Wednesday, 21 December 2011


I'm having a look at The Oxford Book of Humorous Prose to see what the editor Frank Muir has to say about Tristam Shandy by Laurence Sterne. My own view based on readings in different moods and times is that it is a lugubrious piece of drollery. Does stretching a joke count as a longer joke? A partial confirmation of the correctness of my reaction came from a German Professor of my acquaintance who told me that the book was hugely influential and regarded as the pinnacle of wit in Germany in its day.

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'


ktismatics said...

When, several years ago, I finished writing my first novel, I emailed an old friend to see if he wanted to read it. I knew he had a taste for long fiction because for several years he, his wife, my wife, and I were in a book club together. Yes please. I attached the Word document to an email, awaiting his reaction.

A month goes by: nothing. So I send another email: How's it going? Okay; I've read through page 20 -- about a tenth of the way through. He continued at this pace despite my telling him that I'd written the damn thing faster than he was reading it. He gave me an occasional status report, acknowledging that he was starting to lose the plot and the characters to anamnetic degradation.

I knew that the book club read a new title every month. I had even entertained fantasies that the club would select my book, that I would print off and distribute copies, that I would make my triumphant return to respond to questions they might have about meaning, inspiration, etc. Why don't you skip the club's assigned reading for one month so you can finish my book, I suggested to my friend. Nope. It took him A YEAR to finish reading it. His emailed commentary, consisting of one paragraph of average length, was courteous and moderately positive. But then there was a second paragraph. The club had just read Colm Toibin's novel about Henry James. It's wonderful, I was told; you must read it immediately. I did not respond to this email, nor subsequently have I ever corresponded with this former friend.

In short, Colm Toibin can kiss my ass.

ombhurbhuva said...

Uncanny. I had just posted a preview of the Toibin critique when I saw your comment.
Getting a good reader seems to be necessary. Someone to help you murder your darlings and purge your parentheses. Perhaps a willingness to give offence (in a good way) is a requisite. I found out recently that Carver's stories were gutted and filleted by an editor to such an extent that they are co-written virtually. Carver by himself would not have written a Carver story.

I've looked at The Master in bookshops but I would not part for it. 'Not enough wit to keep it sweet' said Johnson of a dubious production. He lacks that uncanny thing called genius. I was glad to have confirmed to me in Enright's intro. to the collection mentioned that Flannery O'Connor's people took a life of their own. "I brought in the Bible salesman,but I had no idea what I was going to do with him. I didn't know he was going to steal that wooden leg until ten or twelve lines before he did it, but when I found out that this was going to happen, I realised it was inevitable."

ktismatics said...

Getting a good reader may be necessary, but you know what they say: a good man is hard to find. Maybe my friend would have been a good reader of my book if it had been somebody there to shoot him every minute.