Saturday, August 01, 2009

Tristram Shandy

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 retir'd thatch'd 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, it adds something to this Fragment of Life.
- Laurence Sterne, prologue to Tristram Shandy

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (Tristram Shandy) is a novel by Laurence Sterne. It was published in nine volumes, the first two appearing in 1759, and seven others following over the next 10 years.

As its title suggests, the book is ostensibly Tristram's narration of his life story. But central to the novel is the theme of not explaining anything simply, thus there are explanatory diversions to add context and colour to his tale, to the extent that we do not even reach Tristram's own birth until Volume III. However, beginning the narrative before one has been born is not unique in literature, for example see the opening chapter of David Copperfield. Consequently, apart from Tristram as narrator, the most familiar and important characters in the book are his father Walter, his mother, his Uncle Toby, Toby's servant Trim, and a supporting cast of minor characters including Doctor Slop and the parson Yorick (no doubt inspired by Shakespeare).

Most of the action is concerned with domestic upsets or misunderstandings, which find humour in the opposing temperaments of Walter—splenetic, rational and somewhat sarcastic—and Uncle Toby, who is gentle, uncomplicated and a lover of his fellow man. "The long-nosed Stranger of Strasburg": Book IV opens with a story from one of Walter's favourite books, a collection of stories in Latin about noses.

In between such events, Tristram as narrator finds himself discoursing at length on sexual practices, insults, the influence of one's name, noses, as well as explorations of obstetrics, siege warfare and philosophy, as he struggles to marshal his material and finish the story of his life. What makes this novel remarkable is the seeming modernity of the technique and style. As with Rabelais, Sterne does not follow the "rules" for writing a novel, thus one encounters multiple allusions to other writers and their works and interjections of many kinds into the novel so that you begin to wonder what kind of book this is. Sterne was particularly influenced by Rabelais and his bawdy humor is no doubt due in part to that influence. This is not an easy read but one worth taking in small sections, a bit at a time. Having read Tristram Shandy you may be ready for twenty-first century post-modern literature or you may want to hang up the idea of literature altogether.

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