Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne

Several years ago, I embarked on what I hoped would be a six month project–reading Laurence Sterne’s wonderful 18th century novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.  One of the first novels written in English, Tristram Shandy is a great shambling mound of a mess.  Sterne’s stated intent is to tell the entire life and all of the views held by one man, Tristram Shandy.  But, within a few pages of the book, the narrator becomes so lost in digressions beginning with his own conception that I suspected he would never get to his own birth.   It took several hundred pages but he eventually did.  

My intention was to post a review of one section of the book each month from January to June on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B.  The project ended up taking an entire year.  This is fine, in my mind, because it too seven years for Mr. Laurence to write an publish the book which first ran in sections sometime with several years between issues.  

What follows is a shambling mound of comments about several sections from Tristram Shandy.  Unfortunately, over the years it has taken me to migrate my old reviews to this new blog, I lost a couple of Tristram posts.  What’s left is here.  I hope it’s enough to convince you to give the book a go.  If nothing else, you owe it to yourself to read the chapter on chapters.  It’s a very funny book, still funny after nearly 250 years.


Somehow I missed it.

I think Tristram was born during this section.  I was so engrossed in the long digression about the importance of big noses to the success of a man that I didn’t even realize Tristram had been born until Dr. Slop entered the scene and admitted that his forceps had grabbed the baby’s head incorrectly crushing an otherwise perfectly fine, large nose.

Poor Tristram.  Cursed at birth to undergo a life of mediocrity like all the small nosed Shandy men who proceeded him.

For the longest time I was sure Mr. Sterne was talking about something other than noses entirely. This digression began with the revelation that Tristram’s grandmother was able to secure an annual income of 300 pounds in spite of her meager dowry of only 2000  once she pointed out the great sacrifice she was making by marrying a man with a nose as small as the one Tristram’s grandfather had.

Come on.  Are we really talking about noses here?

But, by the end of Book III Tristram had reviewed  the philosophical texts regarding noses in his fathers extensive library which all point to the same unavoidable conclusion that a big nose is necessary if a man is to emerge a victor in life’s struggles.  The texts Tristram cites are so convincingly real I’m still tempted to verify their existence on Wikipedia, but I suspect Mr. Sterne is duping me.  If you’re in the know, please don’t tell me.

In the end, I think Mr. Sterne is really talking about noses, which makes the joke so much better.  Leading us on like that, by the nose.  Making us suspect something prurient, then leaving us shamefaced in the presence of  innocents, like the Shandys, bemoaning Tristram’s small nose and trying to cover our own embarrassment.  How could we think such a thing was going on?  Shame on me.

Well done, Mr. Sterne.  May I have another?

Life is Faster than Art:  Laurence Sterne’s novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy promised to be an all-encompassing account of an English gentleman’s life as well as his views on issues of the day.  But the narrator goes astray even before the story begins, running off on one tangent followed by another.  I’m just about halfway through the book and pleased to report that Tristram has, at last, been born.

In chapter 13 of book IV, Tristram confesses this central problem of his novel–he is now one year older than he was when he began writing it, and still has not finished covering the events and opinions of his first day on earth.

–was every day of my life to be as busy a day as this–And why not?–and the transactions and opinions of it to take up as much description–And for what reason should they be cut short? as at this rate I should just live 364 times faster than I should write–It must follow, an’ please your worships, that the more I write, the more I shall have to write–and consequently, the more your worships will have to read.

The more I write, the more I shall have to write and the more you shall have to read.

Stick that in your post modern pipe-not-a-pipe and smoke it!

A Chapter About Chapters:  If the narrator revealing that he cannot write fast enough to outpace his own life making it impossible for him to record everything he has set out to record isn’t post modern enough for you, book IV contains a chapter devoted to the nature and importance of chapters.  The narrator is in favor of them.  It should be noted that his own chapters  range from many pages to a single sentence.  Take, for instance book four, chapter five reprinted below in its entirety:

Is this a fit time, said my father to himself, to talk of Pensions and Grenadiers?

This is actually a very funny chapter, taken in context, but I would like to point out that if current copyright law applied to Tristram Shandy, thankfully it does not as the book has long been in the public domain, the above quote might  be in violation of it.  According to my understanding of current copyright law in the United States, it is permissible to quote source material in a review.  However publication of an entire chapter typically requires permission from the copyright holder.

Another chapter is devoted to a conversation between Tristram’s father and his brother, Uncle Toby, which the two have while descending a staircase. The conversation is so intricately described that it must be broken up into a second chapter as soon as the two gentlemen reach the first landing.  The narrator seizes this opportunity to discuss the nature and importance of chapters, which he feels provide a needed break for the senses, a chance for the mind to briefly rest before continuing, in this case, down the staircase.

A Big Nose, The Wrong Name and Farewell for Now:  There’s also a wonderful story within the story by the great Swerinbergus about a stranger with a nose so big that when he comes to town all of the female members of the local religious orders are unable to sleep so obsessed are they with touching the enormous proboscis to determine whether or not it is real.    Book IV concludes with the unfortunate mix-up at the christening wherein the narrator is named Tristram instead of Tistmegistus as his father wished.   I suppose the reasons why this is so terrible are self-evident so I need not explain them.

In the end, Tristram promises the reader that he will return in  twelve-months time with another volume in his story, should he survive the vile cough he is suffering from, but not before saying his farewell:

Was I left, like Sancho Pansa, to choose my kingdom, it should not be maritime–or a kingdom of blacks to make a penny of;–no, it should be a kingdom of hearty laughing subjects; And as the bilious and more saturnine passions, by creating disorders in the blood and humours, have as bad an influence, I see, upon the body politic as body natural–and as nothing but a habit of virture can fully govern those passions, and subject them to reason–I should add to my prayer–that God would give my subjects grace to be as wise as they are merry; and then should I be the happiest monarch, and they the happiest people under heaven.

Be wise and laugh.  Good advice.

In Book V,  when Tristram’s Uncle Toby needs an additional piece of artillery for his miniature re-enactment of the Battle of Namor where his groin was grievously wounded,  his servant Trim removes the lead weight from an upstairs window sash and makes it into a canon.  Shortly thereafter, young Tristram has a sudden and urgent need to relieve himself.  Tristram’s nurse, unable to locate the camber pot, is forced to improvise a solution in order to avoid an accident.  She opens the window and encourages Tristram to commit an act of liquid defenestration, in the midst of which the window comes slamming down inadvertently circumcising young Tristram.

It’s not as funny as it sounds.

I was expecting an expertly written scene of high comedy, like those in the previous books.  Instead, the famous window accident serves as a Deus ex machina   to reunite Lord Shandy, Toby, Trim and Dr. Slop who all wait in the same downstairs room they shared for the 250 pages they spent waiting for Tristram’s birth in books one through four.  Now, while they wait for the women of the house to take care of the current crises, they resume their rambling discussion of all things, literally all things, as Lord Shandy has begun work on the Tristra-pedia, a book collecting his thoughts and opinions on everything of importance.  He hopes his Trista-pedia will provide an education for  Tristram who is still far too young to read.

Young Tristram who now must face the world with a name much shorter than the one his father wanted him to have, Tristmagistus, a nose much too small for a Shandy due to Dr. Slop’s incompetent use of the newly invented forceps and, well, another appendage made shorter than God intended.  This new diminishment does not bother Lord Shandy much.  Since plenty of great and powerful men were circumcised, they need not worry about young Tristram.  It will probably come in handy when he visits the pyramids of Egypt.  Considering how upset he was when Tristram’s nose was shortened, his carefree attitude towards circumcision caught me off guard.  It’s actually pretty funny.

That an encyclopedia has now become the book within a book that is supposed to be encyclopedic itself, is genius on Mr. Sterne’s part.  Tristram’s father is no more capable of completing this task than Tristram is.  For example, his father never did get around to writing the entry on windows, so Tristram eventually wrote it for him.

Tristram Shandy was originally published in several volumes over a period of ten years.  I felt that book V spent so much time getting all of the major players back into the room to continue their discussion that several years must have passed since the publication of book IV, but it turns out the two are just one year apart.  Still, Mr. Sterne did come up with a good way to get back into the grove.  I’m looking forward to book VI.

It has occurred to me that Tristram had to give up a small piece of his “artillery” so his Uncle Toby could have another cannon.  Add this to the nature of Toby’s mysterious wound and to all that business about the importance of big noses and how upset Lord Shandy was to find his son’s name shortened.   That’s really pretty naughty stuff.  But am I reading Tristram Shandy or is it reading me?  Don’t answer that.

Reading all of Lawrence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy is one of my goals this year.  I’m trying to do one book a month, which means I am currently two months behind.  So look for another Tristram Shandy before the end of July.  I’ve some catching up to do.

It took me almost a year longer than I originally planned, but I’ve finished The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, by Laurence Sterne.

I loved it.

I’ve seldom had so much fun with classic literature.

And I’m pleased to say that Mr. Sterne saved his best for last.

The final two books, probably the most popular sections in the novel, concern Uncle Toby’s romance with the Widow Wadman who lives as tenant-for-life next-door to the Shandy estate.  Mrs. Wadman has spent the length of the novel watching the growth of Toby’s large scale model of the Battle of Namur where he received his groin wound.  Over time, she has become attracted to Toby, both to the man and to the estate he shares with his brother.  Tristram, our narrator, speculates that she may still want children as she is still young; the reader soon understands that whether she wants children or not, she clearly wants both romance and sex.

One day she overhears Toby and his man-servant Trim discussing which is more painful, a knee injury or a groin injury.  Afterwards, she is understandably interested in the extent of Uncle Toby’s wound.  She meets with him in the scenes that follow and finds Toby is happy to discuss his wound and more than willing so show her exactly where he was wounded.  He takes her to the large scale model of the Battle of Namur, breaks out his measuring equipment and pinpoints the exact location where he was standing when the bullet struck his groin.

Widow Wadman is understandably frustrated.

The end of the novel threw me for something of a loop.  Sir Tristram is expounding on a grand point of philosophy to his brother Toby, Yorick and Dr. Slop, as is his wont, when Obediah comes rushing in to complain about Sir Tristram’s bull.  Sir Tristram’s old bull was supposed to sire a calf for Obediah’s cow, but the time has come and the cow has not calved, so suspicion has fallen on the bull.  It can’t be the bull’s fault, swears Sir Tristram, because he goes about his business with grave expression thereby proving his capability.  It’s must be the bull’s fault, says Dr. Slop for the cow was hairy at the time and therefore in heat.  What’s this story all about, asks Mrs. Shandy.

“A Cock and a Bull, said Yorick–And one of the best of its kind, I ever heard.”

I had to look it up.

A cock and bull story is a wildly fanciful tale that strays from subject to subject.  The phrase may have come from Stony Stratford, England where there used to be two rival inns, The Cock and The Bull.  At each inn, people would gather and tell boastful tales that often made fun of those who frequented the rival inn.

That in the novel’s final line Mr. Sterne dismisses the entire preceding 526 pages as so much nonsense seems fitting to me.  That he does so in a  way that references breeding, Toby’s war wound, and  all that stuff about the importance of big noses from earlier in the book is just a little bit brilliant.  A book like Tristram Shandy can’t really have a proper ending; it simply has to stop.

As it is, it’s a very good stop.

4 thoughts on “Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne

  1. I love this book. I read it in grad school in the 1980s and then started rereading it this fall.
    There’s a movie version of it, which I don’t recommend, it was fairly dreadful, but it made me laugh every time they cut to Tristram’s mother screaming in childbirth, still not having him, and my 12-year-old-daughter, who had just been told that we didn’t watch horror movies at our house, stomped down the stairs after she had been put to bed and was indignant that we were not only watching a horror movie (the screams) but laughing at it!

    1. I actually loved the movie version, though I saw it before reading the book. I thought the way it rambled around from topic to topic, scene to scene only going back to the book itself not that much, was a great way to adapt a book that’s basically unfilmable really.

  2. There’s something for everyone here, isn’t there? I have to go back and reread it. It’s sort of made for dipping in and out of, but perhaps I can do more of an extended effort and read it all in one go.

    1. I found reading it in chunks worked very well. I think reading it all at once would be a challenge. I also think you don’t really have to set out trying to read the whole thing. You can just read a section or two, have a good time and move on with your life if you want.

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