Tristram Shandy is a classic of English Literature, published serially 1759-67, but very few people have read it. I was forced to read it for my ‘A’ level syllabus at school between 1974 and 1976. My paperback copy still has the school sticker inside it with the English master’s signature issuing it to me. It was never returned, and I have treasured this battered copy ever since. This is an example of the good effects of forcing young people to do ‘worthy’ things, which they would never be motivated to do themselves. I loved the book, and it has formed part of my mind, or world view.
I picked it up again at Oxford, as part of my course on English literature, and wrote one of my best essays ever on it. During the first reading at school I read it from cover to cover, and found it tedious in places, but appreciated the humour and quirkiness. At university I appreciated better the brilliance of the narration and the profundity of its statement.
Now, so many years later, I have returned to it, via references to the mysterious Hermes Trismegistus in Edgar Wind’s ‘Pagan mysteries’ (see earlier review). Walter Shandy (the father of the fictional author) is most interested in ancient philosophy and talks at length about Trismegistus (the thrice greater magus). He wants his new-born son to be christened after this great philosopher. Walter thinks that names are extremely important in determining the fortunes of a man, so to name his son after Trismegistus would be the apogee of felicity, in his view. Walter also inveighs at length against unlucky names, such as Tristram, which originates from the French word for sad.
It is typical of the world of the book that he tells the maid to tell the parson the name he wants, but it gets forgotten and muddled by the maid and the parson, and the baby is irrevocably christened Tristram. The father is devastated, and Tristram has yet another blow of bad fortune.
The book is about the muddles and misfortunes of human life, especially those arising from the difficulties of communication. Without question, Sterne has Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ in mind throughout the writing of this book. He has a parson named Yorick, and when he dies, his epitaph is “Alas poor Yorick!”. Sterne then has two totally black pages printed in his book to denote mourning. A sea of ink conveys more sorrow (though ironic) than all the words he could think of.
Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ is partly about purposes being diverted and delayed. As Hamlet himself says in his famous soliloquy:
“This conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action.”
This is an apposite description of ‘Tristram Shandy’, in my mind. Sterne discusses conscience several times – such as the sermon which Corporal Trim reads out in the parlour about conscience not being a reliable guide to morality. All the characters in the book suffer from obsessions (‘Hobby-horses’ as Sterne calls them), that lead them astray from their purposes. Walter is always thinking too much about books and philosophy, and never gets down to anything practical, such as mending the parlour door. Uncle Toby is always thinking about battles and fortifications, from his experiences in the wars in Flanders. The author himself, however, suffers the most from the burden of conscience, since he feels compelled to describe and explain everything in immense detail, and so the telling of his life and opinions turns awry and is never completed; in fact, it never gets really started.
Many readers may be put off by the requirement to read nigh on 600 pages and never get into a consistent or complete story, and to be denied the life and opinions of Tristram Shandy. I would urge you to go with the flow. Flow with Sterne and enjoy his shining sense of humour and immense intelligence. Although the book tells us far more about Walter and Toby Shandy (father and uncle respectively), indirectly we receive a profound insight into Tristram Shandy himself. We may not learn much about his adult life, but we understand his mind and opinions better than you can derive from any book (until ‘Ulysses’).
The author is Sterne, but he is pretending to be Tristram Shandy. So the decisions by the author as to what tells us, and how he tells it, reflects the cast of mind of Tristram, who is bursting to tell us everything. There is a joy in life, in reading and writing itself that oozes from the pages, so that we feel elevated and frustrated at the same time. The narrator has such a gift of the gab (maybe influenced by being born in Ireland in 1713) that he can happily and engagingly waffle on about anything, whether it is sleep, button-holes, midwives, names, fortifications, painting, death, noses, hobby-horses, memory or sexual impotence.
Do not be mislead. Although the book is (seemingly) chaotic, and has no conventional story to bind it together, it is full of stories. All these subsidiary stories (which the author is conscience-driven to tell us) nudge out the purported biography of Tristram Shandy. If we go with the flow, we can engage in delightful miniature stories.
We are told why the Parson Yorick rides round on ‘a meek-spirited jade of a broken-winded horse’ and why he sponsors a widow to become the local midwife (the two are linked) – and this parson is the one who mis-christens Tristram, and the midwife is the one who incompetently attends upon his birth.
We are told how Uncle Toby receives a wound in his groin during a siege, and how this leads him into digging up the bowling green to play battle games (the two are linked), and how, in turn, this leads him into a massive misunderstanding with the Widow Wadman who wants to marry him.
The book itself starts with a famous (or infamous) chapter about Tristram being conceived, and his father’s ejaculations of sperm being interrupted by his mother asking whether the clock has been wound up! Quite logically, where else would an author start the story of his life except to describe the circumstances of his conception. This involves us from the start in a complicated explanation of the link between the clock and his parents having sex, and why he was born in Yorkshire rather than London and so forth.
The biggest digression concerns the sudden appearance of Death at the author’s door, and his escape to France. So a whole volume (of the nine volumes) is devoted to a journey around France.
The literary tradition of digressions and learning run mad was already long and distinguished by Sterne’s time, and he took it to its revolutionary extreme. His precursors include Burton’s ‘Anatomy of Melancholy’, Cervantes’ ‘Don Quixote’ and Rabelais’ ‘Gargantua and Pantagruel’. Stern carries on the tradition of satire, humour, obsession and extravagance, raising it to one of the highest levels in the English language.
The book explores the acts of writing and reading themselves in a profound way that has excited modern critics. The author frequently addresses the reader (as was common in Eighteenth Century literature), but takes it into a dialogue, and an admission of inadequacy, appealing for assistance; there is none of the omniscient, magisterial author here. The author is a character in his own novel. For instance he writes “Now in order to clear up the mist which hangs upon these three pages, I must endeavour to be as clear as possible myself. Rub your hands thrice across your foreheads – blow your noses – cleanse your emunctories – sneeze, my good people! – God bless you – Now give me all the help you can.”
So, you see, the reader becomes an active participant in the book too. Or are we being tricked and played upon. Here the author is being bossy and over-familiar. It is an illusion to be told we can help him. We can only read on, frustrated and intrigued at the same time. The sliding away from the story, the exploration of side-alleys of fusty learning, the backward shifts in time – all these frustrations become the book itself. We end the book with a sense of real life and the existentialist dilemmas of man far stronger than the artificial world of a neatly ordered novel.