Friday, July 06, 2018

'More Biting Whilst Less Rigidly Accurate'

For dedicated readers, the happiest of book titles must be Hours in a Library (1874-79). Though verbless, Leslie Stephen’s title implies activity. Frequenters of libraries, if not playing video games or merely coming in out of the cold, are busy people, internally and otherwise. Their need for books is urgent, as Stephen’s must have been. He’s not stuffy, and comes on collegially, like a well-read neighbor sharing enthusiasms. Here he is on Laurence Sterne:

“It is impossible for any one with the remotest taste for literary excellence to read Tristram Shandy or the Sentimental Journey without a sense of wondering admiration. One can hardly read the familiar passages without admitting that Sterne was perhaps the greatest artist in the language. No one at least shows more inimitable felicity in producing a pungent effect by a few touches of exquisite precision. He gives the impression that the thing has been done once for all.”

For lovers of Tristram Shandy, Stephen’s conclusions are self-evident. But is Sterne truly “the greatest artist in the language,” greater than Shakespeare, Swift and Henry James? Of course not, but Stephen’s manner is conversational, not scientific. We know he wants to share his pleasure, and so we forgive his lapses into hyperbole. By modern standards, Stephen may devote too much time to Sterne’s biography, especially his morals, when we might want closer readings of the prose. But one feels nostalgia for an age when books were enjoyed because they were taken seriously, and vice versa. They were more than “entertainment options.” Among the epigraphs Stephen attaches to the opening pages of Hours in a Library is this from a letter Sterne wrote to a friend shortly before his death:

“I often derive a peculiar satisfaction in conversing with the ancient and modern dead, — who yet live and speak excellently in their works. My neighbors think me often alone, — and yet at such times I am in company with more than five hundred mutes — each of whom, at my pleasure, communicates his ideas to me by dumb signs — quite as intelligently as any person living can do by uttering of words.”

Like Sterne, Stephen treats long-dead writers as companions: “Happily we can dismiss an author when we please; give him a cold shoulder in our more virtuous moods, and have a quiet chat with him when we are graciously pleased to relax.” I have just reread Stephen’s “Dr. Johnson’s Writings,” in which he addresses the notion that Johnson would not be Johnson without Boswell, and that he was more talker than writer:
“If Johnson, as a writer, appears to us to be a mere windbag and manufacturer of sesquipedalian verbiage, whilst, as a talker, he appears to be one of the most genuine and deeply feeling of men, we may be sure that our analysis has been somewhere defective. The discrepancy is, of course, partly explained by the faults of Johnson’s style; but the explanation only removes the difficulty a degree further. ‘The style is the man’ is a very excellent aphorism, though some eminent writers have lately pointed out that Buffon’s original remark was le style c’est de l’homme. That only proves that, like many other good sayings, it has been polished and brought to perfection by the process of attrition in numerous minds, instead of being struck out at a blow by a solitary thinker. From a purely logical point of view, Buffon may be correct; but the very essence of an aphorism is that slight exaggeration which makes it more biting whilst less rigidly accurate.”

1 comment:

Barry Cusack said...

Good to see such enthusiasm for an author. I lost patience with Tristram Shandy when I tried it as a fifteen-year-old. Perhaps, fifty years later, it is time to try it again. Thanks.