This extended review of Ian Campbell Ross, Laurence Sterne: A Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001) was broadcast as Radio 3’s Book of the Month, Wednesday 21 March 2001.
Laurence Sterne was an invented man, or he was nothing. Actually, he came within an ace of being nothing. In his packed and elegant new biography, Ian Campbell Ross would like to persuade us that, even if he had never written a word, Sterne’s life was full enough of incident and complication to merit a biographer’s attention. And yet, by beginning his story in the middle, on the eve of Sterne’s literary success, Ross also seems to acknowledge that everything was held in abeyance for this anxious, undistinguished and habitually impoverished country clergyman until, at the age of 46, he brought himself to life. He did so by beginning to write The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, a book described aptly by one reviewer as a stew of ‘unconnected rhapsody, rambling digression, eccentric humour, peculiar wit, petulance, pruriency and ostentation of learning’. One of the most striking features of the book is that its hero spends the first two volumes trying to get born, or at least have done with telling the story of his birth. It begins with the most famous coitus interruptus in the whole of literature (not that I suppose it has all that many competitors) with the story of Tristram’s mother interrupting his father in the act of conception by wondering out loud whether he has remembered to wind the clock. Tristram blames his scattered wits upon the diffusion of the animal spirits brought about by this botched insemination. The book that follows inherits Tristram’s malady, for it is one long act of interruption or, to put it another way, a kind of endlessly renewed and drawn-out foreplay. It is a book made up not of events, but of extrapolations, interpolations, parentheses and procrastinations, the whole shambolic work-in-progress somehow held together by the special kind of spontaneous performance that Sterne liked to call the ‘shandaic’.
Boswell once remarked that a man should never live so much of a life that it left him no time at the end to gather it all in, in tranquil recollection. In the entirely untranquil and uncollected Tristram Shandy, the telling of the life and the living of the life – and the living-out of the telling of the life – and the sense of running-out that presses on both the life and the telling; all these become queerly, queasily crumpled together. A life that could so easily have been the life that never was, came together for Laurence Sterne, in what would turn out to be the nick of time, in the literary invention of a life that has carried on triumphantly and defiantly performing the act of never quite pulling itself off.
And what of the ‘real’ life (you must pardon the reckless phrase) of Laurence Sterne? Sterne had been in principle well-born, into a family of the Yorkshire gentry, yet as what Ian Campbell Ross calls ‘the son of a younger son of a younger son’ things were always economically pretty much on a knife-edge for him. His father was a lowly ensign in the army, who dragged his family around barracks in England and Ireland for most of Sterne’s young life. (Sterne was in fact born in Ireland, which has been enough for some writers to recruit him to the great tradition of Irish comic absurdity, from Swift through to Beckett and beyond.) Roger Sterne was sadly lacking in foresight or ambition, luckless in promotion and preferment, a bungler in financial matters and, to cap it all, before Laurence’s childhood was out, he was dust. (Perhaps one day somebody will explain, though, why it is that having this kind of weak, feckless and forgivable father has proved such an inestimable advantage to many writers – Sterne, Dickens and Joyce among them.)
Sterne scraped into, and then through, Jesus College Cambridge, benefiting from a scholarship set up by his great-grandfather, when he was running the place. Afterwards, he took what for so many younger sons in the eighteenth century was the professional line at once of necessity and least resistance; he went into the church. After obtaining a modest living as vicar of Sutton-on-the-Forest in Yorkshire, Sterne settled down with his young wife, Elizabeth, into two decades of shabby, scrimping survival, ever on the qui vive for preferments and extra parishes, occasionally being drawn into ferocious parochial spats and squabbles, but all the while decently discharging his pastoral duties, if never with exactly missionary zeal. [Ian Campbell Ross describes one or two other excitements: the brief, but bruising foray into political journalism Sterne undertook on the side of the Whigs against the Tories during the election of 1742, and how, during the Jacobite uprising of 1745, he was enlisted by his uncle Jaques (upon whose patronage he depended) in a vicious, inglorious bit of Catholic-baiting in print.] Both Sternes were kept on their toes too by Laurence’s settled (and, for an Anglican priest, impressively single-minded) devotion to adultery. It is said that his wife lost her senses for a time after dragging him out of bed with the maid. Whether or not this was the cause, it seems that, in the very months in which Sterne was embarked on the work that would bring him such celebrity, his wife was to be found confined in an asylum, under the unshakeable impression that she was the Queen of Bohemia.
[If there was one area in which Sterne might have hoped to have made an honest name for himself, though, it was as a preacher. He was renowned locally for his powers of seizing and working on the sensibilities of his congregations, and perhaps learned in the pulpit something of that libertine addiction to the adventure of the voice and the teasing powers of oral seduction that would characterise his own fictional writing. Sterne regularly supplemented his meagre income by standing in as what we might now call a supply-preacher, for other clergymen who were less inclined to fulfil their quota of sermons in York, and would later cash in on his literary success by publishing well-received volumes of these sermons. Assiduous scholarship has revealed how energetically he practised the eighteenth-century art of ecclesiastical plagiarism, cutting and pasting the views and sometimes even the phrases of others into his sermons. Still, as Ian Campbell Ross tolerantly observes, this was an age in which Samuel Johnson could declare that it was less important that people be informed than that they be reminded. However, since sermons were hardly in short supply, for an estimated 25,000 appeared in print between 1732 and 1758 alone, it was also an age in which sermon writing was a surer path to oblivion than to fame.]
So, until 1760, Laurence Sterne and wife might have ended up as exemplary followers of Plutarch’s adage: ‘Live unknown.’ Until then, they were modestly, obscurely, and just-about respectably pottering on and petering out, along the lines taken by so many other moderately reprehensible, averagely unsatisfactory, and now, utterly forgotten, quiet lives.
And then, on the publication of the first two volumes of Tristram Shandy, Sterne suddenly found himself both deliriously solvent and launched as a literary celebrity in London. Everybody wanted to meet and entertain the charming, witty, and, even for the eighteenth century, intriguingly libidinous parson who had originated this extraordinary, delinquent book. Sterne the creator took pleasure, and saw opportunities for profit, in becoming the creature of his work, and willingly capered in public in the persona either of the light-witted, lubricious Tristram himself, or that of the good-hearted, rustic Parson Yorick. Sterne’s celebrity gave him the chance to live out his book, even as he fed his life back into it. For this was a work that was literally still in the writing: Sterne’s plan, common in the eighteenth century, was to publish the novel in serial parts, a couple of volumes every year or so. Stephen King has recently tried to revive the practice, with his novel published on the internet. But Sterne’s availability as a dinner-guest and his willingness, if you were young and pretty, to begin a correspondence, made the work-in-progress which was Tristram Shandy something different. To take dinner or drink chocolate or exchange letters with the author of such a book, was almost to cooperate with its writing.
In thus extending the work of writing into his public performance, Sterne found a way of negotiating the divide between the one-to-one intimacy of reading, and the abstractness and anonymity of the mass market, whose conditions of production and distribution are essential to the rise of the novel. This peculiar mixture of intimacy and distance continues to characterise modern mass culture, in which we feel we may know more about the inner lives of pop stars and minor Royalty than we do about our neighbours or even ourselves. George Orwell wrote in Nineteen Eighty-Four of the terrifying surveillance of a Big Brother who sought out every private thought. Our culture has turned Orwell’s allegory inside out, since we now crave the attentions of Big Brother, seeing our lives as without significance unless they are on some screen or other. This mutual encroaching of the private and the public life has its origins in the rapidly-expanding print culture of the eighteenth century and, in particular, in the teasing exhibitionism that Sterne fostered. We may not be able to have Salman Rushdie or Stephen King at our dinner table, but we have our own jostling come-all-ye version of the soirée in the phone-in or the online chat. Sterne found his own kind of daytime TV in the life of fame and flirtation he enjoyed in London, Paris and elsewhere.
[Sterne was also one of the first to realise that mass communication was much more effective at communicating emotion and states of feeling than information. Lewdness and laughter both served to confirm the sense of intimate, almost physical contact between Sterne and his readers. The secret of Tristram Shandy may have been that it was at once highly cerebral, flaunting its recondite allusions, and delighting in its wit and verbal sleight-of-hand, and brazenly corporeal. It is, as it declares itself to be in its closing words, ‘a story of a cock and a bull’, in which the word and the body become absolutely interchangeable. Shandy’s mother will be rewarded for her interruption by being left almost mute in the throes of childbirth for dozens of pages while menfolk prattle daftly about her. The book turns the desirous but damaged human body into the hardly-there airiness of spoken words, even as those words keep on reminding us of their own fragile physical embodiment, in the soft machine of ink, paper and cloth that we hold in our hands.]
Like the tear-jerking of his sermons, Sterne’s exhibition of sentiment is also an exercise of power over his audience. Later authors would start to show the signs of addiction to this power, like the Dickens who enjoyed keeping count of the number of ladies carried out insensible from his public readings. But, for the new kind of mass author which Sterne’s career helped to define, power plays an interesting game of pushme-pullyou with a certain kind of impotence. For addiction to your power may also mean that you come to be in thrall to your readers, anxiously on the look-out for every sign of their waning approval. Sterne made much of the sentimental bond of feeling between himself and his readers, but, like any modern author, in the end, money was the only reliable measure of this bond. He knew that the meter was running at every moment, and watched the inevitable dip in his sales after Tristram Shandy’s first sensational success with increasing alarm.
No wonder, then, that the book is so haunted by the idea of actual bodily impotence. Tristram Shandy loses an important part of himself when it is guillotined by a sash-window out of which he is peeing; while his uncle Toby strives obsessively to recreate the precise conditions under which he received a wound in his groin during a military battle, a wound which is also the subject of anxious enquiry by his potential partner, the Widow Wadman. These images of emasculation provide a sardonic commentary on the ultimate powerlessness of any author who must trust himself or herself to the volatile powers of print and the market.
And yet Tristram Shandy has survived, and largely on the strength of its particular kind of weakness. Nietzsche praised Sterne as ‘the most liberated spirit of all time’, but I love Tristram Shandy for the wholly un-Nietzschean reason that it is the least virile book ever written, and we have need of such books. Tristram Shandy remained admired but not much imitated during the nineteenth century. It would take another 150 years before twentieth-century writers would become dissatisfied with the great billowing, pillowing assurance of what the novel became during the nineteenth century and start making connections again with the athletically incompetent anti-tradition announced by this ‘novel’, or whatever Tristram Shandy is when it’s at home. [Joyce’s Ulysses, for example, has a whole chapter set in a maternity hospital, in homage to the obstetric narrative that Sterne had patented. We see hear Sterne’s snigger in the frantic, fantastic pedantry of Samuel Beckett’s novel Watt, which contains an account of a Shandean family called Lynch, whose ambition to get their collective ages to add up to exactly one thousand is endlessly baulked by inconvenient births and deaths, along with a melancholy-mad six-page tabulation of all the ways that a committee of five men can exchange looks with each other, or rather fail to do so, so overwhelming are the odds of one or more such looks going astray. The solemn, sinister whimsy of Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman mutates Sterne’s meditations on the inseparability of people from their hobbyhorses (or obsessions) into a crazy disquisition on the proliferation of hybrid human-bicycles in rural Ireland. Sterne’s example makes possible much of the work of Borges and Perec, and nags and natters through the randy extravagance of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, that most Irish of Indian novels. Like Tristram Shandy, its conspicuously maimed hero, Saleem Sinai, suffers a bodily accident early in the novel which sets off a playful and sustained interchange between nasal and genital mutilation. This whole way of thinking about the novel, not as a sleekly well-engineered artefact, but as a raree-show, a bulging bag of tricks, an excuse for pure, high-wire ad-hoccery, may go back ultimately to Rabelais and Cervantes. But, for modern writers, that path must fork unavoidably through Sterne.]
So, for all its huge popularity in its own time, there is also something untimely about this early, but postdated novel. And this has its dark inner seam. Sterne saved his life up until it was just the right time for him to write, which is to say, when it was too late. He had been suffering from tubercular infection since at least his student days. In his later life, his regular and horribly gory haemorrhages were compounded by the flaring up of what his doctors delicately styled an ‘Ecclesiastical Rhum’ – more baldly, the pox. No sooner had Sterne come to life in his writing than the shadow of his own mortality began to race across it. Living apart now from the increasingly waspish Elizabeth, who had decided to call it a day with her philandering spouse and settle in France, the dying Sterne span out his final years in a fantasy love-affair with a young woman in India called Eliza, conducted entirely in a journal.
Sterne was to die only 7 years after coming in to his life of literary fame. His body was buried in a Tyburn churchyard, but, like Tristram’s scattered wits, it did not come to rest. The story goes that the body was dug up and sold for dissection, and that it was only when Sterne’s face was recognised, on a slab in his own University of Cambridge, that his remains (or the remains of them) were returned for reburial. Having gone missing until 1969, they upped sticks once again to be transferred to Sterne’s parish of Coxwold, Sterne’s own Yorkshire parish. As Ian Campbell Ross shrewdly notes, this last leg of the posthumous journey would surely not have pleased the writer who spent so much of his later life keeping both death and the countryside at a safe distance.
Tristram Shandy advances the brave, crack-brained wager that writing can mark time, spinning it out, folding it back on itself indefinitely. And yet, it also marks the passage of time, in moments in which the writing shivers with the sense of the minutes spilling away from the pen:
I actually quoted these mock-panicky words in my final examinations. I remember still my delight in following the track of the dashes and the semi-colons and exclamation marks which had spurted from Sterne’s own hectic nib more than two centuries before. And now, like the uncooperative flamingo in Alice’s croquet game, the words curl round to fix me in the eye, mocking me with the knowledge that this is now already a quarter-century ago for me – and counting. Even as they preserve something of Sterne (or rather, given the mobility of his mortal remains, everything there now is of Sterne), they are also a bookmark in my life, to remind me that the time is coming on apace when the most that will remain of me, and you, will be the fact of our too having lived and died in no time. Reproduced on the cover of Ian Campbell Ross’s searching, humane biography is Thomas Patch’s wonderful painting of a splay-footed, gormlessly-grinning Sterne bowing in respect before the bony figure of Death. I summon, from Sterne’s future, the words of a much later, and very different late developer, the poet W.B. Yeats, to serve as caption both for this picture and for Sterne’s own unique exercise in life-writing: Why should not old men (or even men of 46) be mad?