Since last year I have been reading Tristram Shandy, the famous masterpiece from Lawrence Sterne, and last sunday I finished this book, which still seems more modern than most of the stuff, which floods the market nowadays.
It was the second time I read it. My first reading was in the eighties of the last century, when I read the German translation. Now I read the original version. In fact, an’ please your honour, I have not only read it twice, but thrice, because I always had the German translation at hand to peek into it, if I had to surrender to Sterne’s Shandyism.
Thou, Thy, Thine and Thee
It was great fun to read the German translation and it was even more fun to read the original. I was surprised that Sternes language shows more similarity to German, or to put it right, to common roots of both languages than modern English. The most obvious affinity is the archaic “thou”, which sounds pretty much like the German “Du” and in fact means the same. This intimate address, which Shakespeare also uses in his dramas and his sonetts, sounds as familiar as strange to me, whenever I read it. Familiar, because it reminds me of our “Du” and strange, because I never read it in modern English. It died away with its “thy” and “thine”, which both mean “dein”, and its “thee”, which means “dich”.
I also recognized that Sterne does not always use the common word order ‘subject, predicate, object’ but orders his words more freely. Often, I could translate a sentence word by word to have a correct German translation, which is impossible with modern English. I am not a linguist, so I do not know whether the strict syntax in current English is due to the fact that the gramatical distinctions, which were possible by using ‘thy’, and ‘thine’ and ‘thee’, were lost together with other distinctions in the course of the 18th and 19th century.
How to tell a Cock and Bull story?
There is an interesting parallel between my reading in the eigthies and my recent reading. In the eighties I was studying film and literature and came across some critical narrative theories. Today, while reading Tristram Shandy for the second and third time, I tried to use the snowflake method to write a crime novel. It is maybe a token of the decay of my intellectual integrity to compare Colin McCabe, a renowned British film critic, with Randy Ingermanson, the entrepreneurial creator of the snowflake method of writing a novel, and author of some strange christian sci-fi-books. But Colin MaCabe never gave me a hint as to how to write my novel. – It must be interesting to hear Mr. Shandys opinion about all this stuff. Would he write the parody of Harry Potter, if he lived today? I am not sure, because you cannot make a satire about a pure commercial attempt; though there is a German parody of Harry Potter, but as it is a true parody, it is also a true commerical attempt.
But let’s go back to the book itself. Reading this book today was a real inspiration. To clarify this, I must make – nothing else but a short Shandyian digression. For some years I procastinated the writing of my second novel, because I simply did not find a way to tell my Cock and Bull Story in the right way. Perhaps I only feared that the way I would choose, would end in an artistic cul-de-sac. If you publish a novel, you expose yourself to the jugdment of posterity; if you continue writing to flee from your appointment with death, as Mr. Shandy flees to the continent, posterity will never even know of your failure. But I will leave the answer of this question to posterity.
Sternes inspiring modernism encourages me to write my novel in my very own way. I think it will be a conversation, a dialogue with the reader, which is the very opposite of a successful method of writing a novel, but maybe the only way I am able to stumble along.
And now, at the end of this chapter, I have to adress thee, dear reader, if thou thinkest that my English is not perfect, don’t blame Sterne, McCabe, or even Mr. Snowflake, just blame me and give me a small hint, how to correct a wrong phrase, a bad word, or my (not arbitrary) but simple German punctuation.