Author: Laurence Sterne (1713–1768)
Publisher: Wordsworth Editions Limited (2009 edition)
Bought from: NoQ Store
The novel developed as a form of English or Augustan literature in the first half of the 18th century thanks to writers such as Daniel Defoe (1660–1731), Jonathan Swift (1667–1745) and Samuel Richardson (1689–1761). Sterne continued the process with his magnum opus Tristram Shandy although the book did not quite follow the conventions of novels of that period.
Laurence Sterne was born to an English father and Irish mother. His father was in the army and the family moved with his regiment around England and Ireland. After graduating from Cambridge with a Bachelor of Arts (1737), Laurence Sterne became an Anglican clergyman. He obtained a Master of Arts from Cambridge in 1740. In 1759, at the ripe old age of 46 years, he started writing fiction full−time. He wrote only three novels. His first novel The Life and Times of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (published in 9 volumes between 1759 and 1767), is considered one of the greatest comic novels of English literature. It was included in a list of the 100 greatest novels of all time published by the Observer (2003).
What is the story about?
There is no story, only characters! Three characters stand out:
The narrator is Tristram Shandy, “[s]port of small accidents, Tristram Shandy! that thou art, and ever will be!” (Book Three chap 8, p 121). But the main characters are his father Walter and uncle Toby.
Walter Shandy was “a good natural philosopher [and also] something of a moral philosopher too” (Book Two chap 7, p 68). He liked nothing more than expounding on and debating a wide range of matters. With him, even something mundane like whether to put the young Tristram in breeches, could end up being “proed and conned and judicially talked over betwixt him and my mother for a month” (Book Six chap 16, p 301). But he was not above theatrics. When he heard about the injury to Tristram’s nose, “he threw himself prostrate across his bed in the wildest disorder imaginable, but at the same time in the most lamentable attitude of a man borne down with sorrows, that ever the eye of pity dropped a tear for” (Book Three chap 29, p 146). But when he heard about the mishap with Tristram’s name, “he walked composedly out … to the fish-pond” (Book Four chap 17, p 200).
The character Captain Toby Shandy may have been influenced by the military men Sterne grew up with. Uncle Toby was injured in Namur (during the real life siege of the Belgian city by England and her allies in 1695). One of his quirks is that he would whistle half a dozen bars of Lillabullero “when anything shocked or surprised him: — but especially when anything, which he deemed very absurd, was offered” (Book Three chap 21, p47). He was obsessed by miniature military fortifications and war games (Book Two chap 3, p 59–60). Just as Don Quixote had Sancho Panza, Uncle Toby had his foil in Corporal Trim. Together, they recreated on a real-time basis the British campaign of Lord Marlborough against the French during the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–1714) (Book 6 chap 21, p 307). Their fun ended when hostilities ceased with the peace of Utrecht (Book Six chap 30, p 317). Uncle Toby was clueless in dealing with the opposite sex.
Ask my pen, — it governs me, —i govern not it.
(Book 6 chap 6, p 288)
The novel is marked by digressions, and digressions within digressions! The narrator made no apologies for that and rationalised as follows: “For in this long digression which I was accidentally led into, as in all my digressions (only one excepted) there is a master-stroke of digressive skill, the merit of which has all along, I fear, been overlooked by my reader, — not for want of penetration in him, — but because ’tis an excellence seldom looked for, or expected indeed, in a digression; — and it is this: That tho my digressions are all fair, as you observe, — and that I fly off from what I am about, as far, and as often too, as any writer in Great Britain; yet I constant take care to order affairs so that my main business does not stand still in my absence … In a word, my work is digressive, and it is progressive too, — and at the same time” (Book One chap 22, p 48). The digressions cover a wide range of topics, ranging from esoteric references to John Locke as well as nonsense such as noses. In the tradition of Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Sterne also interposed a number of self–contained stories, which he would deliberately end without a proper conclusion.
Sterne also used the following devices (some of which were unconventional for that time):
- Nonlinear narrative. The book starts in 1718 and ends in 1713 and in between, the narrator reaches from the time of Henry VIII to Sterne’s own time using flashbacks and flash forwards.
- One–sentence chapters (eg Book Four Chap 5, p 189) and long passages in French (eg Book One chap 20, p 40–42) or Latin (eg Book Two chap 11, p 116–121).
- A Preface that threatens to appear nearly a third into the novel (Book Two, chap 20, p 130) but never actually does.
- Bawdy and scatological humour, and asterisks and dashes to mask (highlight?) them.
- A interposed story involving a character with a large nose (metaphor for penis) and a missing scabbard (a play on the Latin word vagina which means literally a sheath or scabbard) (beginning of Book Four, p 166–185).
- Two of the funniest aposiopesis ever written: When Tristram’s mother refused to allow Dr Slop to assist in her delivery, Uncle Toby remarked: “My sister, I dare say, added he, does not care to let a man come so near her ****” (Book Two chap 6, p 68). Later, Corporal Trim described to uncle Toby how a fair young lady was tending to his wounded knee: “The more she rubbed, and the longer strokes she took — the more the fire kindled in my veins — till at length, by two or three strokes longer than the rest — my passion rose to the highest pitch — I seized her hand —— And then thou clapped’st it to thy lips, Trim, said my uncle Toby — and madest a speech” (Book Eight chap 22, p 401).
- Stream of consciousness.
- Interaction between narrator and reader. For the sum of 50 guineas, the narrator offered to acknowledge the donor in the next edition of the novel (Book 1 Chap 9, p 11–12).
- Missing chapter (Book 4 chap 24).
- Misplaced chapters (Book Nine, chap 18 and 19, p 442—444 instead of p 443—5).
Little wonder then Tristram Shandy is often described as the progenitor of modernist and post–modernist literature.
How is the book?
This is a complete and unabridged edition from Wordsworth Classics. There is an introduction written by Cedric Watts, University of Sussex. But there are no notes which is regrettable. In addition, this edition all but spoiled some of Sterne’s innovations:
- In some editions, 2 black pages mark Yorick’s death (Book One chap 12). In this edition, a marble slab is inserted on p 23.
- In some editions, 2 coloured marbled pages, signifying the “motly emblem” of Sterne’s work follow immediately after chapter 36 and before chapter 37 of Book Three. In this edition, the marbled pages are wrongly positioned in the midst of chapter 38 (p 155-6).
- In some editions, a blank page in inserted for the reader to pen in his or her idea of Widow Wadman after chapter 38 of Book Six. In this edition, the blank appears in the middle of the chapter (p 326).
Tristram Shandy is in the public domain. This Wordsworth Classics edition costs S$2.80. It would have been a steal if there were notes.
This must be one of the most peculiar book ever published. It is an anti–novel, it has no plot and no conclusion. It is everything that a contemporary novel such as Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749) is not. Yet, it is a compelling and very modern read.