I bought Tristram Shandy in a fit of zeal a couple of years ago at a charity booksale. Rather appropriately it has taken me a couple of years to get around to reading it. I say appropriately as the book is the ‘autobiography’ of one Tristram Shandy, who is far too distracted in his writing to get around to telling us about his life. Publication of this novel began in 1759; it was published in nine volumes over eight years. Considering it is an early example of the novel it seems extraordinarily postmodern. It’s not a book I would recommend for most people. At times it was a maddening, tiresome read, but it could also be funny, in quite unexpected ways.
The first three volumes nominally tell the story of Tristram’s life from conception until birth. As I have already said Shandy finds himself continually distracted from his own tale, and instead diverts himself to stories regarding other characters, or general philosophical ramblings. The real main characters in this book are Tristram’s father, Walter Shandy, and his uncle Toby. While Tristram’s mother is left to labour upstairs for three volumes, Walter and Toby have a varied philosophical discourse downstairs. Tristram also narrates stories about them, including introducing some, such as his Uncle Toby’s courting of the Widow Wadman, which in typical Shandian fashion are not actually told until the final volume.
I found this first section of the book the most interesting, although I also enjoyed the final volume. While the narrative meanders around, there is more of a shape to the story he is telling, as he keeps referring back to the events surrounding his birth. This thread was lacking from the middle sections, where he rambles on about one thing for a while, and then another. I found myself struggling during these chapters, especially the volume which narrates his travels through France. While individual episodes could be amusing, the overall effect was mind numbing. I really did have to force myself to keep reading, occasionally feeling as though I had read through a number of pages without taking anything in.
The humour of this book is much broader than anything you would expect to encounter in a nineteenth century novel. It is striking the difference fifty years makes in what was acceptable. Licentious behaviour is only ever implied, never explicitly described in the Victorian novels, even when it is integral to the plot. A bawdy sense of humour is continually present throughout Tristram Shandy, The book begins with an account of his mother distracting Walter Shandy at a rather delicate moment, leading to Tristram being conceived in a more disordered state than ideal; thus setting the tone for both Tristram’s character, and the novel.
From our modern vantage point it is easy to describe the book as ‘postmodern’. It seems to anticipate what later writers like Virginia Woolf or WG Sebald would do. Famously his book contains a page entirely filled in with black ink, as though to represent the melancholy of the story being told at that point, or the eyes of the dying man as they close for the last time. I think though, considering the long time span in between this work and anything similar, it is perhaps more of an anomaly, rather than the inspiration for a trend. His techniques for chopping and changing the narrative are very clever though, the following being one of my favourite examples
‘Dr Slop drew up his mouth, and was just beginning to return my uncle Toby the compliment of his Whu—u—u—or interjectional whistle—when the door hastily opening in the next chapter but one—put an end to the affair.’
This isn’t a book I would recommend as a good read. I read it myself mainly as a curiosity. My interest in this book was first piqued by a Michael Winterbottom film Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story. I remember really enjoying the film, and being certain I wasn’t getting all the jokes as I hadn’t read the book it is (very loosely) based on. In short the film is great, the book slightly more challenging, although it did amuse me at times.