The travel narratives of yesteryear line our shelves, and it was really no more than chance that last week we looked again at Laurence Sterne’s Sentimental Journey. Some might venture that in shelving it in the travel section of our modest library we have erred. It is more a work of fiction than a travelogue sensu stricto.
244 years after its initial publication, A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy is still a fine read. From its daring opening sentence, on some matters being ordered better in France than in England, right through to its deeply ambiguous non-conclusion, Sterne’s text is full of innuendo, irony, flirting fingertips and perfect rhythm.
Ah, yes… that ending. Well, we don’t want to spoil the plot, but suffice to say that Sterne never gets to Italy, and the book concludes prematurely with a Dominique Strauss-Kahn moment. Whatever did happen in that room with the fille de chambre?
The elliptical and episodic style of A Sentimental Journey may not be for everyone. Sterne’s narrator is called Yorick (of skull fame), and poor Yorick — alas! — dallies and diverts so much that one wonders if he will ever progress beyond Calais. That Yorick forgot to pack a passport indicates that this was not the most meticulously planned of journeys — sentimental or otherwise. Planned it may not have been, but Yorick’s was certainly a journey with attitude. Sterne’s book is in part a counterpoint to Tobias Smollett’s bad-tempered Travels through France and Italy (which had been published two years before A Sentimental Journey). Sterne is upbeat and positive where Smollett just heaped scorn on the continent.
Yet, for all the wit, and even a little buffoonery, there is a touch of melancholy about Yorick and his ways. No surprise perhaps, as Sterne was in his final illness as he wrote A Sentimental Journey. He died just a few weeks after it was published. Along with Volume VII of his Tristram Shandy, Sterne’s last book has entered the canon of English-language travel writing. It’s not a book for learning about Calais, Paris or Lyon (and that’s the closest Yorick gets to Italy). But it is a book that delicately teases out the fragility and beauty of human communication — verbal or otherwise.
Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries