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Biography of a popular and prosperous 18th-century novelist

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Laurence Sterne, the Later Years, by Arthur H. Cash. London & New York: Methuen & Co. Ltd. 390 pp. $49. Laurence Sterne, the Early & Middle Years, by Arthur H. Cash. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd. 330 pp. $65. 1975.

These two books - a decade apart - comprise the life story of an author who wrote an 18th-century best seller. Arthur Cash explains in a preface to the 1986 volume:

``A biographer can never know that his story is true, for biographical truth, if it exists at all, can only do so in the mind of God. A friend once asked me, `what would you do if by a miracle Laurence Sterne should walk through that door?' I replied, `Ask him to forgive me.'''

Cash says he developed the story of the life of Sterne from his own examination of the primary evidence but is in the debt of Percy Fitzgerald and Wilbur Cross (earlier biographers of Sterne) for pointing the way. ``My story of Sterne may resemble theirs ... but it differs in almost every detail. The first volume of this study (published in 1975) covered 46 years. This volume (the second) covers eight. It has taken me longer to write a book about his later years than it took him to live them.''

Sterne's novel, ``Tristram Shandy,'' became a classic, a book of nine volumes published between 1759 and 1767. He wrote in the throes ``of melancholy and illness.'' ``I wrote,'' he said, ``not to be fed but to be famous.''

As an anodyne to pain he sought laughter. Soon after publication, in 1759, of the first two volumes of ``Tristram Shandy,'' Sterne conferred in London with his book sellers, Robert and James Dodsley. They gave him a cordial reception. This was readily translated into money.

Cash calls the contract signed that day ``a triumph'' for Sterne - 250 in advance, 200 to be paid within six months, and (in a separate contract) 380 for volumes 3 and 4. Although monetary equivalents were difficult to work out, Cash computes these sums to be approximately 30,000 ($47,700) today.


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