Shandy Hall is a house almost as eccentric as the mind of its once owner, Laurence Sterne, vicar of Coxwold and author of The life and opinions of Tristram Shandy. One of the highlights of the summer was a tour of the inside of the building in the company of its curator, Patrick Wildgust. My first tour was decades ago, during the time of Kenneth Monkman, the man responsible for rescuing and restoring the Hall, and reburying Sterne’s body (or at least part of it) outside Coxwold church. To judge by his introduction Patrick has been in charge of the Hall long enough to have absorbed some of Sterne’s characteristics, including a gift for intimate conversation, an addiction to digression, and a hobbyhorsical delight in that curious invention, the printed codex.
The house is medieval in origin. Sterne’s modifications added to its strangeness. The outside looks completely different from each side, with tall, out-of-the-vertical chimneys, a flat brick facade overlooking the lawn (Sterne’s addition?), and unlikely gables. Inside, the rooms are small and higgledy-piggledy, but elegant in a modest eighteenth century way. Tristram Shandy was begun before Sterne was given the benefice of Coxwold, but when he arrived he began to fashion his new house in the mould of the fictitious one occupied by Tristram, his parents and Uncle Toby. This segueing between art and life never left him. He was also a keen gardener. Beyond the more formal lawns and flowerbeds, beautifully tended by volunteers, past the ancient (indeed, long dead) sweet chestnut tree, you can wander as the fancy takes you, like the narrator of the novel, along any number of wild and digressive paths. The chestnut tree, to deviate for a second, may have inspired one of Tristram’s bawdier anecdotes, in which a hot roast chestnut falls from the table and through the open flies of one of the more dubious characters in his story.
To mark the coming visit I’d started to reread part of Tristram Shandy – Book VII. As Patrick says, it hardly matters in which order you read the nine separate Books, since the narrator, Tristram, loses his grip on any conventional sense of continuous narrative after recounting the moment of his own (mis)conception in the first paragraph of Book I. B.S. Johnson, the 20th century Shandean novelist, took the idea of the aleatoric book a stage further with his novel The unfortunates (1969), in which the various printed gatherings of paper are left unbound in a box, for the reader to shuffle and decide in which order to read the ‘story’ (a sports writer visits Nottingham), only its beginning and ending being predetermined.
But Book VII is a book all on its own. It’s set not in Yorkshire but in France, and, unlike the rest of the novel, where what narrative speed can be gained is usually quickly dissipated by misfortune or learned digression, its pace is hectic. There’s a good reason for the rush. In the first paragraph Tristram, who like Sterne suffers from consumption and is hyperaware of the fragility of the body in time, is given a mortal fright:
No – I think, I said, I would write two volumes every year, provided the vile cough which then tormented me, and to which this hour I dread worse than the devil, would but give me leave …
His ‘good spirits’, though, have kept him going, and fortunately they come to his aid when Death knocks on his door:
… ye [his good spirits] bad him come again; and in so gay a tone of careless indifference, did ye do it, that he doubted of his commission —-
“There must certainly be some mistake in this matter,” quoth he… “Did ever so grave a personage get into so vile a scrape?”
So Death is forced to beat a retreat. There’s a problem, though:
But there is no living, Eugenius, replied I, at this rate; for as this son of a whore has found out my lodgings —
Eugenius, his friend, agrees that he should flee for his life. Then, says Tristram,
… by heaven! I will lead him a dance he little thinks of – for I will gallop, quoth I, without looking once behind me to the banks of the Garonne; and if I hear him clattering at my heels – I’ll scamper away to mount Vesuvius – from thence to Joppa, and from Joppa to the world’s end, where, if he follows me, I pray God he may break his neck –
And so begins a breathless ride south (‘off I went like a cannon, and in half a dozen bounds got into Dover’), across the English Channel (‘pray captain, quoth I, as I was going down into the cabin, is a man never overtaken by Death in this passage?’) and across France, always keeping a step ahead of his opponent.
The theme of Death knocking on the door hit an immediate chord with Sterne’s public. When he was in Florence in 1765 the Exeter artist Thomas Patch did an oil painting of him facing down Death, a work that spawned two different, widely distributed engravings. A skeleton holding a scythe and hourglass enters the door, to be challenged by a polite bow from the gaunt, spindly figure of the author. The same theme has appealed to many authors since. One of Mihangel Morgan’s best stories concerns the (unsuccessful) attempts of Sir T.H. Parry-Williams to resist being escorted away by Death, who has knocked on the door of the family home in Aberystwyth – notwithstanding all THP-W’s increasingly desperate appeals to his literary eminence and the indispensability of his genius.
The narrative of the French flight has some elements of parodying travel guides of the day. But it’s too beset with digressions and dubious anecdotes to be tediously linear. At one point the narrative gathers too many lines together. In a famous passage, thanks to his recollection of a previous Grand Tour trip to France with his family and his awareness of himself as author, Tristram constructs for himself a hopeless, existential time trap.
– Now this is the most puzzled skein of all – for in this last chapter, as far at least as it has help’d me through Auxerre, I have been getting forwards in two different journies together, and with the same dash of the pen – for I have got entirely out of Auxerre in this journey which I am writing now, and I have got half way out of Auxerre in that which I shall write hereafter – There is but a certain degree of perfection in every thing; and by pushing at something beyond that, I have brought myself into such a situation, as no traveller ever stood before me; for I am this moment walking across the market-place of Auxerre with my father and my uncle Toby, in our way back to dinner – and I am this moment also entering Lyons with my post-chaise broke into a thousand pieces – and I am moreover this moment in a handsome pavilion built by Pringello, upon the banks of the Garonne, which Mons. Sligniac has lent me, and where I now sit rhapsodizing all these affairs.
— Let me collect myself, and pursue my journey.
The three ‘moments’, all in different places – the moment of the main story (Lyons), the moment of the earlier, digressive story (Auxerre), and the moment of Tristram the narrator’s present (Garonne) (intruding without warning and bursting through the ‘fiction’) – have suddenly come together in the same present ‘meta-moment’, causing mental mayhem. You might add a fourth, unspoken, moment – the time when the real narrator, Laurence Sterne, passed through Auxerre with his wife and daughter in July 1762 on his way to Toulouse. And, yet further back in this recession of time, the moment when Sterne sat writing this passage in his small study in Shandy Hall. And, if you happen, as I happened, to be standing in Sterne’s study in Shandy Hall while recalling the ‘Auxerre paradox’, there’s yet a sixth moment, a sixth ‘I am’ that belongs to the consciousness of the reader.
What Sterne is doing is collapsing the distinction between what Jean-Jacques Mayoux called ‘the time structure of the story’ and the ‘time-infrastructure of the writing’. The latter, the writer’s present, is constantly intruding in Tristram Shandy, through the author’s continual ‘conversations’ with his imaginary reader and through startling chronological fixings (‘that observation is my own; – and was struck out by me this very rainy day, March 26, 1759, and betwixt the hours of nine and ten in the morning’). Tristram is aware that the two times, present and story, are out of sync and will lead to a fatal crisis in his writing project:
I am this month one whole year older than I was this time twelve-month; and having got, as you perceive, almost into the middle of my fourth volume – and no farther than to my first day’s life – ‘tis demonstrative that I have three hundred and sixty-four days more life to write just now, than when I first set out; so that instead of advancing, as a common writer, in my work with what I have been doing at it – on the contrary, I am just thrown so many volumes back …
– I shall never overtake myself.
By the time we get to the end of the final Book IX we’ve actually gone backwards in story-time, to four years before Tristram was born. The last sentence is uttered by a character, Yorick, who died in Book I, Ch. XII and whose death Tristram memorialises with the famous ‘black page’.
But what he’s also doing in the Auxerre passage is holding several ‘memory times’ or story-times in his head simultaneously. One of them isn’t even a present present but a future present: he’s yet to describe it for us (‘I have got half way out of Auxerre in that which I shall write hereafter’). Sterne uses these parallel presents all the time. Sometimes he ‘freezes’ one present to concentrate on another (Uncle Toby is left taking the pipe out of his mouth more than once in Books I and II).
But it is just a moment, a temporary confusion, this simultaneity of ‘nows’. It certainly isn’t a way of escaping the clutches of Death. Tristram immediately ‘collects himself’, and resumes his primary journey through France, still at a fast pace (‘ “I have followed many a man thro’ France, quoth he – but never at this mettlesome rate” – Still he followed, – and still I fled him’), and finally at a fast dance:
… I danced it away from Lunel to Montpellier – from thence through Narbonne, Carcasson, and Castle Naudairy, till at last I danced myself into Perdrillo’s pavilion, where pulling a paper of black lines, that I might go on straight forwards, without digression or parenthesis, in my uncle Toby’s amours –
I begun thus –
End of the SEVENTH VOLUME
So the Book ends by following the route taken by Sterne and his family in July 1762, and then swerving suddenly into Auxerre Time No. 3, Tristram the writer’s present – the pavilion on the Garonne at Toulouse. Though ‘Pringello’ seems to have mutated into ‘Perdrillo’ – a mark of the unreliable narrator, perhaps. You can tell how unreliable Tristram is by his comical reassurance that he intends to proceed without ‘digression or parenthesis’ – a constitutional impossibility.
The surest way, then, of avoiding the unavoidable figure of ‘that death-looking, long-striding scoundrel of a scare-sinner, who is posting after me’, is not to career madly along the roads of France, but to write. And sure enough, it’s Sterne’s writing, with its crazy and comical complexity, that has preserved him for ever, and that brings visitors to see Shandy Hall.
The last object you see as you leave Shandy Hall is a copy of the fine bust of Sterne made by the sculptor Joseph Nollekens – in Florence, at the same time as Thomas Patch painted him. Sterne prized it as a faithful likeness. When his body was being prepared for re-interment in Coxwold in 1969 his skull was safely identified among the many surrounding it in its London burial ground: its crown had been sawn off – Sterne had been exhumed the first time to be used for anatomical purposes – and its proportions exactly matched those of the bust.