The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

“Endless is the search of Truth.”

Laurence Sterne

So now I’ve finished all of my novel-reading for next term. From here on out, it’s Shakespeare all the way.

But, first, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, published 1759. Sounds like a fairly run-of-the-mill kind of old-fashioned picaresque Bildungsroman, doesn’t it? Sort of along the lines of Tom Jones or David Copperfield or something like that, just about clever enough for we enlightened twenty-first century folks to go, “Oh, well done, Mr Sterne” in a condescending fashion while congratulating ourselves on how very discerning and historically aware we are, and yet comfortingly, staidly eighteenth-century.

That’s what I was expecting, anyway.

What I actually got was something much closer to Gravity’s Rainbow and Ulysses. Yes, you read that correctly. You see, Tristram Shandy, our narrator, is completely incapable of telling a tale in any kind of linear fashion. So while this is, technically, his autobiography – the story of his life – in actual fact, the amount of time he’s on the stage, as it were, is miniscule. He’s a serial digressor, beginning an anecdote only to get distracted by an extended character sketch from which he falls into a philosophical treatise on baptism in French and climbs out into a completely new anecdote whose origins are at best obscure and at worst impenetrable. He doesn’t even manage to get born until about halfway through. There are typographical tricks, blank pages, copious asterisks and one-sentence chapters, and a substantial section which reads very much like, I kid you not, the weirder bits in Catch-22. (And Catch-22 is a weird novel.)

I reiterate: this book was published in 1759.

It’s astonishing, is what it is.

I have to say, though, that I didn’t really enjoy it. It’s the kind of literary joke whose punchline is well and truly established after 300 pages, and any further elaboration seems a bit redundant. Okay, we get it. Tristram is a terrible narrator. Can we move on, now, please?

To be honest, I can’t even remember vast swatches of it, and I only finished it seven hours ago. There’s no plot to speak of, and the constant digression is just annoying after a while. It may, I suppose, turn into an interesting essay, but as for light reading…well, you know that bit in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone when Ron looks at Hermione’s book and goes

This is light?”


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