Saturday, July 30, 2016

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


Opening Passage:

I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me; had they duly consider'd how much depended upon what they were then doing;—that not only the production of a rational Being was concerned in it, but that possibly the happy formation and temperature of his body, perhaps his genius and the very cast of his mind;—and, for aught they knew to the contrary, even the fortunes of his whole house might take their turn from the humours and dispositions which were then uppermost;—Had they duly weighed and considered all this, and proceeded accordingly,—I am verily persuaded I should have made a quite different figure in the world, from that in which the reader is likely to see me.

Summary: Tristram Shandy's life is filled with mishaps, and four, in particular, rule his fate. Tristram's father, being of philosophical temperament, had (like many an early modern philosopher) turned his attention to the best way to educate children, and concluded that there were certain basic things that were essential to a successful life. First, the animal spirits and humors must be properly balanced at conception; second, a successful man must have a large and attractive nose; and third, he must have an auspicious name, like Trismegistus, and not a name that will be a burden on him, like Tristram. Alas, at the time his parents were conceiving him, his mother suddenly asked his father whether he had wound the clock; and when he was born, his nose was crushed by forceps; and the maid and his mother got the name mixed up, and so he was christened Tristram. The fourth mishap occurred when he was accidentally circumcised due to the forgetfulness of the chambermaid.

The work is, as one might expect, both bawdy and satirical all the way through; one can see everywhere Sterne's taking of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century thought to an extreme and he never passes up a sexual innuendo if he can repeat it into the ground. Fully appreciating the satire requires, I think, having shared the same background reading as Sterne. There is no need for this with the bawdy jokes, although they get to be a bit wearing after a while. Where the book excels is in characterization. Every character is vividly unique -- Walter Shandy, Tristram's mother, Uncle Toby, Corporal Trim, Yorick (Sterne's own stand-in), and many of the secondary characters. MrsD noted that there was a Theatre Royal radio drama from the 1950s based on the book. Without the bawdy and with only a limited timeframe, it is not at all like the book. But it makes an excellent tribute to the charm of Sterne's Uncle Toby, a former soldier so gentle that he literally would not hurt a fly:

The work can be seen as satirizing any pretension of realism on the part of a novel. If we actually wrote up your life as a novel, what would it really include? A lot of bickering over extraordinary silly topics, a lot of obsessing over trivial hobby-horses, a lot of distractions, a lot of digressions, a lot of time doing nothing worth narrating; ridiculous embarrassments, ridiculous plans, failures to attend to matters of importance for ridiculous reasons. And, most of all, ridiculous opinions, in endless supply, the human brain being a sort of opinion-factory, producing ten opinions a minute on every subject under the sun. One of the mottos Sterne puts on the title page of some of the volumes is from Epictetus's Enchiridion: "We are bothered with opinions about things, not by things themselves." In The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, we get very little of the actual life of Tristram; but we have endless opinions from everyone, and it is the endless variety of opinions that give interest to the snippets of action.

To the limited extent one can say that Tristram Shandy is 'about' anything, it can be said to be about the physical experience of writing and reading books. Sterne revels in the physical aspects of a book, giving us a black page as an elegy, a blank page as a portrait, a marbled page as a description of the book itself, various illustrative lines, shifts of font. He plays with the seriality of a book by displacing and misplacing parts of it, and its episodic character by using chapter divisions as punctuation. He plays at length with the fact that books are in part made up out of other books. And writing a book is not neglected, either. As Walter Shandy thinks of the conception of a child, so a writer tends to treat the conception of a book, planning and trying to get the start of the 'child' just right (Sterne repeatedly mocks the idea of writing according to a plan); just as Walter Shandy thinks a magnificent name essential to success, so people put a great emphasis on the titles of books. No one who has ever had a book seem to become more complicated faster than he or she could write it will fail to recognize the Tristra-paedia -- or Tristram Shandy itself.

Favorite Passage: From Volume I, Chapter XXXVI:

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.

For my own part, I am eternally paying him compliments of this kind, and do all that lies in my power to keep his imagination as busy as my own.

Recommendation: Highly recommended, but you have to be in the mood for most of it.

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