Sunday, July 03, 2016

Fortnightly Book, July 3

This Fortnightly Book might possibly end up a three-week 'fortnight', but we will see; it's a long work, but at the same time it's not written to be read with deep study.

It is Laurence Sterne's The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. As is well known, the work is an experimental novel on a massive scale, playing with every feature of what it is to be a novel. It has no beginning, middle, or end; Tristram keeps changing his mind about where the beginning of the tale should be, it does not consistently maintain any thematic, chronological, or even narrative order, and the digressions multiply faster than the narrative can make progress. It incorporates nonverbal elements as part of the narrative, taking advantage of features of books as physical objects: the black page, the blank page, the marbled page, the squiggly line, the diagram, diversity of fonts, organization of text on the page. It misplaces and loses chapters. It is crude and erudite simultaneously. It plagiarizes in such a way that the plagiarized passages take on new meaning in their context.

Laurence Sterne was an Irishman who became an Anglican priest and spent much of his life in North Yorkshire. He had a fairly undistinguished career, but then, in the midst of a big dispute in ecclesial politics, he wrote a satire of the parties involved and published it, called A Political Romance. People found it hilarious. It also pretty much ended any chance of advancement in the Church and was suppressed, with most of the copies destroyed. But it was, again, hilarious. So at the age of 46, Sterne started devoting himself to writing. In fact, he essentially wrote the first volume of Tristram in three months, in early 1759; the first two volumes were published later the same year, the third and fourth volumes in 1761, the fifth and sixth volumees in 1762, the seventh and eighth volumes in 1765, and the ninth volume in 1767. The book was sometimes panned by critics, but it was highly popular -- the books were just the right size to slip into one of the big coat pockets of the time, so people could read them whenever they had a dull moment.

The height of his career was perhaps his journey to France, in which he discovered to his pleasant surprise that he was a celebrity there. He was invited to give the sermon for the opening of the English embassy in France, and he gave it to a packed house with people like d'Holbach, Diderot, and David Hume (who was also visiting France on celebrity tour at that time). Sterne joked that he would convert France from deism to Shandeism; but the sermon itself, on how even our noble motives are often intermingled with baser ones and the need to interpret the motives of others charitably, is a serious one. (And I suspect an indirect attack on deistic and atheistic attempts to cast aspersions on Christian motives. Sterne was not a sterling curate, more inclined to ribald jest or outright woman-chasing than pious meditation, more inclined to dwell on frivolity than on saintliness, but he was a sincere one.)

The tune "Lillibullero" plays a significant role in the work, so here it is to start it all off:

Lero Lero Lillibullero
Lillibullero bullen a la
Lero Lero Lero Lero
Lillibullero bullen a la

"Lillibullero" became popular as an anti-Catholic satire mocking the Jacobites of Ireland by parodying their own words and songs, using an Irish tune -- and it would, of course, have been sung with a mock Irish accent. (Wikipedia has the lyrics.) It became enormously popular. And it is perhaps a good fit for the novel, this Irish tune loved by the English because it was turned into a parody of the Irish by personating an Irish caricature and using fake Irish words.

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