on 13 June 2001
What Laurence Sterne has given us in 'Tristram Shandy' is a landmark piece of prose writing, and what Penguin have done is to re-package that in an edition of equal status. The text follows the established 'Florida' edition of Sterne's work, and the editor Melvin New is right to acknowledge the scholarly importance of Christopher Ricks introduction to the previous Penguin edition, hence it is reprinted here along with New's up to date and equally copious editor's introduction. Thus we have two critical essays by major scholars covering much of what has been written and said about 'Tristram Shandy' for the last 50 years or so. Add to that a glossary and over a hundred pages of notes and annotations to clarify the text's obscurities and references and you've already got more than your money's worth before you've got to the text proper. And what a text too. It isn't by any means to everyone's taste, and some may think it a complete waste of six hundred-odd pages, but herein lies its charm. Yes, it doesn't really get anywhere, and yes it does do odd things like printing squiggly lines and black pages, but it is just this breaking of convention and questioning of novel writing that gives it its power - and humour. It has long been established that what Postmodern authors have been praised for in the last 30 years or so Sterne was doing in the 1760s. And here it is displayed with such exuberance and wit. This is a very funny book, even now, over 300 years later, and it is easy to see how it caused such a stir in a society which was rapidly becoming affected and prudish, with its sexual innuendo. A must for scholars and lovers of Eighteenth Century writing, humour and curiosities. Incredible value and not to be missed.
on 12 June 1999
The fragmentary structure of _TS_ is ideally suited to Rowson's comic-book reinterpretation. This accomplished editorial cartoonist pokes fun at 'heritage' illustration and costume drama, instead matching Sterne's words with his lively images and contemporary, knowing commentary. Though he shows an affectionate regard for the original, Rowson is not afraid to bring to his own work a brand of mockery not far from Sterne's.
In comparison with John Baldessari's recent photo-collages illustrating the same novel, Rowson is much funnier, more accessible, and more faithful to the original.
A very funny, very successful re-interpretation of this sometimes difficult classic. Rotund Walter Shandy is a particulary appealing figure.
Contains some (justified) obscenity.
on 29 August 2003
The augustan enlightenment period of English literature is one of my least favourite; I do not enjoy Dr Johnson, Thomas Gray, and Defoe isn't a great novelist. Which is why I was so surprised by this 'novel', bursting at the seams with a restless comic energy - and it was written by a clergyman! This is the bawdiest of the bawdy, but not low brow in any way. Sterne reinvents the novel as a sea of possibilities, exploiting even the forms limitations. He is a master of illusion, and constantly mocks the reader in good spirit, playing with time scales and propriety. Anybody who likes Swift will be knocked out by this; Sterne outdoes the master of satire at every turn.
The central irony of the novel is that the narrator is meant to tell us his life story, but does not even get born until the fourth volume, as he digresses further and further from the starting point of his conception. This novel embodies the creative process, and is most probably the most creatively 'free' work ever written. Sterne destroys all preconceptions, and sets limits only where he can go no further.
on 17 November 1999
And they say James Joyce is difficult! Laurence Sterne tale, which was published originally as a periodical, tells the story of Tristram Shady's forefathers, his birth and life. In doing so, Laurence Sterne plays jokes with the narrative form and the very nature of writing. The story starts, stops, re-starts and stops again and follows deviations up dead ends and full stops, left right and centre. Sterne was in his time, a clever and funny writer with a keen sense of the vulgar and it's his skill as a writer that tempts you to follow this complex narrative. Ultimately the commitment needed to keep up with his style outweighs the pleasure of trying to understand 18th century puns, most of which are about willies anyway. In truth more a forefather to Flan O'Brien than James Joyce, Sterne is a very specialist taste, try before you buy.
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.
on 4 November 2008
At a cursory glance, Sterne's book appears to be a novel in the traditional sense; an in-depth character study of a central protagonist. A closer look reveals the title to be the first of many traps laid to ambush the unwary reader; this exuberant comedy is a far-cry from the orderly prescriptive narratives of contemporary novels. An eccentric oddity and a masterful challenge to the expectations of its readers, Tristram Shandy is a shrewd exposition of the limitations of the novel, a form still very much in its infancy in Sterne's lifetime. Misleadingly entitled Life and Opinions, the story scarcely progresses beyond the superbly hectic first day of Tristram's life. Instead we are presented with a multiplication of beginnings until the entire book appears to be nothing more than an introductory prologue to an unattainable and continuously deferred book called Life and Opinions. The reader happily renounces himself to Sterne's method of riddle and bafflement as he navigates this cock and bull story where bawdy anecdotes are told out of order, memories are cut-off and fragmentary, and the suggestion of a single word causes page after page of absurd digression. Experience of the perceptible world resists being written and the profusion of typographical blanks, expletives, chaotic stage-business, and innuendo continually hint at what is not being said. However Sterne's gallery of eccentrics is made real through the charming characterisations of Uncle Toby, Dr Slop, and the Widow Wadman. An incredible book with an un-credible tale at its centre, Tristram Shandy is the best example in the canon of textual trickery and self-consciousness before the form's more lasting re-emergence in the 20th century. Innovative and amazingly modern in outlook, Sterne's masterpiece will be enjoyed by any reader who dares to delve into this riotous and entertaining tale.
This is Laurence Sterne’s most famous work but let us not forget that apart from this he also published other works and was influential on other styles of writing. This book became a success not only in this country but throughout Europe, and influenced many an author, but alas in this country today at least a lot of this has waned, with people disliking this book. What are the main points of the tale have not aged, but of course unlike the original readers people today don’t realise where something mentioned is satirising what we would call scientific knowledge and how things change as more information comes to light. On top of that there are a lot of literary references here to other books and authors, including even Shakespeare and Rabelais.
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. We also have some bawdiness here and double entendres, which didn’t go down too well some generations later, due to Victorian values, where such things were not mentioned and kept out of sight and out of mind. We have hopefully moved on from that mindset today, although looking around sometimes I wonder, and think that some of the problems in society could be addressed properly if they were out in the open and treated as simple facts of living.
With it has to be admitted consummate skill Sterne wrote something that is really still as funny today as when he wrote it, and still has the power to provoke thought and intelligent discussion. So ultimately you could claim that this novel is one of the longest jokes ever put down on paper.
on 22 October 2005
The vast number of the allusions in 'Tristram Shandy' to all sorts of subjects make it very difficult for a reader to appreciate the novel on its own. Subsequently this edition is invaluable to students &c who want some idea of what Sterne is actually talking about half the time - the notes are excellent and so is Ricks' introduction.
on 25 October 2001
The humour may have aged but nothing has altered the unusual and humourous relationship that 'Tristram' creates with the reader. It is a distruction of the usual relationship between the all-knowing narrator and the reader. Yes, Tristram knows all but he tries to tell too much. It takes a reader who questions what Tristram is telling us, who finds humour in the seemingly innocent ambiguity of the text, who sees that Sterne is laughing at our exense to enjoy this novel.
on 20 July 2016
I suppose this is clever stuff because it just wiggles and jiggles from this to that in a way that is almost entirely modern when the novel is in fact from the late eighteenth century. Some arty people love the idea of a modern before modern cultural thing and this is an example of such - El Greco also prefigured Picasso's idea of space as another example. However clever as it is it seems on initial reading to be just cleverness and nothing more. but some people love that kind of crap