The Tuesday just gone marked the 250th anniversary of the publication of Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy. The first two volumes appeared on February 27th, 1768; the author died less than three weeks later in London at the age of 54 succumbing to the tuberculosis that he had battled throughout his adult life. The book’s journey remained unfinished, the Reverend Mr. Yorick—Sterne’s alter ego and sometime nom de plume—and his bumbling, bamboozling servant La Fleur, having still not made it out of France when the itinerary of the tale stopped, and the author’s life soon after.
At the close of A Sentimental Journey Yorick finds himself in Lyon in a single room with a lady and her maid, and is about to grope—inadvertently, of course—an intimate, if unspecified, part of the latter’s anatomy. The book ends without punctuation (or does it?): a perfect valedictory gesture for Sterne’s last work because it is the antithesis of valediction: “So that when I stretch’d out my hand, I caught hold of the Fille de Chambre’s” END OF VOL. II.
Sterne had definitively scuppered his already-stunted career as an Anglican clergyman less than a decade earlier in 1759 with the publication of A Political Romance—a satirical mini-epic that sent up clerical squabbles in Yorkshire where he had his vicarage. The book was promptly suppressed by the church authorities, to be published again only the year after his death. A Political Scandal marked the bottom of a long fall from ecclesiastical favor for this great-grandson of a former Archbishop of York. Sterne rebounded into the literary firmament.
Late in life—indeed, later than he might have hoped given his inexorable illness—Sterne had discovered his unique gifts for fiction, and that same year of 1759 he published the opening installments of the sprawling work for which he is still most famous, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, appearing in nine volumes over the next one hundred months.
Sterne became an immediate literary sensation with a hit novel that was an un-novel, its “story” so serpentine and backtracking that the title character is not even born until the third volume. Restlessly, relentlessly digressive, Sterne’s undepletable humor made the meandering the point of the book, enthralling his readers with slapstick gags and risqué innuendo that alternated with witty and profound observations, one often set apart from the next by dashes, as if we are with Sterne as his imagination unspools for us in real time.
The strength of that presence on the printed page can be sensed in Joshua Reynolds’ portrait painted in 1760 just after Sterne had achieved his spectacular celebrity. The conquering literary lion is pictured in his white wig and black robes, elbow propped on table armed with quill and ink and sheaf of paper, his index finger touching his temple and pointing to the brain so fabulously rich in wit. Mischievously, almost defiantly his gaze confronts the viewer. His lips are closed, but his imagination is fizzing and ready to commit to paper the abundance of ideas with the pen near at hand. The tongue, too, is ready to spring into action for, as Sterne observed in the first volume of Tristram Shandy, “Writing, when properly managed, (as you may be sure I think mine is) is but a different name for conversation.” One is held before the portrait not just because of its visual drama, but because Sterne has something witty to say and is about to say it.
The Sterne of the Reynolds portrait is pleased with himself too, and wasn’t afraid to crow about his success to friends like Stephen Croft, a neighboring Yorkshireman and heir to Port wine fortune; it was to Croft and his wife that the still-would-be author read pre-publication excerpts of Tristram Shandy and was prevented from feeding the pages to the fire. Sterne gloated to to Croft of March, 1761 that “One half of the town abuse my book as bitterly, as the other half cry it up to the skies—the best is, they abuse it and buy it, and at such a rate, that we are going on with a second edition, as fast as possible.” Sterne loved the attention, claiming that he wrote Tristram Shandy, “not to be fed but to be famous.” This self-satisfaction radiates from the white face among the dark garments and shadows of Reynolds’ portrayal of him.
The super-abundance of dashes fragmenting Sterne’s prose were like rests in a musical score parsing the melodic contours and phrases of his imagination. The musicality of his writing led to comparisons between his prose and the free-wheeling instrumental works of the great musicians of the period, including Joseph Haydn and C. P. E. Bach. Like Sterne, both were masters of the musical dash followed by the sublimely unexpected turn.
Not surprisingly, music figures in Sterne’s fiction. In A Political Romance one churchman slags off the other with the insult that he “knew not so much as to give out a common psalm in tune.”
In Tristram Shandy Sterne gives his hilarious take on the musical obsessions of Yorick—a character in the novel, who, as the public grew tired of the series of volumes, was then dispatched by the author to the continent for A Sentimental Journey. Sterne himself had made two European tours in the 1760s in an effort to improve his health. In the novel, Tristram Shandy rifles through Yorick’s sermons and is perplexed by their musical annotations:
“What could Yorick mean by the words lentamente,—tenute,—grave,—and sometimes adagio,—as applied to theological compositions, and with which he has characterised some of these sermons, I dare not venture to guess.—I am more puzzled still upon finding a l’octava alta! upon one;—Con strepito upon the back of another;—Sicilliana upon a third;—Alla capella upon a fourth;—Con l’arco upon this;—Senza l’arco upon that.—All I know is, that they are musical terms, and have a meaning;—and as he was a musical man, I will make no doubt, but that by some quaint application of such metaphors to the compositions in hand, they impressed very distinct ideas of their several characters upon his fancy,—whatever they may do upon that of others.”
Here Sterne laughs at his alter ego, riffing on his own reflection. That image is distorted through his fictional lens and accompanied by a soundtrack of random terms calling forth a welter of musical gestures and associations. Yorick’s preaching (at least according to the preacher) and Sterne’s fiction (at least according to the writer) are musical fantasias.
Tristram evens finds that Yorick wrote a self-congratulatory “Bravo!” on one of his pulpit performances—a brilliant persiflage of homily as aria, an inept country parson imagining himself an operatic prima donna.
It is not surprising, then, that in A Sentimental Journey Yorick attends the opera while in Paris. The main action, such at is, of this excursion has Yorick looking down empathetically at the travails of a dwarf in the orchestra section of the opera house unable to see the stage because of a rude and very tall German soldier standing in front of him. The frustrated smaller man threatens to cut off the pigtail of the taller. The soldier replies that he’s welcome to if he can reach it. Thanks to the discreet intervention of the old French officer who happens to be sharing Yorick’s box, the dwarf finally gets placed directly in front of the insolent German. But it is Yorick’s account of the play of emotions—his sentiments, as Sterne would put it—that gives this send-up of the scrum of festival seating its punch and pathos.
The human encounter in the more expensive and exalted loge above these jockeyings for position brings with it the most lasting message, one that applies not only to the practices of theatre-going but to the theatre of life.
When Yorick enters the box at the opera he sits beside the aged officer, who is looking at the libretto. “As soon as I sat down,” writes Yorick/Sterne, “He took his spectacles off, and putting them into a shagreen case, return’d them and the book into his pocket together.” Yorick then offers his “translation” of this deportment: “Here’s a poor stranger come in to the box—he seems as if he knew no body; and is never likely to, was he to be seven years in Paris, if every man he comes near keeps his spectacles upon his nose—‘tis shutting the door of conversation absolutely in his face—and using him worse than a German.” (This, a reference to the German tormenting the dwarf down in the parterre.)
Sterne’s imagination and memory then fly from the loge to his observations on the body language that shuts down human interaction on the London streets, and then to an encounter in the foyer of a concert hall in Milan where he nearly bumps into a noble lady and they then start into a choreography, each trying to pass on one side and then the other. That dance and—most importantly—the awkward feelings it elicits are captured by Sterne with the elegant economy he was master of. After this confusion is blushingly sorted out, the ballet of sentiment continues up the staircase, but quickly descends, concluding outside the opera house with Yorick offering the lady his hand and guiding her to her coach and getting in himself to be conveyed to her lodgings. “And what became of the concert, St. Cecilia, who, I suppose, was at it, knows more than I.”
250 years after his death, Sterne enjoins the sentimental traveler through this modern world to follow the example of the French office at the opera and close his or her laptop in the coffee shop when someone dares to sit at the same table; to pull out the earbuds and harmonize with others, to add one’s own melody to the intimate chamber music of conversation; and to do it now. Live! Feel! Be in the moment! As Yorick puts it as he leaves the Milan concert hall with the woman he’s just met: “Life is too short to be long about the form of it.”