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Old 31st Aug 2004, 17:18   #1
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Default Tristam Shandy

Here's a contender for Shortest Ever Thread...

Has anyone read Tristam Shandy?

Or - to pre-empt any smart alecs - have any Palimpsestarians read it?
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Old 31st Aug 2004, 18:06   #2
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Partly, although purists (ahum) would call it Tristram Shandy - and pedantic purists The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. I started reading it a long time ago - 10 years or more - and never got very far. The reason being that the language is quite convoluted, perhaps not deliberately so but in a standard 18th-century way, and it's very long. I can't remember how far I got although, in the words of Geoff Dyer, I suspect 'near' would be more accurate than 'far.' I believe it starts off before his birth and works through his life from there.

It is probably more influential than enjoyed these days, with its early examples of Johnson-esque typographical trickery, such as a wiggly line on the page when a character describes a wiggly line in the air with his walking stick, or (most famously) a black page to represent the death of a character - though in my edition I seem to remember that it looked more like marbled endpapers than solid black.

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Old 31st Aug 2004, 18:22   #3
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Tried but failed I'm afraid. I think I only managed the first chapter or two. Something to do with a grandfather clock....
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Old 31st Aug 2004, 21:31   #4
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Simply the Johnson connection. He was quite a big fan, and indeed used black pages to signify death himself.

I understand my sister had to read it for Uni, so if she has any interesting thoughts I shall pass them on.
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Old 18th Oct 2005, 16:36   #5
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Default Re: Tristam Shandy

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A taste of Shandy

Laurence Sterne's classic novel, written in the mid-1700s, is the greatest shaggy-dog story ever written. A rambling mock autobiography packed with eccentric characters, elaborate wordplay and typographical trickery, it was always considered unfilmable - until Michael Winterbottom took up the challenge. But can his movie, screened at the London film festival this week, do justice to Sterne's labyrinthine work? And why, exactly, so so many people love it?

John Mullan
Tuesday October 18, 2005
Guardian

Have film-makers finally captured the greatest English novel to elude them up to now? Michael Winterbottom's Cock and Bull Story opens at the London film festival this week. Devotees of Laurence Sterne's 18th-century novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, will recognise that the title is taken from the last sentence of this incomparably idiosyncratic mock autobiography. In it Tristram tries to tell the story of his life, always going back in time to try to explain what has shaped him, exuberantly digressing whenever he encounters an interesting subject. He does not even manage to get as far as his birth until volume three. No wonder even Andrew Davies has left well alone. Winterbottom's film takes on the challenge in a Shandean manner, giving us a film about the attempt to make a film of Sterne's novel. It even allows more than one of its cast to describe Tristram Shandy as "unfilmable".


Nowadays Tristram Shandy is widely regarded as a cult classic rather than a classic. "It came eighth in the Observer list of the 100 great books of all time," says the character in the film called "Steve Coogan" (played by Steve Coogan). "Eighth!" "Yes, but that's because the list was in chronological order," explains Anthony E Wilson, who, like everybody else, seems to be playing pretty much himself. Perhaps it has also suffered by becoming a favourite of narratologists and academic explicators. "It's a postmodern classic - way ahead of its time," says "Coogan", sounding much like a man relying on someone else's seminar notes.

In order to explain himself in the novel, Tristram tells us about his family, and its two presiding eccentrics: his father Walter and his uncle Toby. Walter, with his head full of books, spins erudite theories in the face of domestic disasters. Uncle Toby, a retired army captain and innocent abroad, is obsessed with the war of the Spanish succession, in which he served. Though the gentlest of men, he dedicates himself to recreating the siege of Namur (where he was wounded "in the groin") on the bowling green behind the house. In one of the novel's characteristic episodes, he offers to show the predatory Widow Wadman where he was wounded. Blushing fiercely, she accepts, only to have her finger placed at just the right point on a map of the Netherlands. Later, when Uncle Toby, invited into Widow Wadman's spider's lair, pauses at her front door - matrimony a few steps away - his sidekick Corporal Trim represents the delightful freedom of unmarried life with a flourish of his stick, which, in one of the book's own exuberant typographical eccentricities, Sterne captures as a squiggly, looping line on the page.

"A thousand of my father's most subtle syllogisms could not have said more for celibacy."

Despite, or perhaps because of, its curiosities, in its day this experimental book was a bestseller. In his mid-40s it made Sterne, an obscure Yorkshire clergyman, into a celebrity. "Tristram is the fashion," he boasted, after arriving in London in 1760 shortly after publication of the first two volumes. Everybody who was anybody invited him to dine. When he paraded around the pleasure gardens at Ranelagh, a throng of admirers gathered.

"I wrote not to be fed, but to be famous," he said. There had been bestselling novels before, but never an author who so openly revelled in his celebrity. He insisted always on wearing his clerical black - "Shandying it", as he put it - around the drawing rooms of London, a jester in a priest's costume. This is how he is painted in his portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds, wig askew, the foxy smile letting you know he is a mischief-maker. To ensure Reynolds' interest, he inserted into Tristram Shandy a passage celebrating his paintings. A Reynolds portrait was, he knew, a necessary measure of true celebrity.

For the last eight or nine years of his life, up to his death in 1768, Sterne's writing kept up with his life. The novel was composed in instalments over these years, new parts being written as Sterne found the time or needed the money. The very fortunes of the novel became part of its material. When reviewers were sniffy, their responses were promptly parodied in the next instalment of the book. After he had made a trip to southern France for his health, he sent Tristram off to France too. When he began suffering from consumption, he peppered the narrative with health reports, recommending his fiction as a preservative against illness.

Nothing could be more vital than the life of writing. "Time wastes too fast: every letter I trace tells me with what rapidity Life follows my pen." The vitality is there on the page, in the very speed of narration. "So much of motion is so much of life." Sterne's distinctive punctuation ----------------------- long, stretching dashes that show the narrator changing his mind, pausing to digress, reaching for the next surprise ----------------------- enacts this life, this liveliness. "What a rate have I gone at, curvetting and frisking it away," says Tristram after four volumes, "without looking once behind, or even on one side of me."

Sterne's life was his material. He based Shandy Hall closely on his own home in the North Yorkshire village of Coxwold, where he was the vicar. The film has taken Felbrigg Hall in Norfolk, a National Trust stately pile, as the photogenic scene for this re-enactment. "The house is far too big for Shandy Hall," comments one of the crew confidentially, "but that's what they want, to make it sexy." Yet the real Shandy Hall is still there, and still a private home. By arrangement, you can visit and wonder which door had the infuriating creak that drove Walter Shandy round the bend. Or see the chimney-piece around which Walter, Uncle Toby and Dr Slop, the irascible Roman Catholic "man-midwife", sat smoking their pipes and discussing the nature of swearing, while Tristram's mother was giving birth to him upstairs.

To trace his history, Tristram goes back beyond his birth. His story begins literally ab ovo, as Horace put it. It has one of the greatest of opening chapters, where Tristram explains that his life was jinxed from the very moment that the "homunculus" (the sperm) began its difficult journey. His father wound up "a large house-clock" on the first Sunday night of each month. On the same night he dealt with "some other little family concernments", in order, as he said, "to be no more plagued and pester'd with them the rest of the month".

Walter is "somewhere between 50 and 60 years of age", while his wife is still of child-bearing age. He does his best. The winding of the mechanism and the marital obligation become so associated in his wife's mind that, on the night of Tristram's conception, she asks an irresistible question at just the crucial moment. "Pray, my dear, quoth my mother, have you not forgot to wind up the clock?" "Good G--! cried my father." His animal spirits are dispersed. It is but one of many interruptions in the novel. It makes interruption a creative principle because it is narrated like talk. "Writing, when properly managed (as you may be sure I think mine is), is but a different name for conversation." But as well as being the most conversational of novels, Tristram Shandy is a peculiarly visual book. (Originally it came with two illustrations by Hogarth, which Sterne procured by a campaign of flattery.)

One of the joys of reading it is the mere appearance of its pages, for it exploits visually the resources of print like no book before it. When Parson Yorick dies, the next page is entirely black. When Tristram/Sterne tries to describe the narrative paths that he has followed in each volume, he draws a sequence of strangely jagged or curving lines.

"These were the four lines I moved in through my first, second, third and fourth volumes," the narrator Shandy says. "----In the fifth volume I have been very good, ---- the precise line I have described in it being this:
The physical shape of a book has never been so brilliantly and ludicrously expressive. Tristram misplaces chapters, which then appear later, out of sequence. Asterisks, capitalised words, snatches of Greek and Latin and italics all enliven the text. In frustration, Shandy tears a chapter out of his would-be memoir, and the reader of the novel duly gets a blank page. Another blank page comes when he sets out to describe the "concupiscible" Widow Wadman and is not up to the task. "Sit down, sir, paint her to your own mind - as like your mistress as you can - as unlike your wife as your conscience will let you - 'tis all one to me - please but your own fancy in it." The film finds its equivalent by giving the role to Gillian Anderson, to the slavish rapture of the British cast. Anderson, her dazzlingly smiling, white-clad agent assures the cackhanded producers, won't be worried about the film's modest budget. "Gillian's interested in the quality of the work."

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The prose is visual, too, giving perfect freeze-frames of its characters' absurd contortions, as when Walter Shandy destroys one of his own brilliant, barmy intellectual conjectures by simultaneously attempting to extract a handkerchief with his right hand from a left-hand pocket. It is a novel devoted to life's little cock-ups. Tristram is "sport of small accidents", and these make his destiny. In one central chain of mishaps, we are allowed to see how the narrator got his peculiar name despite his father's passionate belief that anyone named "Tristram" was doomed to misfortune. (The answer has much to do with Walter's difficulties in struggling into a pair of breeches, and the maid Susannah's inability to hold in her head his favoured name, "Trismegistus", as she runs down the corridor to where the vicar waits to christen an apparently dying newborn.)

Slapstick by careful arrangement, these are the episodes that the film replicates. In one case, it even gazumps the original. In volume four, Tristram describes a gathering at Shandy Hall of some peculiarly overfed and pompous clergymen (this was a social milieu that Sterne knew all too well). They are enjoying their theological pontification and eating hot chestnuts, one of which, "of more life and rotundity than the rest", rolls unregarded off the table and into the gaping flies of Phutatorius (pseudonym for a much-loathed York ecclesiastic). The novel carefully describes the consequences.

"The genial warmth which the chestnut imparted, was not undelectable for the first twenty or five and twenty seconds." But the heat increases and is soon "getting beyond the point of all sober pleasure". As the sensation becomes agony, all Phutatorius's "ideas, his thoughts, his attention, his imagination, judgment, resolution, deliberation, ratiocination, memory, fancy, with ten battalions of animal spirits" crowd down "to the place in danger". His "upper regions" are left "as you may imagine, as empty as my purse". "ZOUNDS!" In A Cock and Bull Story, Coogan and a bone-headed lackey practise replicating this, and introduce a scorching chestnut to the comedy star's trousers. It somehow becomes lodged, and the consequent paroxysms, and the lackey's unavailing efforts to extract the thing, do tear-making justice to Sterne's conception.

What the film can hardly gesture at is the delicious, facetious erudition of the novel. In the 19th century there was a literary scandal when the leading Sterne scholar of the day discovered that many of the quintessentially Sternean passages of Tristram Shandy had been lifted from other authors. Typically, a passage lamenting the lack of originality among contemporary writers was plagiarised from Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy. Sterne was a cheat. Idling his time in the library of York Minster, he had accumulated ridiculous or entrancing fragments of learning. He was genially fascinated by the efforts of intellectuals to use books to stave off life's indignities. Now academics call the plagiarism "intertextuality", and relish the very oddness and obscurity of the bookishness.
"Nothing odd will do long. Tristram Shandy did not last," said Dr Johnson, wrong for once. A Cock and Bull Story is more evidence that it has lasted just fine. Sterne would have relished the cinematic PR for his book, whose oddness is nothing strange, but the oddness - when properly examined - of anybody's ordinary life.

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Old 5th Nov 2007, 21:58   #6
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Default Re: Tristam Shandy

So, thoughts on The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne.

To those who are unfamiliar with the plot, it can be summed up in three little words: "But I digress." The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman has precious little of Tristram's life or opinions, and makes it doubtful whether he's much of a gentleman - in fact, it often strikes me how much more bawdy, dirty and, well, uninhibitedly fun 18th century literature is than it would be during Victorian times. Not that I'm an expert, but between Swift, Rabelais, Bellman, Voltaire and Sterne I think I can form some sort of opinion and Tristram Shandy gets away with a lot of stuff - sex talk, various bodily functions, etc - that would have made his pruder grandchildren blush.

But I digress. Tristram Shandy tries to tell us about his life and opinions, starting with his conception and continuing with his birth, education and career - and he fails miserably; the fictional narrator himself isn't even born until about halfway in and even after that appears in his autobiography only sporadically, whenever the plot is in danger of - gasp! - advancing and he needs to derail it with an amusing anecdote or a learnéd discourse on warfare, childbirth, religion, noses, or whatever he feels like lecturing us on. Someone said that this book was post-modern before there was a modern to be post, and I can see where they get that - as much as he leans on Rabelais and Cervantes, to my modern eyes it keeps bringing up people like Pynchon and Eco. Like those, he is less concerned with telling a story or giving straight answers than with painting an entire society's thoughts, and he'll lean on any reference no matter how wise or un- to get there. In a sense, the lives and opinions he chooses to reference tell more about him (the narrator, not the author) than he perhaps intends.

However, that's also part of the problem. Ironically, it seems at least to me, time has run away from Tristram Shandy. It's supposed to satirize a lot of popular thoughts, beliefs and conventions, but while some of those are universal, others have simply faded into obscurity. I can read and appreciate Pynchon's Mason & Dixon - which, much like this, takes place in the latter half of the 18th century - because Pynchon still writes for a modern audience's preconceptions. With Sterne, I'm out of my depths; too many of the HOBBY-HORSES (always in upper-case), social memes and authorities he makes fun of are completely unknown to me - not to mention that the style he parodies is almost unreadable at times. It's like... imagine someone 200 years from now trying to make sense of Hot Shots! while Top Gun has long since been (rightfully) forgotten.

But I digress - this, of course, isn't Sterne's fault, he was writing for his time. But what remains of Tristram Shandy does tend to seem like one single joke stretched out over 615 pages - the joke being that he smugly keeps derailing his own story, mocking the reader's (and critics') expectations of it and gleefully even his own ability to tell it. Stuff like that is fun once, twice or even half a dozen times, but eventually you just want to smack him and tell him that all of that stopped being cute about 83 chapters ago.

Yes, it's occasionally very funny. Yes, it's occasionally still quite relevant, both on the nature of literature and the human condition - especially in the many hilarious exchanges between Tristram's father (rational, experienced man of science) and uncle (naive theoretical believer in love - and soldier). There are some nice turns of phrase that I need to write down for posterity:

On literature:
Quote:
Writing, when properly managed (as you may be sure I think mine is) is but a different name for conversation. As no one, who knows what he is about in good company, would venture to talk all;--so no author, who understands the just boundaries of decorum and good-breeding, would presume to think all: The truest respect which you can pay to the reader's understanding, is to halve this matter amicably, and leave him something to imagine, in his turn, as well as yourself.
On... renewable energy sources, I shit you not, this is 1760 and it reads like a Greenpeace manifesto:
Quote:
if the wind only served,--but would be excellent good husbandry to make use of the winds, which cost nothing, and which eat nothing, rather than horses, which (the devil take 'em) both cost and eat a great deal.

For that very reason, replied my father, 'Because they cost nothing, and because they eat nothing,'--the scheme is bad;--it is the consumption of our products, as well as the manufactures of them, which gives bread to the hungry, circulates trade,--brings in money, and supports the value of our lands;--and tho', I own, if I was a Prince, I would generously recompense the scientifick head which brought forth such contrivances;--yet I would as peremptorily suppress the use of them.
On his own inability to tell a straight story:
Quote:
I believe in my conscience I intercept many a thought which heaven intended for another man.
&c &c &c &c. But I digress. I'm glad I read Tristram Shandy; I'm glad I won't have to read it again. It's not bad, but the law of diminishing returns kicks in around page 200 and after then it's all uphill. This cock and bull story ends on a rather groanworthy pun regarding the male reproductive organs and male cows; I call bullshit - but at least Sterne's a good bullshitter.
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Old 5th Nov 2007, 23:43   #7
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Default Re: Tristam Shandy

I believe you deserve a round of applause for making it through, by all accounts!
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Old 5th Nov 2007, 23:52   #8
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Thank you, thank you. Make sure to tip your waitresses.

I seriously haven't been this exhausted after a book since... Against the Day. And that was both more fun and more rewarding.
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Old 6th Nov 2007, 8:59   #9
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Yes well done beergood! This is one of the central books which Adam Thirlwell refers to in his 'anti-novel' Miss Herbert, which I read last week. Although that book inspired me to think about several other writers I've tried and abandoned, or never seriously considered taking up, I drew the line at Tristram Shandy. The joke, as you say, is a good one, but not a good six hundred.
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Old 9th Sep 2011, 21:51   #10
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Like many P'sters, I am having to struggle mightily against ennui and outright boredom in the process of "treating myself" to Tristram Shandy. (I thought this would make a great finish to 'summertime reading') Why do we do it?

I'll admit that putting down a revered classic is hard for me on grounds of pride (vanity) and determination (more vanity). But there is also this: if Lawrence Sterne were alive and writing this - with some adjustments in style to suit the age - today (and for the last ten years, say, as Shandy was written and published in installments ("volumes) over ten years, he would likely be a literary superstar; certainly so if he had written such a novel farce just at the start of the PoMo craze (for example, in the eighties). For that is what this book is: an excruciatingly drawn out, digressive, and whimsical farce.(For example, the "Authors preface" occurs on page 170 of the narrative in my text.) It is a send-up of the novel form, various intellectual pretensions - see his discussion of wit and judgment and the folly of John Locke in Book III - that creep into "literary" works, and the vanity of human intentions and determinations in the face of life's exigencies, accidents, and absurdity. Mostly, it is a finger in the eye of "serious intentions".

The fact that Sterne uses every manner and form of PoMo semantics; such as "intertextuality" (read 'plagiarism'), meta-fictional digression (he criticizes his critics to the reader) and indulges in visual presentation of narrative action (Sebold would be proud, though still dead); without ever pretending that they are anything more than tricks of the trade is intriguing. It actually suggests to me that there is a way - an ironic way - of looking at post-modern fiction techniques, quite other than the psuedo-philosophical ways of the classroom. I guess I want to believe that there is something here of origins and methods to be learned from this book, so far ahead of its time in so many ways.

Still, it is a struggle: as others have said, the 18th century vernacular is convoluted by our standards, made more so, I think, by Sterne as an ironic device. (It is interesting that this point will only be justified by further research on my part.) The obscurity of names which then were 'household names' but today are lost to history (if not to scholars) is another issue, which generally makes tongue in cheek jabs ineffective, and finally, the bawdy sense of humour - though welcome - is stale. Our own fiction has more than outdone it all already.

I plan now to continue, but with this caveat, that I will read it with no greater sense of urgency than Sterne was subject to in writing it. (will it take me 10 years?) This is only just, an probably wise as well, since it will reinforce what should be the guiding light, namely, that this book is NOT to be taken (too) seriously.
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