Today I have to congratulate myself for officially passing the halfway point of Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, which I have been struggling with for lo, these many months.
I am a very stubborn reader. I hate to abandon any book, however difficult/annoying/pointless, and this one – published in nine installments between 1759 and 1769 – is not without its merits. Sterne was ahead of his time in more ways than one: Tristram Shandy is a sort of metafiction, less a novel than an extended commentary on the idea of a novel. It is basically one long series of tangents and digressions, so much so that 300 pages in, the title character has just been born.
Sterne also was fond of a sort of literary sampling. Says Wikipedia:
Sterne incorporated into Tristram Shandy many passages taken almost word for word from Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, Francis Bacon’s Of Death, Rabelais and many more, and rearranged them to serve the new meaning intended in Tristram Shandy.
Apparently there has been some controversy over the years as to whether this constitutes plagiarism, but I am less worried about that than about whether I am actually going to make it through this book, loaded as it is with stylistic anachronisms, impenetrable references to Sterne’s contemporaries, and jokes that you have to read the endnotes to understand. (The use of endnotes instead of footnotes, necessitated I guess by the fact that there are so many of them, means I spend a lot of time flipping back and forth between sections. This makes an already slow read even slower, and while I am tempted to just skip the notes, then I would only get a quarter of what’s going on instead of half.)
On the other hand, Sterne/Shandy is quite charming as a narrator, given to addressing the reader directly and explaining in great detail why he is doing what he is doing. He is clever in the extreme, sometimes too clever, but I am a sucker for tricks like Ch. XXV of Book IV, which begins thusly:
No doubt, Sir — there is a whole chapter wanting here — and a chasm of ten pages1 made in the book by it — but the book-binder is neither a fool, or a knave, or a puppy — nor is the book a jot more imperfect, (at least upon that score) — but, on the contrary, the book is more perfect and complete by wanting the chapter, than having it….
It was only at this point that I noticed that Chapter XXIV was missing, and that the page numbering had skipped from 271 to 282. As the invaluable note explains:
1. chasm of ten pages: The first edition skips nine pages (147–55), resulting in even-numbered right-hand pages for the remainder of Volume IV; to avoid this anomaly, which would have to continue to the end of modern one-volume editions, ten pages are usually skipped, as in this edition.
Sterne goes on to devote the whole chapter to explaining what would have happened in the missing chapter, and how could such postmodern sleight of hand fail to restore him to my good graces? Not to mention that skipping 10 pages got me that much closer to my goal, which is to finish this book and read the biography of Brian Eno that’s been sitting on my shelf.
Make no mistake, though, Laurence Sterne was very gifted with the turn of phrase. The chapter I mentioned concludes with this gem, which is as good a place to leave off as any:
A dwarf who brings a standard along with him to measure his own size – take my word, is a dwarf in more articles than one….