Book review History

The Life And Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. Lawrence Sterne (1759)

Tristram Shandy dazzles with linguistic innovation, effervesces with humour ranging from situational to risque, paints portraits with a brush fine but kind, and offers illuminating glimpses into the history of science. But Tristram Shandy, reputedly the world’s first postmodern novel, does not work as a novel.

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In summer 2020 I realised that, though a lifelong avid reader, most of what I’ve read is either British or ancient Greek fiction and drama. I decided to diversify. Last year I commenced what promise to be rewarding acquaintanceships with Goethe, Manu Joseph, Brinda Charry, James Baldwin, and Richard Powers – and also accosted authors I probably shan’t revisit. But when, apropos of nothing, I Googled ‘postmodern novel’ and encountered Tristram Shandy (1759), I was intrigued. Postmodernism’s philosophical roots far predate the 20th century: harking back to Marx and Kant; even to the 2nd-millenium BCE philosophers Socrates roasts in The Republic. But a postmodern novel written in 1759? British or not, this I had to read.

My expectations were low. The only postmodern novel I’d previously attempted was Infinite Jest. Award-winning masterpiece or not, I couldn’t struggle past fifty pages: I found the writing emotionless, the episodes (I peeked ahead) repetitive, the characters cerebral but zombie observers of their own fates, and the humour conspicuously absent.

Tristram Shandy, in contrast, effervesces with humour and good-nature; and with colourful, hearty characters: two key ingredients of a good premodern novel. But, after ploughing halfway through Shandy, I abandoned it. Why?

Short answer: Halfway through, Tristram has just been born.

Long answer: below.

To be fair, Sterne warns the reader early and repeatedly that he has embarked on a vast project (which Sterne’s ill-health prevented him from completing). Only half-jesting, he proposes to churn out several volumes of this book every year for the next twenty years; he claims that a single day’s events furnish him material enough for a volume. Shandy’s sense of humour – spanning from situational to risque; and its series of portraits – outlined with compassion, filled in with vibrant colour – drag the reader along. But eventually I had enough. When you commence a book claiming to be at least partly an autobiography, and halfway through your protagonist has just been born – your expectations, however low, have been tried past endurance.

A reader not expecting an autobiography – or anything resembling a linear narrative – may fare better. These expectations suspended, Shandy’s gifts are multifarious and plentiful. If he’d called this book Miscellania, I might’ve enjoyed it more. (Or I might never have tried reading it. What is in a title?)

Shandy’s narrative, insofar as it exists, is: Tristram Shandy is conceived and born in 18th-century rural England.

Well: he’s trying to get conceived and born. Events keeps interrupting: events between Tristram’s parents when they got married years before Tristram was born; events that befell Tristram’s uncle Toby decades before Tristram was born.

On this wire-thin narrative clothes-hanger, Sterne hangs a dizzying array of events, fables, and developments sweeping his contemporary social and intellectual landscape. Uncle Toby, a retired Captain in the British army, narrates his involvement in the Battle of Namur (1692), where he received a legendary groin wound – which has probably rendered him infertile: though the narrative creates, then slyly avoids, numerous chances to dis/confirm this probability. We learn why Pastor Yorick rides the shabbiest steed since Don Quixote’s Rosinante. (Sterne cites Rabelais and Cervantes as his comic models.) We learn in excruciating detail the impenetrable, prolix legalese of the prenuptial agreement that explains why Tristram was born in the countryside, not in London under the supervision of a metropolitan obstetrician. We witness an ecclesiastical conference convened to discuss the permissibility of altering a Christian name post-baptism.

Shandy offers illuminating glimpses into the history of science. This occurs largely via the transparent device of what Sterne himself calls hobby-horses. Uncle Toby’s hobby-horse is the science of fortification. Tristram’s father has many hobby-horses of his own: including the vital importance of Christian names, and the vital importance of possessing a long broad nose. These hobby-horses afford Sterne endless excuses to display his fluency with contemporary and historical science: from obstetric theories about the causes and consequences of breech births, to theories about the trajectories described by projectiles. To discourse on questions such as: Where in the bidy does the soul reside? Does climate influence character?

A connoisseur of a the history of science will savour the mounds of accurate specialist knowledge, on a spectrum of topics, that Shandy offers in a generous if haphazard buffet.

Shandy is illuminated by observations on human behaviour: generally articulated via incidents, sometimes with aphorisms appended at the end: “Heat in argument is proportionate to want of knowledge.” (The more ignorant we are on a subject, the more passionately we argue about it.) “When, to satisfy a private appetite, it is once resolved that an innocent creature shall be sacrificed – it is easy to pick up sticks from any thicket where it has strayed, to make a fire to offer it up with.” (In this context: When A has decided to destroy B’s reputation – however virtuous B’s life has been – A can always cull some material with which to destroy B’s reputation.) And, one of several observations with which Sterne playfully justifies and even valorises his own rambling style: “A vicious taste has crept into thousands [of readers], of reading straight forwards, more in quest of adventures, than of deep erudition and knowledge.” This deplorable deficit is what, presumably, Shandy aims to correct: a novel which, in the public interest, refuses to be a novel.

Shandy’s relentless linguistic innovation outdistances most writers of any epoch as effortlessly as Achilleus outdistances the tortoise. “My mother could not heroine it quite so much.” “A man who has been Nicodemus’d has small chance of success.” (In Tristram’s father’s hierarchy of Christian names, Nicodemus ranks low: ergo a child cursed with this name is doomed to fail.) Several irreverent anecdotes feature kings and churchmen with their gowns hitched up, squatting bare-bottomed in the water-closet.

But Shandy’s inveterate rambling style defeated me. The whole book is a series of long digressions occasionally and fleetingly revisiting the main narrative. Digressions commence mid-sentence, and continue for several chapters. We return to the narrative to accompany two characters walking down one stairway – and when they reach the landing, we’re off again. Whole chapters are written in French, or Latin, or legalese.

Kudos to Sterne’s erudition – but a readable novel Shandy is not.

Read Tristram Shandy for free on Gutenberg, download a PDF here, or read on Amazon. Consider buying a Kindle copy to save paper.


By Amita Basu

I'm a writer based in Bangalore, India.

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