This book ranges from amusing to touching to heartbreaking, and everything in between, kind of like a really fine romantic comedy. In it, Sterne, in the
character of Mr. Yorick, travels around France, and writes not about his physical impressions, but his emotional experience, (and Mr. Yorick is quite a
sensitive man!). Published in 1768, the biggest hurdle for modern readers is the archaic language. It is strongly recommended to not only keep a dictionary
handy, but to keep an online term definitions site available at a click, because much of the vocabulary cannot be found in the average paper dictionary.
A number of them required me to do some downright research, discovering lots of articles specifically about phrases in this book.* And unless you are fluent in French, be prepared look up translations.
The other hurdle is Sterne's lack of punctuation, which the Dover edition has retained. One must analyze at times to determine who is speaking, because no quotation marks are used, in addition to unconventional sentence construction and lots of dashes to separate thoughts and speakers. Keep in mind, however, that the book was written to resemble a journal, where the traveler has written down his thoughts as they appear in his mind (and heart!). Being aware of these points allows the reader to simply be in the moment and enjoy the passions as they occur.
Many readers will keenly relate to Mr. Yorick's emotions. He is deeply analytical about his every thought and word, ranging from pondering if a certain response is proper, to agonizing that an improper response was given. He takes note of every minute detail, and where he has not obtained complete information, uses his wild imagination to, at least temporarily, replace facts.
Yorick begins his journey leaving Dover, England, sailing in a small boat across the channel to Calais. One of the first people he meets is a monk begging for money for his convent. Yorick decides when he first notices the holy man that he shall refuse him alms, and when the monk approaches him, he behaves absolutely rudely, which immediately triggers a suffering of conscience.
Upon embarking in Calais, he checks into a hotel, and sees a Desobligeant (a small chaise that seats one person, see article below)*in the courtyard that interests him. He enters it and begins writing in his journal, and whom should he see but the monk talking to a lady. Yorick is certain that this man is speaking of his rude behavior, so he pulls the curtain to avoid their attention.
After the owner of the hotel, Monsieur Dessein, returns from Vespers, Yorick entreats him to allow him the purchase of the Desobligeant, which he refuses because it is falling apart. Mons. Dessein then leads him to the Remise (a sort of garage or shed) to choose another chaise. Yorick does not like him: "—I looked at Monsieur Dessein through and through—e'yd him as he walked along in profile—then, en face—thought he look'd like a Jew—then a Turk—disliked his wig—cursed him by my gods—wished him at the devil—"
As he is grumbling aloud, he turns to find he is being followed by the lady to whom the monk was speaking in the courtyard, and immediately takes her hand. Monsieur Dessein, after fumbling for awhile, realizes he has brought the wrong key, leaving Yorick with the young lady. He finally sees her face, and determines that it is one that has suffered recent sorrow. No sooner does Dessein exit, but the monk appears, prompting Yorick to apologize profusely for his earlier behavior. As a gesture of goodwill and friendship, they exchange snuff boxes, which Yorick treasures. Sadly, he notes, upon his last trip through Calais, he learns that Father Lorenzo has passed away.
Now, as for the lady, he knows little of her, and discretion prevents him from prying into her business. However, two gentlemen who spoke to Yorick earlier in the courtyard pass by, and ask if they are off to Paris (thinking they are man and wife). Yorick says he is, but the lady replies she is off to Amiens (which is on the way to Paris.) Now Yorick really wants to travel with the lady, but his conscience gets the best of him: "—It will oblige you to have a third horse, said AVARICE, which will put twenty livres out of your pocket.—You know not who she is, said CAUTION—or what scrapes the affair may draw you into, whisper'd COWARDICE—Depend on it, Yorick! said DISCRETION, 'twill be said you went off with a mistress, and came by assignation to Calais for that purpose—You can never after, cried HYPOCRISY aloud, shew your face in the world—or rise, quoth MEANNESS, in the church —or be anything in it, said PRIDE, but a lousy prebendary."
Unfortunately he doesn't get the chance to prove any of this because the lady's brother arrives for her. And all this happens in the course of an hour!!
During Yorick's stop in Montriul, he hires out a lad, La Fleur, as a servant. He is really a musician, but proves to be loyal and helpful along the way. They spend quite a bit of time in Paris, and Yorick comments on the good and the downright pathetic. Many people are exceedingly polite and genteel, but others are unbelievably rude. In between flirting with the ladies, he is struck by the poverty, and the large number of dwarfs living in the city, a result, he believes, of overcrowding and lack of room to grow. He finds much to shock him, only to realize, after a month spent in the city those same things now he "found inconsequent and perfectly innocent." Perhaps the most comical is Madame de Rambouliet, whom he describes as, correct, virtuous, and pure of heart. One day, as they are on a trip out of town, she suddenly orders the coach to stop. Upon questioning her, she replies to Yorick, "Rien que pisser." (I'll let you figure that one out.)
And so ends Volume I and my review of Yorick's travels. Volume II follows, but you will have to read it yourself to see how his journey ends! I will say this, though: In Volume II, Yorick's sentiments become even more amplified and he falls in and out of love at the drop of a hat. You will chuckle one minute while your heart breaks the next, and I guarantee you will burst into laughter at the end, (what a naughty boy, that Yorick!).
I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Sterne had a rare gift for putting into words the entire gamut of human emotions. You not only read this tale, you feel it, deeply. It's completion leaves one exhausted! Sterne had planned to add additional volumes, but sadly, died one month after the publication of these two.
*A Desobligeant in a Remise
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