Friday, June 28, 2013

`Shall I Go On?--No'

As Laurence Sterne lay dying in the spring of 1768, his closest companion seems to have been Mrs. Anne Goddard James, the second wife of Commodore William James, a swashbuckler with the British East India Company (Charles Lamb’s employer for a quarter-century starting in 1792) who had the temerity in 1783 to die of a stroke at his daughter’s wedding. In 1767, Sterne had published his Journal to Eliza and A Sentimental Journey, a final burst of creativity in his lifelong footrace with death. 

At the age of forty-six, already sick with tuberculosis, Sterne had turned over his parishes to a curate and gone to work on Tristram Shandy, which was published in installments, like gasping breaths from failing lungs, in 1759, 1761, 1762, 1765 and 1767. The year Sterne started his novel, his mother died, his wife became ill and his consumption worsened. Tristram and his creator write as though only words could defer mortality. Death is everywhere in this most relentlessly comic of novels. Sterne wrote his final extant letter to Mrs. James on March 15, 1768, three days before his death, a remarkable document in which the egotist thinks of another and confesses his sins: 

“…do not weep my dear Lady—your tears are too precious to shed for me—bottle them up, and may the cork never be drawn.—Dearest, kindest, gentlest, and best of women! may health, peace, and happiness prove your handmaids.—If I die, cherish the remembrance of me, and forget the follies which you so often condemn’d—which my heart, not my head betray’d me into.” 

Sterne’s last letter is immensely poignant. One is moved by the wit, the deflection of self-pity, the striving after eloquence and self-revelation of a dying man. The pace of the prose, as in Sterne’s fiction, is halting, the end of each sentence uncertain until expressed. Earlier, in Book 6, Chapter X, of Tristram Shandy, “The Story of Le Fever Continued,” had given us a preview of his own end, with an unmistakable Beckettian echo: 

“Nature instantly ebb’d again,—the film returned to its place,—the pulse fluttered—stopp’d—went on—throbb’d—stopp’d again—moved—stopp’d—shall I go on?—No.”

1 comment:

Denkof Zwemmen said...

I recently read that a newish biography of Jefferson (Jon Meacham: The Art of Power) and was surprised to find that Jefferson and his wife were familiar enough with Tristram Shandy to be able to quote from it at will. One of Patty Jefferson's last communications with her husband were some lines from Tristram Shandy, written on a small piece of paper: "Time wastes too fast: every letter I trance tells me with what rapidity life follows my pen. The days and hours of it are flying over our heads like clouds of winday day never to return -- More every thing presses on. . ." That's as far as she could go and Jefferson complete the passage for her. ". . . and every time I kiss thy hand to bid adieu, every absence which follows it, are preludes to that eternal separation which we are shortly to make!" It's interesting that the Jeffersons were so familiar with this work, which we regard as some sort of 18th century Ulysses or Finnegan's Wake, a literary outlier. Jefferson seems to have referred to Sterne and Shandy often, according to Meacham. Question: Was Tristram Shandy common literary currency or did the Jeffersons have avant garde tastes?