Thursday, June 11, 2015

`A Sweetly Malevolent Smile'

The name meant nothing but I recognized him from the story he told. Forty-three years ago this spring we were enrolled in the same Eighteenth-Century English Novel class, which featured a reading list beginning with Don Quixote and finishing with John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor, neither of which was English or written in the eighteenth century. I often sat at the desk next to this guy. He was serious and focused in a way I found intimidating but interesting. We were about the same age but he seemed like a grownup while I was still floundering in late puberty or early post-puberty. He told me he was writing a novel and that his chief model was Tristram Shandy, a book on our reading list he had already read and I had not. The excitement of that first reading of Sterne’s peculiar masterpiece remains with me, the sense that a work of fiction might contain anything and move in any direction.

Our professor told me privately that Tristram Shandy was the worst possible novel for a young writer to imitate. Her confidence left me feeling disloyal to my fellow student, though now I know she was correct. He and I never became friends or even saw each other outside the classroom. He was probably too preoccupied and I know I was too unnerved by the spectacle of a contemporary of mine actually writing a novel. Until this week I never heard from him again and had forgotten his name, though I remembered his industriousness, especially when I was reading something by or about Sterne. My old classmate happened upon something I had written about A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy, and was moved to write me:

“I remember you getting real excited about Sterne, a lot more excited than I was. I was trying to write a novel and I really didn’t believe in it. It was all a big sham, really. That was a long time ago and it still makes me kind of uncomfortable to think about it.”

We’ve exchanged a few emails. He still reads Sterne occasionally, along with Nabokov, though he no longer writes. We’re both living away from Ohio. He never married, lives in Los Angeles, teaches English and French in a community college and hopes to retire in a few years. While still in his twenties (while we were in our twenties), the novelist Javier MarĂ­as translated Tristram Shandy into Spanish. In Written Lives (New Directions, 2006), MarĂ­as devotes a chapter to his English forebear, “Laurence Sterne at the End,” and discusses him in the chapter devoted to images of writers, “Perfect Artists.” He looks at the painting of Sterne made by Sir Joshua Reynolds, a likeness that reminds me of Harpo Marx:

“Sterne’s gaze leaves no room for doubt: in a century replete with lively gazes, it is one of the liveliest, and it belongs to a man conscious of his great talent, yet without being vain. In Reynolds’ portrait, he shows his hands with utter naturalness, the index finger of his right hand resting on his forehead, pointing to his intellect, the left resting on one thigh, comfortable, sure of itself and of the rightness of that position . . . He is blithely crushing with his elbow the very pages for which he will be remembered (he will be above them for as long as he lives), and on his lips there is just the beginning of a sweetly malevolent smile, the smile of someone who knows what he is going to say the moment his companion stops speaking, for he seems to be listening courteously (awaiting his turn) to someone less skilled in rhetoric.”

1 comment:

Subbuteo said...

Have been skulling through your top ten novels Mr Kurp. So far have read Tristram Shandy, Rasselas and Pale Fire (I found Nabokov brilliant but self-regarding - he enjoys his own talent too much and that put me off him). I am currently nearing the end of Daniel Deronda which contains some of the most moving scenes I've ever read - the reunion of Mordecai and Mirah and, even more so, the reunion of Daniel with his mother which is marvellous.