Title: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman
Author: Laurence Sterne
What Do I Think Of It?: What do you get when you cross Jonathan Swift with Daniel Defoe and throw in a splash of Carrollesque surrealism? You get Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne, clergyman-turned-author. This is a riotous, 18th-century mock-autobiography of the fictional wag Tristram Shandy, who narrates the tale of his life to us over a series of volumes. The trouble is, Tristram is quite possibly the worst narrator in literary history, and will constantly veer off from his own tale to tell of other characters, such as the humble, long-suffering Parson Yorick, or the rotund Dr Slop (yes, he is actually named Dr Slop, and is referred to as such throughout the book). What this means is that, instead of getting an actual biography in the style of Robinson Crusoe, where unimportant information is simply skipped and years pass in a sentence, in the case of Tristram Shandy we haven’t even reached the birth of our narrator after two volumes. Not two chapters – two volumes. Every single assumption I ever made about the typical 18th century novel – that they are dry, witless and droning – was completely dispelled by this book. Chapters only last a page, or less than a page in some cases. Sterne tells the tale of these unimportant people through Tristram so well that you barely notice that we were meant to be talking about something completely different two chapters ago. We often think of breaking the fourth wall as a modern concept, made nascent by the advent of the cynical, irreverent society that we live in today. Sterne, again, destroys this assumption, often having Shandy directly address not one, but two readers – Sir and Madam. The concept of narration, or storytelling, or coherence itself, is treated with extreme contempt by Sterne. Think of James Joyce or Virginia Woolf minus their pretensions and you have a good grasp of Tristram Shandy as a novel. It’s farcical, wonderful, hopelessly strange and viciously intelligent at the same time, with the farces of Tristam’s conception, inception and life mixed with his ruminations of Cartesian philosophy, engineering, piety, and human nature.
Would I Recommend It?: If you’re patient, go ahead. If you like things kept simple, don’t. There’s a reason why, to this day, nobody has successfully made a faithful film version of Tristram Shandy – because it’s essentially nigh-on impossible given all the diversions, the constant changing of time and timeframes, and the nature of the book itself, which is peppered with streams of consciousness both profound and, well, Shandean. While at best it’s an absolute riot, unashamedly bawdy and frank, yet not crude, at other times the complex prose and word order makes it difficult for a modern reader to actually understand the jokes and the setups. If you want to feel sophisticated while having a good laugh – read Private Eye. Then pick up Tristram Shandy. You’ll get absolutely nowhere with it, but the book doesn’t go anywhere anyway, and sometimes it’s good to stay in the one place.