Sunday, June 1, 2014

Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne

Source of book: I own this, but acquired it after the review was written.
Date originally posted to Facebook: April 14, 2011


The full title of this book is The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman – perhaps the worst misnaming of a book ever. The book contains very little of Tristram’s life, and almost none of his opinions, despite Tristram’s best efforts.

Tristram Shandy is rightly considered the first successful modern experimental novel. It contains many of the common devices used regularly by James Joyce and other modernists, including stream of consciousness, a non-linear narrative, seemingly irrelevant digressions, argument between the reader and the narrator, use of blank chapters and similar visual devices, and the use of quotes from other works inserted so as to alter the meaning of the originals. This would seem unremarkable for a novel written after Joyce’s Ulysses. Incredibly, Tristram predates that “revolutionary” work by no less than 150 years. Indeed, it predates what we think of as the golden age of the novel, and perhaps “pre-breaks” rules of writing that were not at that time fully established.

The charms of this book, fortunately, are not merely those of technique. Sterne creates a cast of memorable had endearing characters that are recognizable even in our modern times.

Who was Laurence Sterne? An Irish born clergyman who lived and worked in Yorkshire, published a number of political articles and many sermons before being persuaded to write fiction, and died of consumption after years of ill health. To a certain degree, Sterne is a character in his own book; rather two characters. Tristram Shandy himself, the narrator of the story, is one; and Yorick, the parson is the other. Yorick gets to voice Sterne’s most sarcastic side, while Tristram shares Sterne’s race against death to tell his story.

Thus, Tristram is a comedy that borders on tragedy. The feeling of time slipping away pervades the book, and it really ends before it is finished. Sterne wrote it as a series of publications before it was truly collected in book form. It is likely Sterne never knew how to end it, so he just ended where he did.

In contrast to the Victorian era novel, Sterne indulged a somewhat bawdy sense of humor throughout the book. I was struck both by the fact that he got away with this despite being a clergyman, and also by the fact that bawdy humor is much more funny when it is not explicit.

Notwithstanding the title, the book is really the story of Tristram’s father, Walter Shandy, and Tristram’s Uncle Toby. The secondary characters of Trim, Toby’s servant and onetime subordinate in the army; Dr. Slop, the physician; Mrs. Wadman, the widow out to catch Uncle Toby; and assorted servants and other denizens of the village also make up an important part of the book.

Walter Shandy is a bit too well educated for his own good. He is fond of his own voice, and even fonder of his pet theories. As the narrator puts it, “My father, whose way was to force every event in nature into an hypothosis, by which means never man crucified TRUTH at the rate he did…” In every time of stress, such as the sudden death of Tristram’s brother, he resorts to high flown language and rhetoric, taking out of context quotes from the great thinkers of the past. No topic was too petty to argue about, and no untenable position too outrageous to defend on principle. Walter Shandy perhaps missed his calling, as he would have made an amusing, if not particularly skilled lawyer.

Walter Shandy’s theories lead him to believe that poor Tristram is doomed to a sad life based on the accidents that occur between his conception and his adulthood. I refuse to spoil the fun these incidents cause by describing them here, but suffice it to say that Sterne discusses clocks, obstetrical theory, numerology, and accidental circumcisions.

In contrast, Toby is non-confrontational to a fault, and withdraws at the slightest hint of an argument to whistling the tune “Lillibullaro”, a satirical ballad set to the music of Henry Purcell. Toby was injured “in the groin” during a battle, and he and his loyal servant Trim (also wounded in battle) spend their time staging elaborate sieges in their garden, recreating each battle of the ongoing war in detail. This “hobby-horse” of Toby’s is a common thread in many of the events that ensue. 

The Lillibullaro

Tristram, as the narrator, attempts to start with his birth, but finds his story keeps going backwards as he fills in the information he deems necessary to explain the circumstances. Thus, he goes from the birth to the conception to the past history of characters in the parish, and so on. Tristram is not born until a solid one-third of the way through the book, and we hear little about him after that. He is involved in a childhood event, and he later appears in a mad dash across France as he runs from death. This adult episode appears where least expected, and offers an example of Sterne’s skill in stream of consciousness writing. While never writing what he wants to write, Tristram finds himself having to explain his digressions to an imaginary and somewhat hostile reader, assumed to be female. The conversation begins as a formal apology near the beginning of the book, and becomes more and more familiar and heated as the book progresses.

Some particular lines and passages stood out to me as warranting special mention. First is the section in which Dr. Slop, arrived to deliver Tristram, is unable to untie the cords fastening his bag. His attempts to cut them with a penknife lead to a bloody result and the use of colorful language. Walter Shandy, quick with his advice, jumps in with his advice regarding effective swearing. He grabs from his library a book containing a document written by Ernulphus the Bishop (actually a Catholic excommunication), stating,

“I have the greatest veneration in the world for that gentleman, who, in distrust of his own discretion in this point, sat down and composed (that is at his leisure) fit forms of swearing suitable to all cases, from the lowest to the highest provocations which could possibly happen to him,—which forms being well consider’d by him, and such moreover as he could stand to, he kept them ever by him on the chimney piece, within his reach, ready for use.”

The reading of the various curses thus transported from serious judgment of eternal damnation to the mundane business of pain-induced ejaculation is skillfully done – one of several examples of the “repurposing” of other works.

I was also fond of the scene in which the widow Mrs. Wadman is attempting to catch Uncle Toby, and the narrator speculates on the danger of a woman viewing a man in her own dwelling:

“There is nothing in it out of doors and in broad day-light, where a woman
has a power, physically speaking, of viewing a man in more lights than one --but here, for her soul, she can see him in no light without mixing something of her own goods and chattels along withhim ---- till by reiterated acts of such combinations, he gets foisted into her in-

Finally, I will mention a joke likely to be appreciated by lawyers and law students. In order to aid himself and Uncle Toby in their latest battle reenactment, Trim has converted a pair of Walter’s old jack-boots into toy mortars. Walter is mortified: “…they were our great-grandfather’s, brother Toby, -- they were hereditary.” “Then I fear, quoth my uncle Toby, Trim has cut off the entail.—“

 Illustration by the inimitable George Cruikshank

I enjoyed this book thoroughly both for its originality and its memorable characters. Like many of its original readers, I was disappointed that the story came to an end. Give this book a try, and give it the due credit for being far ahead of its time.

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