Vladimir Bukovsky is checked by a Russian police officer upon entering a rally in his honour in Moscow in 2007

Tristram and the tyrants

How Laurence Sterne’s 250-year-old masterpiece was used as a moral litmus test

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This article is taken from the October 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

We live at a time when not just the truth, but laughter itself has become a radical act. Where our guardians, who themselves live complex lives, demand that the masses confine themselves to rail tracks of mental orthodoxy.

Can a book written during the reign of George III help shake off the dulling conformity of our times, a novel that professes that, “so long as a man rides his Hobby-Horse peaceably and quietly along the King’s highway, and neither compels you or me to get up behind him, — pray, Sir, what have either you or I to do with it?”

It was in the spare bedroom of the widow’s house in Langenhagen, near Hanover, that I spotted them. On one of her bungalow’s overflow bookshelves — filled mostly with avant garde catalogues from the 1950s and 60s — in a tidy but dusty row were eight identical English language works printed in 1930: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, by the Rev. Laurence Sterne. Alongside those were another five, contemporaneous, cloth bound and heavily thumbed, in German translation.

At dinner, I asked old Frau Bach about her collection. In a courtly combination of Woodhousian English and Hochdeutsch, she explained what that shelf meant to her.

“It is impossible to appreciate the book if your mind strives for adherence to authority.”

She and her husband had been part of the late 1920s-early 1930s artistic scene in Hanover. Her husband was a brilliant young surgeon specialising in brain surgery. They were patrons of the Sprengel Museum and friends of Kurt Schwitters, one of the key “degenerate artists”, who fled to Norway in 1937 and was interned on the Isle of Man. As the decade proceeded and the lights in Hanover dimmed, they maintained their set, but increasingly in private.

Naturally, as successful and prominent citizens, and with well-known tastes, their own card was marked. Though they maintained friendships with those they had known for years, every now and then somebody new would enter their circle. However, to be publicly anti-party at that time was an extremely dangerous act.

Due to his skills, her husband never felt the requirement to join the party. He was protected by his client list which included several top Nazis and their families. But the nominal protection provided by his utility was stripped away once he was called up in 1940 and later posted to the Eastern front. They and their circle were aware that the Gestapo wanted to catch them out and would send people to infiltrate their private groups.

Which is where Laurence Sterne’s great 1760s novel came in. It would be handed to the newcomer, who would be asked to discuss it at the next meeting.

“You see Gawain,” the old lady said to me in a conspiratorial way, “nobody who supported the party could ever, truly, enjoy the book. They could claim to, of course, but it was as clear as Sterne’s contortions aren’t whether they meant it.”

Twelve years in and out of the Soviet prison system sure built a thirst

A few years later, in 2006, and after her death, I was asked to look after the Soviet dissident, Vladimir Bukovsky, for an afternoon. He had given a lunchtime speech to European parliamentarians as a guest of Nigel Farage. My task was to keep him entertained until dinner. This was a man who had spent 12 years in the Gulag and in the psychiatric prisons of the Soviet Union. The man who, through his samizdat publications, had alerted the world to some of the day-to-day horrors of communism at colossal personal risk.

It was with no small trepidation that I took him to one of the plush, lobbyist-friendly bars in Place Luxembourg in the lee of the European Parliament. He was probably the bravest man I had ever met; his face was punctuated with wens and cross-hatched with deep-fissured lines. The fissures, it quickly became apparent were those of laughter, not those of anguish. Twelve years in and out of the Soviet prison system sure built a thirst. A thirst accompanied by a voracious enjoyment of life.

But as the vodka, “bring the bottle, leave it”, poured down, the conversation grew more fluent. His time in the archipelago was raised, on account of me asking, given he was a writer, what his favourite reading was inside.

“Tristram Shandy,” came the reply. Then noticing the startled look on my face, he explained, “What was remarkable was that, inside some of the prisons, the libraries were magnificent.”

According to Bukovsky, given that the prisoners were out of sight and out of mind, tagged for life and would be watched for life, the prison libraries held collections that would never have been allowed for the general public. In one prison where he was often incarcerated, the KGB’s remand prison of Lefortovo, in Moscow, the library was irregularly updated with collections of banned books that had been confiscated from private homes.

This prison had played host to leading communist figures from the early days, victims of Stalin’s purges such as General Vasily Blyukher. During the war it was where Raoul Wallenberg was held. It later was home to Solzhenitsyn, Sharansky, Litvinenko and Skripal. It was here, despite its reputation for torture and summary execution, that Bukovsky discovered the freedom of the Sterne masterpiece, and it was here that he too used it for self-protection. It became his go-to trial preparation.

Grubby copies of the obscure Anglican priest’s novel acted as a moral litmus test

It was Soviet policy to mix political prisoners with hardened criminals — gangsters, and murderers — to intimidate the so-called intellectuals. But education has its value inside, and Bukovsky became friends with many of the gangsters. The KGB would send in officers as prisoners, to gain the trust of, and winkle information from, the political prisoners. These would sometimes follow him, post-trial, to the deeper Gulag.

Here, in 1960s and 70s Moscow, just as in the Nazi Hanover of the 1930s and 40s, grubby copies of the obscure Anglican priest’s novel acted as a moral litmus test.

“The thing is, young man, have you read the book? The thing is, did you like it?”

It was now my turn to be grilled, to describe it and what I thought of it, its satire, comedy convolutions and plot(s), the radical typesetting, empty and marbled pages and general, disjointed chaotic unity.

Somehow, I must have passed the test, as he went on, echoing the old woman, “The thing is, young man, it is impossible for somebody to appreciate the book if your mind strives for order, for rules, for adherence to authority. It just cannot be done.” Unlike the Langenhagen widow, when he spotted an interloper, he was able to pass on the information to his new, cheaply tattooed friends. The interlopers never lasted long.

His concern was not so much about the past, despite the horrors that he had endured personally, but the possible horrors of the future. As he pointed out elsewhere, “Totalitarian philosophies have had, and will continue to have, a profound appeal to many millions of people.”

Today we live in a world where there is a narrowing of the mind and our references curtailed. As the Rabelaisian is disparaged and driven out of the public sphere, this lesson should be more understood. Yet those who spearhead the narrowing are convinced of their own rectitude.

Would the co-founder of Extinction Rebellion pass the test?

I often wonder if those in authority and influence today would be able to pass the test. Whether the members of the World Economic Forum could enjoy such a book, or Roger Hallam, the co-founder of Extinction Rebellion, who says that, for our own good, all air travel and 90 per cent of industry should be outlawed and laughs when the resulting destruction of freedom is pointed out. Imagine him grappling with the idea that people should be allowed to live without interference?

How many within our technocratic elite could revel in the contradictions of the human psyche so brilliantly laid out, or appreciate this line that Sterne gives his hero: “People who are always taking care of their health are like misers, who are hoarding a treasure which they have never spirit enough to enjoy.”

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