Tristram Shandy

Laurence Sterne - The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

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To those who are unfamiliar with the plot, it can be summed up in three little words: "But I digress." The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman has precious little of Tristram's life or opinions, and makes it doubtful whether he's much of a gentleman - in fact, it often strikes me how much more bawdy, dirty and, well, uninhibitedly fun 18th century literature is than it would be during Victorian times. Not that I'm an expert, but between Swift, Rabelais, Bellman, Voltaire and Sterne I think I can form some sort of opinion and Tristram Shandy gets away with a lot of stuff - sex talk, various bodily functions, etc - that would have made his pruder grandchildren blush.

But I digress. Tristram Shandy tries to tell us about his life and opinions, starting with his conception and continuing with his birth, education and career - and he fails miserably; the fictional narrator himself isn't even born until about halfway in and even after that appears in his autobiography only sporadically, whenever the plot is in danger of - gasp! - advancing and he needs to derail it with an amusing anecdote or a learnéd discourse on warfare, childbirth, religion, noses, or whatever he feels like lecturing us on. Someone said that this book was post-modern before there was a modern to be post, and I can see where they get that - as much as he leans on Rabelais and Cervantes, to my modern eyes it keeps bringing up people like Pynchon and Eco. Like those, he is less concerned with telling a story or giving straight answers than with painting an entire society's thoughts, and he'll lean on any reference no matter how wise or un- to get there. In a sense, the lives and opinions he chooses to reference tell more about him (the narrator, not the author) than he perhaps intends.

However, that's also part of the problem. Ironically, it seems at least to me, time has run away from Tristram Shandy. It's supposed to satirize a lot of popular thoughts, beliefs and conventions, but while some of those are universal, others have simply faded into obscurity. I can read and appreciate Pynchon's Mason & Dixon - which, much like this, takes place in the latter half of the 18th century - because Pynchon still writes for a modern audience's preconceptions. With Sterne, I'm out of my depths; too many of the HOBBY-HORSES (always in upper-case), social memes and authorities he makes fun of are completely unknown to me - not to mention that the style he parodies is almost unreadable at times. It's like... imagine someone 200 years from now trying to make sense of Hot Shots! while Top Gun has long since been (rightfully) forgotten.

But I digress - this, of course, isn't Sterne's fault, he was writing for his time. But what remains of Tristram Shandy does tend to seem like one single joke stretched out over 615 pages - the joke being that he smugly keeps derailing his own story, mocking the reader's (and critics') expectations of it and gleefully even his own ability to tell it. Stuff like that is fun once, twice or even half a dozen times, but eventually you just want to smack him and tell him that all of that stopped being cute about 83 chapters ago.

Yes, it's occasionally very funny. Yes, it's occasionally still quite relevant, both on the nature of literature and the human condition - especially in the many hilarious exchanges between Tristram's father (rational, experienced man of science) and uncle (naive theoretical believer in love - and soldier). There are some nice turns of phrase that I need to write down for posterity:

On literature:
Writing, when properly managed (as you may be sure I think mine is) is but a different name for conversation. As no one, who knows what he is about in good company, would venture to talk all;--so no author, who understands the just boundaries of decorum and good-breeding, would presume to think all: The truest respect which you can pay to the reader's understanding, is to halve this matter amicably, and leave him something to imagine, in his turn, as well as yourself.

On... renewable energy sources, I shit you not, this is 1760 and it reads like a Greenpeace manifesto:
if the wind only served,--but would be excellent good husbandry to make use of the winds, which cost nothing, and which eat nothing, rather than horses, which (the devil take 'em) both cost and eat a great deal.

For that very reason, replied my father, 'Because they cost nothing, and because they eat nothing,'--the scheme is bad;--it is the consumption of our products, as well as the manufactures of them, which gives bread to the hungry, circulates trade,--brings in money, and supports the value of our lands;--and tho', I own, if I was a Prince, I would generously recompense the scientifick head which brought forth such contrivances;--yet I would as peremptorily suppress the use of them.
On his own inability to tell a straight story:
I believe in my conscience I intercept many a thought which heaven intended for another man.

&c &c &c &c. But I digress. I'm glad I read Tristram Shandy; I'm glad I won't have to read it again. It's not bad, but the law of diminishing returns kicks in around page 200 and after then it's all uphill. This cock and bull story ends on a rather groanworthy pun regarding the male reproductive organs and male cows; I call bullshit - but at least Sterne's a good bullshitter.



Blogger Spectatia said...

Interesting digressions – yours, that is.

3:59 em  
Blogger katafon said...

Man tackar, man tackar. Har man tagit sig igenom en sån här bok måste man liksom försöka förklara varför... :-)

9:58 fm  

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