250 years since Laurence Sterne's death, Tristam Shandy is as puzzling and entertaining as ever—and not only for its rude jokesby Lucinda Smyth / September 18, 2018 / Leave a comment
“The trouble with life (the novelist will feel) is its amorphousness, its ridiculous fluidity,” writes Martin Amis in his memoir Experience. “Look at it: thinly plotted, largely themeless, sentimental and ineluctably trite. The dialogue is poor, or at least violently uneven. The twists are predictable or sensationalist. And it’s always the same beginning; and the same ending…”
Amis’s words show the extent to which Laurence Sterne was an unorthodox writer, even by contemporary standards. For Amis, writing fiction ought to be a reaction against the incomprehensibility of life, the writer slotting fictional episodes into a sleek, coherent narrative. Useful in this process, says Amis, is “the novelist’s addiction to seeing parallels and making connections.”
But what is striking about Sterne—who died 250 years ago—is how much of his work retains the “amorphousness” and “ridiculous fluidity” of life. His masterpiece, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman does not “organise” its ideas into something coherent, let alone digestible. Rather, it is a free-flowing stream of philosophical musing, character sketches and bawdy jokes. There is no consistent storyline whatsoever.
Ostensibly it is a fictional autobiography, but ultimately we learn little about his life, and less of his opinions. The dialogue is digressive as well as “violently uneven.” The twists can be sentimental (famously the death of Tristram’s jolly minder Yorick) but are often undercut with a joke. And the book ends with an interruption from Tristram’s mother: “L—d! said my mother, what is all this story about?—A COCK and a BULL, said Yorick—And one of the best of its kind, I ever heard.”
Published in 1759, the novel’s first instalment was written in three short months while Sterne was a parson in an obscure Yorkshire village. It instantly catapulted the 47-year-old to fame. Actor David Garrick was among its first advocates, and its popularity spread abroad among influential Europeans, including Voltaire.
Though its strangeness has been an object of suspicion over the years—“Nothing odd will do long,” sniffed Dr Johnson in 1776, “Tristram Shandy did not last”—the truth is that it has lasted. Thomas Jefferson, Karl Marx and Virginia Woolf hailed it as one of their favourite works. It was number six in The Observer’s recent list of the 100 best novels written in…