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Laurence Sterne

November 24 is the birthday of novelist Laurence Sterne, who was born in Clonmel County, Tipperary, Ireland, in 1713.  His father, Roger, was a professional soldier who served as an officer in Flanders under the Duke of Marlborough during the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714).  His mother, Agnes, the widow of another English army officer, married Roger while he was on campaign in Dunkirk in 1711. 

The year of his birth, Sterne's father took a deep cut in salary; and Sterne's earliest memories were of the family moving from one Army barracks to another, barely making ends meet.  In 1727, his father was seriously wounded in a duel.  He never fully recovered from the wound and died unexpectedly in March 1731.

Sterne's great grandfather, Richard, was the archbishop of York and Master of Jesus College.  Not knowing what else to do, Sterne decided to follow him into the priesthood.  He received a scholarship that had been established by his great grandfather for the benefit of the poor.  In his last year of studies, he suffered a hemorrhage of the lungs, the first sign of the consumption that was to trouble him for the rest of his life.

Still, with the help of his uncle, Sterne was ordained a priest.  His uncle expected political favors for helping his nephew through the ordination, and Sterne did his best to repay him.  He wrote articles for his uncle's favorite political causes.  When he stopped, he lost any chance he might have had to move up through the church's hierarchy.

Forced to support himself and his wife by doing double duty in two different parishes, Sterne took a job as a substitute preacher at yet a third parish.  He did all of his preaching despite the fact that he had deep personal doubts about the very existence of God.

Sterne had long wanted to try his hand at writing fiction, but he was discouraged by his friends, who told him to wait until he attained a higher office.  Finally, Sterne knew he could wait no longer.  In 1759, he wrote a sketch about a quarrel he'd witnessed between his Dean and a York lawyer, a Swiftian satire of dignitaries of the spiritual courts.  It was an early glimpse at Sterne's substantial powers as a humorist.  At the demands of embarrassed churchmen, however, the book was burned and Sterne was rebuked.

Meanwhile, Sterne's marriage, which was less than perfect, took a turn for the worse in 1758 when his wife, after learning of her husband's affair with a maid-servant, had a nervous breakdown and was placed under a doctor's care in a private home in York.  As Sterne's own health worsened, he became depressed.  To counter his ailments, he began to write a book that would become The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, one of the most light-hearted books in the entire realm of literature.  Sterne completed fourteen chapters in six weeks.

His first attempt at publication was rejected by London printer Robert Dodsley.  He continued working on the novel, expanding and sharpening it, despite the fact that every sentence, he said, was “written under the greatest heaviness of heart.”  He decided to soften the satire and describe Tristram's opinions, his eccentric family, and his ill-fated childhood with a sympathetic humor, sometimes hilarious, sometimes sweetly melancholic, a modern-day comedic tragedy.

Like author Henry Fielding's Tom Jones and other works of the day, Tristram Shandy pretends to be an autobiography.  But, as the narrator attempts to tell his own life's story, he is constantly being sidetracked by various absurdly humorous digressions.  Along the way, the author managed to question the very basis of studies such as modern ethics, theology, philosophy, sex, and politics.  The book is also filled with black pages, excerpts of obscure theological debates, and a graphic representation of its own plotline.

It begins, "I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me; had they duly considered how much depended upon what they were then doing...Had they duly weighed and considered all this, and proceeded accordingly I am verily persuaded I should have made a quite different figure in the world, from that, in which the reader is likely to see me."

His description of his own conception is interrupted by his mother, who asks his father, "Pray, my dear...have you not forgot to wind up the clock?"

Sterne took part in all aspects of Tristram Shandy's marketing campaign, right down to specifying that the book be small enough to fit into a gentleman's coat pocket.  His efforts paid off handsomely.  The book made Sterne famous.  Still, some people were shocked at learning that the author of such a steamy, anti-religious, and even vulgar book--as they viewed it--could be a priest.  One critic wrote, "[Sterne's] own character as a clergyman seems much impeached by printing such gross and vulgar tales, as no decent mind can endure without extreme disgust!"

Not everyone agreed.  Thomas Jefferson said, "The writings of Sterne...form the best course of morality that was ever written."  Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said, "[Sterne is] the most liberated spirit of all time."

Sterne's work influenced many writers of the 20th century, from James Joyce and Virginia Woolf to Samuel Beckett.  Italo Calvino said, "[Sterne] was the undoubted progenitor of all the avant-garde novels of our century."

In March of 1768, Sterne fell ill with influenza, and he died on March 18.  Legend has it that soon after burial at London, Sterne 's body was stolen by grave robbers and sold for the purpose of dissection to the professor of anatomy at Cambridge.  Luckily, his features were recognized by a student at the dissecting table, and the body was quietly returned to the grave

Laurence Sterne said, "I am persuaded that every time a man smiles--but much more so when he laughs--it adds something to this fragment of life."

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