This book is #6 on my Back to the Classics list for 2014.
Well, it’s been a while since I posted a book review. But fear not! I haven’t been neglecting my reading. In fact, now that the winter break has begun, I’ve finally been able to focus on Books I Actually Want to Read, rather than constantly struggling through the tyranny of Books I Must Read For Class or Risk Failing. Meanwhile, I’ve got a backlog of reviews that I’m hoping to share with you all, starting with another travel-inspired tome.
There are several reasons why I wanted to read Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy. Not only is it a turning-point in the history of travel writing, it also makes fun of the self-obsessed and narrow-minded travel accounts of older generations, something I’m sure almost everyone enjoys, if only in small doses. Sterne’s novel was also a precursor to the approach of Romantic writers like Goethe, whose Italian Journey I read earlier this year.
When I picked up A Sentimental Journey initially, I really had no idea what it was about. I’d seen it on my aunt’s shelf a few years ago and put it on my mental to-read list, and that was about it. When I finally decided to read it, I plunged forward undaunted and excited. By the second page my excitement had abated somewhat. By the tenth I was puzzled and by the fifteenth I was completely lost. So I performed the traditional ‘flip-to-the-start-of-the-book-and-reread-the-first-page’ manoeuvre, quickly followed by the ‘casually-skim-read-the-introduction-to-see-if-it-has-any-clues’ procedure. It didn’t help much, so I decided to carry on anyway, suppressing my anxiety that I was simply missing something very obvious. Like character development, or a central plot, for instance.
Luckily, some parts began to make more sense as I went on. The idea is pretty simple; it is the semi-autobiographical tale of a trip through France and Italy by Sterne’s fictional alter-ego, Yorick. It is episodic and very choppy, darting from one place to the next without giving you much time to pause. Unlike many of the travel accounts of Sterne’s day, which tended to wax lyrical about history, architecture, and how wonderful ancient art was and how rubbish everything is today, so there, A Sentimental Journey focuses on the emotions of the traveller and, most importantly, his interactions with other people. There’s no account of touristy sights; Yorick seems more interested in the characters he meets rather than the things he sees. It seems so natural to us today, when we are used to travel literature that both dissects the psyche of the writer and fills pages with amusing anecdotes about their hapless encounters with the locals (Bill Bryson is foremost in my mind as I write this), but Sterne was one of the first people to actually use this form, albeit in a fictional work.
I haven’t read The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, Sterne’s most well-known work, so I came to this book with no sense of his style as a writer. As I was reading I became aware that a little bit of background reading would have been very useful when it came to A Sentimental Journey. Off the top of my head, here are the books I think it would be helpful to be familiar with:
- Travels Through France and Italy by Tobias Smollett. One of the travel accounts Sterne objected to as being narrow-minded and irritating. He parodies parts of Smollett’s work in his own book.
- The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, by Laurence Sterne (not essential, but possibly helpful).
- A selection of eighteenth-century travel memoirs.
- Familiarity with Shakespeare and Biblical stories (or just an edition of A Sentimental Journey with copious and detailed notes. Thank you, Oxford World’s Classics editors of 1984).
In the end, however, despite my poor background knowledge I got through A Sentimental Journey pretty well. Once you get used to the abrupt style it can become quite interesting. I even found myself chuckling a few times. I don’t know whether it offered great enlightenment when it comes to my own travelling habits, but there were a few things that rang true. Yorick’s encounters with the locals, his hurried attempt to get a new passport before he gets detained; these are all things even modern readers can relate to. A Sentimental Journey was the first of its kind, telling the story of a journey from a completely different perspective. It’s definitely worth a read, if only for this reason. I think I’ll finish this review with a quote which I found very apt, both at home and abroad:
I think there is a fatality in it – I seldom go to the place I set out for.
(The Address – Versailles)
Rating: 3 Stars