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.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Screen Name Selection


Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.