Sterneana | Shandeans

This entry was posted on 1st August 2014

Jan Starink, 12 June 1927 – 18 June 2014

The Laurence Sterne Trust records with great regret the death of Jan Starink who, with his wife Gertrude, translated The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman into Dutch.

This is an edited version of the address given by W.G. Day at the funeral.

In the summer of 1977 I got an anxious phone call from Kenneth Monkman, the curator of Shandy Hall. A formidable Dutch Sterne scholar called Dr Starink was on his way and could I provide some counterweight to this fearsome prospect. Dr Starink proved to be not as frightening as Mr Monkman had feared. We spent the afternoon in the garden talking about Tristram Shandy.

That evening Jan and I went to a pompous restaurant in York – ‘pompous’ was Jan’s favourite English insult. The menu arrived and at the top was a note which should have said: ‘Patrons from all over the world return for our unique ambiance’. Unfortunately, the word ‘ambiance’ was not in the vocabulary of the typist. The note actually read: ’Patrons from all over the world return for our unique ambulance’. We laughed through the meal and for the next more than 35 years. By the end of the evening it had been agreed that we would collaborate on a radio programme on Sterne for KRO.

The following Easter I went to Utrecht, met Gertrude, and saw their astonishing house in Zuilenstraat, where for the first and only time in my life I saw a private library arranged by language. The following morning at the hotel the receptionist rang early to say Mr Starink had arrived. I assumed we were going to Hilversum to start work on the programme.

We went to Belgium for coffee.

The following morning the receptionist rang early to say Mr Starink had arrived. I assumed we were going to Hilversum to start work on the programme.

We went to Germany for apple pie.

We drove all over the Netherlands – Jan seemed to know a particularly choice detail about every place we visited – and he always knew the best places for coffee and apple pie. We spent an entire day in Nijmegen, where he spoke at length about his early years. Nevertheless, we also managed to make a radio programme, which was broadcast, rather appropriately, on 1 April 1979.

In addition to his radio work, Jan had also set himself to translating Sterne. First, to get his eye in, he had translated A Political Romance, a translation which has never been published. Then he set to work on Tristram Shandy. Having translated it, he gave it to Gertrude to read. This was a mistake. Gertrude was a perfectionist and said it could be improved. They sat down together and translated the whole book again from the beginning. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman is a difficult work even for a native English reader; to translate Tristram Shandy into another language is an epic achievement: to translate it twice is inconceivable. After over 20 years of work, the translation was published in 1990.

Back in England, over the years, I moved from Yorkshire to Cambridge to Winchester. Jan and Gertrude moved from Utrecht to St Ives. Their cottage in St Ives was a great surprise. The Dutch are internationally renowned for their historic ability to lessen the more damaging effects of the sea. The cottage was on the shore, and at the neap tides the waves crashed over the house and landed in the street. Their bed was directly under a sky-light through which they could see the waves twenty feet above them. I always thought it the most unlikely residence for a Dutch couple.

While in St Ives Jan and Gertrude turned their attention to other areas of Sterne’s life and works, and, always punctilious in their scholarship, they started by constructing a chronological time-line of all the demonstrable facts relating to Sterne, his family and friends. This document was several hundred pages long. When Kenneth Monkman published his Sterne attributions in The Shandean he was particularly interested in knowing the Starinks’ views. They warned him he would find them uncomfortable reading, but he persisted. Their lengthy letter demolished his attributions, partly on the grounds that it would have been physically impossible for Sterne to have written and then got the manuscript to the printer in time for publication in view of his known geographical location at the time in question. Monkman’s response was ‘You have blown me out of the water’ – and he published no further attributions.

Jan was highly creative as well as scholarly and he also produced a remarkable series of miniature illustrations to Tristram Shandy, which captured the comic spirit of the work.

Following Gertrude’s death, Jan moved to ’s-Hertogenbosch, and our journeys in both directions continued. Jan visited England, often several times a year and for weeks at a time, during which he immersed himself in archives where, with his fluent knowledge of classical and modern European languages, he acquired an unparalleled knowledge of Sterne and his circle, who often wrote in French and neo-Latin.

Last time I stayed with him in Den Bosch, he was teaching himself Albanian. He had seen Albanian newspapers on sale at the local newsagents and wanted to know what the Albanian man-in-the-street was told about world news. He was endlessly curious.

Jan was a polyglot, a polymath, a painter and a pianist; a teacher, a translator, a broadcaster and a bookshop-owner. He was a man of infinite variety.

He knew more about Laurence Sterne than anybody I have ever met.

Hilversum, 25 June 2014.