Friday, November 24, 2006

Happy Birthday, Parson Yorick!

On this day in 1713, Laurence Sterne was born in Clonmel, Ireland. Fosco has for years now been a fan of Sterne's masterpiece, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. This quarter, however, as a TA for the 18-century novel, Fosco has come to appreciate Sterne even more. His modernity is uncanny: in Tristram Shandy, Sterne managed to write a postmodern novel in 1760--at least 200 years before the such a category was even recognized.

Sterne work can be difficult, but it is extremely rewarding--mostly because it's hilarious. For the course this quarter, we read Sterne's travel novel, A Sentimental Journey, in which Sterne's alter ego, Parson Yorick, embarks on an impromptu journey to the Continent. This is no traditional travel narrative, however. Parson Yorick spends most of his time flirting with filles de chambre, mocking previous travel writers (like Tobias Smollett), and finding excuses to cry.

Here's a charming excerpt from A Sentimental Journey, in which Sterne makes fun of Smollett in the guise of "Smelfungus":

The learned SMELFUNGUS travelled from Boulogne to Paris--from Paris to Rome--and so on--but he set out with the spleen and jaundice, and every object he pass'd by was discoloured or distorted--He wrote an account of them, but 'twas nothing but the account of his miserable feelings.

I met Smelfungus in the grand portico of the Pantheon--he was just coming out of it--'Tis nothing but a huge cock-pit, said he--I wish you had said nothing worse of the Venus of Medicis, replied I--for in passing through Florence, I had heard he had fallen foul upon the goddess, and used her worse than a common strumpet, without the least provocation in nature.

I popp'd upon Smelfungus again at Turin, in his return home; and a sad tale of sorrowful adventures he had to tell, 'wherein he spoke of moving accidents by flood and field, and of the cannibals which each other eat: the Anthropophagi'--he had been flea'd alive, and bedevil'd, and used worse than St. Bartholomew, at every stage he had come at--

--I'll tell it, cried Smelfungus, to the world. You had better tell it, said I, to your physician.
I love it. That response is the eighteenth-century equivalent of "Tell it to your therapist." How can you not love Laurence Sterne?

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