Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Thoughts on A Sentimental Journey to France and Italy by Laurence Sterne, 1768

“-- They order, said I, this matter better in France --”
And so it begins, this tale of the Reverend Mr. Yorick which purports to be a travelogue of a journey through France and Italy. And indeed what a journey -- although we never discover the identity of ‘this matter’ that sent him on his way. No matter...
For Sterne had no time for the mere sights and sounds of Paris. When he describes Yorick’s visit to the Paris Opera he concerns himself with the old man sharing the box with him. He notices the dwarf standing to one side, his view of the proceedings blocked by the taller people around him. He remineses over a future-past adventure with a Marquesina at Martini’s concert in Milan (which in a linear time frame happened after the Opera [and every other event in the book!]).
-- And how does the silly man think that such a thing might be of interest to anyone, but especially a traveler?
Well, I certainly don’t pretend to understand the mind of L. Sterne nor his alter-ego, Yorick, but…. Perhaps another small quote from the book might help to enlighten us.
“I think I can see the precise and distinguishing marks of national characters more in these nonsensical minutiae, than in the most important matters of state….”
And there you have it….
-- Hmm… what exactly do you think we have?
Why, don’t you see? He regards the little stuff as the important stuff -- the fluff that defines us, that indicates who we are, how we think, how we feel -- that which makes us the same and that which differentiates us one from the other.
-- Oh…?
Yes, remember that in 1768 France and England had a truce, but I do believe they technically still remained enemies. And here we have Yorick (and before him Tristram Shandy, but that’s for another day) zipping off to France looking for… well, I’m really not sure what, but I surely hope he found it.
He certainly found the ladies, hmm, interesting.
There is…
-- Wait. You just shifted gears. Is this some smutty 18th Century tract?
Certainly not! I am amazed. Well, hmm, I suppose he does become a bit, ah, ambiguous at times. And the scene where he holds the milliner’s hand while counting her pulse did push the raciness just a bit… but he certainly never becomes vulgar, or, as you say, smutty!
Well, OK, there is the rather odd ending….
-- Ending?
Yes, the book ends with a wonderful story (probably the first ‘traveling salesman’ story ever written -- although the protagonist isn’t a salesman….).
It seems the horse pulling Yorick’s vehicle threw first one then two (!) shoes, thus forcing the poor fellow to spend the night in a small rustic inn.
An inn which had only one guest room.
Not long after Yorick had made himself comfortable, a lady and her maid (called, in the French mode: the Fille de Chambre) arrived and circumstances being what they were all three unlucky travelers found themselves forced to spend the night in one room.
-- Goodness!
Well, to make matters worse, the beds were so small that only one person could possibly sleep in each -- and there were only two in the room, with a third stuck in a drafty corner (and which Yorick being a bit frail in his lungs did not dare use). Worse yet these beds were positioned side by side in a small alcove, the room being so situated that however they might ponder the situation, no alternative arrangement could work!
-- This does seem difficult!
Yes. But by solemn negotiation they managed to establish a set of rules. Mr. Yorick would take one of the beds and the lady the other. The maid would confine herself the the cupboard. A curtain would separate the lady and Yorick. And Mr. Yorick would spend the night wearing his silk breeches.
-- A worthy solution!
Indeed. One final rule stipulated that Yorick would refrain from speaking during the night.
-- Oh…?
Yes. These rules established, it only remained for the three to discover a way in which they might without embarrassment change from day wear to night wear. This being a delicate matter in the present situation, Sterne decided to -- but here perhaps it’s best if he describes it himself:
“-- there was but one way of doing it, and that I leave to the reader to devise; protesting as I do it, that if it is not the most delicate in nature, ‘tis the fault of his own imagination -- “
This problem overcome, the trio retire to their various appointed places.
Only for reasons which he never quite comprehends, Yorick cannot sleep!
-- How dreadful!
And in his restlessness and after some hours he cries out…. And the lady declares him forfeit on their agreement! It seems that she too remained sleepless, but had managed to keep her silence.
-- Hmm….
You might just say so!
Yorick begs her pardon, but she finds no comfort in his words. He humbly apologizes, but she remains adamant of his guilt.
And as he pleads his case he extends his hand --
Now, perhaps you have forgotten the lady’s Fille de Chambre, resting in her cold and damp cupboard….
-- Never in life!
Excellent. Well, this good servant no sooner heard the ruckus but she decided to take herself to her mistress’ aid and groping in the dark made her slow and cautious way.
She found the bed and bent to assure herself that it was indeed the correct one. Assuring herself of this fact and bending over keeping her hand along the edge of the bed she moved herself in a line between Yorick and the lady and facing the lady with her back to Yorick whilst bending over --
-- Yes?
Well, perhaps I should let Sterne present how the tragedy unfolded:
“So that when I stretch’d out my hand, I caught hold of the Fille de Chambre’s”
And here ends the tale.
-- What!
Ah yes, and for many a year it remained so…. Various editions handled the, ah, the difficulty by placing..., well let me show you:
“… I caught hold of the Fille de Chambre’s --”
-- And your point is…?
Oh, my dear, compare the two endings. One ends with the dashes and one with no punctuation whatsoever.
-- And this is supposed to mean something?
Most assuredly.
At the end of this volume the following words appeared: “end of vol.”
Note that it does not say ‘THE end,” but simply ‘end.’
-- But, wait. Are you suggesting we combine the word ‘end’ with the unpunctuated last sentence?
Moi? Certainly not! I must argue that if you did such a thing you might find it hinting at a kind of accidental vulgarity, but assuredly suggesting that we might have found the further adventures of our Yorick most intriguing!
But alas, this could never happen. Laurence Sterne passed beyond this mortal coil 18 March 1768, less than a month after the publication o A Sentimental Journey.

No comments:

Post a Comment