When you pick up a book called The Life And Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, you figure that you’re going to read all about… well, the life and opinions of Tristram Shandy, who was probably a top bloke. But you’d be wrong! Laurence Sterne has some fun in store for us, my friend.
The Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman was published in nine volumes, the first two appearing in 1759 and the remaining seven coming out over the following years. In the mid-1760s, a lot of imitators and copycats came out of the woodwork, trying to cash in on Sterne’s success, so he personally signed every single copy of the Volume 5 print-run, ensuring that his loyal readers knew they were getting the real deal. (Turns out John Green wasn’t the first to do it after all, ha!)
The introductory essays in this edition use a lot of words to say… well, not much, really. They’re probably super-interesting to English majors and people who have spent their lives in academia, but for the uninitiated they’re pretty impenetrable. You probably won’t get much out of them unless you’re already very familiar with Sterne in his contemporaries; otherwise, you’re probably better off perusing Laurence Sterne’s Wikipedia page instead, or reading this Very Good Review.
So, The Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, as we’ve established, purports to be an auto-biography of its titular character, but that’s a fucking joke. Ha ha bloody ha, Sterne! You figure out pretty quickly that Tristram’s defining characteristic is that he can’t tell a straightforward story, and he goes off in tangents that make Mrs Dalloway feel like a walk in the park.
This makes for a very slow read. By the half-way point, about ten chapters in to Volume IV, Tristram had just been born and named. That’s as far as we get into the “life and opinions” of Tristram Shandy over the course of 260 pages. Yawn! The narrator spends most of that time prattling on about his father (Walter), his mother (unnamed, sexist!), his Uncle Toby, and the servant Trim. He makes a whole lot of references to Shakespeare (the local parson is named Yorick, just in case it wasn’t obvious enough), and he also borrows heavily from John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding. There really isn’t all that much life-and-opinion-ing at all, to be honest, even once Tristram’s life actually begins.
I’m not ashamed to admit I gave up on the footnotes. There were just SO MANY! I got carpal tunnel from flicking back and forth every time one appeared. I took to just skimming over them all before I began each chapter, figuring I’d catch enough give me the context I needed… but by the last few volumes, I’d given up on them altogether. Seriously, there were footnotes within footnotes! It was footnote-ception! It reminded me a lot of The Divine Comedy in that regard.
It also reminded me a lot of Moby Dick, in terms of pacing: slow, with bursts of action, and lots of digression. If you enjoyed Moby Dick stylistically (not just for the swashbuckling), then I’d recommend The Life And Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman to you in a heartbeat. Most of the “action” is domestic in nature, often centering on arguments between the cynical Papa Walter and the optimistic (read: naive) Uncle Toby.
But those small moments of interest are separated by Tristram’s elongated, bloated musings on everything: from sex, to insults, to the influence of one’s name, to the shape of one’s nose, to the science of obstetrics, to strategic siege warfare, to the state of philosophical thought… in the end, the only actual events Sterne describes are Tristram’s birth (where his nose was crushed by the doctor’s forceps, to his father’s great dismay – I think “nose” might have been a euphemism for “cock”), a couple of other minor accidents he had growing up, and an adolescent trip to France. The rest of the book is all miscellaneous ramblings.
Over the last hundred years or so, Sterne has been lauded for his “masterpiece of bawdy humour and rich satire”, and “gloriously disordered narrative”. Apparently, The Life And Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman is “a joyful celebration of endless possibilities of the art of fiction [and] also a wry demonstration of its limitations”. I’m sure all that is true… but I’m not the only one who didn’t get it. His contemporaries and the literary critics of his time did not like his shit at all. They slammed him for his “obscenity”, to the point of defaming him with ongoing widespread accusations of “mindless plagiarism” and “artistic dishonesty”. The Life And Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman was pretty popular with the hoi-polloi, but it was a long time (literally centuries) before academics and critics accepted him.
I’ve also seen this book called “the first post-modernist novel”, which (given it was published in the 1700s) begs the question: can a book even be post-modern if modernism hasn’t happened yet? No one can give me a straight answer on this, which leads me to believe they are all talking out of their arses.
In sum, The Life And Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman is not for beginners. If you’re new to the classics, or even to 18th century literature specifically, this is not the one you want to start with. Gulliver’s Travels is from the same period, but infinitely more readable. The Life And Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman is a Serious Book For Grown Ups(TM), best read and understood by people who have devoted their lives to studying English literature and history. If you like to read for fun, if you like getting lost in a good page-turner, heck – if you like it when the narrator sticks to the damn point: this is not the book for you.
My favourite Amazon reviews of The Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman:
- “I had no idea what the author was talking about. I just read it to make me fall asleep whenever I had insomnia.” – Loretta
- “It’s probably great, but I didn’t notice it was in German, a language I don’t know.” – Marie Brack
- “What in the hell was this lunatic yammering about for all those 650 pages? What is the deal with his obsession with noses, penises, and hobby-horses, hobby-horses, hobby-horses? Why does anyone consider it amusing when a writer keeps telling you he’s going to get somewhere, but never does? Why is it entertaining at all to have blank chapters? Why is that cute? Why is that interesting? Who finds this funny? Who finds anything funny here at all? Why does this book of endless, mindless prattle, blabber, and piffle tickle anyone at all? Who finds digression to be enjoyable in literature? You? Why? Why? Tell me! I checked the ratings on Goodreads. This is what it showed:
5 stars: 33%, 4901
4 stars: 28%, 4064
3 stars: 22%, 3268
2 stars: 9%, 1414
1 star: 5%, 848
Meaning: 95% of these readers are flock-following, digression-loving, hobby-horse riding loonies who have swallowed the Kool-aid. There is nothing here but vacuous thundergunk. Pure, putrid unentertaining garbage. If I would have laughed once – just once – during the reading of this book, I would have given it a whole extra star, but it couldn’t even do that. I give him one star for spelling Tristram’s name right, and even then, it’s a made-up name anyway, so I may have been hoodwinked as well.” – Martin M. Bodek
- “English humour without a plot line” – Amazon Customer