‘his brain was like damp timber, and no spark could possibly take hold.’


Unable to sleep during the week, I sat up reading Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. It’s a curious, self-referential, often infuriating text, very much of its time and very far ahead of it. Having propelled the book across the room upon finishing, I came away admiring the author’s ingenuity and wanting to throttle him with both hands. Sterne’s often given credit for pioneering literary postmodernism before modernism even existed. While there’s no doubting the innovative way Sterne thought and approached the novel, I’m more sceptical of this claim. You need only read The Canterbury Tales or One Thousand and One Nights to realise there have always been stories that are meta and the characteristics of what has been labelled postmodernism have always been with us. There’s probably always been a smart-arse in our company, even going back to our days under the stars, around the bonfires and in the caves (Plato’s or otherwise).

I’ll probably come back and write something about Tristram Shandy but in the meantime I’d like to share a short section from Javier Marías’ very entertaining collection of thumbnail sketches of writers Written Lives regarding the fate of Sterne’s father. Marías has an amusingly cruel way with words (“[Sterne] married a rather ugly woman, Elizabeth Lumley, whom, nevertheless, it took him two years to woo”) and his description of the unfortunate demise of Sterne senior is stuff worthy of fiction, were it not improbable enough to have actually happened,

“Although he came from a good enough family, with an archbishop among his forebears, it was Laurence Sterne’s fate to be the son of one of its most unfortunate members, Roger, who, having chosen a career in the army, never rose above the rank of standard-bearer. Roger Sterne travelled ceaselessly with his battered regiment, accompanied by his wife and their variable numbers of children: variable because some were always being born and others were always dying; Laurence, who came into the world in Ireland, was one of the few permanent ones. His father, then, left him nothing but the undeniable sense of humour which he possessed and displayed to the end; during the siege of Gibraltar in 1731, he got embroiled in a duel with a comrade, provoked, apparently, by some absurd argument over a goose. The fight between Captain Phillips and Roger Sterne took place in a room, and the former lunged at the latter with such force, that not only did he run him through, but the tip of his sword remained stuck fast to the wall. Showing remarkable presence of mind, the poor standard-bearer asked very courteously if, before withdrawing the blade, his colleague would be so kind as to clean off any plaster that might be clinging to the tip, as he would find it most disagreeable to have it introduced into his system. He lived on for a few more months after this incident, long enough for him to be dispatched to Jamaica, where he died of a fever which his broken body was unable to withstand. Laurence was seventeen at the time.”

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2 Responses to ‘his brain was like damp timber, and no spark could possibly take hold.’

  1. Insomnia. Have had that one, frequently. At least it gave you a chance to read Sterne, though it sounds like he would keep you awake!

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