«Selected by Rebecca Donner, author of Sunset Terrace. Reading John Wesley Harding's gleefully digressive examination of Laurence Sterne's Tristram ...»
Essay: Listerine: The Life
and Opinions of Laurence Sterne
by John Wesley Harding
from Post Road 5
Selected by Rebecca Donner, author of Sunset Terrace.
Reading John Wesley Harding's gleefully digressive examination of Laurence Sterne's
Tristram Shandy -- that masterpiece of gleeful digression -- made me go deliriously crosseyed. Harding's frisky prose is replete with naughty allusions, knotty propositions,
extravagant associations, interpolations, song-snippets, lists, footnotes, false-starts, end-runs and all manner of shameless boasting. For the record, I am thinking of getting a tattoo in the shape of Harding's spermatozoan eating its own tail. – RD.
Laurence Sterne was an Eighteenth Century rock star. His career-path was the blueprint for any indie band today. In his home town, far away from the commercial center of the industry, he pressed his first release himself; then, after he had hyped it relentlessly, liberally quoting phoney good reviews, he managed to sell it to a major label honcho, Dodsley, who had built his reputation on acts like classic rocker Pope and straight-edge Stafford revivalist Johnson.
Then Sterne went on tour to London, did a bunch of in-stores where he appeared in character.
He slept around. He went on a successful European Tour. Before the public tired of his first incarnation, he had smoothly segued into another; he kept them guessing ever after. He courted controversy wherever he could and refused to delineate between himself and his Essay: Listerine: The Life and Opinions of Laurence Sterne by John Wesley 1 Harding from Post Road 5 fictional alter egos, allowing truth and lies to mingle. He made a lot of money and died, alone and practically broke. His corpse was stolen from its grave.
I am a man of fancies. I collect Powell and Pressburger memorabilia. I hoard old books of ballads. I am sadly attached to an English football team, Arsenal. I own too many Bob Dylan CDs and books, though nowadays I rarely supplement the collection. But Laurence Sterne is my hobbyhorse.
“So long as a man rides his Hobby-Horse peaceably and quietly along the King’s High-way, and neither compels you or me to get up behind him.–pray, Sir, what have either you or I to do with it?” But I have agreed to write this essay and therefore that has to change.
So here’s a crop, here’s the stirrup and Here Comes The Groom.
The Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman was published serially, in nine volumes, between 1760 and 1767. It caused a huge scandal and was a great success. The book begins, famously, as the narrator tells the story of his own conception. I shan’t spoil it for you, but, at the crucial moment, his father is interrupted … Hold on. Before I get on with this, let me say in my own defence, for I hear the scholars carping already, that a lot of my reference materials—an entire shelf full of Sterne books, not to mention every regional ballad book, my entire vinyl collection &c—are the victims of a recent move to Brooklyn, and therefore not to hand. I brought the best and most valuable items with me, naturally, but I am hoping that the others are in a locker in a selfstorage facility in Seattle, exactly where I left them. Of course, they could be for sale on a rug on the side of a rainy street. Alternatively, they could be where I left them, but underwater.
Storage lockers, I shudder! Nothing can make a person feel less permanent.
lockers as about the mind itself—and isn’t the mind, in fact, a kind of storage locker housing, at a cost, memories to which the owner wished he had better access? When you require a particular item, who’s to say that it isn’t buried under many other items you don’t need, obscured from view? Or that you haven’t lost the key (or forgotten the access code—for storage lockers move with the times) so long ago did you store it away? And that reminds me that I don’t even remember when I first read Tristram Shandy.
My father might have been partly responsible. He gave me an antique edition of A Sentimental Journey, Sterne’s other “novel.” When? We can’t quite remember but it was some time ago. Why? Perhaps it was something to do with Cambridge.i He remembers that he bought it at Lewis & Harris in Trim Street, Bath, which is as good a name for a street as any, as any Sterne Fancier will tell you.ii There is more to be said about self-storage and I shall say it shortly but I have quite forgotten my books, which are still locked up in a self-storage facility in Washington.iii The Laurence Sterne and I have very little in common. However, we both went to Jesus College, i Cambridge--coincidentally, exactly 250 years apart.
Trim is Uncle Toby’s manservant. And while we’re about it: Walter Shandy is Tristram’s ii pedantic and hobby-horsical father; Uncle Toby, his sympathetic war veteran uncle, now left impotently playing with toy soldiers in the back garden as he tries to understand how he received his groin injury; Widow Wadman, the woman who thinks she might be able to seduce him. Incidentally, I looked up Lewis & Harris on the internet to see if they still existed but couldn’t find them, although I did find out that Lewis and Harris is the largest and northernmost island of the Outer Hebrides in Scotland.
Self Storage is, technically, the term applied to facilities that offer do-it-yourself, month-toiii month storage space rental. They are also sometimes referred to as “Mini Storage,” or, incorrectly as “Mini Warehouses.” Self Storage differs greatly from warehousing because it is a landlord/tenant relationship. Forty-five states have established laws defining this relationship (though I don’t know about the other five.) If anyone is interested in learning more about SelfStorage, then I recommend The “Self-Storage Handbook,” published by Jerkov, Inc. It is the only statistical
of the Self-Storage Industry. In its pages, you'll find many tables with information about saturation levels, occupancy rates, population and income trends, and more.
You'll also find a number of pro forma financial statements.
Essay: Listerine: The Life and Opinions of Laurence Sterne by John Wesley 3 Harding from Post Road 5 inconvenience of this filing system is the reason that I might botch a quote here and there (since memory, on which I must rely, is itself little better than a storage locker as we have seen) or even steal entirely from someone else’s work and forget to credit them—if I do, however, remember that Sterne did it first and often. And when he attacked plagiarism in literature, of which he himself had been accused, he plagiarized his comments entirely from Burton’s The Anatomy Of Melancholy. So forgive the odd mistake, why don’t you? I could have got the books I needed out of the library, I suppose, but I’ve had a lot of work on. I’m a
musician, not an essayist, dear sir. I have:
I could be taking drugs or getting head from a groupie, but instead I have decided to do the most rock'n'roll thing of all and write an essay on Laurence Sterne, while I am making plans for my next album, the working title of which is The Man With No Shadow. You will be able to buy this from my web site (www.wesweb.net, which now takes credit cards) not to mention from any record store which deserves the name.
Essay: Listerine: The Life and Opinions of Laurence Sterne by John Wesley 4 Harding from Post Road 5 The above is not merely flagrant self-promotion by the way, but also a heartfelt tribute to Laurence Sterne’s flagrant self-promotion. Like mine, Sterne’s self-promotion brazenly extends into the actual text. The purpose of some of the most notable interruptions to Tristram Shandy, and it is a novel of interruptions rather than plot, seems to be solely to promote other works which Sterne, always sensitive to public reaction and a master of self-marketing, was ready to put on sale.
The first of the major interruptions is a sermon, read by Corporal Trim. The sermon is written by Parson Yorick, Sterne’s fictional alter ego, and only turns up at all because it falls out of Uncle Toby’s copy of the works of Stevinus, the engineer, when Trim gives the book a shake (“letting the leaves fall down, as he bent the covers back…”), much as Yorick’s Sermon itself is unattached to, and falls out of the book Tristram Shandy. It was, of course, a sermon that Sterne had preached himself a few years earlier. “I can not conceive how it is possible… for such a thing as a sermon to have got into my Stevinus,” says Uncle Toby. And well might he not understand, when it is in there for reasons entirely outside his world. (I can’t take the time right now to explain these characters in depth —I think you should go off and read the novel first. I’ll be here when you get back. It will take about a week if you read the notes with care too.) Trim reads the sermon at great length (how long were you away? I feel that I could have created an entire universe!), and then Tristram, the narrator, declares: “In case the character of Parson Yorick and this sample of his sermons is liked, –that there are now in the possession of the Shandy family, as many as will make a handsome volume, at the world’s service, – and much good may they do it.” The ploy worked. Sterne’s Sermons Of Yorick came out in seven volumes over the next nine years, and the first volume had a list of 650 subscribers, a roll call of the Essay: Listerine: The Life and Opinions of Laurence Sterne by John Wesley 5 Harding from Post Road 5 contemporary legislators of taste. The sermons may even have been more popular than Tristram Shandy (I should have figures to hand. We’ll leave it at that).
Other works, however, which Sterne had in mind as possible spin-offs from the text of Tristram Shandy, never surfaced. He tries the hard sell on Slawkenbergius’s Tales (one of which is the long and silliest digression in the book): “If this specimen… and the exquisiteness of his moral should please the world–translated shall a couple of volumes be.” But Shandy’s translation never made it to publication. Nor did Walter Shandy’s Tristrapaedia (“you shall read the chapter at your leisure, (if you chuse it) as soon as ever the Tristrapaedia is published”) or his Life Of Socrates, or even Sterne’s own audacious plans to turn his novel
into a play, as a vehicle for none other than the most famous actor of the age:
O Garrick! What a rich scene of this would thy exquisite powers make! And how gladly would I write such another to avail myself of thy immortality, and secure my own behind it.
I have tried this trick myself. This is from a new song called For An Actress:
So thank me when you’re holding your oscar I’ll never sell your story to the press Though sometimes when I’m feeling broke and hopeless I’m tempted by the money, I’ll confess
Essay: Listerine: The Life and Opinions of Laurence Sterne by John Wesley 6 Harding from Post Road 5 It has had limited success for me, thus far. Worked like a charm for Sterne however.
Fifteen minutes ago, or that’s how long it seems,iv I promised you some more thoughts on
storage lockers. But for now let me quote this:
This is taken from the most recent copy of The Self Storage Association Newsletter, in the Off The Shelf section of “News and Views.”v Walter Shandy, that devoted collector of trivia, would have agreed.
The Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman was published serially, in nine volumes, between 1760 and 1767. It caused a huge scandal and was a great success. It did many things that novels hadn’t done before, and a few things that none have bothered to do since. Its author, Laurence Sterne, was a congenitally sickly curate. The first pair of volumes iv I admit that I wrote the section you have just read later than the bit you’re reading now, and have subsequently repositioned it by the genius of editing—and you can tell it was my own genius because otherwise I wouldn’t have known a single thing about it.
I have to get on with this essay, but for further storage locker wisdom, I’d like to send you to:
v http://www.selfstorage.org, the homepage of The Self-Storage Association.
An Itemised List:
Marbled Page (III,xxxvi – “motly emblem of my work”) Black Page (I, xii – mourns the death of Yorick)
These bits of Pre-Postmodernism are built on the foundation of a very strong and sympathetically observed group of characters (the members of the Shandy family and the people who have dealings with them). It is these two opposing facets of the book that have kept it alive and admired for so long. Put simply, in the 19th century, the content ensured the fame of the book, and in the 20th, it was the form.
In the 21st century, you can go on eBay and find a single by a rock group from 1973 called Tristram Shandy. They are a hairy looking bunch, and I didn’t buy it despite the fact Essay: Listerine: The Life and Opinions of Laurence Sterne by John Wesley 8 Harding from Post Road 5 that the b-side was called “Hunky Funky Woman,” perhaps a sly reference to the Widow Wadman. However, the fact that the band existed was recorded in the notable “Annual Volume devoted to Laurence Sterne and His Works” The Shandean Vol 11 (p.152) and I felt it counted as my first important (and unattributed, but there’s a certain dignity in that) contribution to Sterne studies.