‘Tristram Shandy’

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne

Nothing odd will do long.” – Samuel Johnson on Tristram Shandy

This is an unfortunate quote from the author of the much less oft readThe History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssiniawhich came out the same year as the first volume of this novel. Still, Samuel Johnson is far more well known generally, than Laurence Stern, so perhaps he had his revenge in the end.

Tristram Shandy is odd. It must have seemed particularly odd when the first installment came out in 1759. The novel uses stream-of-consciousness and is very self-referential. It is an early example of apoioumenonIf you are neither as learned nor as curious as I am, here is the definition: “a novel that has a narrative that superficially is about the writing of a book.” If I must explain further, the narrator, Tristram Shandy, promises throughout to tell his story, but ends up telling far more about the events giving rise to his book, his literary theories, and many other topics even farther afield from his promised plot. The digressions are playful and comic. My recommendation is to read the book in small chunks. The book was originally published in nine volumes over the course of ten years, maybe eleven or maybe nine. The details are not important. My point is that too much of a good thing at one sitting is too much. While I do not necessarily recommend extending your reading over a decade, a few months to a year will likely keep the humor from wearing too thin.

I am not steeped in literature from this period and before, but Tristram Shandy seems to me quite modernist (almost post-modernist) for such a bygone era. In fact, the novel had a significant influence on Virginia Woolf and Samuel Beckett. It is one of the landmarks of literature and, for that reason alone, is a novel with which it is worth becoming acquainted. But do not think of it as duty, or only a duty. The book is exceedingly fun.

Laurence Sterne, according to his own dedication, was “persauded that every time a man smiles, – but much more so, when he laughs, it adds something to this Fragment of Life.” To that end, Sterne does his best to expand your fragment to a full portion. He succeeds often enough to make himself proud.

”That it is an abominable thing for a man to commend himself,” – and I really think it is so.

And yet, on the other hand, when a thing is executed in a masterly kind of a fashion, which thing is not likely to be found out; – I think it is full as abominable, that a man should lose the honour of it, and go out of the world with the conceit of it rotting in his head.

This is precisely my situation

As the narrator is too modest, I will tell you. The novel is a comic masterpiece.

The book is filled with digressions. In fact, the entire book is a digression. This is not a bad thing. As Tristram explains:

Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine; – they are the life, the soul of reading! – take them out of this book, for instance, – you might as well take the book along with them; – one cold eternal winter would reign in every page of it.

Tristram’s entertaining digressions touch on all manner of things, from love stories to adventures, from philosophy to politics, from war games to religion. On this last point, Tristram is startlingly irreverent for the time. Of course, he apologizes, in his way, for his more heathen outbursts.

I told the Christian reader – I say Christian – hoping he is one – and if he is not, I am sorry for it – and only beg he will consider the matter with himself, and not lay the blame entirely upon this book.

But really, the book is little threat to your religion, if you have one, so do not worry. It is, though, a threat to your decorum on the train as you will have difficulty stifling your laughter. The book is riotously funny. I will refrain from sharing the excellent quotes on marriage, military matters, courtship, philosophy, and hobby horses on the understanding between us that you will read this book and, so, discover the best bits yourself.

When you crack this one, you will have “the happiness of reading [one of] the oddest books in the universe.”