Sartor Resartus by Thomas Carlyle

Canongate, 2002, 320 p (including 2p biographical note on Carlyle and 10p Index,) plus x p Summary of Contents, viii p Introduction by Alasdair Gray, iii p Letter of Introduction from the Illustrator, (Edmund J Sullivan, for the 1898 edition,) ii p list of illustrations, viii p Testimonies of Authors. (One of the 100 best Scottish Books.)

 Sartor Resartus cover

To call this a novel (as the book’s Wikipedia page does) is stretching things a bit. It contains none of the things usually associated with the form, human interaction, character development, anything that could reasonably be called a plot – plus there is no dialogue to speak of. Rather it is a member of that sub-genre of literary endeavour; the book about a non-existent book.

The text adopts the stance of a commentary by an unnamed editor – who may be thought to be Carlyle but who refers to himself as English (as distinguished from the putative British reader he envisages, in which Carlyle seems to me to be emphasising the difference) – on a book supposedly written in German by one Diogenes Teufelsdröckh, whose name translates as God-born devil-dung. Teufelsdröckh is professor of “Things in general” at Weissnichtwo (“Know not where”) University. His book’s title is Clothes, Their Origin and Influence, in effect a philosophy of clothes, and this conceit enables Carlyle, through Teufelsdröckh, to animadvert on any subject he pleases, to point up, mock and highlight the folly of human society and attitudes. As befits his supposed source our ‘editor’’s text is spattered with German phrases most of which are translated either in the text or as footnotes.

How seriously we are meant to take all this is debatable. Teufelsdröckh’s uncertain origins could be taken from a fairy tale, his childhood home Entepfuhl (duck pond in English) is a microcosm of mediocrity.

Sartor Resartus is an acknowledged classic, not only of Scottish but of world literature. Reading it in the twenty-first century it does seem of its time, though.

Pedant’s corner:- In the biographical information; Jeffries’ (Jeffries’s,) briliant (brilliant.) In Alasdair Gray’s introduction; “Gold in the vaults of banks …. represent the wealth of nations” (gold … represents.) In Testimonies of authors; a capital letter when a sentence takes a new direction (this is an early nineteenth century habit though and is also to be found in the main body of the text.) Otherwise: Sanhedrim (Sanhedrin,) quoting Shakespeare “‘We are such stuff as dreans are made of’” (I believe the line reads ‘such stuff as dreams are made on’.)

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