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The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman n/e (Oxford World's Classics) Paperback – 8 Oct 2009
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About the Author
Ian Campbell Ross is Professor of Eighteenth-Century Studies at Trinity College Dublin.
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Called a Postmodern novel before the term had even been coined, ultimately this is a story that goes nowhere; it is as the film that was eventually made of this was called, a cock and bull story. Or you can say this is a shaggy dog tale. This also highlights the limitations of writing, as we can see here quite clearly the person who is writing this is trying to write an autobiography, but when writing about your life, where do you start? To write about your own life you have to decide whether you start with being conceived, being born, or at a later stage, and you can never finish a full account if you want to take in your life as you would need to be able to carry on writing after you have deceased. That in itself can be quite amusing as you look around and see every year the latest ‘star’ putting out their own books when they haven’t yet really even lived. Sterne goes off on to separate issues and digresses from the main tale, which is intentional but shows up also what happens if something isn’t properly thought out or edited.Read more ›
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 these 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.