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Monday, January 09, 2017

Tristram Shandy (1767) by Laurence Sterne

Trustram Shandy: frontispiece of vol 9 by Hogarth
William Hogarth  (1697 to 1764) is a famous English artist now remembered for his engravings,  Sterne commissioned Hogarth to do a set of images for the first editions of the several volumes of Tristram Shandy as they were published in the 18th century. 
Book Review
Tristram Shandy (1767)
by Laurence Sterne

    I first wrote about Tristram Shandy in an early 1001 Books Project review from 2008, where I discussed it in terms of the 2005 film, Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story.  In retrospect, this was an error, first because nobody gives a fuck about Steve Coogan and Rob Bryden, the stars of that film.   On the other hand, the importance of this book in mind as being one of the top 10 most important novels ever only increases with time.  I've twice revisited the original review in an attempt to give this work a more fitting description on this blog.
Tristram Shandy: pages 146 and 147 of vol. 6 with a blank page where the reader is encouraged to draw own picture
Part of the playfulness of the original edition of Tristram Shandy can be seen in the text itself, as is the case here on pages 146 and 147 of Volume 6, where the reader is invited, in the facing page, here the reader is invited to make a sketch of the Widow Wdaman.

       The modern trend is to see Tristram Shandy as a forerunner of modernism and post-modernism in terms of use of non-linear plot development and self-referential characters.  Describing Tristram Shandy in such a fashion diminishes its instant popularity upon time of publication and its enduring popularity a century or more before the rise of "modernism", let alone "post-modernism."

Tristram Shandy: p169 of vol 3, with marbled paper
The so-called "marbled" page came at page 169 of volume 3 of one of the original editions of Tristram Shandy.

      Perhaps the tone of the above two paragraphs suggests some of the rabbit holes that dog any interpretation of Tristram Shandy. I will say that although it took me six + months to actually finish it, this is one of those "classic" novels that can actually inform your understanding of contemporary life- not to mention literature, and as such it is worth the investment of time & energy.
    Returning to this review some six years later, I feel compelled to include a summary of the story.  I've included a summary from the website "Sparknotes" on the theory that it is a well written summary:

There are, nevertheless, two clearly discernible narrative lines in the book.
         The first is the plot sequence that includes Tristram's conception, birth, christening, and accidental circumcision. (This sequence extends somewhat further in Tristram's treatment of his "breeching," the problem of his education, and his first and second tours of France, but these events are handled less extensively and are not as central to the text.) It takes six volumes to cover this chain of events, although comparatively few pages are spent in actually advancing such a simple plot. The story occurs as a series of accidents, all of which seem calculated to confound Walter Shandy's hopes and expectations for his son. The manner of his conception is the first disaster, followed by the flattening of his nose at birth, a misunderstanding in which he is given the wrong name, and an accidental run-in with a falling window-sash. The catastrophes that befall Tristram are actually relatively trivial; only in the context of Walter Shandy's eccentric, pseudo-scientific theories do they become calamities.
             The second major plot consists of the fortunes of Tristram's Uncle Toby. Most of the details of this story are concentrated in the final third of the novel, although they are alluded to and developed in piecemeal fashion from the very beginning. Toby receives a wound to the groin while in the army, and it takes him four years to recover. When he is able to move around again, he retires to the country with the idea of constructing a scaled replica of the scene of the battle in which he was injured. He becomes obsessed with re-enacting those battles, as well as with the whole history and theory of fortification and defense. The Peace of Utrecht slows him down in these "hobby-horsical" activities, however, and it is during this lull that he falls under the spell of Widow Wadman. The novel ends with the long-promised account of their unfortunate affair.  (Sparknotes)

         The key to understanding Tristram Shandy's long term appeal is understanding the way author Laurence Sterne anticipates modernist technique, but the quality that makes it readable for a larger audience is the humor.  The humor is centered in the Uncle Toby, a guy who probably had his junk shot off fighting Napoleon and after becomes obsessed with re-enactments of that same battle.   I would say that the chances of any reader who doesn't "get" the humor of Uncle Toby is a long shot to finish reading Tristram Shandy.

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