August 14, 2005

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-1767)

by Laurence Sterne

Apparently, John Updike never made it through Tristram Shandy, but I did. That feels pretty good. To quote Updike’s passage directly, “Like many an autodidact I have taken simple-minded pride in finishing a book once I began to read it.”

Updike’s miniature assessment of Tristram seems accurate to me, except for his central assertion that it is boring. “Facetious,” even “chirping,” certainly. But delightfully so. I mean, come on.

Of course, it did take me a very long time to finish it, on a schedule that incorporated several long hiatuses. But that makes sense; Tristram Shandy was published in five separate installments over the course of eight years, and I therefore opted to read it more as five amusing short books than as one long master-book. One hopes that nobody in 250 years is suckered into reading all ten million pages of Harry Potter as though it is a horrifically bloated single work, though arguably it is a horrifically bloated single work. I remember feeling similarly that Bleak House suffered from being reduced to a mere continuity rather than remaining a truly serial experience. Laurence Sterne seems to have believed for a while that he would live off of Tristram indefinitely, publishing new volumes every few years for the rest of his life. Accordingly, the individual volumes are modest in length and charming, while the work taken as a whole is a fair bit overweight. But avoiding boredom is easy; take time off in between installments, just like Sterne did. Don’t know why Updike didn’t see that.

I don’t have any real knowledge of the general nature of 18th-century humor, so maybe this is just ignorant of me, but I was astonished at how well the wit had aged. And the book is indeed mostly wit. Several of the contemporaneous reviews I’ve read refer to the book as a “performance,” and though for all I know that may simply be a standard 18th-century usage, I think it’s telling. The work felt very much like a kind of one-man show, an intricate song-and-dance delivered by a storyteller who blatantly intends to be fascinatingly eccentric. But unlike other “look at me!” writers I’ve read (Vonnegut comes to mind), Sterne completely embraces the standup-act quality of his undertaking and truly takes advantage of his chosen performance medium. Some of it’s sort of like prop comedy of the printed page.

Is it funny when a chapter and 10 pages are missing from the book, and then Sterne/Shandy tells us he tore them out because they were so well-written that they overwhelmed the rest of the work? I think so. Is it funny when the first sentence of a chapter gets tangled in subordinate clauses, drifts off to some other topic, and finally Sterne/Shandy says he needs to start again, and gives it another go in the next chapter? I think it is, yes. It’s a bit Monty Python, that sort of thing. And Monty Python was indeed very clever, back when it was new. The freshness and boldness of Tristram Shandy rang through for me, 250 years later. It’s genuinely clever.

It’s also very funny in a non-gimmicky, situational, frequently bawdy way. I laughed out loud several times; usually at penis-related humor, of which there is plenty. By contrast, the most dated elements are the rather abrupt injections of “sentiment,” generally in the form of lumps in the throats of men feeling deep affection for their loyal friends. The interrelation of these two poles – the sentimental and the vulgar – is in some ways the theme of the book, and one that Sterne, the clergyman and preacher, clearly takes seriously in a spiritual sense. The welling-ups of brotherly love may have seemed a little lame, to me, but the overall message I took away was extremely sympathetic. Roughly, I understood the book to be saying, “God’s Earth is full of all kinds of stuff; tons and tons of stuff. Every imaginable thing can sustain our attention, and everything, from the sacred heights of love to the dirty depths of sex, is part of the picture of what makes up creation and what makes up life. And love isn’t actually all that far from sex, is it. Life is a holy overabundance of tiny things, buttonholes and long noses included. The idea that some things are important and others aren’t is an absurdity; some of the greatest human joy is found in worthless projects and lazy conversations. The title is a red herring in this book about nothing in particular, just as any purported ‘meaning of life’ is a red herring in a creation full of silly, vulgar details. And that’s how a joyous, witty God wanted it.”

The book as a whole may be a bit of an uneven hodgepodge, but the overarching sense of a warm philosophy behind it all came across clearly throughout. At the same time I occasionally got the sense that I wouldn’t want to spend any social time with Sterne, whose self-amusement is tangible. But since I, too, was amused, that impression didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the book. Prior to reading this, I had read A Sentimental Journey, the work he began immediately after the final volume of Tristram and left incomplete at his death. I think it may actually be more successful in conveying a similar philosophical message, and a finer literary product as well. But Tristram is the more memorable, for sheer volume of comic invention if nothing else.

Reading Dickens, one frequently feels the thrill of being in the presence of bold, durable, archetype-creating characters. Sterne draws his characters much less efficiently and with some false steps, but by the end, Walter Shandy, Uncle Toby, and Corporal Trim are similarly vivid, charming little people. By the late scenes of Toby and Trim (such as the one in which Trim attempts to tell Toby the story of the King of Bohemia and his Seven Castles but never really gets past the title), I felt that thrill, the joy of watching characters who were so strong as to seem “famous,” for want of a better word. A bit like the pleasure of actually reading the conversations of Don Quixote and Sancho, or Holmes and Watson, or even watching Casablanca: that’s really them, you think, and they’re really doing that thing they do, in all its glory. That’s about the strongest praise I can think of for this kind of characterization.

The various famous “goodies” – the black page, the marble page, the blank page, the line diagrams of the narrative, etc. etc. – all these things are actually fun, when they arise. Knowing about them in advance, out of context, as I did, just detracts from their proper value within the text. Sure, maybe this is an early “modernist” novel, in that it’s full of gimmicks and talks about itself and doesn’t do what it says it’s going do. But, you know, so’s Don Quixote (a direct, acknowledged influence on Sterne), and if I was a real scholar I bet I could find a bunch of other examples. In the final analysis, “whimsically self-referential” (or “whimsically unconventional”) is just one of a thousand things a book can be. It’s a tool, a device that doesn’t carry with it any particular aesthetic value. Tristram is a charming book, a funny book, and a humane book. It happens to use the device of “whimsically self-referential” to excellent effect. Let’s be impressed by the effect rather than the device. I don’t think I have the stomach to read this (report on its predecessor to come), but I’m led to understand that it’s the most recent tick on the prison wall of books that are full of gimmicks because they believe that GIMMICKS ARE MAGIC. Gimmicks are not magic. Don’t be dissuaded from reading Tristram Shandy by overemphasis on the gimmickry. Sterne knew what he was doing.

Tristram Shandy is an early “modernist” novel in a more important sense of the word “modernist” – its catholic embrace of all things high and low as equally significant. It’s the forward-looking philosophy of the book that has kept it alive. People often ask how Thomas Jefferson (or some such person) would manage if transported into the present day. I think Laurence Sterne, for one, would manage quite well. He saw and commented on all the particulars of his time, but from a perspective well above and beyond that culture. I understand why Joyce took him as a model for Finnegans Wake.

No “original edition cover” for this one – you had to get your own binding, back then. Here’s the attractively bound set of first editions that’s been going at for just under $30,000.

And here’s the title page and frontispiece from volume one (7th edition, as you can see).

Several online editions are available. For some reason, internet folk seem to love Tristram Shandy. A lot of them talk about how it’s a sort of proto-hypertext (get over yourselves, people!). I personally think it’s because of the gimmicks. Anyway, I can’t imagine really reading this whole book off a screen. For what it’s worth, this one makes a point of maintaining all the original formatting quite strictly, as does this one (albeit with all kinds of annoying HTML navigation and “annotations”). This is of course just plain text. I read the Oxford edition and found the footnotes (and layout) extremely satisfying. Far superior to the Norton Critical edition, which I also glanced through.

Post a comment

Your email address will not be published.