Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne

I had a relationship with Tristram Shandy.  First I fell in love.  We had a lengthy honeymoon period, during which I gushed about it to anybody who would listen.  After the honeymoon ended, we settled into a comfortable companionship.  Then...I have to admit it...things started to go sour.  The same qualities that once dazzled me began to seem tired, I stopped laughing at all its jokes, I no longer looked forward to a future together.  And then I turned the final page and our relationship was over - not a moment too soon.

I'm not sure I have ever started out so enthusiastic about a book, and finished so tepid.  I was ready to clear out a spot on my top ten list - I don't actually have a top ten list, but there are books that would probably be on it if I ever did make one - because it seemed like such a tour de force.  Endlessly imaginative, brilliant, Rabelaisian, absolutely hilarious.  Like a magician pulling rabbits from his hat, or a star quarterback nimbly dodging past all the competition, it's a show of pure virtuosity.

If you don't quite know what Tristram Shandy is - it's an 18th century novel written by Laurence Sterne pretending to be a memoir written by the eponymous Tristram Shandy.  Tristram starts at the beginning - the day of his birth - and it's well past the halfway point in the novel before he's finished being born.  Every time he tries to progress through the story of his life, he's drawn farther into the past.  His uncle Toby was present on his birthday, and in the process of introducing him Tristram gives us his whole life story.  But he can't stick to his digressions either.  Tristram tries to write about Toby and ends up discussing the minutiae of siege warfare (shades of Sebald's Austerlitz there - I'm sure the connection is intentional, and it kind of made me want to reread Austerlitz).

It's great.  It's great, it's done perfectly, and it's fun to read.  It carried me through the first two-thirds of the book in a state of sheer euphoria, and then I crashed.  Partly because a couple of the digressions left me honestly confused (The whole trip to France?  Can someone explain this to me?), but mostly because I started to wonder if the sheer fecundity of the book was a mirage, if Sterne had whipped up a one-trick pony and ridden it a little too long.  I have to admit that once you've figured out his schtick it's kind of predictable.

And the conclusion was pretty unsatisfying.  It just sort of...ends.  The final section seemed like a meandering, tepid fade-out.  And it leaves us with so many unanswered questions.  We never really learn anything about Tristram, beyond a few tantalizing hints.  I could believe that Sterne intentionally leaves the reader unsatisfied...but, well, I was still unsatisfied.

Anyhow, a few of my favorite quotations:

"Have not the wisest men in all ages, not excepting Solomon himself, -- have they not had their Hobby-Horses;--their running horses,--their coins and their cockle-shells, their drums and their trumpets, their fiddles, their pallets, --their maggots and their butterflies?
"brisk trotting and slow argumentation, like wit and judgment, were two incompatible movements"
"When to gratify a private appetite, it is once resolved upon, that an innocent and an helpless creature shall be sacrificed, 'tis an easy matter to pick up sticks enough from any thicket where it has strayed, to make a fire to offer it up with"
"the thin juice of a man's understanding"
"Shall we be destined to the days of eternity, on holy-days, as well as working-days, to be shewing the relicks of learning, as monks do the relicks of their saints--without working one--one single miracle with them?"
"The ancient Goths of Germany, who (the learned Cluverius is positive) were first seated in teh country between the Vistula and the Oder, and who afterwards incorporated the Herculi, the Bugians, and some other Vandallick clans to 'em-- had all of them a wise custom of debating every thing of importance to their state, twice, that is,--once drunk, and once sober:-- Drunk---that their councils might not want vigour;-- and sober--that they might not want discretion"
This is a sort of quintessential Shandyism, where the author addresses the reader directly: "To conceive this right,-- call for pen and ink--here's paper ready to your hand.--Sit down, Sir, paint her to your own mind--as like your mistress as you can--as unlike your wife as your conscience will let you--'tis all one to me"
"That of all the several ways of beginning a book which are now in practice throughout the known world, I am confident my own way of doing it is the best--I'm sure it is the most religious--for I begin with writing the first sentence--and trusting to Almighty God for the second"
"I have been the continual sport of what the world calls Fortune; and though I will not wrong her by saying, She has ever made me feel the weight of any great or signal evil;--yet with all the good temper in the world I affirm it of her, that in every stage of my life, and at every turn and corner where she could get fairly at me, the ungracious duchess has pelted me with a set of as pitiful misadventures and cross accidents as ever small Hero sustained."

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