The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

Project: Well-Read B4 Dead, in which I attempt to achieve a working knowledge of literature before my death at age ninety, continues with my reading of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, by Laurence Sterne.

Although the book has the reputation of being an all-time classic, it also has the reputation for being practically unfinishable (the only attempt at anything approaching a film adaptation, A Cock And Bull Story, plays on its apparent unreadability), so naturally I made a point of reading to the very last page, because I’m hard that way.

The book, famously, is what we now know as a shaggy-dog story, with each scene interrupted by a deviation, which is itself interrupted and so on, until the book finishes with the story of Tristram’s life barely begun (whether the novel is even finished is open to debate, as it was published episodically over a period of years (1759-67), and further volumes could well have been planned).

The book is indeed often difficult to read, not least because much of the deviation relates to now-obscure intellectual and scientific argument (or at least a parody of it) and without endnotes, the book wouldn’t make a great deal of (non)sense. Every so often, however, the clouds of historical distance part and some wicked humour at the expense of Tristram’s father and Uncle Toby shines through. One of the book’s final scenes, in which the amorous Widow Wadman attempts to find out the exact location of a war wound on Uncle Toby’s groin, is an example of timeless comic writing (and if anybody ever tries to tell you that crude humour is of no cultural merit, point out to them that Tristram Shandy is absolutely full of nob gags, and then push them under a bus).

Tristram Shandy has been adopted as a pre-modern-post-modern text, and seen as a deconstruction of the whole Enlightenment idea of knowledge. I think it’s something simpler than that, however. It’s inevitable, it seems, that if a medium has been in existence for a few decades, someone will have a naughty desire to pull it apart for laughs. We can see this happen in the Twentieth Century in films like Hellzapoppin’, the cartoons of Tex Avery, Monty Python on television and the comedy jazz of Spike Jones. Also, Sterne had a model in Cervantes’ Don Quixote, which itself was a demolition of the pre-novel storytelling format of the romance.

And it is this, I feel, that makes Tristram Shandy important, and why it’s still worth bothering with today, despite the difficulties. The novel as a medium was coming into focus, with Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding smoothing the edges of the rather bumpy model established by Daniel Defoe (and yes, I know the novel has a longer, more complicated history than that, but I haven’t got all bloody day), both of them establishing something vital about what it is a novel is meant to do.

In his million-word epic, Clarissa, Richardson presented the reader with interiority of character. We get to see inside these fictional people’s heads, and understand to a fine point what they are thinking, and how they are thinking, what they feel, and why. Richardson proved that the novel could create complete inner worlds in which the reader could understand what it was like to really be somebody else.

Fielding, on the other hand, didn’t really do this. We never get to ‘know’ Tom Jones, for example, as well as we do Richardson’s rakish rapist Lovelace. What we do get is expert organisation of incident. Although Tom Jones appears to be as rambling a picaresque as Don Quixote, it ultimately all ties up completely, without a loose end to be seen.

Shandy blows this all apart. It’s title suggests that it’s going to present us with the ‘inner world’ of Tristram, but the constant deviation means that we barely get near it. It’s also meant to to tell us a story, but the innumerable threads mean that any sense of linear progression is lost.

What Tristram Shandy shows us is that novels can only do their work through a process of omission. Only by ignoring certain probable aspects of a fictional character’s ‘character’ can we get any real sense of their being one at all. Clarissa would be a very different and peculiar novel if it included the title character’s feelings about her bowel movements. In the same vein, if different activities that Tom Jones no doubt undertook, but are not mentioned, actually were, with some that are mentioned omitted, then the sense of being told a coherent story would probably be lost.

Novels tell the truth by lying. But Shandy warns us that the truth they tell is only partial and temporary. Which I suppose is quite post-modern after all.

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