“THE FREEST WRITER" - Laurence Sterne

24 November 1713, 300 years ago, the Anglo-Irish novelist Laurence Sterne was born in Clonmel.

“THE FREEST WRITER.—In a book for free spirits one cannot avoid mention of Laurence Sterne, the man whom Goethe honoured as the freest spirit of his century. May he be satisfied with the honour of being called the freest writer of all times, in comparison with whom all others appear stiff, square-toed, intolerant, and downright boorish! In his case we should not speak of the clear and rounded but of “the endless melody”—if by this phrase we arrive at a name for an artistic style in which the definite form is continually broken, thrust aside and transferred to the realm of the indefinite, so that it signifies one and the other at the same time. Sterne is the great master of double entendre, this phrase being naturally used in a far wider sense than is commonly done when one applies it to sexual relations. We may give up for lost the reader who always wants to know exactly what Sterne thinks about a matter, and whether he be making a serious or a smiling face (for he can do both with one wrinkling of his features; he can be and even wishes to be right and wrong at the same moment, to interweave profundity and farce). His digressions are at once continuations and further developments of the story, his maxims contain a satire on all that is sententious, his dislike of seriousness is bound up with a disposition to take no matter merely externally and on the surface. So in the proper reader he arouses a feeling of uncertainty whether he be walking, lying, or standing, a feeling most closely akin to that of floating in the air.“ (Friedrich Nietzsche, “Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits“)

Sir Joshua Reynold’s portrait of Laurence Sterne (1760)

In a time, when religious conflict gave way to political turf wars, the Age of Enlightenment gave the middle class an ideological base as well as a new self-awareness and an educational ideal. Polemics might have constituted a major part of the literary output of the first decades of the 18th century in England and the Licensing Act of 1737 was a setback for English drama, but the development of a broader bourgeois reading public with its own interest in entertainment as well as education and enlightenment removed authors from the need of writing pieces tailored for their noble patrons or even court. And the public wanted novels – the first one ever, Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe” was published in 1719, more or less an entwicklungsroman, Swift took up the baton and combined the need for satire with the emerging genre of travel literature in “Gulliver’s Travels” and when the audience as well as their authors were finally able to express their own, new set of sensitivities, an Age of Sensibility began with Richardson and Goldsmith, while the desire to cloth critics in belle lettres was still strong, Fielding and Smollett were popular authors and even the act of writing a novel became a sujet, with Sterne and “Tristram Shandy”.

William Powell Frith: "The Beautiful Grisette" from Sterne's  "A Sentimental Journey Through Paris and Italy" (1853)
William Powell Frith: "The Beautiful Grisette" from Sterne's
"A Sentimental Journey Through Paris and Italy" (1853)

Sterne was born as the son of an army ensign in Clonmel, County Tipperary, and his family moved to the north of England when his father’s regiment was disbanded, back to Ireland for the next 10 years and when his father was transferred to Jamaica, young Laurence was left in the care of his uncle and began theological studies, graduating as a Master of Arts in 1740 and ordained as a deacon in Yorkshire. And he might have become a proper priest, but began dabbling in political writing and became friends with John Hall-Stevenson, a local country gentleman, wit and lover and writer of literature á la Rabelais, who encouraged Sterne to pursue being an author in earnest – in 1759, “Tristram Shandy” was published and Hall-Stevenson immortalised as Eugene. 

English caricaturist H.W: Bunbury (1750 - 1811) : "Dr. Slop with his wig on fire angrily gesticulating to Susannah who holds her nose near the wounded baby Tristram Shandy" (around 1800)

The first two volumes of “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman” were published when Sterne was already 46 and the widely read author slipped in his lexical education, twenty years of reading from his favourite Rabelais, metaphysical poetry to John Locke and a sham – since the nine volumes contain hardly anything about the life, but at least a lot of opinions and motivations and situations of the first-person narrator. And what might be, at first glance, a picaresque novel with a lot of bawdy scenes that quite shocked the audience and put off worthies like Dr Johnson, was often simply not understood in its digressive, erratic structure, anticipating Joyce and Modernism by a 150 years. “Tristram Shandy” was nevertheless a success, on the continent even more than in England, with a long history of enthusiastic reception from Goethe, Schopenhauer to Nietzsche until the 20th century and its writers began to use Sterne’s narrative device á la mode.

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