Friday, August 18, 2017

`Scarcely Readable by Women'

“Despite his accesses of feverish emotionalism, the face that he showed for the most part to the world was humorous and cynical, the face of a man who was both well aware of, and perhaps capitalized, his oddity, with a sardonic smile wrinkling his hollow consumptive cheeks.”

Pardon the surfeit of adjectives. The author is Peter Quennell, writing about Laurence Sterne in Four Portraits: Studies of the Eighteenth Century (the other three being Boswell, Gibbon and Wilkes), published in 1945. Sterne’s stance is a familiar one. The jolly-good-fellow mask is useful, especially when fitted with the sardonic smile option. Like Keats and Chekhov, Sterne spent much of his life dying of consumption. The composition of Tristram Shandy (1759-67), begun at a late-blooming age of forty-six, transformed Sterne’s life. Soon after the early volumes were published and became bestsellers, Sterne was the toast of society, a sought-after and very amusing guest. Quennell describes Sterne’s discovery of his gift for language and story:

“Once he had begun, it was as if he were transcribing or remembering pages he had already written; and indeed there was little in the subject-matter of the book he had to fetch from outside, since it was the progress of his own mind and the history or legends of his own family that he was recording upon paper.”

Sterne understood he was in a race with death. Like oxygen-rich blood in the arteries, only the ceaseless flow of words could keep him alive. As Quennell puts it, “Sterne always heard the rush of the time-stream, carrying himself and his personages towards extinction, and made haste to pin down the impression made by one instant before it blurred into the next.” This accounts for the uncannily modern feel of Sterne’s novels (including A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy). Reading Melville, Ford, Joyce and Nabokov before Tristram Shandy had given me a more elastic sense of what a novel could be, and prepared me for reading Sterne. “His plan, therefore, was to have no plan,” Quennell tells us, which has encouraged legions of neo-Sterneans to write planlessly and tediously, unburdened with Sterne’s genius. As Tristram explains:  “. . . but, in my opinion, to write a book is for all the world like humming a song—be but in tune with yourself, madam, ’is no matter how high or how low you take it.”

Not everyone is amused. Dr. Johnson, in 1776, huffed: “Nothing odd will do long. Tristram Shandy did not last.” In Specimens of the Table Talk of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1836), in an entry for this date, Aug. 18, in 1833, Coleridge offers a curiously mixed appraisal:

“I think highly of Sterne--that is, of the first part of Tristram Shandy: for as to the latter part about the widow Wadman, it is stupid and disgusting; and the Sentimental Journey is poor sickly stuff. There is a great deal of affectation in Sterne, to be sure; but still the characters of Trim and the two Shandies are most individual and delightful. Sterne's morals are bad, but I don't think they can do much harm to any one whom they would not find bad enough before. Besides, the oddity and erudite grimaces under which much of his dirt is hidden take away the effect for the most part; although, to be sure, the book is scarcely readable by women.”

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