By MICHAEL CAINES
“As my life and opinions are likely to make some noise in the world, and, if I conjecture right, will take in all ranks, professions, and denominations of men whatever, – be no less read than the Pilgrim’s Progress itself – and, in the end, prove the very thing which Montaigne dreaded his essays should turn out, that is, a book for a parlour-window; – I find it necessary to consult every one a little in his turn; and therefore must beg pardon for going on a little farther in the same way: For which cause, right glad I am, that I have begun the history of myself in the way I have done; and that I am able to go on tracing every thing in it, as Horace says, ab Ovo.”
The author of “this humorous rhapsody” did not, of course, come to the birth of his hero, Tristram Shandy, until three volumes into his great work – but Laurence Sterne himself was born on November 24, 1713, three centuries ago – so a season of suitably quixotic celebrations is about to begin.
Up at Shandy Hall, the house in Coxwold that Sterne moved into the year after the publication of the first two volumes of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, the celebrations began a while ago, but they continue this Friday with an “educational event” on how to get drunk eighteenth-century style. They continue in York Minster with Voice from the Pulpit on October 14, inspired by Sterne/Yorick’s final sermon, with the premiere of a new work by David Owen Norris – there’ll be a different educational element on that occasion, in that four school choirs are due to participate.
Closer to the tercentenary itself, on November 20, there’ll be a “Shandyfest” at King’s College London, involving “talks, performances, ingenuity and fun”, and, it’s a fair bet, some laudatory remarks from the usual corners of the newspapers.
As people and Penguins (Penguin Classics, that is) like to point out, Samuel Johnson seemingly got it wrong when he said that Tristram Shandy was an oddity that would not last; the coming commemorations show that it’s “lasted” long enough to still be read around the time of Sterne’s 300th, and recognized as an ancestor of certain experimental, playful approaches to storytelling. Eminent admirers include Marx, Goethe and that other novelistic devourer of encyclopaedic knowledge James Joyce.
Suitably quirky forms of admiration would include Shelley taking the adjective “Slawkenbergian” from Sterne’s “great and learned” authority on noses (one of the many mock-authorities mixing with real ones throughout the book), to describe the “prodigious” conk of somebody he disliked. “I, you know, have a little turn up nose”, he added, “Hogg has a large hook one but add both of them together, square them, cube them, you would have but a faint idea of the nose to which I refer.”
You can find Leigh Hunt, meanwhile (or in my case via Dr Bowdler’s Legacy by Noel Perrin), carrying out a “chastening”, as he called it, of Sterne for his Classic Tales, Serious and Lively in 1806. Knowing full well what Sterne was sometimes getting at, but comically disguised for the broader humour of his contemporaries, Hunt could only bring himself to include “three snipped-up passages” from Sterne in his five-volume publication. Hunt’s selection, devoid of “vulgar sportiveness” was still doing the rounds, according to Perrin, at the end of the century.
Can a whiff of that wariness still be detected as late as 1927, when Herbert Read, writing in the TLS, called it “odd” that A Sentimental Journey “should have had to wait for the 796th place a popular reprint of the classics”? Even better, perhaps: Sterne doesn’t feature at all on a list of the “hundred best novels” (of which more soon, I hope) as they appeared to a literary critic in 1898. Imagine having room on your shelf for Black but Comely by G. J. Whyte-Melville and The Collegians by Gerald Griffin but not Tristram Shandy. (Of course, the modern shelf has room for all three . . . .) And even now, as one critic observes, is Sterne “better known read”?
Enough of these “whiffling vexations”. Here’s what the late David Nokes had to say about how Europe received Sterne’s magnum opus, among other works – beginning not ab Ovo, but with Marx’s imitation of Sterne, and ending with a disquieting return to Johnson’s dismissal.
“–and so the chapter ends.”