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Very Hard Work (But Very Funny Too)
on 31 October 2012
Probably the funniest book ever written in the English language this is also one of the most difficult books to read that I have ever come across - I had real trouble taking in more than a dozen pages at a time.
It's taken me weeks and weeks to get to the end of this book, partly because it demands of the reader a knowledge of Greek and Latin texts, 18th century manners and military methods, the church and it's rituals, contemporary European politics and a familiarity with bawdy language of the period. However it's also because this is essentially a gigantic shaggy dog story that is set up as a series of Russian dolls, with one episode looping into another and another and another before looping back again to pick up the pieces. The combination of this writing style and the necessity to follow the cultural and political references makes this an insomniac's dream. I had real trouble staying awake after more than a dozen pages. And that's a rather sad thing because Sterne is brilliantly funny and amazingly inventive. He's not just knockabout vulgar, he sets up slapstick moments, he has farce, wordplay, absurdity, sly humour and custard pie in the face humour. And this is an amazingly freewheeling book, he uses drawings, page layouts, the conventions of chapter and sentence layouts all to brilliant effect in creating comedy and shining a light on his characters.
And what a cast of characters Sterne has put together. Not, funnily enough, including Tristram Shandy himself, at least for most of the book. The action centres on Tristram's father and uncle Toby. Toby is ex military and recreates European contemporary battles in the back garden with the help of Corporal Trim. The Widow Wadham is chasing Toby and her servant is chasing Trim. Tristram's mother, Dr Slop and the Parson Yorrick complete the main cast. Although the main action centres on these characters it's a bit like an episode of Frasier or Friends where the is a sub cast of dozens of other characters with which they interact. The main cast are finely drawn, Toby's stupidity against Tristram's father's quixotic brilliance and his mother's calm acceptance. Yorrick's outrageous bawdiness and unconventional theological positions and the Doctor's puffed up ridiculousness all make for wonderful comedy - if you can follow the plot.
I'm sure if you spend the time with this work it produces layer upon layer of jokes within jokes and many of them sly and incisive as well. It's quite remarkable that a clergyman should have written this as it seems quite irreverent and rather scandalous. It just shows you how different English literature could have been if the uptight Victorians hadn't got in the way.