Sunday, February 05, 2012

The next chapter but one

You frequently come across examples of people attributing the right quotation to the wrong person, or the wrong quotation to the right person, but have you ever heard of the wrong quotation being attributed to the wrong person in the wrong language? Now, thanks to my poor memory of an anecdote I read years ago about some French writer or other, you will be able to say that you have. The story goes that someone asked this writer - I've no idea who, so we'll just call him Rimbaud for the purposes of being wrong - why he never wrote a novel. Rimbaud's reply: "Because, at some point, I would have to write a sentence like, 'He walked across the room and opened the door'". What a great insight! Pity I don't know French, couldn't remember the quotation, and had no idea who the author was.

Anyway, at the moment I'm reading a book which, it seems, is almost entirely like that sentence (or whoever the hell Rimbaud happened to be when he was not being, er, Rimbaud). It's Laurence Sterne's The life and opinions of Tristram Shandy, gentleman. This novel is veritably epic in the way it treats the matter of a door being opened - certainly it's as long as an epic. It's divided up into volumes, each about 60 pages or so, and so far (I'm in the middle of the third volume) it seems to have been exclusively devoted to a bunch of chaps standing around in a room together. Particularly idiotic chaps, too, who you wouldn't want to be in a room together with. Tristram Shandy hasn't even been born yet (I'm told you get to know him a bit better in the fourth volume).

It's amazing how Sterne gets away with this though; he has a genius at not getting to the point. In volume three, he throws in the preface (seemingly for no reason at all); a few chapters before or after (it's all a kind of blur) he devotes all his time to cursing another character, which is done in the most effective manner possible (through a five page Latin curse written by a pious Roman Catholic sort). The copious footnotes in this Penguin edition, rather unhelpfully, attempt to explain Sterne's point (which is of course exactly contrary to the point Sterne didn't make, because he never got to it).

Of course, there's only so much not getting to the point you can read in one go, so at various junctures I've been avoiding reading Sterne, quite strenuously. I'm getting quite used to avoiding reading books, as you may be aware, having practiced this previously with Dickens and Smollett. In the case of Sterne, I rather think it adds to the dramatic tension (such as it is) and natural structure by putting off the point that has already been put off even further, before picking up the book at the point that you put the point off in order to allow Sterne to continue putting it off. See my point?

Anyway, having begun this post with the wrong quotation, in the wrong language, by the wrong person, I'm happy to conclude it now with the right quotation, in the right language, from the right person - it's the finest example, so far, I have found of Sterne at his majestically irreverent best:
Dr. Slop drew up his mouth, and was just beginning to return my uncle Toby the compliment of his Whu-u-u-- or interjectional whistle, -- when the door hastily opening in the next chapter but one - put an end to the affair.
It opens 'hastily' in the 'next chapter but one'! Take that, Rimbaud, and your hypothetical door-opening dude. That's the way to open a door in a book!

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