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The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (Oxford World's Classics) [Paperback]

Laurence Sterne , Ian Campbell Ross
3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
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Book Description

8 Oct 2009 Oxford World's Classics
'Read, read, read, read, my unlearned reader! read...'

Sterne's great comic novel is the fictional autobiography of Tristram Shandy, a hero who fails even to get born in the first two volumes. It contains some of the best-known and best-loved characters in English literature, including Uncle Toby, Corporal Trim, Parson Yorick, Dr Slop and the Widow Wadman. Beginning with Tristram's conception, the novel recounts his progress in 'this scurvy and disasterous world of ours', including his misnaming during baptism and his accidental circumcision by a falling sash-window at the age of five; unsurprisingly, Tristram declares that he has been 'the continual sport of what the world calls Fortune'. Tristram Shandy also offers the narrator's 'opinions', at once facetious and highly serious, on books and learning in an age of rapidly expanding print culture, and on the changing understanding of the roles of writers and readers alike.

This revised edition retains the first edition text incorporating Sterne's later changes, and adds two original Hogarth illustrations and a wealth of contextualizing information.

ABOUT THE SERIES: For over 100 years Oxford World's Classics has made available the widest range of literature from around the globe. Each affordable volume reflects Oxford's commitment to scholarship, providing the most accurate text plus a wealth of other valuable features, including expert introductions by leading authorities, helpful notes to clarify the text, up-to-date bibliographies for further study, and much more.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 640 pages
  • Publisher: OUP Oxford; New edition edition (8 Oct 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0199532893
  • ISBN-13: 978-0199532896
  • Product Dimensions: 19.3 x 12.7 x 3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 110,759 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description

About the Author

Ian Campbell Ross is Professor of Eighteenth-Century Studies at Trinity College Dublin.

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Customer Reviews

3.0 out of 5 stars
3.0 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The old ones are the best 8 Mar 2013
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
A funny if tough read. A far cry from such 'Thin' literature that proliferates these days. Stick with it and be rewarded.
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3.0 out of 5 stars A Hotchpotch Hobby Horse 14 July 2014
By Woolco
Famously digressive, fanciful and, at times, infuriatingly convoluted in its train of thought, 'The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy' is certainly one of a kind.

Largely, I would say, a comic novel with a good smattering of sentimentality which, admittedly, can pall a little at times. Yet it is very good-natured, the characters sympathetic (Uncle Toby positively a comfort!), and much of the observations of human behaviour highly perspicacious and often amusing. I understand that Sterne was inspired by Cervantes' 'Don Quixote' and it's true that Walter Shandy (Tristram's father) and Uncle Toby's friendship bears some resemblance to that of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza in a way, though located in a totally alien era and setting. For me though, the novel lacks the cohesion and emotional charge of 'Don Quixote'.

And it did rather fizzle out. I found the later volumes following the drama of Tristram's eventual birth, scant and hotchpotch by comparison. Apart from a brief misadventure with a window sash in his formative years, Tristram's development is largely overlooked. Then suddenly we are whisking through France, with a mature Tristram, on a whistle-stop, disconnected adventure - the novel loses touch with its heart and soul. Diversionary and tangential it may be, but whilst anchored in the curious and touching relationship of Walter and Uncle Toby (in the earlier volumes) the digressions always seem relevant, reflecting aspects of the two protagonists. In essence, Tristram is chiefly a narrator to begin with - yes, a rather intrusive one, but a narrator all the same. Later on, it's as if our narrator has ditched his original story (which actually is not a record of his own life and opinions but those of his father and uncle) and finally embarked on his own memoir, in a jarring sort of epilogue.
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1 of 4 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A classic ramble 23 Dec 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Whilst a classic, this book covets that title due to its failing - it is a long ramble by a man who is not the most likeable literary character. It is not until the second section of the book that the narrator is born, having given such rambling detail to his conception and pre-birth. Yet that was the intention of the book and what made it a classic, a revolt against the then established dictates of fiction. It is my guess though that whoever is looking at this book is doing so as they have been forced to by either a university tutor or a list made by someone who has placed it on the list without actually picking it up.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.1 out of 5 stars  10 reviews
16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars How to Ride a Hobby-Horse 12 Mar 2010
By Amazon Customer - Published on
At the end of Volume 6 of this work, Mr. Shandy as the teller of his own life story provides a drawing of his narrative line over the previous volumes. Each one is twisted beyond all recognition, of course, since he has been doubling back, digressing, and indeed doing pretty much everything except getting a move on. He promises faithfully that in Volume 7 his narrative will resemble nothing but the very straightest of lines - he's reached the hour of his own birth (in six books) and will proceed from that moment in strict chronology, utterly without interruption. At the beginning of the next volume, however, he suddenly tells us that the Devil is after him and races off to France in an attempt to outrun the old fox - he doesn't get back to his own story until Volume 8.

This gives you an idea of what you're in for. "The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy" consists primarily of the author's attempt to not tell a story - indeed, it's about practically everything in the world except its ostensible subject. While the narrator's interruptions and digressions are generally funny in themselves, there's an additional level of humor in the lengths to which he goes to get in his own way. It's a great read, but it makes things rather difficult when it comes to telling the story itself.

There's a plotline of sorts, to be sure, which has to do with the night of Tristram's birth and what a complicated project that turns out to be. In addition to that, Tristram amuses himself with chapters on the nature of obsessions (or hobby-horses, as he calls them), chapters on how to argue with your wife, chapters on sermon-making, chapters on chapters and even a chapter on digressions. This last, by the way, consists primarily of Tristram insisting that he does not have time to talk about digressions and will do it later, and when he comes to the end of the chapter immediately realizes that he has just written his chapter on digressions. Yes, it's a digression from the chapter on digressions that itself comprises the chapter on digressions. Whew.

Now, this whole business begins with Tristram complaining that his parents should have paid more attention to what they were doing at the moment he was conceived - it seems that his mother interrupted the marital act that night by suddenly asking her husband if he had remembered to wind up the clock. You can see from this initial interruption that "Tristram Shandy" bears a pretty consistent tone throughout, including the famous bit where Uncle Toby begins a sentence in Volume 1, Chapter 21, and doesn't get around to completing it until several chapters into Volume 2, Chapter 6 - a gap of about 25 pages. One might be tempted to think of this novel as just a nutty diversion from more serious matters.

This isn't entirely true. Structurally this thing looks like a Godawful mess, but then again Sterne lived at a time when the structure of the English novel was still under construction. More importantly, although the content of the novel veers all over everything, the thematic elements don't. What you get here is commentary, from a variety of angles, on the pernicious effects of taking yourself too seriously. Tristram's father, for instance, an intelligent man, has retreated into the country for uninterrupted study and thus come up with some of the screwiest notions in literature. He thinks, for instance, that a man's destiny is governed to an enormous extent by the size of his nose and by his first name, of which the name "Tristram" is by far the most destructive. So you can imagine how upset he gets when a faulty set of forceps flattens his baby son's nose at the very moment of birth, and when an incompetent cleric christens the boy by that horrid name a few minutes later.

All unbelievably ridiculous, of course, made more so by the careful, studious, and above all lengthy manner of telling. Tristram quotes all manner of ancient and contemporary scholars on these subjects, as indeed on all subjects. Thus we come to understand that this kind of pedantry, even on the most critical topic, makes fools of us all.

That is to say, what makes all these interruptions and diversions so hysterical is that the narrator actually thinks they're all necessary - he has his reasons for each and every one. He's not just a madman; on the contrary, he's so intent on demonstrating what he means that all he comes up with is nonsense.

Of course, no one should require 450 pages to communicate a point like that, so Sterne was careful to make all his sub-stories as entertaining as possible. He succeeded beautifully, too. "Tristram Shandy" was a huge popular success, so much so that those who disliked it had to publish their disdain in the daily papers. Which is fine, except that many of them objected to the undeniably bawdy subject matter, declaring that literature ought to have a moral purpose behind it and decrying the vulgarity of popular taste. Sterne couldn't have come up with a better piece of nonsense if he'd tried - here were some of the generation's brightest minds getting as finicky about a harmless amusement as the biggest fools in the novel itself about their various hobby-horses. The author might as well have jumped up and yelled "Gotcha!"

You might take that as a warning. If you read this thing resisting its diversions from what you might consider good sense or taste, it will trip you up on every page. So just enjoy the ride.

Benshlomo says, What?
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wow 2 Mar 2014
By Writer - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
In the hundred years before this book some of the worst of English literature was written: Wycherly, Defoe, Richardson. Sure, we had Swift and Fielding, but I would argue against any of their works as masterpieces. Tristram Shandy comes out of nowhere. It's as though Joyce's soul, slumming in the eighteenth century, decided to have fun. It's one of the greatest comic novels of our language. And it is soooo weird. You have to read this before you die. Note: although it's told in first person, for the first hundred pages he's not born yet.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Tristram Shandy 12 April 2014
By scarecrow - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
I have just read Tristram Shandy for the third time and it it delights me and makes me hoot with laughter all over and again. Even so, I feel unable to review Laurence Sterne's work when so many of my friends cannot understand why I could read such a book even once. For my part, I do not understand why, at the end of the work, the author leaves us to wonder why he did not draw some of the pieces together and answer, at least, some of the questions he proposes. We are left not knowing why his brother died, whether he ever succumbed to wedded bliss or whether he ever had his breeches repaired!

Although I have not written a review I will share a recommendation that I have made to myself. That is to find some literature that will shed some light on the life and aspirations of Laurence Sterne himself.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Pre-modern postmodern 15 Jan 2014
By E. A Solinas - Published on
A line from the movie "adaptation" put it best: this was a postmodern novel before there was any modernism to be post to.

Simply put, Laurence Sterne threw out all the literary conventions of what a novel should be and how it should be arranged, a few hundred years before more recent writers like Calvino, Joyce and Danielewski did. The result is "The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman," a gloriously rambling, richly entertaining sort-of-novel.

"I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me." So begins Tristram, who starts his life story with his "begetting," and attempts to tell the story of his birth and life, as well as the descriptions of relatives -- his lovable uncle Toby, his eccentric dad, his patient mother (who's in labor for most of the book).

But as he tries to tell us about his life, Tristram keeps getting sidetracked by all the stories that surround him -- his uncle's romance with the Widow Wadman and the war in which he received a nasty wound in a sensitive spot, the French, the doctor who delivered him, letters in multiple languages, the parson, the personal history of the midwife, and what curses are appropriate for what occasions.

Most novels are pretty straightforward -- they have a beginning, a middle and an end. But "The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman" totally ignores that, by having a beginning that lasts for the whole book, dozens of "middles," and no real end (it just stops at a suitable spot). All of this is without a real structure.

And he took this postmodern, break-all-the-rules mentality all the way, by including odd little illustrations -- when speaking of the death of Parson Yorick, Sterne includes a black page. Random empty pages. Asterisks instead of important paragraphs. And a bunch of squiggly lines to demonstrate precisely how the narratives in previous chapters looked.

At first glance, Sterne's writing style was pretty typical of his period -- detailed, somewhat formal in tone, and very talky. It takes a little while for Tristram to start dipping out of of his narrative -- at one point, he starts interrupting himself in midsentence. By the middle of the book, he's completely lost control of his own story.

And he twisted it around with lots of bawdy humor (such as poor Uncle Toby's groin injury, which causes quite a few problems), and the continuous comic stumbles of all the characters. On the subject of his own name, Tristram describes his dad's reaction: "Melancholy dissyllable of sound! which to his ears was unison to Nincompoop, and every name vituperative under heaven.")

Life is too rich to be encapsulated in a single story -- that's the problem with "Tristram Shandy," whose story is a classic comic delight of premodernist-postmodern skill.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining but difficult to follow 10 Aug 2013
By Kay Dawn McFarland - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
I really enjoyed Tristram Shandy after I got into it and was able to follow it. The interruptions, which are the basis of the book, can be "interruptive" to your thought patterns! But the wit is absolutely brilliant!
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