A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy by Laurence Sterne

May 26, 2010

Laurence Sterne (1713-1768) followed up his excellent Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman with this slim volume. Unfortunately, its slimness is due primarily to Sterne’s premature death of consumption. But, despite being an unfinished portion of a planned larger work, it stands well enough on its own. The ending is a bit abrupt, but charmingly a propo.

Where Tristram Shandy was one long digression, A Sentimental Journey follows a more traditional narrative path. But A Sentimental Journey was, if anything, more groundbreaking in its time. Sterne may have written his 1768 work in reaction to Tobias Smollet’s Travels Through France and Italy (1766) which is full of condescension towards the locals, contempt for foreign people and culture, and self-congratulatory transcriptions of his conversations setting the natives straight.

Sterne took a radically different approach. A fact the narrator duly notes:

…both my travels and observations will be altogether of a different cast from any of my forerunners…

The narrator, Yorick from Tristram Shandy, lists the different types of travelers, including “Lying Travellers” and “Vain Travellers”, before describing his own type, the “Sentimental Traveller”. In describing these types and throughout the work, Yorick often makes use of the same comedic immodesty Tristram used to such good effect in Sterne’s earlier work. However, this playful arrogance really covers a proud humility and a laudable respect for the French and Italians he encounters.

Yorick, who we know is a country priest from the prior work, arrives in Calais and travels from the English mainland to Calais. In Calais, he meets a fellow Englishman, “[t]he learned Smelfungus”. Smelfungus, Yorick informs us, “set out with the spleen and jaundice, and every object he pass’d by was discoloured or distorted. He wrote an account of them, but ’twas nothing but the account of his miserable feelings.” Indeed, Smollett set out on his trip shortly after the death of his fifteen year-old daughter and, therefore, likely was not in the most cheerful disposition during his travels. Sterne, though, apparently could not resist the opportunity for some fun at pride’s expense.

Smelfungus tells Yorick how “he had been flayed alive, and bedevil’d, and used worse than St. Brtholomew, at every stage he had come at.”

I’ll tell it, cried Smelfungus, to the world. You had better tell it, said I, to your physician.

But the book is not all inside jokes and settling literary scores. In fact, that is very little of it. Mostly, it is an amusing tale of a somewhat bumbling traveler’s adventures as he travels through France and Italy, though the Italian part is unfinished.

On these adventures, Yorick does note the customs of the locals and always in an amusing way. In France, he has the opportunity to discuss the three degrees of swearing in French:

Le Diable! which is the first, and positive degree, is generally used upon ordinary emotions of the mind, where small things only fall out contrary to your expectations; such as – the throwing once doublets – La Fleur’s [Yorick’s hired servant’s] being kick’d off his horse, and so forth. – Cuckoldom, for the same reason, is always – Le Diable!

But, in cases where the cast has something provoking in it, as in that of the bidet’s running away after, and leaving La Fleur aground in jack-boots, ’tis the second degree.

‘Tis then Peste!

And for the third –

– But here my heart is wrung with pity and fellow feeling, when I reflect what miseries must have been their lot, and how bitterly so refined a people must have smarted, to have forced them upon the use of it.

Yorick, of course, never tells what that third exclamation is.

The book is not quite as engaging or amusing as Tristram Shandy, but does contain a number of memorable scenes and quotes. In one, Yorick has been done a kindness by a young woman in a shop. He tells her she “must have on of the best pulses of any woman in the world.” She entreats him to feel it at her wrist. He does.

I had counted twenty pulsations, and was going on fast towards the fortieth, when her husband coming unexpected from a back parlour into the shop, put me a little out of my reckoning. – ‘Twas nobody but her husband, she said; – so I began a fresh score.

I find Sterne an excellent wit. I would not recommend this as a starting point, however. While A Sentimental Journey was groundbreaking, extremely popular, and ushered in a new form of travel writing, Tristram Shandy is more relevant today and more consistently funny.

Before I leave off, I should note that Sterne’s friend, John Hall-Stevenson, wrote a continuation of this incomplete book in honor of Sterne. I have not read it, nor am I sure I will. As short and enjoyable as A Sentimental Journey was, I did not really wish for more. It ended nicely and, likely, concluded my investigation of Laurence Sterne’s works, other than a revisit of Tristram Shandy at some later date.

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne

January 11, 2010

Nothing odd will do long.” – Samuel Johnson on Tristram Shandy

This is an unfortunate quote from the author of the much less oft read The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia which came out the same year as the first volume of this novel. Still, Samuel Johnson is far more well known generally, than Laurence Stern, so perhaps he had his revenge in the end.

Tristram Shandy is odd. It must have seemed particularly odd when the first installment came out in 1759. The novel uses stream-of-consciousness and is very self-referential. It is an early example of a poioumenon. If you are neither as learned nor as curious as I am, here is the definition: “a novel that has a narrative that superficially is about the writing of a book.” If I must explain further, the narrator, Tristram Shandy, promises throughout to tell his story, but ends up telling far more about the events giving rise to his book, his literary theories, and many other topics even farther afield from his promised plot. The digressions are playful and comic. My recommendation is to read the book in small chunks. The book was originally published in nine volumes over the course of ten years, maybe eleven or maybe nine. The details are not important. My point is that too much of a good thing at one sitting is too much. While I do not necessarily recommend extending your reading over a decade, a few months to a year will likely keep the humor from wearing too thin.

I am not steeped in literature from this period and before, but Tristram Shandy seems to me quite modernist (almost post-modernist) for such a bygone era. In fact, the novel had a significant influence on Virginia Woolf and Samuel Beckett. It is one of the landmarks of literature and, for that reason alone, is a novel with which it is worth becoming acquainted. But do not think of it as duty, or only a duty. The book is exceedingly fun.

Laurence Sterne, according to his own dedication, was “persauded that every time a man smiles, – but much more so, when he laughs, it adds something to this Fragment of Life.” To that end, Sterne does his best to expand your fragment to a full portion. He succeeds often enough to make himself proud.

”That it is an abominable thing for a man to commend himself,” – and I really think it is so.

And yet, on the other hand, when a thing is executed in a masterly kind of a fashion, which thing is not likely to be found out; – I think it is full as abominable, that a man should lose the honour of it, and go out of the world with the conceit of it rotting in his head.

This is precisely my situation

As the narrator is too modest, I will tell you. The novel is a comic masterpiece.

The book is filled with digressions. In fact, the entire book is a digression. This is not a bad thing. As Tristram explains:

Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine; – they are the life, the soul of reading! – take them out of this book, for instance, – you might as well take the book along with them; – one cold eternal winter would reign in every page of it.

Tristram’s entertaining digressions touch on all manner of things, from love stories to adventures, from philosophy to politics, from war games to religion. On this last point, Tristram is startlingly irreverent for the time. Of course, he apologizes, in his way, for his more heathen outbursts.

I told the Christian reader – I say Christian – hoping he is one – and if he is not, I am sorry for it – and only beg he will consider the matter with himself, and not lay the blame entirely upon this book.

But really, the book is little threat to your religion, if you have one, so do not worry. It is, though, a threat to your decorum on the train as you will have difficulty stifling your laughter. The book is riotously funny. I will refrain from sharing the excellent quotes on marriage, military matters, courtship, philosophy, and hobby horses on the understanding between us that you will read this book and, so, discover the best bits yourself.

When you crack this one, you will have “the happiness of reading [one of] the oddest books in the universe.”