Monday, November 05, 2018

'This Scurvy and Disastrous World of Ours'

What do you give a fictional character on his 300th birthday? You read him, of course, again:

“On the fifth day of November, 1718, which to the æra fixed on, was as near nine kalendar months as any husband could in reason have expected, —was I Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, brought forth into this scurvy and disastrous world of ours.”

These are the opening words of Book I, Chap. V, of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, published by Laurence Sterne in nine volumes between 1759 and 1767. The novel’s generative joke is Tristram’s long-deferred birth, not reached until Volume III. For Sterne, digression is a fine and poignant art. So long as Shandy/Sterne keeps writing, each remains alive. V.S. Pritchett praised Sterne’s “discovery of the soliloquizing man.” Tristram Shandy, like the Bible and Moby-Dick, is big and elastic enough to contain anything – even smut and the certain knowledge that death is imminent. Tristram writes in Volume IX, Chapter 4:

“I will not argue the matter: Time wastes too fast: every letter I trace tells me with what rapidity Life follows my pen; the days and hours of it, more precious, my dear Jenny! than the rubies about thy neck, are flying over our heads like light clouds of a windy day, never to return more -- every thing presses on -- whilst thou are twisting that lock, -- see! it grows grey; and every time I kiss thy hand to bid adieu, and every absence which follows it, are preludes to that eternal separation which we are shortly to make –”

[Thanks go to Donna Fricke who in 1971 introduced me to Tristram Shandy and much else.]   

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