Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Tristram Shandy: Review

Pardon me a moment while I do a little victory dance...I'm done with Tristram Shandy!!!!!!!

OMG. Was there ever such a book? I am pleased as all get out that I can say that I'm done with the thing. It's behind me and I'll never be tempted to pick it up again.

What is Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne about you might ask--and well you might and maybe if you ever read it you might figure it out better than I; because I, well, I got all distracted by the INCREDIBLY long sentences and odd punctuation--when there was any to be had; and the major digressions. Do you see what I mean? But, anyway, as far as I can tell, dear Reader, this long-winded novel--if you want to call it that--is supposed to be about Shandy's life and opinions, yet a great deal of it would seem to be about Shandy's birth; but, wait, I can't tell you about that just now--that would be putting the cart before the horse. There's also a story about the midwife to tell and you won't believe what that's about--but wait, I forgot, I need to tell you about the parson and his horse. And Shandy's father's hobby-horse, as well as Uncle Toby's. And speaking of Uncle Toby we also have his little affair of the heart with the Widow Wadman--but I can't go into that now because I have to tell you about Aunt Dinah. And Noses (which are really noses, no matter what anyone says). And the importance of Names. And the doctor's thumb. And the Inquisition ("No one expects the Spanish Inquisition." And I can assure you, I certainly didn't.) And we have to go up and down stairs several times talking all the way before we get back to Shandy. And, oh look, he's born now. But the parson has christened him with the wrong name. Oh no! What shall be done? Well, we'll apply to the church fathers--but while that's going on we'll have a little incident with a hot chestnut. And--hold everything!--I forgot to tell you--oh dear Reader, how could I forget such a marvelous story which was told right in the middle of everything about Diego and his marvelous Nose? It was such a wonderful Nose that it set a whole town on its ear. And I'm not even half done telling you about the book yet.

And now that we've gone on to the second half of this extraordinarily long and disjointed reading experience, I need to tell you that there is also a great deal about the Shandy family luck--or, rather, I should say, their lack of it. Nothing seems to go right for them. From naming poor Tristram to the loss of the firstborn to Tristram's loss of his...... (oops, Sterne doesn't actually write it "out loud" shall we say, so I better not). Oh, and there's a great deal to be said about sieges and battlements. And buttonholes and chambermaids. And did I mention hobby horses? I think I did, but we'll throw them in again just to make sure. And, of course, there is that ultimate question: Is a white bear better than a black one?
Now really, if I had kept that up for over 450 PAGES, wouldn't you be ready to throw my review out the window (or at least hit "delete")? And that was the main temptation that I had to fight the whole time. The back of my edition says that

The purpose of Tristram Shandy, beyond entertainment, seems to be to open the reader's heart and feelings....[as the text says] 'When the heart flies out before the understanding, it saves the judgment a world of pains.' This is the lessen of Tristram Shandy, if lessen there be. There is innate goodness in man, and if he follows his heart, that goodness will become operative in the world. Sterne wants us to use our hearts.

Um. Okay. If you say so. As far as I can see, what Sterne wants is to say whatever the heck comes into his head at any given moment and then to either bore us to tears with it or just kind of mention it, but then think of something else and promise to get back to the first thing later--after coming up with about 14 other things to talk about too. Laurence Sterne would seem to be the great-grand-daddy of the stream of consciousness writers. And I think we've discussed before my feelings about that (see my Intruder in the Dust review). Sure I can see that this was a really influential book--where would Faulkner be without stream of consciousness? And there are even some humorous parts in there but 400 pages of long drawn-out digressions? It just made me want to scream. I don't even know that I can rate this book. So I don't think I'll try.

I suppose I ought to mention that there were two parts that I really liked:

1. Toby's apologetical oration (justification of his own principles and conduct in wishing to continue the war).
2. Tristram's definition of love (when telling us about Uncle Toby and the widow):

Love is certainly, alphabetically speaking, one of the most

A gitating
B ewitching
C onfounded
D evilish affairs of life--the most
E xtravagant
F utilitous
G alligaskinish
H andy-dandyish
I racundulous (there is no K to it [nor J, apparently]) and
L yrical of all human passions: at the same time, the most
M isgiving
N innyhammering
O bstipating
P ragmatical
S tridulous
R idiculous--though by the bye the R should have gone first

And, of course, true to Shandean form--he doesn't complete the alphabet. But I still like it--even though some of it doesn't make sense. Just like love. In fact, as I think over my reading of this book, I find that the best parts are all Uncle Toby. It is just about worth 400 pages to finally get to the amorous campaign upon which the widow embarks and how Toby responds in kind.

1 comment:

Sophia said...

If this review had a like button, I would be clicking on it. Don't think I ever want to attempt the book though!