Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

Today at lunch I started reading The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, by Laurence Sterne. I was supposed to read Joyce's Finnegans Wake next, but I had the Sterne with me and I needed to read something and I've already got a good start into the book so I'm going to stick with it. When, a week or so ago, I told Mighty Reader that this book was close to the top of my to-be-read stack, she wrinkled her nose and asked why I wanted to labor through it. I can understand her question; Tristram Shandy has a reputation for being a difficult and unreadable novel. The irony of me delaying the reading of one difficult and unreadable novel (Finnegans Wake) for a different difficult unreadable novel (Shandy) is not lost on me. But that is by the bye.

Here's the thing: Tristram Shandy was published in nine volumes between 1759 and 1766, and has not been out of print since. There must be a good reason for that. It's a comic novel (a term this year's Booker Prize winner hates, I hear) and a metanovel and a postmodern novel written before there was postmodernism. But none of that's got anything to do with my decision to read it. My interest has to do with a theory I have that a lot of the allegedly "difficult" novels in the English canon aren't really difficult, they're just a bit mannered and stylized and once you figure out the mannerism and the style, they're as easy to read as Dick and Jane. A couple of years ago I read Ulysses and it was brilliant and sometimes dense and often challenging but mostly, it was a lot of fun to read. Last summer I read Moby Dick. Admittedly, Mr. Melville and I had some ugly moments on the high seas but I stuck with him and eventually I got it and when I finished the book I wished there were 400 more pages to read. Even now I sort of wish I was still reading that book. I miss Moby Dick.

So I'm betting that other allegedly "difficult" books are going to be a swell time for me, and I'm going to read them in the spirit of fun. Which is the spirit in which literary fiction should be read, kids: F.U.N. So far Mr. Sterne has not disappointed me. It's as much (or more) about the process of writing the book as it is about the story told within the book. Sterne (or Shandy, if you will) addresses the reader directly on almost every page, explaining how he's structuring the narrative and how you really must bear with him if you don't quite get the references just yet and yes, we're strangers now but eventually we'll be fast friends so you must just trust your narrator. It's all quite good and I am expecting a picaresque novel of 18th-century England and a lot of silliness along the way.


  1. I actually have always wanted to read Tristram Shandy but never prioritized it highly. I look forward to hearing what yo think of it. Might help adjust my priorities.

    And I think there's something to what you say. When mystery readers tell me Moonstone is difficult -- when young adults tell me they can't get through Red Badge of Courage, for crying out loud -- I seems feel like saying, "There's difficult and then there's not even trying. Don't be a wuss."

  2. I really need to read that book sometime soon. Can't wait to hear your thoughts on it.

  3. Nevets: Moonstone is a classic! Wilkie Collins difficult? Huh. They should read some late Henry James.

    Ms Chaw: You really should read it. Being as Sterne is so very dead, I didn't even feel guilty buying an old used edition. But it took me a month to find a bookshop that had it in stock. Which I find curious.

  4. Yeah, I think Moonstone is all around wonderful. It's a good mystery, it's superbly written, it has great characters, and it's hilarious.

    The Lady in White is on my TBR 2011 list. I hope I hold myself accountable to that.

    I'm not sure they could even make it through Figure in the Carpet. So sad.

    As far as I can tell it's simple intimidation by assumption.

  5. Sure, Mr. Bailey. Not difficult at all. Just as my physicist brother keeps assuring me that physics is not difficult at all, but loads of fun. For those with an IQ of 180.

    Just sayin'.

    Then again, I know people who couldn't get through Twilight. I concede that motive is as much at work as IQ.

  6. Tara: I certainly don't have an IQ of 180, and I'm willing to bet that I am missing out on a good deal of Laurence's humor and meaning. Still, it's a jolly little read and I'm having a good time. Though I'm possibly better prepared than a lot of readers because I read a ton of 18th-century writing while working on Cocke & Bull and so I've had plenty of exposure to the style recently. "Hey," I think, "It's like Jon Edwards with a sense of humor or Ben Franklin with naughtier jokes."

  7. Oh, my, if Ben Franklin had written fiction....