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Monday, October 4, 2010

The Life and Opinions of Tristam Shandy, Gentleman, by Lawrence Sterne

This book took me weeks to finish. It is a long book, densely written in the eighteenth-century style, cluttered with dependent clauses. I must confess that sometimes the the rhythm of these interminable sentences put me to sleep. Which is not to say I did not enjoy the book -- I did, quite a bit. Tristam Shandy is filled with jokes, puns, digressions, anecdotes, absurdities, tangents, stories, sermons, doodles, hyperbole, suspect medieval learning, questionable advice, promised chapters that never materialize, and untranslated quotations in French, Greek, and Latin.

The premise is that Tristam Shandy has set out to write his life and opinions, but so often gets sidetracked relating the adventures and conversations of his parents, uncle, household staff, and local villagers, that by the end of the book he has not gotten beyond his fifth year. This state of affairs is mimicked on a smaller scale throughout. Sex acts, including the one that resulted in his conception, are interrupted, anecdotes are cut off by digressions from other characters, stories are stopped just as we get to the juicy bits, chapters are started over and over, and the book itself does not so much end as just stop. More literally, Shandy's penis is cut short, i.e. "circumcised," when he is a toddler by a falling window sash, and his Uncle Toby is rendered impotent (figuratively and literally) by a war wound. Much like the Fisher King, Uncle Toby lives in a sort of stasis, unable to do anything but spend his days recreating battles over and over and going in conversational circles with Shandy's father. Shandy's father himself is full of opinions (on such important topics as the importance of names and significance of nasal shapes), with the plan of writing and publishing them, but he never seems to complete his research or his writing (making him a jollier, red-blooded Casaubon). No wonder, then, that Shandy cannot complete a story.

There are typesetting layout jokes, too, enough to please any fan of post-modern meta fiction: black pages, changes in fonts and size, a preface more than a hundred pages into the book, line drawings to illustrate the digressive nature of different sections, and so on.

And this is just the stuff I caught; I am sure I missed any number of jokes and puns and references because of my general lack of knowledge of eighteenth-century history and culture. The result is, as has often been said, a post-modern novel before there was modern. A book right up my alley.


  1. Not really, actually. I didn't worry about finding out what happened because that wasn't the point of the book.