than he was, a college servent out of work. the knowledge that he was a rich man only aggravated his sense of loss. it seemed to justify his dismissal by robbing him of his right to feel hard done by...he'd go back to cambridge...he collected his things together and went down to the desk and paid his bill. two hours later skullion was sitting in the train smoking his pipe and looking out at the flat fields of essex. the monotony of the landscape pleased him...he could buy a bit of land...if he wanted to, and grow vegetables like his stepfather had done. skullion considered the idea only to reject it. he didn't want a new life. he wanted his old one back."

he doesn't get it. what he gets instead, through unforeseen circumstances and misinterpretations, is a jump in class to mirror his jump in finances (in a little under a page it's reported that skullion has become a very wealthy man through some shares left him by the previous head of the college). he becomes the master of the college and suffers what we were told early in the novel is called a "porterhouse blue"--a stroke--before he can either decline the honor or tell the truth about the previous master's (a character I admit liking mostly because he seemed the sort of person played on brit tv by paul eddington) death. we see the college at the end, exactly like it was only more so:

"around [skullion] the life of the college went on unaltered. lord wurford's legacy helped to restore the tower and skullion had signed the papers with his thumbprint unprotestingly. as a sop to scholarship there were a few research fellows, mainly in law and the less controversial sciences, but apart from these concessions, little changed. the undergraduates kept later hours, grew longer hair and sported their affectations of opinion as trivially as ever they had once seduced the shopgirls. but in essentials they were just the same. in any case, skullion discounted thought. he'd known too many scholars in his time to think that they would ever alter things. it was the continuity of custom and character that counted. what men were, not what they said, and looking round him he was reassured. the faces that he saw and the voices he heard, though now obscured by hair and the borrowed accents of the poor, had still the recognizable attributes of class, and if the old unfeeling arrogance had been replaced by a kindliness and gentle quality that he despised, it was still them and us even in the privilege of sympathy. and when an undergraduate would offer to wheel the master [who is confined to a chair] for a walk, he would be deterred by the glint in skullion's eyes which betrayed a contempt that made a mockery of his dependence."

the novel's last line reiterates of skullion that he "had always known his place."

it's clear that the novel's sympathies are with the old order, the order whose tradition reaches back just to about a year before they came on board and who are unwilling to see any upset in it. the college fellows of this novel are the academic versions of conservative pundits who, despite being on the wrong side of history, nevertheless intend to do william buckley one better by having someone else standing athwart the traintracks of history and yelling "stop!" it's not only that people like this are in the wrong but that they're willing to (let someone else) die for their beliefs while stopping the trains for the day so no one can get anywhere. it is selfish self-delusion and it stinks.

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