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  • Rōrensu Sutān no Sekai [The World of Laurence Sterne] ed. by Takeshi Sakamoto
  • Kaz Oishi
Rōrensu Sutān no Sekai [The World of Laurence Sterne], ed. Takeshi Sakamoto. Tokyo: Kaibunsha, 2018. Pp. 381. ¥3,000.

In 1897, just before his two-year stay in the United Kingdom, the Japanese novelist Natsume Sōseki (known then as Natsume Kin'nosuke) published an article on Tristram Shandy in the literary journal Kōko Bungaku. This was the first time that Sterne and his works were properly introduced to the Japanese public. Sōseki describes Sterne's life and character and the traits of his writings succinctly and expresses his particular admiration of the singular qualities that Tristram Shandy holds in terms of structure, language, and plot: "The morbidly neurotic author 'Sterne' has been best known to later generations through the eccentric, licentious, and morbidly neurotic novel Tristram Shandy." He observed, "No other novel makes fun of human beings, plays the fool, or makes people laugh and cry so well." As Kazuki Ochiai emphasizes in his chapter on the Japanese receptions of Sterne, it is extraordinary that a Japanese intellectual could appreciate the humor and satirical language of an eighteenth-century English novel at the end of the nineteenth century. Moreover, Sōseki incorporates both Shandean wit and satire in his own novels, which he began to write a few years after his return to Japan.

Consciously or not, all the essays in the collection share, or are rather possessed by, the wonder Sōseki felt at Sterne's works. Written in Japanese, the essays provide a perfect introduction to Sterne for Japanese students and will provoke renewed interest in him and eighteenth-century literature more generally by demonstrating their significance in today's [End Page 229] Japan. Masaru Uchida's introduction offers a historical overview of Sterne criticism, from the contemporary reception in Britain and Europe, to early twentieth-century acclaim by Mikhail Bakhtin and Virginia Woolf, to scholarly works since the 1950s by well-known authors such as Traugott, Frye, New, and Keymer. The first two chapters by Sakamoto present concise, yet insightful pictures of "A Political Romance" and Tristram Shandy. Sōseki's viewpoint is echoed in Sakamoto's comment that "a music of human sorrow runs at the bottom of the comic world of the novel Tristram Shandy." The chapters that follow cover a range of Sterne's other works including Sentimental Journey and the sermons, examined in the context of the eighteenth century's literary and publishing environment, while also tracing their reception and reverberation in Japan. There are several useful collections of essays for beginning readers of Sterne, but Sakamoto's collection makes an invaluable addition, offering Japanese readers accessible discussions of Sterne and his works.

The most perceptive and original readings of Sterne's novels are offered by Masaaki Takeda's "Laurence Sterne's Poetics" and Masashi Suzuki's "The Power of the Moon: Lunacy in Blake and Sterne." Takeda establishes Sterne's fiction in the tradition of "deceptive" literature. He contrasts Sterne's fictive language with that of Swift's, arguing that while A Tale of a Tub and Gulliver's Travels register the author's sharp, rigorous observation of reality, Sterne embraces "the deceptive nature of reality" by playing the fool both in person and in his novels. "His vivacity and cheerfulness are produced when he exposes himself to deceptive and illusionary reality. For this reason, he can laugh at physical frailties." Unlike Swift, Sterne fully accepts the distance between language and reality, Takeda argues. Sterne is keenly aware that the more he writes the further reality recedes; hence, the narrative procrastination of Tristram Shandy. For Sterne, the act of writing is an endorsement of our linguistic inability to capture reality, demonstrating language's deceptive nature while expressing genial sympathy toward those imprisoned in the world of perceptions and sentiments. Sterne's fictive language thus establishes the modern poetics of Zweideutigkeit, a quality Nietzsche found in Sterne, the joining of mirth and sorrow, making readers feel as if they are floating in a world of existential instability.

Suzuki provides another new reading of Tristram Shandy by explicating the hitherto...


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