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The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (Penguin Classics) Paperback – 27 Mar 2003
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Naxos audiobooks has just released an unabridged version, read by Anton Lesser with humour and brio. Lesser's light tenor is perfectly suited to the many roles (Parson Yorick, Doctor Slop, et al) who crowd Sterne's narrative. This translates into 15 CDs and about 19 hours of listening. Perfect for a wet summer. --Robert McCrum, The Observer
This extraordinary novel - precursor of post-modernism by 250 years - would be an unwieldy beast in unabridged form: its 19 hours of whim and wit would be indigestible, if swallowed whole. But at a gentle pace it makes a lovely listen, as Anton Lesser brings characters and situations to life in infectiously unbuttoned style. Massive books like Sterne's don't fit modern lifestyles, but this massive audio-book may well fit in very well. --Betty Tadman, The Scotsman
As a general rule I go along with the advice that if a book doesn't grab you by the end of chapter 4, don't waste your time, there are plenty more. Yes, but not like Tristram Shandy. Nothing I've ever come across is like Sterne's extraordinary comic tour de force published 250 years ago which, I freely admit, I found pretty hard going a long way past chapter 4. And then, suddenly, I got it. Or at least I realised I was coming at it from the wrong direction. It isn't a novel. It has no plot. Chapters break off in mid-sentence because, advises the narrator, 'I would not give a groat for that man's knowledge in pen-craft who does not understand this: That the best plain narrative in the world, tacked very close to the last spirited apostrophe to my Uncle Toby, would have felt both cold and vapid upon the reader's palate; therefore I forthwith put an end to the chapter, though I was in the middle of my story.' And which story might that have been? The one about Uncle Toby's dalliance with the widow Wadman? Or his manservant Corporal Trim's tireless reconstructions of Flanders campaigns, complete with battering rams and catapults on the bowling green behind the vegetable garden? Or of Dr Slop, summoned to assist at the narrator's birth, being thrown from his horse and ... Enough. If you've ever sat spellbound listening to a witty, satirical, outrageous, digressive raconteur regaling you with endless stories about preposterous characters that lead nowhere but keep you hanging on every word, trust me they learned their craft from Sterne. So did postmodernists such as James Joyce and Flann O'Brien. It is tailor-made for audio, as is Anton Lesser's reading intelligent, humorous, charming. Dr Johnson admired the book enormously, but opined that 'nothing odd will do long'. For once he was wrong. Tristram Shandy is decidedly odd and extremely long, but it has stayed the course. --Sue Arnold, The Guardian
When I'm in London during the summer, I don't have the car. This is liberating to an extent, but does mean that I can't listen to Tristram Shandy. I bought the unabridged 15-CD set at the best possible place Shandy Hall, Laurence Sterne's home at Coxwold, in Yorkshire. On visiting, I became uncomfortably aware that I'd never managed to get through any Sterne. Anton Lesser reads Tristram to perfection. By the time I'd driven back to Ramsgate the next day, I had heard 10 CDs, but what about the remainder? My ears are the wrong shape for an iPod; the little earphones fall out. I can't expect the family to share Sterne in the car. Besides, is he suitable for children? Eventually, they may take to him more quickly than me always going off at a tangent, with no obvious beginning, middle and end, Tristram should appeal to the internet generation. Clive Aslet, Town Mouse Country Life /// I never got very far with reading that most confusing, weird novel Tristram Shandy, so I'm listening to it. It was after all published between 1759 and 1767, a time when novels were often read aloud to an audience eager for any kind of entertainment while they tatted lace or fiddled with fishing flies. Apparently they didn't mind the fact that, thanks to the discursive style, Tristram isn't born until the third volume. By then the bemused, possibly snoring, listener has met Uncle Toby and Parson Yorick, and been led up innumerable garden paths and gathered many more or less bawdy red herrings. Anton Lesser is magnificent; his sparky, slightly manic narration is ideally suited to Laurence Sterne s exclamations and digressions. A little goes a long way, though. It is some comfort to learn that Sterne published it in parts over eight years. I've decided to look on it as a radio soap and take it in daily doses. Will it work? Time will tell. --The Times, Jan'17 --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
Sterne's utterly original novel - the meandering, maddening 'autobiography' of one of literature's oldest comic characters. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.See all Product description
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The basic characters are Tristram’s parents (mainly his dad), his groin injured uncle Toby, Trim - Toby’s aide helping with his model castles, some maids, Dr Slope, a mid-wife, vicar Yorick. Tristram explains his conception, hobby-horses, large noses, youth and education, travels in France though there is very little story really – this is an exercise in making clever, erudite and amusing digressions extending to over 600 pages.
Ok. I started this book with some hope of a good book, but after only a few pages I realised the aged style of writing was not very accessible. Sterne’s method is to begin chapters with very obtuse references to the topic to be elucidated perhaps pages or chapters later by which time ones lost the thread – even within paragraphs I could reread them over again and still not gather what he was actually saying (even though I clearly knew every word). Several times he’d refer to taking up previous topics and only then would the penny drop that at some point he had been referring to, say, an accident with a sash-window. After 100 pages it did not get better or easier to read; after 200 you’ll either get it and enjoy, or like me chose between giving up or reading to the end out of sheer will power and perseverance.
I finished it but really got very little humour (though I did find a few amusing moments in the text), learning or much from the book other than I notched up a book. The one thing I did ’get’ and appreciated most was chapter 6 vol 9 where Sterne clearly argues well for the humanity and equality for a black slut.
“My most zealous wish and fervent prayer in your behalf, and in my own too, in case the thing is not done already for us, - is, that the great gifts and endowments both of wit and judgement, with every thing which usually goes along with them, - such as memory, fancy, genius, eloquence, quick parts, and what not, may this precious moment without stint or measure, let or hindrance , be poured down warm as each of us could bear it, - scum and sediment an’ all; (for I would not have a drop lost) into several receptacles, cells, cellules, domiciles, dormitories, refectories, and spare places of our brains, - in such sort, that they continue to be injected and tunned into, according to the true intent and meaning of my wish, until every vessel of them both great and small, be so replenished, saturated and filled therewith, that no more, would it save a man’s life, could possibly be got either in or out.”
This wasn’t my book and can only score 2 stars: this is almost unreadable compared to Don Quixote (1605), Gargantua and Pantagruel (1534) both of which Tristram refers to directly, and I would include Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Gulliver’s Travels (1726) and Jacques the Fatalist (1765) – all these olde style books are enjoyable stories and equally as innovative in their own ways.
This is a difficult book for the modern novel reader to engage with. It seems from the Amazon reviews I’ve read that ‘customers’ either like it or hate it. I can understand both positions, having half a century ago given up on the book in a futile attempt ‘to get through it’, as we say. Since when I’ve read it twice more, each time with increasing delight. Samuel Johnson maintained that if you were to read Richardson’s Clarissa for the story you’d hang yourself’; on Sterne’s novelistic adventure, he maintains that ‘nothing odd will do long.’
About lasting one has to wait and see. Sterne’s novel has lasted, in-so-far-as any novel written in the Eighteenth Century is still read in the Twenty-first. For anyone studying the English Novel, Sterne is a must, as is Joyce, and, I would argue, Bunyan. Popular in its day Tristram Shandy is now essential reading for perspectives on the novel - for its innovations in language, structure and humanity, by which I mean sympathetic tolerance of human sentiment and eccentricity. The book demands patience and much re-reading to yield up its treasures, but I fear that fewer and fewer of us today have the time or patience needed.
The book begins and ends not with the life of the eponymous Tristram but with a joke about begetting the hero, except for the fact that details of how he was born are almost nil, while the book ends with the erotic failure of a bull. The book is about the struggle to tell anything, let alone a story. Like Byron in Don Juan, Tristram confides in and plays games with his reader. He is the ultimate ‘intrusive narrator,’ asking the reader serious and unansweable questions about God and the business of creation, and admitting the fact that in 600+ pages he can say nothing about either. Words often fail him: he offers in their place rows of stars, blank pages, marbled pages, and wiggly lines, and even omitted pages.
So this is not the kind of novel in which the reader can relax and lose himself in the story. It is a comic novel, but while not exactly a belly full of laughs, it’s a serious and witty comedy of implication rather than a comedy of manners.