Posted 16 November 2009 - 08:52 AM
Has anyone read this novel/satire/autobiography that never quite gets around to telling a life story? I'm halfway through, and I alternate between thinking it's some of the most brilliant prose I've ever read and wanting to throw the book across the room in utter frustration and disgust.
Here's the deal with Laurence Sterne's masterpiece: It presumes to tell the story of the titular hero, but wanders off at every turn because the narrator Tristram, who has a very interesting name (the subject of which can be compared with and contrasted to more normal Christian names), is loathe to complete a thought (thought being the essence of what makes us human, as opposed to dogs, who, although they bark, and barking can be loosely construed as a kind of thought, cannot be categorized (viz. Berkeley) as True Human Thought). Bark, however, is one of the constituent elements of the tree, with elms being particularly prevalent in the district of Yorkshire where our non-story is set, and setters being a particular type of dog, who cannot be properly said to think, as Tristram, our oddly-named hero, most certainly does. I'm sorry, where was I?
Sterne goes on like that, although in a considerably more erudite and roundabout fashion, for six hundred pages, tossing in the occasional quote in Greek, French, or Latin, cramming his non-linear prose full of classical allusions, inserting parenthetical asides and learned treatises on obstetric medicine, noses, and medieval warfare, and anything else that comes to mind. Our young hero is conceived (or is he?) on p. 1, but coitus interruptus postpones the happy event, as do Sterne's thoughts, and he doesn't return to the birth of our hero for another two hundred pages. In the meantime he wanders, throwing in dazzling wordplay, puns, and some of the funniest, lewdest humor imaginable. This from a mid-18th century clergyman.
I'm tempted to call it post-modern fiction, but of course that couldn't possibly apply to a stodgy English rector and his mid-18th-century literary filigree. Whatever it is, I'm determined to finish it. It's the most peculiar thing I've ever read.
Posted 16 November 2009 - 09:52 AM
All that said, it's fun more than anything else (as long as you're willing to revel in the fact that you're never going to get anywhere). It's like speaking with a garrulous grandmother--she starts out talking about her life and winds up telling about so-and-so (whom you don't remember, but who remembers you) and the things they did thirty-odd years ago. Result-driven readers will get really annoyed (I saw it in class), but readers who go with the flow will find all sorts of fun things to joke about and tell others about.
Once you finish the book, be sure to check out the movie. It fails as an adaptation, but since it's not trying to be one, I guess it's all right. It works more as a mirror of the reader's response to the book, if anything.
[Edited to add this link to the Tristram Shandy Hypertext project, where you'll find all manner of interesting articles et cetera.]
Edited by NBooth, 16 November 2009 - 10:56 AM.
Posted 16 November 2009 - 12:31 PM
I've heard it mentioned recently that Tristram Shandy was one of the first post-modern novels written; the ancestor, if you will. It's on my shelf - I must read it.
Posted 16 November 2009 - 02:23 PM
Posted 16 November 2009 - 03:48 PM
Posted 16 November 2009 - 09:09 PM
Posted 27 February 2012 - 12:52 PM
Movie thread here.
I agree, it's a fantastic adaptation--if you go in on the premise that the book's not adaptable. The parts they do dramatize from the book are pitch-perfect, though; for instance, the scene where they discuss the use of clamps in childbirth is pretty funny and true to the book. I've enjoyed it more with each re-visit.
EDIT: FWIW, I'm currently reading A Sentimental Journey, about Parson Yorick's adventures in France, and let me just say--it's fabulous. Not quite as anarchic as Tristram Shandy, with a bit of a softer touch (as befits Yorick), but warm and frequently laugh-out-loud funny [also: surprisingly crass in spots. Not that I'm complaining; you just don't expect a book titled A Sentimental Journey to end part one with a joke about urination].
Edited by NBooth, 27 February 2012 - 01:49 PM.
Posted 03 March 2012 - 08:32 PM
Just updating to say that I finished A Sentimental Journey--it's a very easy read, especially compared to Tristram Shandy--and it's pretty great. In discussing it with some other people in the program at UA, it seems that poor Yorick comes in for a lot of dislike nowadays. It's true--he's a fool, a womanizer (or, rather, a flirt), and often mixes the sensual with the sentimental [in the non-pejorative, 18th Century sense], but that's what Sterne's all about. As Tim Parnell observes in his introduction to the Oxford World's Classics edition, "For Sterne, the traditional separation of love into two kinds--agape (non-sexual love) and eros (desire)--cannot be strictly maintained" (xxviii).
Just so. There's something very generous about Sterne that is likely to offend both prudes and libertines. He's an author who has room in his work for Uncle Toby to release a fly and fight in battle--the author is aware of the irony, but he is not willing to either explain it or alter it into acceptability.
In that way, Journey is of a piece with Tristram Shandy, and I think that together they speak to a far more complex view of human nature than we are [sometimes] prone to.
Edited by NBooth, 03 March 2012 - 10:21 PM.
Posted 23 March 2012 - 07:06 PM
Visual Editions website.
Amazon link. Unfortunately, the "look inside" option doesn't give you a chance to see the really interesting innovations that are mentioned in the Amazon write-up:
The book's designers, on the other hand, do give a peek inside.
Edited by NBooth, 23 March 2012 - 07:25 PM.
Posted 27 July 2012 - 05:15 PM
Entering freshmen at the university where I teach are required to read Nicholas Carr’s Pulitzer-finalist The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. It clocks in at 280 pages, and most students will not finish it.
I’ve got nothing against the hand-wringers — idle hands, etc. — but I’d like to advance a modest defense of the good that can come from the browser’s mindset, and from inattentive dilettantism. Indeed, let me suggest that we can find solace for the dilemma not in studies showing that video games make you smarter, but rather in Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, a long, obstreperous 18th-century work that Virginia Woolf (author of short, prismatic 20th-century works) called “the greatest of all novels.” Shandy makes the Cervantes/Fielding/Dickens picaresque look like a straight walk down a well-lit road. It is both a challenge to read and a sustained work of jumpy, distracted hilarity. Attention deficit, for Sterne, is not something to be feared in the reader — it is the basis for his process of composition.
Edited by NBooth, 27 July 2012 - 05:16 PM.