Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Book Review: "Tristram Shandy"

I confess, I'm not sure quite how to review Tristram Shandy. Laurence Sterne's masterpiece (first published in nine volumes from 1759 through 1767) is like no other book I've ever read, so it's difficult to even figure out how to evaluate it. It's wonderful, and strange, and frustrating, and hilarious. Piling digression upon digression upon digression, Sterne's narrative (or quasi-narrative) twists and turns, doubling back on itself before suddenly darting forward for a page or two before falling back into a sub-sub-plot (see Sterne's own diagrams of the first five volumes here).

Flouting every 'convention' of print culture (in his own time or our own), Sterne writes, is his goal: "in writing what I have set about, I shall confine myself neither to his [Horace's]* rules, nor to any man's rules that ever lived." And how! Black pages appear, inexplicably, out of nowhere. Some chapters are entirely blank, with only the chapter headings to indicate their existence. Punctuation is decidedly unorothox (a young cousin, peering over my shoulder as I was reading, asked "What are all those lines in there?"). Like Swift, Sterne turns his satirical (or cervantick, as he would have it, meaning satirical plus funny) eye on all aspects of culture, from names to the law to courtship, medicine, language and religion.

He knows exactly what he's doing. In a chapter on digressions (Volume I, Chapter XXII), Sterne declares that these sidelines "incontestably, are the sunshine, ----they are the life, the soul of reading; ----take them out of this book for instance ---- you might as well take the book along with them; ----one cold eternal winter would reign in every page of it; restore them to the writer; ----he steps forth like a bridegroom, ----bids All hail; brings in vanity, and forbids the appetite to fail."

It takes an amazing talent to write a book like this that actually carries itself off in a way that works. Sterne does even better than that. Tristram's tales and opinions had me laughing out loud more than once, and constantly itching to find out what was coming next. Simply delightful; if you've never treated yourself to Sterne's works, do take the time.

* Horace famously praised Homer for not beginning The Iliad ab ovo (that is, from the egg). Sterne, of course, does just that.


annajcook said...

Since you just read the novel, you should check out Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story which is a 2005 British film "adaptation"/riff on the novel. It's sort of like Waiting for Guffman meets BBC costume drama.

JBD said...

Yeah, I broke a cardinal rule of mine and watched that when it came out on DVD - quite funny, actually.