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I begun and begun again; and though I had nothing to say, and that nothing might have been express’d in half a dozen lines, I made half a dozen different beginnings, and could no way please myself.

In short, I was in no mood to write.

So this is the story. For the last three weeks I have taken on an additional challenge for the month of November. No, not to grow a moustache. That ship has sailed and made a few round trips already.  I joined NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month.

Write 50,000 words in a month. That’s the challenge. Anything you want. Then once it is all over, you can take a gander at your ‘masterpiece’, and see if there’s anything worth salvaging.

This afternoon I finally hit 40,000 words. I am cutting it close, as the deadline is this Tuesday. But books don’t read themselves, so a delicate balancing act has occupied me for the last few weeks. (I am also nursing one sick cat. That takes up a lot more time than any invertebrate ‘novel’).

Approach a student of English letters and say the words ‘Tristram Shandy’. Observe how the shibboleth brings a look of despair and panic to their eyes. Personally I rather like Sterne’s ground-breaking novel, but then I came to it from the opposite direction, as a related text to La Peau de Chagrin by Balzac. The French literary scene were quite taken with Sterne’s device of writing a novel that never properly starts.

By its completion, with several volumes concerning the ancestry of Tristram, our hero’s story has yet to begin. It’s as much a novel about the difficulties in writing a novel as anything else. There are also a few visual quirks thrown in, such as the page that is entirely black (a device supernatural authors became fond of in the 19th/early 20th centuries).

I would also recommend Michael Winterbottom’s film ‘adaptation’, A Cock and Bull Story which concerns a film production of Shandy that itself can’t quite get off the ground.

A Sentimental Journey is equally digressive, a travelogue that is entered into on the whim of the narrator, Yorick, which is more concerned with his thoughts on travelling than the journey itself. Crossing France from Calais he relates the various encounters he has with people of interest, although the peculiarities of the French language and the differences in social conventions prevent Yorick from developing any real relationships. He somehow manages to be oblivious to the fact that England is at war with France during the first half of his journey!

His one constant is a hired manservant named La Fleur who is lacking in qualifications, but has an innate understanding of what is required to protect monsieur’s honour. Yorick is continually caught in his own complicated thought processes, at one point naming the various devils that prevent from entering any course of action – Avarice, Caution, Cowardice, Discretion, Hypocrisy, Meanness and Pride. These personal forces at all times in conflict with one another, leaving Yorick a more comical procrastinator than the eponymous hero of the play from which Sterne gave him his name.

To Sterne’s credit not only is Hamlet referenced in the text, the play is mocked mercilessly, or rather the regard with which it is held by the English. To illustrate Yorick’s confounded thought processes Sterne writes mostly in a stream of consciousness style. The frustrated flirting of the hero – for it would not do to approach a woman in France as one would in England – occasions much of the suspended plot.

Perhaps this is a stumbling block for readers of Sterne. Nothing much happens, but what does occur is poured over and agonized by the characters in a mockery of authorial insight.

This is a witty, inventive and above all, fun book.

 

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