Tuesday, March 18, 2014

`According As the Fly Stings'

Four months ago, on Nov. 24, we celebrated the three-hundredth  birthday of Laurence Sterne, whose best-known creation was not born until Vol. IV of the novel bearing his name and not breeched until Vol. VI. On this date, March 18, in 1768, Sterne died at age fifty-five. Tristram Shandy is a death-haunted novel. Sterne knew he was dying of consumption as he wrote it, and the novel’s eponymous narrator often seems to be running a race with his own mortality. So long as the words are flowing, he’s ahead. 

It’s a critical truism that Samuel Beckett, another Irishman forever brooding on death while laughing at it, is the spawn of Sterne. It’s easy to see kinship but documentation is scarce. In an Aug. 4, 1938, letter to his friend Thomas McGreevy, Beckett says he has “read nothing for months” but Vigny’s Journal, which bored him, and Tristram Shandy, which “irritated [him] in spite of its qualities.” (The Letters of Samuel Beckett 1929-1940.) The qualities in question remain unspecified, though surely they include grim and bawdy comedy, linguistic exuberance and an abiding and more-than-scholarly interest in death. In Samuel Beckett’s Library (Cambridge University Press, 2013), Dirk Van Hulle and Mark Nixon report that Beckett owned a copy of Tristram Shandy from The Works of Laurence Sterne (1910) and another of Sentimental Journey from the Complete Works published in 1780. The former was given to Beckett by his friend A.J. Leventhal. The only marginalia are pencil marks at the end of Chapter 7 and the beginning of Chapter 8 in Vol. I – the famous discussion of hobby-horses: 

“...if you come to that, Sir, have not the wisest of men in all ages, not excepting Solomon himself,—have they not had their Hobby-Horses;—their running horses,—their coins and their cockle-shells, their drums and their trumpets, their fiddles, their pallets,—their maggots and their butterflies?—and so long as a man rides his Hobby-Horse peaceably and quietly along the King's highway, and neither compels you or me to get up behind him,—pray, Sir, what have either you or I to do with it?” 

In my private mythology of literature, which corresponds only tangentially with the texts in question, Sterne’s hobby-horse has always been first cousin to Swift’s Houyhnhnms. And wasn’t it another Irishman who said Sterne and Swift should have exchanged names? Sterne resumes in Chapter 8: 

—De gustibus non est disputandum;—that is, there is no disputing against Hobby-Horses; and for my part, I seldom do; nor could I with any sort of grace, had I been an enemy to them at the bottom; for happening, at certain intervals and changes of the moon, to be both fiddler and painter, according as the fly stings.” 

The cracked logic, anarchic reasoning, stuttering articulation – very Sternean, very Beckettian, very Irish.

1 comment:

zmkc said...

Somewhat tangentially, I am reading The Knox Brothers by Penelope Fitzgerald, which includes a Beckett quote I like but hadn't come across before:
"George Knox ... was the kind of Irishman who, like Samuel Beckett's Watt, "had never smiled, but thought that he knew how it was done."