- A Sentimental Journey: Laurence Sterne in Shandy Hall by Hans von Trotha
Although 2018 was, of course, a major Sterne year, the publication of this book has come most unexpectedly. These days, Sterne is definitely not an obvious sujet for any German writer, either in academia or belles lettres. This curious, slim volume does, in [End Page 234] fact, incorporate aspects of both perspectives, but first and foremost it must be read as an unorthodox jeu d'esprit, an essay about a man whose mind is, for the author, an object of fascination but not one for close academic scrutiny. Von Trotha is known to readers interested in British culture as the author of a short history of English landscape gardens titled Der englische Garten: Eine Reise durch seine Geschichte (The English Garden: A Journey through its History). A Sentimental Journey is, then, not strictly a book for scholars or academics, but enjoyable enough despite having no new insights to offer for Sterne adepts.
The book follows Wagenbach's usual format, a smallish yet very handsome volume in the usual red linen binding. The print on the spine fades easily, a problem with which Wagenbach readers are also familiar. The title might be thought somewhat misleading: the text meanders between biographical observations, travelogue, reflections about art, stylistic investigations, and fictional reconstructions, as, for example, of Sterne's time at Shandy Hall, a device used to evoke the magic that the place holds for von Trotha. It is, therefore, digressive in character, a device that naturally reflects the author's admiration for Sterne. Von Trotha's sentimental journey takes us from London's National Portrait Gallery to Yorkshire and Shandy Hall, and leads us finally to Germany and the echoes there of Sterne's international fame in the country's gardening culture. He has been to all the places worth visiting in England if one wishes to write about Sterne, beginning with fascinating observations about the portraits of Sterne in the NPG. He moves on to British Sterneans, for example, Geoffrey Day, whose manic urge to collect Sterneana is chronicled in one of von Trotha's digressions. And he reads the sources worth reading, other than those strictly scholarly—Johnson, Woolf, and the like—those one would read when writing about Sterne the way he does.
His analysis of Sterne's work, which unavoidably takes issue with Thackeray's damning account, is one for the uninitiated reader who wishes to be introduced to Sterne's difficult texts. Consequently, A Sentimental Journey is also a book on how to read Tristram Shandy, along with the Bramine's Journal and the Sermons. In quoting the new, monumental German translations by Michael Walter, von Trotha again highlights the intricacies of reading Sterne in a language other than his own, rendering even more successful his endeavor to interest readers in Sterne's ludicrous literary curiosity cabinet with its labyrinthine network of digressions, allusions, and loose ends. In fact, von Trotha's enthusiasm in reconstructing the eighteenth-century cult of Sterne is infectious and should perpetuate our own fascination with Sterne.
For modern—or rather, younger—readers, the elegant, perhaps somewhat oldfashioned prose of von Trotha makes it simply a pleasure to read. With its naïve yet refreshing approach, this well-written book does perhaps help scholars to step out of their comfort zone and enjoy the fresh breeze of unconventionality that blows pleasantly from this essayistic enterprise. It is to be hoped that one effect of this sentimental journey will be to attract a young generation of German academics and general readers to Sterne. Maybe such a book would then no longer come out of the blue. This might, however, be wishful thinking. [End Page 235]