Thursday, August 14, 2008

Tristram Shandy

by Laurence Sterne
First Published: 1759-67

With some trepidation I took up our inglorious paperback copy of Tristram Shandy last night, as the prospect of reading it by this evening was daunting given its girth. (As a matter of fact, I have only reached the 95th page.) Besides, I find 18th-century literature strenuous in its long-windedness and relentless artillery of mirth and pathos, and Sterne's writing is no exception. But after a while, the pleasure of his eponymous hero's ramblings (for me, he hits his stride in Vol. II, Ch. 3) eclipses the urge to reach through space and time, and gently but convincingly throttle the author until he agrees to cease his rambling and get to the point.

Sterne piles one clause on top of another into a great heap of a sentence whose structure is hard to follow. If Emily Dickinson — as someone said — "stitches" together her phrases with em-dashes, Sterne bastes them, in a sloppy but endearing way. I imagine that he would be immensely entertaining to hear in an inn, after a tankard or two of beer, at which point it seems as if not much would be required to loosen his tongue. In print, he does have the virtue of keeping his chapters mercifully short, and his dedication is likely the most readable I've ever encountered.
To the Right Honourable



Never poor Wight of a Dedicator had less hopes from his Dedication than I have from this of mine; for it is written in a bye corner of the kingdom, and in a retired thatched house, where I live in a constant endeavour to fence against the infirmities of ill health, and other evils of life, by mirth; being firmly persuaded that every time a man smiles, — but much more so, when he laughs, that it adds something to this Fragment of Life. [. . .]
Tristram Shandy tells anecdotes of his parents, his uncle, a parson, a midwife, and many others; muses about living on another planet; and reprints the amusing findings of a French inquiry into the baptism of unborn children (by injecting holy water into the birth canal). Then he philosophizes on everything, from the significance of names, to the bad habit of reading a book solely for the "juicy bits" instead of absorbing and pondering the wisdom of the author at leisure. My amusement at this point was feeble, as authors may often be at fault for self-indulgently writing "loose, baggy monsters." Besides, I prefer authorial didactism that is gently woven into the tale, not forced into my face.

But the first volume of Tristram Shandy greatly irritated me. A chatty superego prods and prods the reader, like a truly infuriating comic figure who keeps on popping up in the course of a play, screaming "I am funny!" with every word and gesture, and commenting on the action until the only civilized and human response is to pelt him with tomatoes. That this self-consciousness is self-consciously and satirically done doesn't make the matter better. I want to become absorbed in the story, and when an author tosses me from one narrative stratum to another, and moreover intrudes upon my mental privacy by presuming to tell me how I (should) think and react, he renders me indignant and grumbly. Nevertheless, de gustibus . . .

In the end, the charm and richness of the tale have conquered my annoyance. Not the least of this charm is the fact that Sterne's humour is often broad, but so politely broad that even I, who internally growled at the innuendo in Voltaire's Ingénu when I started it this morning, haven't taken offense.

* * *
De gustibus non est disputandum; — that is, there is no disputing against HOBBY-HORSES; and, for my part, I seldom do; nor could I with any sort of grace, had I been an enemy to them at the bottom; for happening, at certain intervals and changes of the Moon, to be both fiddler and painter, according as the fly stings: — Be it known to you that I keep a couple of pads myself, upon which, in their turns (nor do I care who knows it), I frequently ride out and take the air; — though sometimes, to my shame be it spoken, I take somewhat longer journeys than what a wise man would think altogether right.
Tristram Shandy, by Laurence Sterne
New York: Airmont, 1967 (p. 22)

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An Experimental Novel: Sterne's Tristram Shandy (Concise treatments of influences, characters, plot, etc.)
Laurence Sterne: Tristram Shandy (Concise treatments of plot, critical reception, author's biography, etc.)
Project Gutenberg: Tristram Shandy (Links to full e-texts of book)

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