Oh, how does one sum up the world’s kookiest, most prank-laden novel in a few hundred words? Reading Laurence Sterne’s magnum opus Tristram Shandy, published in nine volumes beginning in 1759, brought me both immediate rewards and long-term contemplations. The immediate reward of slogging through this near 600-page “fictional memoir” (as they were referred to back then) is the recognition of how much fun Laurence had taking the piss out of a literary form that was still very much in its infancy. (Depending where you start counting from – Daniel Defoe, in my case, or even earlier – the English novel was most likely less than a century old.) It’s refreshing to see that one doesn’t have to wait until 1960 before encountering an “experimental novel”.
Oh, and the experiments and trickery come fast and furious in this text. Despite the book being labeled “life and opinions”, Mr. Shandy divulges very little of himself or his positions on issues of the day. Instead, Laurence’s protagonist gives us rich portraits of his father, his uncle “Toby” (why the quote marks, at nearly every reference?) as well as the characters Yorick, Dr. Slop and Tristham’s mother. The book discusses everything from obstetrics and the nature of war to the size of noses and less-mentionable body parts. The text is full of malapropism, bawdy humour, self-censorship, nonsensical Latin phrases, and fart jokes. The biggest prank, I think, is the outright removal of an entire chapter (Volume IV Chapter XXIV), made even more jarringly hilarious because the book has been paginated in such a way that the excluded chapter looks like a printer’s error. Needless to say, Laurence has a “Ha ha, I fooled you!” moment at the beginning of chapter XXV over these 10 missing pages.
The influences on Tristham Shandy are obvious right from the start: Cervantes’ Don Quixote for the picaresque energy of the text; and Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel for the sexual and scatological humour. Tristham Shandy would go on to have a huge impact on novelists of subsequent centuries – everyone from Flaubert and Proust to Joyce and Robbe-Grillet. But make no mistake that Tristham Shandy stands on its own as a singular phenomenon. There is nothing quite like it.
So what is the novel about, anyway? Oh, it’s about birth and death and war and the state of Europe at the time. It’s a play on the father/son/uncle dynamic of Hamlet and it’s also quite a bit of hilarious nonsense. Is it still relevant to a contemporary reader? Well, yes. There’s lots here that lingers in the mind. Let me quote just one passage and see if it conjures for you, as it did for me, something odious about living in the 21st century. From Volume VI Chapter XXXII:
I am not insensible, brother Shandy, that when a man, whose profession is arms, wishes, as I have done, for war – it has an ill aspect of the world; – and that, how just and right soever his motives and intentions may be, - he stands in an easy posture in vindicating himself from private views of doing it.For this cause, if a soldier is a prudent man, which he may be, without being a jot the less brave, he will be sure not to utter his wish in the hearing of an enemy; for say what he will, an enemy will not believe him.
The literary references and linguistic approaches may seem arcane, but the pulse that throbs inside Tristham Shandy still has quite a bit of relevance for today.