Saturday, November 24, 2012

`We Can Literally See the Ending Coming'

In 1760, a twenty-year-old Scottish newcomer to London penned a poem:

“By Fashion’s hands completely drest,
He’s everywhere a wellcome Guest:
He runs about from place to place
Now with my Lord, then with his Grace
And mixing with the brilliant throng,
He straight commences Beau Garcon.
In Randelagh’s delightfull round
Squire Tristram of is flaunting found
A buzzing whisper flys about,
Where’er he comes they point him out;
Each Waiter with an eager eye
Observes him as he passes by:
That there is he, do, Thomas! look
Who’s wrote such a damn’d clever Book.” 

The callow, ambitious, envy-ridden author of “A Poetical Epistle To Doctor Sterne [,] Parson Yorick [,] And Tristam Shandy” is James Boswell, still three years from meeting Dr. Johnson. He wasn’t alone in being star-struck by Laurence Sterne. One year earlier, at age forty-five, Sterne published the first two volumes of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. Seven more followed in the next seven years. This most eccentric of novels, at once learned, salacious, philosophically sophisticated and playful (Schopenhauer loved it; Nietzsche claimed it was his favorite novel and said Sterne was "familiar with everything from the sublime to the rascally"), the unlikely offspring of Rabelais and Burton, made Sterne a celebrity in London society. Dr. Johnson later told Boswell, “Nothing odd will do long. Tristram Shandy did not last,” and the book still has its grim detractors (whose objections sound remarkably like those expressed by Nabokov’s early and late critics). Since I first read it more than forty years ago, Tristram Shandy,  with Ulysses, Moby-Dick and Pale Fire, has remained one of my favorite works of fiction, one I reread every few years. 

After that first reading in 1971, I was assigned to write a lengthy paper about it on a subject of my choice. I had noted, despite its relentless comedy, the book’s death-haunted quality. Like his creator, Tristram Shandy was dying. The later volumes read like a race with death, an endlessly digressive prevarication to hold off the inevitable. I had discovered Hugh Kenner around this time and read for the first time The Stoic Comedians: Flaubert, Joyce and Beckett (1962). He noted that Joyce considered Sterne an Irishman. Elsewhere, I read that Joyce said Swift and Sterne ought to have switched names. Kenner writes in passing in his Joyce chapter: 

“Laurence Sterne availed himself of a hundred devices totally foreign to the storyteller but made possible by the book alone: not only the blank and marbled pages, the suppressed chapters represented only by headings, the blazonry of punctuation marks and the mimetic force of wavy lines, but also the suppression of narrative suspense—a suspense proper to the storyteller who holds us by curiosity concerning events unfolding in time—in favor of a bibliographic suspense which depends on our knowledge that the book in our hands is of a certain size and that the writer therefore has somehow reached the end of it—by what means? Nothing more completely separates typographic from oral narrative than the fact that, as we turn the pages, we can literally see the ending coming.” 

In my paper, I quoted this passage out of context, though I still suspect Kenner was also referring to the race-with-death theme when he says “we can literally see the ending coming.” Sterne died on March 18, 1768, at age sixty-four. The author of the most protracted birth in literary history was born on this date, Nov. 24, in 1713. 

[Today is bountiful. Also born on Nov. 24 are Baruch Spinoza, 1632; Scott Joplin, 1868; Teddy Wilson, 1912; and William F. Buckley Jr., 1925.]

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