Thursday, September 25, 2014

Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-1767) and A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy (1768)

So Tristram Shandy is going to tell his life story, but he's unable, because he keeps getting bogged down in context and digressions that he feels are necessary before he can get to the real thing, meaning that the real main characters in the story are his father--a prickly man with several strongly-held convictions about what is necessary for a child to grow up successfully (notably, that he has a substantial nose, and a "good" name) and his uncle Toby--a gentle, childlike man who is obsessed with sieges and fortifications and spends all his time building models of and reenacting same--and if it's necessary to plunk in a sermon or two (with commentary from the characters) or a Cervantes-esque story about noses or a very, very long and comprehensive litany of insults--well, that's just the way it's gotta be, though he will frequently make metafictional note of what he's doing and how dubious the chances appear of the book ever actually getting through the life that the title promises.  Maybe he'll include, with no explanation, two blank chapter titles in a row, only to go back later and say, okay, now it's time to fill those in.  Maybe he'll draw crazy little line graphs showing the progress and digressions of various of the books.  YOU JUST DON'T KNOW WHAT HE'LL DO.  He does manage to make one book (out of nine) more or less about him, and a tour he made of France, but other than that, he does not turn out to be the hero of his own life, except in the sense that the narrative itself is pretty darned heroic.

This is all extremely cool; the techniques it pioneered were definitely far ahead of their time, but it's not just a matter of intellectual appreciation.  What one feels, palpably, is a sense of exhilaration: that Sterne has realized that he is free; he can do whatever he wants--who's gonna stop him?  He's intoxicated with this power, and he exercises if most delightfully.  Both his father and uncle are great characters, and one is more than willing to just follow Sterne around on his maggots (I'm trying to reclaim that word's archaic meaning--LOOK IT UP) and see what he's going to do next.

I actually first attempted to read this book straight out of college--on the recommendation of my dad--but, alas, I failed.  It was just too much for me; I made it through the first book and a half before getting bogged down--a failure which haunted me for some time.  And it's easy to see why it happened: you look at Tom Jones, and sure, it's recognizably of a different era, but the prose is still pretty accessible to a modern audience--it feels like it's only quantitatively rather than qualitatively distinct from contemporary prose.  For whatever reason, however, Tristram Shandy--written at basically the same time--could not be more different: crazily gnarled sentence structure with foreboding thickets of hyphens; words italicized for reasons that are not always apparent; references to sundry modern and  classical authors, only some of whom are made up…you know you're in a different world when you try to contend with Sterne.  It's basically what Pynchon was burlesquing in Mason & Dixon, though I daresay the eighteenth-century original is more challenging for a contemporary reader.

Of course, the book doesn't end so much as stop.  This was totally predictable, and it really is okay: one of the book's themes is that life and stories do not map neatly onto one another; stuff happens, but it only becomes a "story" when it's suitably arranged and thematized, some elements emphasized and some not, etc.  It was never going to become a conventional story with a conventional ending.  Sterne did, alas, die prematurely of consumption, but several times throughout Tristram Shandy he states his intent to keep writing it as long as he lived, and I see no reason to doubt he would've kept to this plan.  Of course, we'd all be happier if there were more of it, but what we have is plenty to let us call him a genius.  I'm honestly already sorta kinda itching to reread it--get some of the subtleties that I know I missed.

Then, we have A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy, which Sterne wrote at the very, very end of his life, at least in part to counter fellow novelist Tobias Smollett's decidely non-sentimental Travels through France and Italy, which book's splenetic nature Sterne disapproved of.  Following up Tristram Shandy's principle of deferment, it takes place entirely in France (though this may only be because Sterne die before he could continue it).  Its narrator, Yorick, is also a character in the previous book (and a thinly-disguised rendering of Sterne himself), and a number of references to the Shandies make it clear that this does indeed take place in the same universe (to speak in bizarrely anachronistic terms).  It's much more simple and straightforward (and, uh, short) than its predecessor, as the protagonist recounts his rather low-key exploits, including flirtations with sundry women.  It certainly has its charms; it's agreeable enough to read, but it's very easy to get to the end (it barely clear a hundred pages) and think, huh.  Is that all there is?  More Sterne is better than less Sterne, but this is still lesser Sterne.  You realize what cultural currency it must have had, however, when you come across the phrase "'I can't get out' said the startling" and realize, huh--that's where that line from that poem in Lolita comes from (though Nabokov renders it as "cannot").


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