Frank Muir tells me that I'm in good company. Samuel Richardson and Tobias Smollett did not think much of it. Oliver Goldsmith thought Sterne a bawdy blockhead and Johnson was offended by the occasional indecency but the book was taken up by the fashionable and thereby the judgement of true wits was obviated. And so, I aver, it remains, a mystery of reputation.
Once you allow Professors in they swarm over the gunwales like boarding marines. I met Mickey, whom I know from a boy, down town about his shopping. He runs a post-grad writing course in the local university. By the bye, I said, how does Colm Toibin have the reputation he does? We both shook our heads like the Swedes in the Muppet Show, bewildered by the effrontery of fame. 'He has a great agent' said Mickey. 'That must be it' says I. His sentences are laid down like chains of sausage, dull thoughts follow dull images without ever a sense that his creation may break away and manifest a life of its own like the mind created elementals of sorcery. That golem never breaks out of the cellar.
The story gets away on Flannery O'Connor regularly. In The River the boy tells the woman who is going to mind him for the day that his name is Bevel.
His name was Harry Ashfield and he had never thought before at any time of changing it, "Bevel", he said.
Mrs.Connin raised herself from the wall. "Why ain't that a coincident.!", she said. "I told you that's the name of this preacher!".
How did O'Connor think of that? I've a feeling that it wasn't her, it was young Ashfield the confabulist that thought of it, she didn't know until he said it. That's what having genius is.
Young Tommy Joe, aged 5, of my acquaintance, future Professor of the Strange but Untrue phoned up his grandfather Martin:
- I can't see you today.
- Why's that Tommy?
- I'm going to the doctor.
- What's wrong with you.
- I don't know, the doctor 'll tell me.
There was nothing wrong with him and naturally he was not going to the doctor but the circumstance of phoning required 'news'