It’s long, it’s comic, and it’s fictional, but beyond that, this work defies categorization.
As I recall, the first I ever heard of this book was when it was mentioned in Mindful Pleasures: Essays on Thomas Pynchon, a book I bought in June 1980 as part of my passionate youthful desire to learn all I could about Pynchon and Gravity’s Rainbow. It contains an essay by Edward Mendelson entitled “Gravity’s Encyclopedia”, proposing a category of fiction called “encyclopedic narrative”—works intended to present a near-exhaustive portrait of the world at a certain time. The works that can be thus categorized, according to Mendelson, are few. In the Western tradition, at least, they amount to Dante’s Divine Comedy, Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Goethe’s Faust, Melville’s Moby-Dick, Joyce’s Ulysses, and Gravity’s Rainbow. Apart from these there are some near misses, including, according to Mendelson, Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, which he terms a “mock-encyclopedia”. It occurs to me now that this label might put Shandy in an even more rarefied category, one which it likely shares with no other work.
I next encountered it in Wayne Booth’s The Rhethoric Of Fiction, a copy of which I got in June 1981. Booth’s book, devoted to studying how fiction is narrated, spends a fair amount of time with Tristram Shandy, since Sterne’s work seemed to bend, change, or invent so many rules of narration. It’s a book that’s largely about the writing of that same book, which never really gets written, even though you’re reading it.
Curious, I got myself a copy of the Penguin English Library edition in 1982 and read it. I recall that I enjoyed it quite well, but wasn’t able to make much of its strangeness. For to call it a novel is possibly a misnomer; it’s a long discourse that sets out to tell a story, but never really succeeds, because the narrator—Tristram Shandy, whose story it is supposed to be—spends so much time in digressions of one kind or another. He begins his tale not with his birth, but with his conception, reckoning that the course of his unfortunate, misadventurous life can be put down to his father’s distraction while in the act of begetting him. For at the crucial moment, Shandy’s mother asks his father, “have you not forgot to wind up the clock?”—a monthly chore that Mr. Shandy always took care of on the same day as his marital relations, for the sake of convenience. This contretemps, Tristram Shandy believes, set the tone for a life that has not run true.
And the first example he gives of this is an account of the birth resulting from that (mis)conception. The account is far from straightforward, occupying a quarter of the book, or maybe a third, but in the course of it a deliciously rich picture is drawn, or largely implied, of this 18th-century English family. Gradually the people and circumstances come into view, and they are quirky, original, vivid, and funny. The main characters are Tristram’s father Walter, a minor country gentleman with a quick temper and a restless, eccentric intellect, and Walter’s humble, compassionate brother Toby, invalided from the army with an injury to his groin. Also prominent is Corporal Trim, Toby’s fervently loyal manservant, who was also invalided from military service with a knee injury. A halo of other characters surrounds this central trio: Shandy’s mother, Dr. Slop who aids in delivering the boy, the vicar Yorick who is actually thought to descend from the deceased court jester at Elsinore (and who is also thought to represent Sterne himself, who was a cleric), and the widow Wadman who is in love with Uncle Toby. Each of these characters—along with others—forms a vivid impression, even though none of them gets to hold the stage for any sustained length of time, not at one stretch, anyway.
In short, the whole episode is a balls-up from start to finish: the young boy is misbegotten, misborn, and misnamed, all due to various peculiar chains of causation relating to the quirks of the people involved. And all this is narrated with many detours into tangential topics and episodes. When a sermon on conscience falls out of a book on fortifications, where it seemingly has been slipped just to keep it flat, the group has Corporal Trim read it aloud for their entertainment—and the sermon is given in full, with interjections by the hearers. This type of seemingly random inclusion is typical of the novel.
But is it random? No matter how loose, playful, and wayward the book may be, there is the guiding genius of the author who has chosen to place these nuggets in his text. The narrator continually promises to explain things later or to elaborate on certain subjects in future chapters, and sometimes he makes good on these promises, sometimes not. The whole thing is a complex tapestry that is unfinished and has no hope of being finished and never did have any hope of being finished—just like life.
As best as I can make out, the novel has four large sections: Tristram Shandy’s birth, some episodes of his boyhood (just two or three of these), a travelogue of being in France as an adult, and the story of Uncle Toby’s “amours” with the widow Wadman. That’s it. It doesn’t add up to a coherent whole. It’s what the narrator managed to get out.
But I’m conscious here that I’m not doing the book justice. I laughed out loud several times while reading it—something that doesn’t happen often. And Sterne’s characters are among the most vivid and memorable in all of literature. They’re funny because they’re the way people really are. Walter Shandy is continually irritated by the squeaking hinge on the parlor door and continually resolves to fix it—and never does. Sound familiar? Incidentally, that faulty hinge is responsible for crucial information leaking from the parlor to the below-stairs staff, another example of the interconnectedness of everything, both in the book and beyond.
But what struck me more than anything was that Sterne, unlike most comedians, is able to portray love. He sees—and presents—its ridiculous side, but he does not regard love as something that is itself ridiculous. Walter and Toby Shandy have a deep love for each other that they’re not shy about expressing, and the warmth of their hearts radiates from the pages of the book. That warmth can only have come from Sterne’s own heart. Likewise the relationship of Toby and Trim is fundamentally one of love. Trim is devoted to Toby, and Toby repays that devotion with respect, appreciation, and affection. Toby’s “amours” with the widow Wadman are more strictly comic—how could they be otherwise, since Toby acknowledges that he doesn’t “know the right end of a woman from the wrong one”—but even here there is the tender pulse of humanity beating under all.
Many works have been called one-of-a-kind, but if that designation could possibly amount to a category, then I think Tristram Shandy can scarcely be fit even into that, so original is it. Samuel Johnson, holding that “Nothing odd will do long,” said that “Tristram Shandy did not last.” Well, Dr. Johnson, this time you got it wrong. It looks like Shandy’s here for the duration, and we’re all the better for it.
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