The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman
1759–1767 in nine volumes
Approx. 199,500 words
What was I reading...?
It's often called the first modern novel. Or, worse, a post-modern novel written before the modern had been invented.
Which ought to turn off anyone looking for a good story. So here's the story of Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy:
Tristram Shandy is born: that takes up the first half. His father Walter and uncle Toby talk a lot: that takes up pretty well the whole novel.
Oh, that's unfair, let's revise that. Tristram Shandy is conceived in the first page, despite his father being distracted by his wife reminding him during the act that he never wound the clock that night. For ever after, the story of Tristram cannot be told without digressions. (Did I mention the story is purportedly written by Tristram himself?) At one famous point, he interrupts the narrative in mid-sentence and doesn't complete—
that is, it occurs in the middle of a comment by the ex-officer Toby, who is always getting sidetracked by thoughts of military campaigns which he and his former corporal re-enact on his front lawn with built-to-scale cities and fortifications in his yard.
Or the story is derailed by Walter's book which he is writing to educate his new-born son—although the son grows up faster than can be written the chapters to enlighten him at each stage of growth. Or by any character's remembrances and obsessions that might take the timeline of the piece back or forward by decades. Not to mention the entire wording of sermons being included, along with marginal notes. Ditto philosophical arguments. Translations of legends accompanying the text in the original language.
A blank page for the readers to draw their own pictures. Diagrams of the plot so far. ** **** *** to represent censored or forgotten passages.
Replies of Tristram (Sterne?) to critics after publication of the earlier sections of the very novel we're reading.
And, oh yeah, as I was saying—if you recall—at one point he even interrupts the story in mid-sentence and doesn't complete Toby's line until some sixty pages later.
With all that and more, so much more, for the reader to get through, the really incredible thing is that the characters come to life. It takes a lot of ploughing through for the reader, but damned if one doesn't start to feel affection for the nuts of Tristram Shandy. Sterne may have started the book as a satire but he ended up creating characters more human than any that had been seen before.
So is it worth reading?
Probably not for everyone. Possibly not for anyone. I'm not sure what I've got out of my two readings. The second time through was certainly more rewarding because I had a better idea of what was going on, or rather what was not going on. Perhaps the best advice is to pick up an outside outline and follow it as you're going along in the book. I know to an English-lit snob that's like cheating, but anything that helps you get into great books is okay by me.
Or, another sacrilege, just read the parts that hold your interest. Skip the obscure chapters. You won't lose much of the plot, since there really isn't one.
And if even that doesn't work, drop the whole book. You'll at least have picked up an idea what the fuss over Tristram Shandy is about. And move on to something you can get more out of.
But if you persist and it does work for you, you may be surprised to discover this largely unread classic is ******* great.
— Eric McMillan