Book Review – The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

20 Apr

As a writer of humorous fiction, I had long intended to read The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne. Written between 1759 and 1767, it is in some ways the granddaddy of English humorous literature and contains within its gentle, meandering, conversational style many of the elements that make comic writing from that country unique, in spite of Sterne’s admiration of authors such as Rabelais and Cervantes.

There is much to admire in the book, or rather series of books – there are nine of them – provided that you make allowances for the fact that it was a pioneering work (though not entirely without precedent). Its loose structure, which smacks of sheer laziness, would not stand up to today’s standards, but some of the comedic incidents and the characterization of the narrator’s father, his Unlce Toby and the latter’s servant Trim are ahead of their time. The satire of learned people, though a little hard to decipher for the modern reader, is also amusing. Perhaps the work’s most prominent virtues are its warmth and generosity, particularly apparent in the discussions involving the narrator’s father and his Uncle Toby – even when engaged in satire, Sterne is kind – and its engaging voice. Sterne is good company.

And he has to be, because much of what he writes is codswallop, and not all of it is funny. He takes us in huge digressions and even digressions within digressions. The whole of Book VII consists of a travelogue recounting a journey to France, which, while interesting in the insights it gives into the modes of travel and accommodation of the time, has nothing to do with any of the other books. You get the feeling that he just got up and wrote what he felt like writing, regardless of what preceded it, before popping out for a couple of beers. He seems to admit as much in the second chapter of Book VIII:

“The thing is this. That of all the several ways of beginning a book which are now in practice throughout the known world, I am confident that my own way of doing it is best – I’m sure it is the most religious – for I begin with writing the first sentence – and trusting to Almighty God for the second…

…I wish you saw me half-starting out of my chair, with what confidence, as I grasp the elbow of it, I look up – catching the idea, even sometimes before it half-way reaches me –

I believe in my conscience I intercept many a thought which heaven intended for another man.”

It is a tribute to Sterne’s engaging style that you keep reading it, especially as it also includes chaotic sentence structure and punctuation and the occasional chapter towards the end of the book that consists of nothing at all! You forgive all this because you somehow like him. You don’t even mind that the books, with all their “progressive digressions” do not really have a plot, as such. You certainly never learn much about the life of Tristram Shandy, who doesn’t even enter the world until three volumes have passed, and as for the opinions – they are undisguisedly those of Sterne himself. This is a very strange work, and it somehow seems fitting that it should end strangely and very suddenly. In fact, it doesn’t really have a conclusion. It just stops.

And so will I.

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