I feel that I should begin any review of Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by indicating that there is very little inside regarding the actual life of Tristram Shandy. At least percentage-wise, the vast majority of the book relates to happenings outside of Tristram Shandy’s direct life, though bearing some relationship to it. In fact, Tristram Shandy isn’t even born until a few hundred pages in. There is a bit more about his opinions, but still. Mind you, this isn’t a problem. However, I just thought that should be clear at the start.
(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 10th for Paul Auster, 2nd for Peter Carey, 1st for Percival Everett, 5th for A. L. Kennedy, 9th for Jonathan Lethem, 8th for David Lodge, 2nd for Thomas Mallon, 7th for Jonathan Raban, 8th for Louise D. Rubin Jr., and 4th for George Saunders.)
I can at least confirm that Tristram Shandy is the narrator of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. Beyond that, things get hazy.
As I mentioned, he starts out the book addressing his birth…something that does not actually occur for several hundred pages. In between that and the beginning is digression after digression, sometimes returning to the main action as a digression from a digression. His Uncle’s penchant for modeling battles, his father’s quirky approach to things based on ancient learning, direct examples of ancient learning, and so on; the digressions run the gamut. The main unifying force in all of this is Sterne’s wit, and he is witty.
Of course, we should not really be surprised. He addresses the digressions (on more than one occasion) himself. Since trying to provide an example of the digression structure would be too lengthy for this review, I’ll give you some of Shandy’s thoughts on his digressions direct:
For in this long digression which I was accidentally led into, as in all my digressions (one only excepted) there is a master- stroke of digressive skill, the merit of which has all along, I fear, been overlooked by my reader,–not for want of penetration in him,—but because ’tis an excellence seldom looked for, or expected indeed, in a digression;—and it is this: That tho’ my digressions are all fair, as you observe,—and that I fly off from what I am about, as far and as often too as any writer in Great-Britain; yet I constantly take care to order affairs so, that my main business does not stand still in my absence.
I was just going, for example, to have given you the great out-lines of my uncle Toby’s most whimsical character;—when my aunt Dinah and the coachman came a-cross us, and led us a vagary some millions of miles into the very heart of the planetary system: Notwithstanding all this, you perceive that the drawing of my uncle Toby’s character went on gently all the time;— not the great contours of it,—that was impossible,—but some familiar strokes and faint designations of it, were here and there touch’d in, as we went along, so that you are much better acquainted with my uncle Toby now than you was before.
By this contrivance the machinery of my work is of a species by itself; two contrary motions are introduced into it, and reconciled, which were thought to be at variance with each other. In a word, my work is digressive, and it is progressive too,—and at the same time.
This, Sir, is a very different story from that of the earth’s moving round her axis, in her diurnal rotation, with her progress in her elliptick orbit which brings about the year, and constitutes that variety and vicissitude of seasons we enjoy;— though I own it suggested the thought,—as I believe the greatest of our boasted improvements and discoveries have come from some such trifling hints.
Digressions, incontestably, are the sun-shine;——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 variety, and forbids the appetite to fail.
All the dexterity is in the good cookery and management of them, so as to be not only for the advantage of the reader, but also of the author, whose distress, in this matter, is truely pitiable: For, if he begins a digression,—from that moment, I observe, his whole work stands stock-still;—and if he goes on with his main work,—-then there is an end of his digression.
——This is vile work.—For which reason, from the beginning of this, you see, I have constructed the main work and the adventitious parts of it with such intersections, and have so complicated and involved the digressive and progressive movements, one wheel within another, that the whole machine, in general, has been kept a-going;—and, what’s more, it shall be kept a-going these forty years, if it pleases the fountain of health to bless me so long with life and good spirits.
I realize that the digression I just provided is a long one, but that’s just in keeping with the spirit of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.
The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman was a bit difficult to read. I admit that. However, I was downright astounded that it was written in the 1760’s. The characters and settings fit and all, but the structure is like nothing else I’ve seen from that time. I wouldn’t bat much of an eye at this and might even expect it modernly, but I’m floored that Sterne attempted this back then…even more that he got away with it.
I didn’t find The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman to be the most enjoyable read, but it’s a landmark in terms of the development of the novel. It’s certainly well worth the look for anyone willing to sit through it all.