In 2008, the year he turned 80, Tom Sharpe, the creator of Wilt (1976), one of the most famous satyrs in British literature, received an offer for his autobiography that he could not refuse. "I'll write it," he then told Montserrat Verdaguer, his future executor and his partner in the town of Llafranc, on the Costa Brava. "One million pounds is a lot of money. I don't give a damn about my father! He was a Nazi, I wasn't," he also told her. The writer had spent years taking notes and wondering if he should shape his life, but telling himself again and again not to think about it. He feared what might happen to him, to his figure and to his work, when he did. Was that going to change a million pounds? No. Soon, he was telling Verdaguer otherwise, in a clear sign of his ardently childish and impulsive character. "I can't write my autobiography, my life has been horrible. [...] You will write my biography when I am dead. You'll have a huge job, but you'll make a fortune," he blurted out.
A soft, cowardly and degenerate Englishman
The unwanted son of an extravagant couple, Sharpe felt abandoned as a child. The father was a charismatic reverend; The mother, the daughter of a wealthy South African businessman, and both were, by the time he was born, so old that they could have been his grandparents. They even tried to get rid of him on more than one occasion: she jumped rope during pregnancy, he gave her at least one defective gun with which he could have killed himself. The writer spent his childhood in a boarding school where he received brutal beatings, and in the homes of families who took care of him always treating him as a stranger passing through. And yet, the fascination with the father was such that the first thing the aspiring writer wanted to be was an SS general. "My father was much more Nazi than I ever said. He was from an extreme Nazism," he confessed to Verdaguer, when he began to dictate his memories. Something he did daily from 2001 until the day he died in 2013.
Miquel Martín, biographer of Tom Sharpe, in front of the old Hotel Llevant, now Hotel Isabella's, where Sharpe had stayed for seasons.Toni Ferragut
Disoriented and plunged into a paralyzing creative crisis, convinced that he had lost his narrative punch forever, Sharpe arrived in Llafranc, the small Catalan town from which he would not leave, in 1992. At that time, he was looking for hotels to stay in for seasons to try to regain inspiration. In Llafranc he found the modest Hotel Llevant, a low building, with few rooms, facing the sea, and he did not abandon it. First he stayed, and when he had a house in Llafranc, he began to spend a good part of the day there. Llafranc, he recalled, "was love at first sight." It is in the Llevant, today called Isabella's Llafranc and converted into a luxurious boutique hotel, where Miquel Martín i Serra (Begur, 54 years old), the narrator who Verdaguer finally commissioned to write such a controversial biography, assures that "the pathos of the characters he created acquires another meaning after knowing how his life was, and the fun of his books too". It is surrounded by the sea breeze, and conversations in English.
For Martín i Serra, author of Fragments of Non-Existence (Anagrama in Spanish, Navona in Catalan), the biography in question, "there is a lot of sadness" in Sharpe's work, hidden in plain sight, thanks to his fierce satire, to how he squeezes the absurdity and ridicule of what, on the other hand, is terrifying. Like, he recalls, when he heard a neighbour say in his time in South Africa – where he settled after a fateful stint in the army, and where he began writing poetry and drama, and earned his living as a photographer and social worker – that he was bothered by the noise made by the boys who were being tortured in the building across the street during apartheid. . "He wasn't complaining about the torture, but about the noise. Sharpe found it terrifying. And he realized that if he wanted to denounce that in any way, he was going to have to use absurdity. Because it would not have been believable in a serious novel," says the writer.
Tom Sharpe and his father, 1934-1935 (approximately). © Tom Sharpe Fund, University of Girona (COURTESY OF ANAGRAMA)
Sharpe never recovered, and hence his "moral sadomasochism", in the words of Martín i Serra, of the repugnance of discovering what had happened in the concentration camps. He could not understand his father, nor forgive him. "He wanted to be a good person above all else," says his biographer, but he carried a past that displeased him, and weighed him down in the extreme. "It was contradictory to absurd extremes. He had an explosive personality. He was impulsive and impetuous. And he couldn't help but be the center of attention. Everything should always revolve around him, but at the same time, as he said, he was arrogantly humble, "recalls the biographer, who immersed himself in six decades of intimate diaries, and in his varied and rich correspondence, in addition to the transcripts of 12 years of conversations with Verdaguer, to bring Sharpe back, and with him his hypochondria and his fear of sex.
Henry Wilt, the protagonist of five of his funny novels, has a troubled relationship with sex and the prophylactic – the famous inflatable doll – comes from Sharpe himself. He had an almost childish relationship, of disgust and inevitable desire, with the act in question. Of the female organ he said it was ugly, and also, that sleeping with someone was no big deal. "That explains why women, in his novels, are man-eaters," says the biographer. I feared them. He preferred to do it alone. And he had something akin to an obsession with rubber, linked to childhood trauma—a tonsil operation that involved wearing a prophylactic mask—that appears, distorted, in his stories. Condoms, which his mother considered "almost demonic" objects, are everywhere in his work, where they "come to acquire almost supernatural powers." "Their repression had to do with guilt, but also with the animality of the act," says Martín i Serra.
Tom Sharpe and Montserrat Verdaguer, Montsi, in Llofriu, on 3 April 1996. Tom Sharpe Fund, University of Girona (COURTESY OF ANAGRAMA)
Solitary, unpredictable, and as deeply misunderstood as his alter ego—and the wife of his alter ego: part of Eva Wilt's character is also his, and his was also his passion for botany, the only thing that could bring him closer to his father—Sharpe did not publish his first novel—A Tumultuous Reunion—until he was 41. but he found in his formula—so close to that of his beloved Evelyn Waugh and P. G. Wodehouse—a way to "cry out against an irascible and fascist father, an absent and distant mother, against the snobbery of Cambridge and the classism of England, against apartheid and against work as a high school teacher who, for so many years, he had not allowed him to write", according to Martín i Serra. "His life was a constant mixture of war and peace," adds the writer, sitting on the terrace of the hotel where a part of Sharpe himself will remain forever.