Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

Have I read anything since June? Well, yes, although not so much as I would have liked. The second half of the year started off so well: I spent most of July and early August reading just one book, but the book in question was Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. No slacking off there! This book is one I’ve wanted to read for years but never got to it, and it did not disappoint—worth a few words here even though it has been some time since I finished it.

The novel, as many will know, is an autobiography of sorts by the title character—except Tristram feels obligated to tell not only the events of his life but all of the background to those events, and the context to the background, so that the poor guy is only finally born over 150 pages in, about a quarter of the book. Needless to say, he doesn’t get very far with life, most of the book being taken up with stories about his father’s theories of names and caesarian sections, his uncle’s past action on the battlefield (the unforgettable “hobby horse”), why he wound up born at his family’s country estate rather than in town, and whatever else comes up to explain any stray utterance by the various characters. The book is, then, a running gag on all the ways narrative can be delayed (by many other smaller narratives). There is a lot I think I missed along the way—the novel is steeped in references to 18th-century philosophical and political debates that I simply don’t know much about, but it is fairly easy to let those slide by simply for enjoyment of the storytelling.

While the various side-stories are enjoyable, they are also a joke themselves on the idea of realism in the novel (even as that ideal was still developing): the novel uses narrative detours much as did the novel I read before this, Edward Jones’s The Known World, but to completely opposite effect. The narrator poses the same idea that Jones’s novel assumes, that you can never have too much context and background for other characters in order to understand the primary storyline, but here the idea is pure parody—the narrator can never get anywhere, can never tell his story, because he is constantly drawn to other distractions. While all those detours are fun to read, they are also largely negligible to anything you would need to read in a life story. It only our luck that he simply can’t help himself: perhaps the novel’s key idea, then, is that those narratives of “important lives” are much less significant than day-to-day anecdotes that provide the source of real narrative pleasure.