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Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne
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's review
May 22, 2012

it was amazing
Recommended to Alan by: The latter-day film of this unfilmable book
Recommended for: Diggers of antiquity and tilters at verbal windmills
Read in May, 2012 , read count: 1

This enormous, sprawling, exuberant proto-novel is all the more amazing for having been written and first published more than two centuries ago—Tristram Shandy is older than the United States, in fact, by a small but significant margin, and some might say it's holding up rather better. I was introduced to Laurence Sterne's novel via the film of this unfilmable book—Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (2005)—which, despite some significant flaws, turns out to be a fairly good introduction. The movie isn't by any means true to the book's text, but having experienced both, I am prepared to say that director Michael Winterbottom did remain remarkably faithful to the spirit of Sterne's work—a spirit which still, after two and a half centuries, is lively and moving.

This is not a quick or easy read for modern eyes, though. The book is so discursive it makes Nicholson Baker's The Mezzanine look like a mad dash from Point A to Point B—the "Author's Preface" does not appear until p.209! Its antic typography reminds me of Alasdair Gray's landmark Lanark. And, spattered as it is throughout with untranslated passages, footnotes and asides in Greek, Latin, French and, for all I know, Swahili (okay, not Swahili), one might do best to come at this work with a translator ready by one's side. Although usually the meaning is clear enough from context—and, as in the case of longer excerpts such as Ernulphus' Excommunication or Slawkenbergius' Fabella de Nasis, Sterne (or Shandy) does helpfully provide translations—even the English text of this book requires careful attention to parse successfully.

Tristram Shandy himself is an extraordinarily vivid and likeable character, though. I do not know how like him Laurence Sterne might have been, but while I was reading the book it was Shandy whose existence was never in doubt. Shandy's voice combines the relaxed, jocular tone of the Yankee from A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court with the ornate, invincible self-regard of A Confederacy of Dunces' Ignatius J. Reilly. The combination proved irresistible.


Tristram Shandy is an inventive novel, often surprisingly creative and irreverent. The reductio ad absurdum of Shandy's proposal for preemptive baptism of a husband's sperm by injection of holy water via cannula (Volume I, pp.67-68) was just one early example that made me chuckle. And his introduction, shortly thereafter, of the Argumentum Fistulatorium (Volume I, p. 76)—his uncle Toby's preferred response to an otherwise-unassailable verbal argument, being "whistling half a dozen bars of Lillebullero"—struck me as pure genius.

There were other, more serious disquisitions as well, though—this book has something in it for every appetite, from low- to highbrow (though, admittedly, much more of the former). Shandy's father's argument against free transportation (in the form of wind-powered carts to be used on the plains, in Volume I, p. 128) may be counterintuitive but it's also hard to answer—"it is the consumption of our products, as well as the manufactures of them, which gives bread to the hungry, circulates trade,—brings in money, and supports the value of our lands;—and tho', I own, if I was a Prince, I would generously recompense the scientifick head which brought forth such contrivances;—yet I would as peremptorily suppress the use of them." One wonders if our own princes of profit have read this passage and taken it to heart, when looking at the difficulties which wind and solar power today encounter in the marketplace.

And one remarkable example of pure science that caught my eye was an early use, if not the invention, of a ten-point scale for attempting to measure pleasure and pain objectively (Volume II, p.120).

"Heat is in proportion to the want of true knowledge."
(Volume II, p. 26)

Tristram Shandy is full of quotable quotes and pithy asides, though not often as brief and pointed as the one above. Just a couple that spoke to me, to whet your appetite for the whole...

On sleep (Volume II, p.55): it is "the refuge of the unfortunate—the enfranchisement of the prisoner—the downy lap of the hopeless, the weary, and the broken-hearted."

On health (Volume II, pp.168-169):
"O blessed health! cried my father, making an exclamation, as he turned over the leaves to the next chapter,—thou art above all gold and treasure; 'tis thou who enlargest the soul,—and openest all its powers to receive instruction and to relish virtue.—He that has thee, has little more to wish for;—and he that is so wretched as to want thee,—wants every thing with thee."


While wrestling with obstreperous chapters (Volume II, p.45) and characters (Volume II, p.51), Tristram calls upon his critics to help him get his father and Uncle Toby upstairs... while wrestling with this recalcitrant review, I often sympathized!

Writing is a filthy business anyway, as one Peter Conrad points out in his really rather incisive Introduction to this particular edition of Tristram Shandy. The sullying of the pristine page with ink, a recognition of the dirtier parts of the writer's task, is just one of many conceits that appear in Sterne's novel. Perhaps that's some of the appeal of electronic books, of reading on the screen in general—the screen stays clean, or can be cleaned, as if the words had never been. It turns all writing into speech, uttered and then forgotten.

The image of the unsullied page returns towards the conclusion of Volume II, in Chapter CXIII, when Tristram invites the reader to imagine and then draw his own conception of the widow Wadman, his Uncle Toby's love, exclaiming (p.254), "Thrice happy book! thou wilt have one page, at least, within thy covers, which Malice will not blacken, and which Ignorance cannot misrepresent." Though whether this is before or after the reader scribbles on it is left up to the imagination...


One of Shandy's (and, I'm sure, Sterne's) own favorite books, referred to often throughout the text, is Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote, in which if you'll recall Don Quixote valiantly but ineffectively attacks an uncaring giant straddling the countryside—a windmill. It's a powerful metaphor. I came tilting at the windmill of Sterne's prose, but I haven't even come close to slowing its sails in this review, much less piercing the heart of this remarkable book. And that's an amazing thing.
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