Thoughts on Tristram Shandy

The Damnation of Obadiah,  from Tristram Shandy Book 3.11, 1773
The Damnation of Obadiah, from Tristram Shandy, hand-coloured etching by James Bretherton, 1773

I have been reading and studying Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman for the past couple of months. It’s been a laborious task, and I’m afraid not a happy one.

I’ve read around it and I understand the reasons why Tristram Shandy is considered a classic, but my problems with the book are based entirely on the experience of reading it. Even the book’s admirers admit that it is ‘frustrating’ for the reader.

I’d go further and say that it is literally ‘pointless’. It commits the worst crime that literature is capable of, in that it fails to provide adequate motivation for the reader to turn the page.

Admirers will say that Sterne intended it to be frustrating, as if this makes the frustration acceptable. They will then tell you that Sterne’s achievement with Tristram Shandy represents a revolutionary new approach to fiction and narrative, parodying and satirising the realistic prose style that had come to typify the genre up to that point in history.

But as Thomas Keymer points out in his essay ‘Sterne and the “new species of writing”‘, collected in Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy: A Casebook (Amazon affiliate link), this adopts a view of the history of the novel that post-dates Sterne’s time of writing. The contemporary situation was not so straight forward, as Keymer explains:

Sterne writes at a time when the conventions of fictional representation, such as they were, remained fluid, ill-defined, and keenly contested. Witness the Richardson-Fielding dispute of the 1740s, which was as much about competing narrative strategies as it was about religion and ethics, or ideologies of gender and class.

The genre of prose fiction was itself still ‘novel’ (hence the name), and to see Tristram Shandy as a satire or comment on the ‘novel’ as genre is a total misunderstanding of its place in literary history. In fact the ‘new species of writing’ referred to is borrowed from an essay written in 1751 about Fielding, not Sterne.

Keymer goes on to question whether Sterne is satirising the modern novel at all in Tristram Shandy:

Why, in this most allusive of works does Sterne never refer explicitly to Richardson or Fielding and why has no modern editor of Tristram Shandy caught Sterne reworking any specific passage from their fiction?

Another critic, J.T. Parnell, points out that ‘he (Sterne) may never have read the ‘novelists’, let alone contemplated a devastating critique of the shortcomings of the emerging genre.’

And Jonathan Lamb chimes in on the debate too:

Such stabilising of Sterne’s text depends on an improbable estimate of the dominance of the novel’s realism, as if it were well enough established by the 1750s for its parody readily to be undertaken and appreciated.

All this undermines the commonly held view today that Sterne is some kind of protomodernist whose work was centuries ahead of its time. It seems clear that this was a time of great experimentation in prose writing, and that Sterne was only one of the experimenters. As it turns out he was the least successful, because the eventual direction that the novel followed was that of Richardson, Fielding and the realists. Sterne himself was harking back, rather than looking forward, his style being a later reinvention of the so-called learned wit of Rabelais, Cervantes and Montaigne.

It is equally misleading to say that Sterne preempted the modern age of literature, influencing Woolf, Joyce and Beckett. While these writers pointed to Sterne as an influence, this was without regard to his true position in the history of literature, but rather to further their own agenda, as Keymer explains:

Woolf was mainly concerned with an ulterior motive in the present: that of coopting Sterne for her ongoing campaign against the bricks-and-mortar realism typified by Galsworthy and Bennett.

Tristram Shandy was an experiment, no doubt, and a radical one. It is essentially an attempt at creating a new kind of prose genre outside of, or parallel to, the emerging genre of the novel. But it is an experiment that ultimately fails.

At least it does for me. I’m sure that Sterne fans will be keen to contend this point of view, so please feel free to add your thoughts in the comments below.

2 responses to “Thoughts on Tristram Shandy”

  1. Culture Clubber Tom asked me to post this reply (don’t know why it didn’t work for you Tom):

    Tim you philistine! – well, actually, I agree in part – not so much that TS is a dreadful book but that the idea that it was parodying a stable conventional genre is basically wrong.

    If TS is interesting it’s not because it’s postmodernism before its time but because it injects ordinariness and the everyday incident and co-incident into literature – it’s the most worldly, bodily book imaginable and if it satirises anything it’s the idea of the coherent “life” (we never discover what the “life” of TS actually is, because we never really get to it) in favour of the idea of character (and Uncle Toby, Trim etc are terrific characters surely) without the burden of narration. It’s an experiment to see if you can have character without adventure – which is why Sterne is Rabelais to Fielding’s Cervantes (and I prefer Cervantes as it happens).

    I agree, though, that the book is very much of its time and I don’t think it’s stupid to point this out – and so basically difficult to read out of that context. Voltaire loved the Yorick sermonising but I think it’s stretching things to expect us to be as impressed by it as he was, simply because we live in different times and are touched by different things and genres – and there’s no philistinism in admitting that.

    In addition, the effect of the book – where nothing actually happens – must have been very different when readers were engaging with it by installment of each volume; when they started the book, its original readers didn’t know that it wasn’t going to go anywhere.

    As for me, I admire the thing enormously and there are sections which I love (e.g. the early sections about Yorick and his dodgy old horse, but then I am keen on anything to do with horses generally) and sections which leave me blank, confused and bored. But there are two things that do grate on me quite systematically in TS: 1) the annoying winsomeness of a lot of it, by which I mean it’s twee “Englishness” in parts. There’s a certain Alan Bennett sort of tee-hee aren’t I funny having a cup of tea with Thora Hird quality about a lot of it (and in that sense it’s not an “Irish” book, as people often seem to think it is – or if it is “Irish” at all it’s more in the way of Terry Wogan tweeness than Joycian polyphony, or so it seems to me) and 2) it’s sheer chaos which though funny at first, soon grates because it becomes artificial and forced. Sterne doesn’t always handle his chaos that well!

    Kundera celebrates TS as a “grand game” but what I like about games is that they have rules and form (TS could not be less like a game of chess, or cribbage or canasta) so TS doesn’t really seem to me like a game but more just an open-ended practical joke, and a jolly long one too.

    I do, however, really love Sentimental Journey because that seems to me much more like a closed game that is actually trying to do something other than congratulate itself for its eccentricity. SJ is a great book and infinitely better than TS in my view, but then SJ is more in the spirit of Cervantes than Rabelais… But, anyway, what the hell do I know? I don’t even like books…

  2. I agree with you I’m about halfway through the book and I can’t figure out what Laurence Stern is talking about most of the time. Thank god for spark notes.

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