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
Published in October 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
“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—…