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Tristram Shandy


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#1 Andy Whitman

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Posted 16 November 2009 - 08:52 AM

Lord have mercy.

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.

#2 NBooth

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Posted 16 November 2009 - 09:52 AM

I went through this book in a Brit. Novel class about a year ago, and I enjoyed it so much I read it (really-truly read it) over the following summer. It's honestly one of my favorite novels now. The rambling attempts to approximate communication so exactly mirror our own; the extent to which Tristram's story is tied up to and never to be parted from his father's and uncle's (and the dead parson's) lives is such an accurate picture of the spiky no-man-is-an-island reality we see in our own lives; and the section on hobbyhorses has given me much solace when I find myself frustrated by other people's inability to get beyond a single subject or idea. It's about so much--hobbyhorses and attempts to create for ourselves a narrative out of the spiky intersections of everyone else's lives, familial love, the tyranny of opinions, and so on. It is, in my opinion, one of the most accurate portraits of the human being-in-the-world that I've seen.

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.


#3 Christy E

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Posted 16 November 2009 - 12:31 PM

"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."

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.

#4 metalfoot

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Posted 16 November 2009 - 02:23 PM

One of my favourite novels, ever; I love the way Sterne broke the novel, all the while poking fun at social conventions and whatnot. When I faced the proverbial fork-in-the-road, educationally, one of my options was to go on to do an MA/PhD in English Lit; this era (1700s) would have been my specialization. It seems to fit me well.

#5 Andy Whitman

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Posted 16 November 2009 - 03:48 PM

One of my favourite novels, ever; I love the way Sterne broke the novel, all the while poking fun at social conventions and whatnot. When I faced the proverbial fork-in-the-road, educationally, one of my options was to go on to do an MA/PhD in English Lit; this era (1700s) would have been my specialization. It seems to fit me well.

One of the things I'm greatly appreciating about Tristram Shandy is the sense of playfulness and adventurousness that Sterne brings to his writing. In that sense, your "broke the novel" comment is interesting to me. Although Sterne is certainly not the first English novelist, I suspect that his work comes along before any firm literary conventions had been established. In other words, I'm not sure there was yet a pattern to break. It was wide open, and Sterne took off in a couple dozen directions simultaneously. There's some savage satire, to be sure, but Sterne also simply revels in playing with words; even the appearance of words on the page. He thumbs his nose at the notion of plot, and even though there's a semblance of a story to hang these words upon, the story is clearly not what he is interested in. He's interested in the digressions from the story. And puns. And good, bawdy humor. And showing off in dazzling literary ways. He reminds me of James Joyce and David Foster Wallace, which is a strange comment to make given an author whose work was published in the 1760s, but there you go. Now that I'm getting the hang of it, I think I'm going to enjoy the second half of this book very much.

#6 techne

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Posted 16 November 2009 - 09:09 PM

and the film adaptation - tristram shandy: a cock & bull story - is pretty fun as well...

#7 Tyler

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Posted 27 February 2012 - 12:18 PM

Michael Winterbottom's film adaptation of Tristram Shandy (can't find a thread for it) topped The AV Club's list of successful adaptations of "unadaptable" books.

#8 NBooth

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Posted 27 February 2012 - 12:52 PM

Michael Winterbottom's film adaptation of Tristram Shandy (can't find a thread for it) topped The AV Club's list of successful adaptations of "unadaptable" books.


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.


#9 NBooth

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Posted 03 March 2012 - 08:32 PM

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].


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.


#10 NBooth

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Posted 23 March 2012 - 07:06 PM

This is a couple of years old, but man...I think I want this edition:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dqrH4luA9II

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:

This new edition of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman is the first book published by Visual Editions: a new London-based book publisher of literary fiction and non-fiction who make use of what they call "visual writing." They believe books should be as visually compelling as the stories they tell, and their strapline is "great looking stories." Their aim to publish The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman as their first title is to show where the idea of "visual writing" originated, to show where it all began. The idea is to bring out the book’s brilliance and playfulness again, to dust it down from its shoddy Dover Classics image and make it accessible and relevant again to a more contemporary audience. Visual Editions asked the designers to breathe new life into the book and told the designers to add new visual elements in as well. As long as they stayed faithful to Sterne's spirit, then VE were happy to let the designers roam. And so they did: a shut door is a folded page, perspiration is pages of dotted spot varnish and the marbled page is a moiré of a black-and-white photograph (a nod to contemporary printing technologies, in the way that the marbled page was a result of technologies of the time). British author Will Self introduces the book, with the typically wonderful irreverence that Sterne himself would have loved.


The book's designers, on the other hand, do give a peek inside.

Edited by NBooth, 23 March 2012 - 07:25 PM.


#11 NBooth

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Posted 27 July 2012 - 05:15 PM

The Millions: Tristram Shandy, Dilettante: Laurence Sterne and the Pleasures of Attention-Deficit Disorder


There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about attention atrophy and the Internet. And I mean a lot of talk. If you haven’t noticed, it’s because some of the trend pieces are really long (like, 2,000 words long) and your gchat may have been buzzing at a clip that precluded sustained focus on what a given writer for the The Atlantic, Slate, or The New York Times had to say about the latest UCLA study on how Google can affect your dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.

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.


#12 NBooth

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Posted 23 May 2013 - 10:36 AM

Just finished Ian Campbell Ross's Laurence Sterne: A Life. Now, I'm not one for biographies (I try--I've got a stack of 'em--tons of personalities I should know more about from Whitman to Fitzgerald to Dali--but the only other one I've managed to read in the past year has been the biography of David Foster Wallace) but this one held me pretty well--which may speak more to the fact that I find myself increasingly entranced by Sterne as a personality. Ross gives a good picture of the world of 18th C publishing--especially the business of getting up subscribers so the books could be published (not too far removed from Kickstarter, no?); he also makes a reasonable case that Sterne represents an early example of "the commercialization of the man and his writings" (429)--with tons of work of varying qualities coming out just after his death (again, this made me think of DFW--particularly in the way that Sterne was "flattened" to some extent just as Wallace has become in some quarters little more than an advocate of maximalism and new sincerity--a move that strikes even me, with my limited grasp of DFW's work, as an oversimplification).

It's not a perfect biography--Ross skims over Tristram Shandy and A Sentimental Journey, though I suppose the omission is on account of these works already getting attention; his handling of the Sermons and Journal to Eliza--and A Political Romance--are all very good, though.

#13 NBooth

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Posted 26 June 2013 - 10:16 PM

Judging by the review, I guess this link could go in any of a dozen threads, but for now I'll stick it here:

The Digging Goes Deep in James Chandler's "An Archeology of Sympathy"

In this ultra-ironic age, sentiment gets short shrift. One may be smarmy or smug, snarky or snide, but it’s just not hip to feel. Sentiment’s bad rap is partly due to narrow, misguided definitions of the term: corny, schmaltzy, Spielbergian—choose your epithet. But true sentiment is much more this, and it requires some digging.

James Chandler’s An Archaeology of Sympathy: The Sentimental Mode in Literature and Cinema is a deep dig. Chandler, a Distinguished Professor at the University of Chicago, has chosen an apt title, as his book excavates vast cultural strata through four plus centuries. With discussions ranging in scope from proto-novelist Laurence Sterne, philosophers Friedrich Schiller, Adam Smith and Lord Shaftesbury, novelists Charles Dickens, Joseph Conrad and Mary Shelley, and filmmakers D. W. Griffith, and Frank Capra (then back through Sterne), the book may seem culturally crowded—any one of these figures is august company, any three a towering crowd—but Chandler is so learned, his prose so modestly lucid, that he weaves together all these figures with impressive dexterity.

[snip]

Linking the 18th century Sterne to the 20th century Capra in a breathtaking leap of continuity, Chandler analyzes in detail a series of illustrative scenes from a selection of Capra films, from It Happened One Night (1934), to Mr. Deeds Goes To Town (1936), to the director’s most beloved film, 1946’s It’s A Wonderful Life (he even draws from the director’s autobiography and its “corrective” biography by Joseph McBride). His close readings mine the ways in which sentiment, in both Capra and Sterne, gets encoded or reinforced or iterated through relays of looks and gazes, a migration of human empathy through “fictional vehicles.”

The heady result is “a sense of the human world as defined by the incoming motion of perception and the outgoing motion of action, with ‘affection’ as the name for the interval of their transduction.”


--one more for the wish list, I guess.