Posted January 26, 2017on:
Whether modern or old, the edition of a book is important. I am very fussy and perhaps even sentimental about this. For me a book is a physical object to be cherished for its sheer physicality as much as for its sentiment and sense. My first choice for A Sentimental Journey is the Oxford World’s Classics edition edited by Ian Jack and Tim Parnell. I like the font and the discreet signalling of notes with a little superscripted circle.
This Oxford edition contains A Sentimental Journey and Other Writings. The Other Writings are a sickly sweet love journal to his sweetheart, an adroit satire on political games played by obscure churchmen and some surprising sermons on such topics as feasting, concubines and enthusiasm.
Of these, A Sentimental Journey is easily the best. It is far and away the best. It is incomparable. It is sublime.
You might wonder what a clergyman is doing writing so wittily and sentimentally about his erotic experiences in France and Italy. But it is his very respectability that makes his sentimentality so piquant.
Mr. Sterne’s observations are never crude. He is a world away from Tobias Smollet’s toilet humour. You are given hints and you must find out the erotic detail for yourself. You must feel it. That is what Mr. Sterne is so very good at, making you feel. You must imagine yourself as the gentleman sitting next to the fille de chambre on the big hotel bed as she carefully searches for, then reveals, the quilted satin and taffeta purse she has made to hold the coin you gave her. You must wonder what you would have done had you been the Marquesina in Milan who was pursued by such a charming and witty clergyman. Would you, like her, have let him into your carriage?
I know I would.
That glimpse he gives us of his erotic adventure in Milan is, unfortunately all we get of Italy. The French portion of his journey occupies volumes one and two and the journal ends abruptly in Savoy, with Turin no more than a twinkle on the horizon. The work is unfinished. And yet, you might say, it is exquisitely finished.
It is impossible to do justice to Mr. Sterne’s work in a brief summary because he is so very brief himself. For readers only familiar with Tristram Shandy, it is astonishing how concise he can be. He is so concise you have to read the whole work to appreciate its beauty. He has put so much into it and, at the same time, left so much out. It creates ripples in your mind and in your senses. It is tantalising. It is perfect.
It is, truly, a classic.