From here to there


EILEEN BATTERSBYponders Laurence Sterne and Lee Harvey Oswald

Long before Irish writer James Joyce vowed to keep literary critics busy, his countryman, Laurence Sterne (1713- 1758), the son of an impoverished soldier, had already boldly deconstructed the novel form, then in its infancy with The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, the first two volumes of which were published in 1759.

Tristram, the narrator, delights in digressions and is particularly taken with the notion of time, with specific reference to his good self. He believes any story must begin with his birth – which he describes in detail. His thoughts, feelings and observations provide a filter for all forthcoming information, however random. Tristram’s approach to punctuation is maverick and his interest in sex keenly squalid. His family features; Walter his learned father is demented by knowledge; Uncle Toby, a soldier, has a devoted servant, Corporal Trim, who shares his obsession with fortifications. Toby is a kindly soul much desired by the Widow Wadman. Parson Yorick frets ands fumes while incompetent Dr Slop endangers health. Obadiah the family help is a good man in an emergency. It is a comic masterwork that has influenced writers as diverse as Virginia Woolf and Thomas Pynchon. Sterne, who was born in Clonmel, Co Tipperary, 299 years ago today, battled illness and poverty all his life, his corpse was stolen by medics. His great book so confused Tristram’s poor mother that she could only ask “what is all this story about” to which Yorick replies “A COCK and a BULL” confirming that it was one of the best he ever heard, and it remains exactly that, a story. Sterne pioneered the versatility of narrative.

There was nothing playful, only malevolent in a story to which a shocking postscript was added 49 years ago today. An unstable former US marine, Lee Harvey Oswald, chief suspect of the assassination 48 hours earlier of US president John F Kennedy, was shot dead while in police custody, by nightclub owner Jack Ruby, before the eyes of the world.

Tomorrow marks the anniversary of Kennedy’s burial and the lighting of the eternal flame, which still burns in Arlington cemetery.

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