Ephreak Title

Monday, January 15, 2007

Alas, poor Tristram!

I (we) have come across many wonderful books during these years, but few of them are so unfairly disregarded as Tristram Shandy. Yes, I own it is nowadays considered one of the most brilliant of all English masterpieces. However, the radical gap that exists between the academic world and the average reader makes this book, paradoxically, a pure "forgotten classic".

May this short introduction to a brief study of the book that we did last year serve as a presentation of what Tristram Shandy offers the reader. Sorry about any possible language mistakes or references to further sections, we are human.



There are only a few occasions in life in which one is faced with a book of the characteristics of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. Strikingly famous in its time but not fully understood until the arrival of modernism, this work by Laurence Sterne has left such a deep mark in English literature, that the styles of some of the most praised writers of modern times (James Joyce, for example), have been traced back to it.

Sterne dared to experiment with the novel and its mechanisms even before it was completely established, making use of the young conventions of the genre in the way his genius demanded (which, by the bye, was not in the least a common way). It would be unfair, then, to take for granted the hard work of constructing a story out of a hundred of them: the magic of Tristram Shandy (from now on, TS) lies in its depiction of human nature through the contrast among its eccentric characters. A picture that readers get by themselves, making an unconscious exercise of abstraction over the book.

It is almost impossible, when trying to analyse this work properly, to give an account of its plot. How to explain what it is about? How to summarise? How to select? How to decide what is important, and what is not? In fact, adopting this kind of approach would not only be useless, but even offensive to the spirit of the book. It could be possible to summarize what is told in each volume, but after putting it together we would realise that we have no coherent structure. And yet, TS has a story. It has a structure and every digression is there for a purpose. How is it then that it is impossible to be seized and written down?

Although we understand that it is not always essential to take into account the life of the author to understand a book (it is to analyse it, though), in this case it was completely unavoidable. Sterne’s own experience is utterly printed on every letter of TS, distributing his personality, his opinions, and his spirit among the characters. Therefore, we consider a biography vital in order to understand this book. The numerous literary borrowings are only to be apprehended with scholar guidance, although in some cases they are dispensable. A good knowledge of the historical and cultural context is desirable, however, if the reader wants to understand all the social and personal allusions scattered by Sterne throughout the text.

This witty clergyman succeeded, after all, in getting himself a place of honour in English literature. In fact, TS has become a work of major influence and a complete classic, like Sterne’s beloved Don Quixote, with which it shares the characteristic of being one of those books which everybody assures to have read, but few actually do. And, as it happens with Don Quixote, it is a great shame, because many would be surprised of the opportunity they have been missing.

TS was not published all at once, but in nine different volumes that Sterne released from 1759 to 1767. The writer intended at first to issue two volumes each year, but his delicate health prevented him from doing it. Volumes VII and VIII are not published until 1765, three years after the previous release. The last volume was brought out alone in 1767, soon before Sterne’s death.

Whether the author concluded the book, it is still debated (see Wayne C. Booth, Did Sterne Complete Tristram Shandy?), but it is probable that he would have released more volumes if he had lived longer. Indeed, Sterne wrote to Hall-Stevenson in 1766: ‘at present I am in my peaceful retreat, writing the ninth volume of Tristram---I shall publish but one this year, and the next I shall begin a new work of four volumes [note: he refers to A Sentimental Journey, of which he only wrote two volumes], which, when finish’d, I shall continue Tristram with fresh spirit’.

TS is undoubtedly a work worth reading, and a brilliant portrait not only of Sterne’s time society, but also of his huge amount of wit and judgement, which he defended so fiercely all along his life, never giving up his eccentric reasoning and character. Sterne loved Tristram because he was both his creature and a literary instrument to show his opinions. We will try, consequently, to reflect on Tristram Shandy with the help of Sterne… and vice versa.


Believe me, you have to read it.

No, really. I'm serious.


Have a nice day.

2 Comments:

Blogger sham_rock said...

It is a shame I cannot give any particularly relevant comment on this wonderful introduction to TS, but unfortunatelly I HAVE NOT read the book.

So I beg your pardon.

Meanwhile, what I can do is to congratule you - again - on having done this superb text :)

I have an outstanding issue with TS :)

12:36 PM  
Blogger Soldier of Fortune said...

Thank you very much, pal ;-)

P.D.: This may result self-satisfied...
P.D.2: Quentin, where are you?

1:25 PM  

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