Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Tristram Shandy

Laurence Sterne Tristram Shandy (1767)

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman—to give the collection its full title—is a satirical—possibly depending upon one's—and yes, I am indeed aware that the habit of author's referring to one when they really mean I is itself satirised in the novel, which is perhaps ironic—unlike Alanis Morissette's hit single of that name, which is in itself ironic, it might be argued—definition of satire—novel by Laurence Sterne, published—if this doesn't seem too conspicuous a theft from Wikipedia—in nine volumes, the first two—and God forbid that anyone should suggest he might have done well to leave it at that—appearing in 1759 with the rest following over the next seven years; which is why I've stalled for the first time since Iain M. Banks' bloody awful The Algebraist back in 2008.

To start at the beginning, Sterne draws inspiration from both Cervantes and Rabelais, both of whom I've read and enjoyed very much without any significant problems. Following the general spirit of his predecessors, Sterne takes similarly satirical pot-shots at the institutions of his day, albeit with a gentler tone than that of at least Rabelais. Tristram Shandy is on occasion cited as one of the earliest metafictional novels, a story populated with characters who are aware of being in a story, and it was really this promise which drew my interest; but having made it so far as the fifth of the full nine volumes I really don't see it; or at least I really don't see how Tristram Shandy does anything which hadn't already been done by any sotto voiced Shakespeare character turning to the audience to explain that the bloke who just arrived on stage is a bit of a tosser. More significantly the novel's theme, and that which dictates its structure, is that its narrator is unable to explain anything without nesting his account in layer upon layer of digression, reason being that this is how life is:

Upon looking into my mother's marriage settlement, in order to satisfy myself and reader in a point necessary to be cleared up, before we could proceed any farther in this history;—I had the good fortune to pop upon the very thing I wanted before I had read a day and a half straight forwards,—it might have taken me up a month;—which shews plainly, that when a man sits down to write a history,—tho' it be but the history of Jack Hickathrift or Tom Thumb, he knows no more than his heels what lets and confounded hindrances he is to meet with in his way,—or what a dance he may be led, by one excursion or another, before all is over. Could a historiographer drive on his history, as a muleteer drives on his mule,—straight forward;—for instance, from Rome all the way to Loretto, without ever once turning his head aside, either to the right hand or to the left,—he might venture to foretell you to an hour when he should get to his journey's end;—but the thing is, morally speaking, impossible: For, if he is a man of the least spirit, he will have fifty deviations from a straight line to make with this or that party as he goes along, which he can no ways avoid. He will have views and prospects to himself perpetually soliciting his eye, which he can no more help standing still to look at than he can fly.

Fair enough and all highly entertaining, as are numerous asides to the reader suggesting we go back a chapter and read something again, or just that we imagine how a certain passage might read had the author got around to writing it, promises of forthcoming chapters on the subject of chambermaids, buttonholes or whatever, none of which ever arrive.

The first four parts are reasonably entertaining with their rambling account of events leading up to the birth of the narrator in volume four, and of what he is to be named, how long it is hoped his nose will be and so on. The trouble is that all these digressions really wear you down after a couple of hundred pages, particularly as there's a fair amount which would, I suspect, make a lot more sense to someone who had benefited from a slightly better education than I received, or at least a more thorough grounding in the classics - mine comprising about three books. I made it some of the way into volume five, then skipped ahead, and all I could see was another two-hundred pages—of paragraphs speckled—with these fucking—dashes, five—or—six to a—sentence, over—and over, and—I—knew I—just couldn't do—it. I skipped to the end, to Gerald Weales' afterword and found that even he considers the first four volumes to be the ones that matter. I decided that enough was enough. I conceded defeat.

I'd distinguish Tristram Shandy quite clearly from other novels I've abandoned. The Algebraist was just unbelievably dull, and Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land - the last hundred or so pages skimmed in about thirty minutes - was simply utter shite. Tristram Shandy is justifiably regarded as an important novel, and taken one paragraph at a time, it's erudite, wonderfully written, and very funny, but as a whole, it's five-hundred fucking pages of Ronnie Corbett telling one of those as my producer said to me jokes.

1 comment:

  1. I’m quite fond of the book. There’s a sweet nature to it and there were a few bits in it which made me laugh out loud which doesn’t happen much in books that old (much as I like Swift, I rarely find him that amusing) but I also found it a bit of a slog. It’s definitely worth seeing Michael Winterbottom’s film adaptation of it, which is remarkable for deviating so far from the story of the book while remaining completely in the spirit of it. And it also has the extra benefit of being much shorter.