lørdag den 28. november 2020

The Man of Feeling - Henry Mackenzie (1771)


The Man of Feeling

In my last review, on “A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy”, I introduced to theme of the sentimental novel. Well, we are there again, this time condensed to the exclusion of anything else.

“The Man of Feeling” has a single purpose, to present several tableaux to move the reader. We are supposed to cry a little, feel sorry for the unfortunate, a bit of weltsmertz and then on to the next. Apparently back in its day this really worked. Henry Mackenzie’s “The Man of Feeling” was an instant bestseller and remained so for a long time. The individual tableaux were singled out and used whenever people needed to be moved and in the world of sentimental literature Mackenzie was legend.

Here is the thing though: There is literally nothing else in this novel. No progressive narrative, no character study, no morale, except that for many people life stinks. Therefore, all depends on that these small bits of emotional porn work their magic.

Structurally, this is a story within a story within a story. The outermost shell of this literary babushka doll is Mackenzie himself. He is writing about some curate who accidentally come by a fragmented text. The text is written by an observer (likely a fellow called Sedley) who is telling the story of a gentleman called Harley. The fragmentation of this manuscript allows the author to skip in the narrative so what we get are a number of incidents were Harley is the observer to somebody else’s story. Harley rarely interacts with the unfortunate any further than listening to them and offer a bit of assistance or sympathy. He is the sentimental person who is moved by the story and obviously it is hoped that this translates to the reader.

There are stories about fallen women, old people sent to the army, a father to a prostitute, the mental ill and so on. These stories are naturally sad stories, and as such they are milked to the max. The major problem, at least my issue with them, is that they are tableaux. We are presented to people who then disappear, we have no deeper relationship to them and therefore I do not feel as much impact from their stories as I would had I known them better. The characters easily become non-entities or types rather than actual people and that significantly reduces the emotional impact. For this reason, “The Man of Feeling” does not carry anywhere close to the impact today as it apparently did back then.

This is a real problem, when the only leg the book has to stand on turns out to be weak and this is why I am rather indifferent to the book. It is a lot easier to read than Sterne, but as a sentimental novel I much preferred “A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy” as we here at least had a focus in Yorick and the book became a character study on him. I know practically nothing of Harley except he was a passive and easily moved fellow.

The value of “The Man of Feeling” is mostly its significance in the development of the sentimental and romantic genre. In itself I found it less than impressive and I do not think there is much to recommend it.


torsdag den 19. november 2020

A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy - Laurence Sterne (1768)


A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy

After the menace which was “Tristram Shandy” I was apprehensive going into another book by Laurence Sterne. I feared it would be a repeat of the chaotic, well, lack of, narrative, but I was pleasantly surprised that “A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy” is a quite different piece of literature.

Most notably there is a coherent narrative and Sterne is much less inclined to tease the reader with narrative sabotage. There are digressions, yes, but of a different kind that meshes far better with the story. This is also, as hinted by the title, a venture into the “Sentimental” genre which was very much in vogue when the novel was released.

The sentimental genre, I am learning, tried to perceive the world emotionally rather than rationally. For example, rather than writing that something is red, the sentimental writer would describe how the color made him feel. This makes for a very impressionistic style of writing, which I can mostly compare to that of Marcel Proust.

Sterne’s character, Yorick (whom we met as a minor character in “Tristram Shandy”) is travelling through France and describes his experiences and encounters, not so much factually, but by referring the thoughts and the emotions going through him. This makes it at times a bit difficult to follow and he does, characteristically for the sentimental writer, skip quickly over the boring parts. Practical things of little sentimental value are often ignored, while he seems immensely touched by the various people he encounters.

Yorick, supposedly a priest of sorts, have a fond eye for the girls. He falls in love with practically every girl he meets, be they nobility or servants and is quite unapologetic about it. One such encounter hints that the romantic idea gets a bit further than that, confirmed by the fact that he gets kicked out of the hotel for having brought a girl to his room for over two hours.

Beside being a sentimental story, it is also a travel novel, describing a journey through a foreign country, something which was apparently another fashionable thing at the time and perhaps founded by this novel. As such the journey is an integral part of the story, maybe even the point of the story. There does not seem to be a particular personal journey for Yorick, this is more a matter of describing encounters of sentiment Yorick has, travelling through the country.

Eventually, this is an unfinished novel. Laurence Sterne died before it could be finished and so Yorick only just manages to cross into Italy, stuck at an inn with another lovely lady, before the book abruptly ends. It is difficult to say where the novel eventually would have gone, statically describing encounters or toward some sort of end for Yorick, making it a personal journey. I could hope so, but alas we will never know.

I am not certain I would call “A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy” a great book, but it was so much easier and more satisfying a read than “Tristram Shandy” that I am probably overrating it.  I definitely got a lot more out of these few pages than the many times larger “Tristram Shandy”.



tirsdag den 10. november 2020

Tristram Shandy - Laurence Sterne (1767)


The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

“Tristram Shandy” by Laurence Sterne is another of those novels I have known by name, but never read, not even known why it was famous. Having read it now I understand why it is considered special, though I feel incapable of appreciating it.

The point to “Tristram Shandy” is… that there is no point. It is a fairly long book that goes nowhere. While it is supposed to be an autobiography of the author, going by the fictional name of Tristram Shandy, it is merely occupied with vignettes on his close relations, particularly his father and his uncle Toby. These vignettes are in turn constantly interrupted and digressed from, sometimes to make a remote point and sometimes simply through sabotage. The narrative is broken up to a point that you never understand the chronology and how anything ties together. This anti-structure has been praised as proto post modernistic, but to me it merely comes across as a childish and indolent practical joke.

The vignettes themselves has a comedic aim. The father and the uncle are both odd characters, the father having far-fetched theories for anything and a combative way of promoting them and the uncle, kind, gentle and naïve has an obsession with warfare. They are interesting types with a lot of potential for ridicule, but I must be too far removed culturally and perhaps also language-wise to pick up on the humor because I missed most of the punchlines in as far as there were punchlines and those I did get hardly made me smile. The father’s obsession with noses and names is sweet and ludicrous and so is uncle Toby’s obsession with the campaigns he is reenacting in his backyard, but ever so often will Sterne’s attempt at bringing a story to a head be derailed by his own interruptions or be masked to a degree where I simply missed what was going on.

Sterne is best in the few cases where he allows a story to go uninterrupted over a few pages, such as with the big-nosed Diego who causes an uproar when people start obsessing over his nose, or the love affair of uncle Toby. Those moments hold some promise to what this book could have been if Sterne had gone for a more conventional style. This would of course have made it less special but so much more accessible to the reader.

As it is, I found it very hard to stay attentive. Without a narrative and with digressions even within the sentences I often lost track and found my mind drifting. Looking back over the section I had just been through I could not for money or fame recall anything of what I had just read, and I suspect that was largely the point. To tow the reader around by the nose without taking him anywhere.

I did learn a new word, though. From now on “hobby-horse” will be a new expression of mine. A hobby-horse is a passion, doctrine or interest (obsession, perhaps?) that would color everything you do. This is most notably used to describe uncle Toby’s all-consuming interest in warfare. Curiously, the Danish word for it, “Kæphest”, means exactly the same and I cannot help thinking that this may in fact be the origin of the word. Nice, another piece of useless trivia…

Although I understand why “Tristram Shandy” is famous, I hesitate to recommend it. I got far too little out of it and found it an ordeal to get through it. There is the potential for something amusing here but it rarely becomes more than a promise.