The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman


Read 06/01/2014-20/01/2014

Rating: 4 stars

LibraryThing review

Laurence Sterne‘s convoluted stream of consciousness un-novel and I have history. It’s a book that I kept seeing references to in other works. It was sort of adapted into the film A Cock and Bull Story, about trying to make a film about an impossible book to adapt. Meta!

I first tried to read it when I was in my mid twenties. It irritated me so much that I put it straight back on the shelf after only a few pages.

I tried again in my mid thirties, after I saw A Cock and Bull Story. I wanted to get it so badly. I got to Chapter 12 in Book 1 that time – I know this because that’s where the bookmark still was when I opened it up for my third attempt in my mid forties.

I’m glad that I persisted. Once I had tuned my brain to Sterne’s turn of phrase, I found it a very enjoyable book. It reminded me of Flann O’Brien‘s At Swim Two Birds. There were passages that I struggled with, partly through tiredness while reading them, partly because they were just too nonlinear for my logic driven brain to wrestle with, but the yarn as a whole was a delight. Definitely worth reading.

These are my random jottings.

Five days in

It’s going okay. I’m at Chapter 2 of Book 2 and appreciating the humour and randomness, although sometimes his verbosity still gets on my wick. I think I might actually finish it this time. Maybe in a month?

Things I’ve learnt during this exhilerating week are: reading the book while standing up aids concentration; reading the book while consuming wine doesn’t.

January 11 2014

I am into Book 3! I made good progress last night. I think my reading brain has attuned itself to Sterne’s 18th Century style. Standing up in the kitchen, waiting for my tea to brew, I read Chapters 8 & 9 of Book 2 and laughed out loud at Tristram taking on his imagined critics and at Obediah’s encounter with Dr. Slop. In Book 2 I also enjoyed the interplay between Tristram’s father and uncle. There are elements of Dickens to the development of the characters, or should I say it’s possible that Dickens’ style of character development might owe something to Sterne? I’m guessing, I don’t know if Dickens read Tristram Shandy.

I’ve spent the morning reading Book 3. Here are some observations:

Book 3 Chapter 20 “The Author’s Preface”:
I noticed a similarity to Akutagawa’s Green Onions – the narrator, as observer of his characters, allows those characters to dictate the progress of the story. So Akutagawa is permitted a digression while the girl in the story is reading a book. She is momentarily inert and he doesn’t need to document her actions for the purpose of the story’s progress. Similarly, Tristram Shandy is able to finally write his preface, a third of the way into the story, only when his father and uncle fall asleep, Dr Slop and the midwife are with his mother, and Trim too is otherwise engaged.
Sterne handles it better than Akutagawa. The arch tone in Akutagawa’s story doesn’t feel natural – there is an awkwardness about it, as though Akutagawa is uncomfortable with the trope he is forcing himself to use. Tristram’s asides in Sterne’s novel are part of its flow. We are encouraged to believe that we are participating in the act of writing a novel with him, rather than reading a final, edited version. We are immersed in the flow of his thoughts – not quite stream of consciousness, because there is a sense of structure present, more that Tristram, in following his planned trajectory, is frequently interrupted in his own chain of thoughts. I’ve been inducting a new member of staff this week and have experienced something similar – I had my plan of action to introduce her to our systems and procedures, but kept going off at tangents when something interesting but not on the plan popped up in the flow.
The more I read this book, the more I can’t understand why I found it so difficult to get on with the first two times I tried to read it. It’s quite a book, and is making me wish we had a culture that encouraged discourse and exchange of ideas as a positive thing for everyone, rather than wrapping it in elitism, the preserve of the liberal intelligentsia – even though I know that in Sterne’s day it was an even more limited preserve belonging to the male upper classes and gentry who went to university and discoursed in coffee houses and clubs. (Wild generalisation!)

Book 3 Chapters 34-36:
Long noses. Tristram’s father’s library of texts on noses. I’m sometimes struck by the coincidences and similarities between books I read in succession. The collection of short stories by Akutagawa that I just read includes the story of the priest known as Naigu, who has an inconveniently long nose. And, across these three chapters of Book 3, we learn of Tristram’s father’s obsession with nose length. Also in the Akutagawa collection are stories (I think more than one, I might be mistaken) that make reference to Don Quixote. And throughout Tristram Shandy there are references to Cervantes and Don Quixote. Which makes me wonder whether Akutagawa read and was influenced by Tristram Shandy. Just an idle observation.

On with Book 4 later, I think!

January 14 2014

Started Book 5 this evening. Book 4 had a feeling of melancholy about it, what with the frustrations Tristram’s father has to contend with. Although there is still humour in there.

I found Chapter 1 of Book 5 very different to the wit and whimsy that had gone before. Quite surreal and almost feels like it was written by a different person, or by a person in a different headspace to previously. It felt angrier. This was the first chapter I felt the need to read all the notes for, and I still don’t understand it! Or rather, I don’t quite understand its purpose. I am very tired today, though.

Progress has slowed due to it no longer being the weekend!

January 17 2014

Nothing much to say about Book 6. I don’t know why. It was diverting enough, I suppose.

Book 7 opens with a quote from Pliny which my rusty school Latin tells me says “This isn’t an excursion, this is the work itself.” Oh dear, then, because I prefer the diversions of Tristram’s father best (he’s a sound man) and then the diversions of his uncle (although his hobby horse is less engaging for me, I like Toby as a character) than the work itself.

I’m at Chapter 14 so far and not enjoying the disjointed tale of Tristram’s attempt the flee Death by travelling through France and Italy to Jaffa.

I’m on a train, though, and the temperature is cranked up high, so I’m finding it hard to concentrate.

January 20 2014

I finished it! In 14 days! I’m thrilled. I’m really glad that I persevered. It has made me think that one day I might tackle Ulysses. One day!

3 thoughts on “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

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