Monday, November 16, 2009

Tristram Shandy

Lord have mercy.

Has anyone read this novel/satire/autobiography that never quite gets around to telling a life story? I'm halfway through, and I alternate between thinking it's some of the most brilliant prose I've ever read and wanting to throw the book across the room in utter frustration and disgust.

Here's the deal with Laurence Sterne's masterpiece: It presumes to tell the story of the titular hero, but wanders off at every turn because the narrator Tristram, who has a very interesting name (the subject of which can be compared with and contrasted to more normal Christian names), is loathe to complete a thought (thought being the essence of what makes us human, as opposed to dogs, who, although they bark, and barking can be loosely construed as a kind of thought, cannot be categorized (viz. Berkeley) as True Human Thought). Bark, however, is one of the constituent elements of the tree, with elms being particularly prevalent in the district of Yorkshire where our non-story is set, and setters being a particular type of dog, who cannot be properly said to think, as Tristram, our oddly-named hero, most certainly does. I'm sorry, where was I?

Sterne goes on like that, although in a considerably more erudite and roundabout fashion, for six hundred pages, tossing in the occasional quote in Greek, French, or Latin, cramming his non-linear prose full of classical allusions, inserting parenthetical asides and learned treatises on obstetric medicine, noses, and medieval warfare, and anything else that comes to mind. Our young hero is conceived (or is he?) on p. 1, but coitus interruptus postpones the happy event, as do Sterne's thoughts, and he doesn't return to the birth of our hero for another two hundred pages. In the meantime he wanders, throwing in dazzling wordplay, puns, and some of the funniest, lewdest humor imaginable. This from a mid-18th century clergyman.

I'm tempted to call it post-modern fiction, but of course that couldn't possibly apply to a stodgy English rector and his mid-18th-century literary filigree. Whatever it is, I'm determined to finish it. It's the most peculiar thing I've ever read.


patrick said...

I read it in graduate school. Pre-post-modern, I'd say. Definitely worth the slog!

CarolN said...

I watched the movie. Yep.

Anonymous said...

The book is in my Amazon cart. I've seen the movie (the book had been called nonfilmable) which is also rather bizarre ... and one of my faves.