Friday, September 2, 2011

Sterne’s Yorick, distracted

The scene is Paris:

What the old French officer had delivered upon travelling, bringing Polonius’s advice to his son upon the same subject into my head — and that bringing in Hamlet; and Hamlet, the rest of Shakespear’s works, I stopped at the Quai de Conti, in my return home, to purchase the whole set.

The bookseller said he had not a set in the world — Comment! said I; taking one up out of a set which lay upon the counter betwixt us. — He said, they were sent him only to be got bound, and were to be sent back to Versailles in the morning to the Count de B****.

— And does the Count de B****, said I, read Shakespear? C’est un Esprit fort, replied the bookseller. — He loves English books; and what is more to his honour, Monsieur, he loves the English too. You speak this so civilly, said I, that ’tis enough to oblige an Englishman to lay out a louis d’or or two at your shop — the bookseller made a bow, and was going to say something, when a young decent girl of about twenty, who by her air and dress seemed to be fille de chambre to some devout woman of fashion, come into the shop and asked for Les Egarements du Cœur & de l’Esprit: the bookseller gave her the book directly; she pulled out a little green sattin purse run round with a riband of the same colour, and putting her finger and thumb into it, she took out the money and paid for it. As I had nothing more to stay me in the shop, we both walk’d out at the door together.
Laurence Sterne, A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy (1768). Text from the 1967 Penguin edition, ed. Graham Petrie.

I like everything about this passage: the Shakespearean earworm, the casual decision to buy a complete works, the lousy inventory, the ease with which Yorick (the narrator) forgets about buying something from the bookseller, the care with which he details the chambermaid’s purse and movements.

Petrie explains Esprit fort: “a wit; someone who expresses superiority to current prejudices.” Les Égarements du cœur et de l'esprit [The wanderings of the heart and mind] is a novel by Claude Prosper Jolyot de Crébillon. “Wanderings of the heart and mind” is a fair description of A Sentimental Journey.

comments: 0