Oddity’s Rainbow

Pat Rogers

  • Laurence Sterne: The Later Years by Arthur Cash
    Methuen, 390 pp, £38.00, September 1986, ISBN 0 416 32930 6
  • Johnson’s Dictionary and the Language of Learning by Robert DeMaria
    Oxford, 303 pp, £20.00, October 1986, ISBN 0 19 812886 X

John Wesley had a few words for Sterne: ‘For oddity, uncouthness, and unlikeness to all the world beside, I suppose the writer is without a rival.’ Well, something odd will do for ever if the sensation-seekers have their way; Tristram Shandy has outlasted Johnson’s Dictionary, even in the classroom. Sterne was the first author to come up with fully explicatable – as distinct from explicable – texts, in English fiction anyway. His books are as necessary to the formalists as to the historians of feeling, and it is his apparent formlessness which guarantees him this place. Quite often he is rejected by students on first acquaintance, partly through a priggishness which will allow only the young to talk dirty. But he comes into his own in the graduate school and the Zapp-it-to-me international seminars, where priggishness takes more unnatural and exclusive forms.

Yet little of this helps the poor biographer. S/he can lay out all the ‘bobs and trinkets of criticism’ – Tristram’s own phrase. But none of it goes very far to illuminate the equally strange life Sterne led, parallel in its strangeness to the books, but different, less amenable to our present techniques for dealing with aberration and divergence. In his brave and inventive reconstruction, Wild Diversions (1972), David Thomson found a good image for it: ‘He did not live in the conventional order from day to day, but grew strong or weak like the wind.’ Obviously this has something to do with the vacillations of his physical health – Arthur Cash brings this out – and maybe also with the pharmaceutical regime to which consumptives were exposed. However, there is a deeper existential pattern of causation, and that is the more interesting aspect of the matter. Somehow Laurence Sterne lived as though there were no today. ‘With an ass, I can commune for ever,’ he has Tristram say, mimicking his creator’s ability to escape the moment – to make, as Johnson would nobly phrase it a decade later, the distant and the future predominate over the present.

Now biographers are orderly people by instinct and inclination as well as by training. When their subject carries very little biographic baggage with him, they have a problem. Sterne accumulates learning in order to disport with it; Cash accumulates learning to display it (for good intellectual ends, one must add). Sterne is one of the great fabricators of a life-history, who muddles up his own biography with that of Tristram, Yorick, the sentimental traveller, the lover of Eliza and much else. How is poor Cash to compete with this, when his dreary brief is to deliver the facts and nothing but the facts, to unravel rather than to weave fantastic knots, to reimpose the linear scale Sterne elaborately and ostentatiously shredded to pieces? The outcome is surprisingly positive, and Cash deserves credit for making good sense of a radically unsensible career. Yet there remains a disproportion which all his skill cannot efface from view: a gap between the certainty, authority and regularity of the biographer’s methods and the random ellipses of the subject’s life.

Cash knows more than anyone has ever done about Sterne, and we ought to be grateful for his masterful handling of all sorts of evidence. As with its predecessor, devoted to the early and middle years (1975), this book marks a considerable advance in its trawl of the repositories and record offices, the diocesan papers and the municipal archives. As an ecclesiastical functionary with many legal connections, Sterne left a bewildering number of traces in such locations, and Cash is the first student fully to have combed these sources. But simply to put the matter in this way is to draw attention to the difficulty. Shakespeare’s laundry bill might not illuminate Othello, but it could scarcely cloud the dramatic issues there, if it providentially manifested itself to the New Oxford editors. With Sterne it is different. Every small biographic problem solved seems like a defeat for the writer’s careful and principled distortions of the true record. Each time Cash takes us a little nearer the reality – on Sterne’s relations with his wife, on his motive for travel, on his financial state, his dealings with Garrick, or whatever it may be – there is inevitably a tiny query hovering over the fictions which Sterne devised to cope with such issues. It is the biographer’s job to fix the fleeting, to freeze the volatile gases of personality; the better he is (Cash is pretty good, in this sense), the further we are drawn from the primal exhalations of a creative spirit like Sterne’s.

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