The supreme book critic of the last century was V.S. Pritchett (who died on this date, March 20, in 1997). That he was also among our finest writers of short stories, wrote a great travel book (The Spanish Temper) and one enduing novel (Mr. Beluncle), makes the lavishness of his gifts seem almost indecent. Here he is in “Tristram Shandy” (Complete Collected Essays, 1991):
“A little of Sterne goes a long way – as long as nearly 200 years, for his flavor never dies in the English novel. It is true we cannot live on tears, fancy cakes and curry. But, take him out of the English tradition; point out that George Eliot, D.H. Lawrence [that set off my taste-tester], Conrad – the assembled moral genius of the English novel – ignore him; explain that he is not Henry James; despise him because he created `characters’, a form of dramatic person out of fashion for a generation or more – and still his insinuating touch of nature come through.”
One senses a great big “but” in the offing. Up to this point, Pritchett is addressing not Sterne but his influence and reputation. The aphorist (and Pritchett is one of the greats at this art, too) is afoot: “Eccentricity is, in fact, practical madness.” And at greater length (aphorisms are not so much short as dense): “Constantly he reckoned up how much he was going to feel before he felt it; even calculated his words so subtly that he made a point of not ending half his sentences and preferred an innuendo to a fact.” How un-English of him. The practice of truncating sentences accounts for half of Sterne’s comic genius. He has Tristram say: “Writing, when properly managed, (as you may be sure I think mine is) is but a different name for conversation.” Tristram is defined by his fleeting mortality. Only when consumption finishes him off (as it did his creator) will he cease writing. Pritchett notices the essentially solitary state of Shandy/Sterne:
“Alone: it is that word which rises at last to the mind after it has been dragged for miles at the heels of the bolting, gasping fancies and verbosities of Tristram Shandy. The gregarious, egotistical Sterne is alone; garrulously, festively and finally alone . . . The indecencies and the double meaning of Sterne, if anything, intensify the solitude; they provoke private reflection and erect barriers of silent lecherous satisfaction.”
That’s part of the peculiarly interactive charm of Sterne and his prose. Sometimes a dirty joke is just a dirty joke. And sometimes it’s a revelation of character or a pitying flash of human consciousness. Sterne was a pioneer in more than novel writing; a bona fide world explorer for whom the world was his own sensibility:
“Sterne’s discovery of the soliloquizing man, the life lived in fantasy, is the source of what is called the `great character’ in the English novel, a kind which only Russian fiction, with its own feeling for `madness’ in the 19th century, has enjoyed.”
I’m reading A Sentimental Education again, as I reread Tristram Shandy last year. Does Pritchett pass my litmus test? Yes and no.