Andrew Drummond lives in Edinburgh. He has published four novels, which deal with a confusing variety of heroic failures and forgotten historical oddities. These are: An Abridged History (2004) (of the railway to Ullapool); A Handbook of Volapük (2006) (of a universal language that never made it); Elephantina (2008) (of an elephant that expired in Dundee in 1707); and Novgorod the Great (2010) (of one of the world's longest walks). He is currently working on a novel set in a radical republican England of 1669 (it never happened); and a factual account of Count Benyovsky's escape from Russian captivity in Kamchatka in 1771 (most of it happened, depending on whom you believe). He has also published a number of short stories, and maintains his own web-site where a whole pile of unloved stories still languishes under dusty heaps of materials. Below, in the first of two consecutive posts on the book for this series (see, now, here for the sequel), Andy writes about his favourite novel in the English language, Laurence Sterne's The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy.
Andrew Drummond on The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne
(...in the spirit and the style of...)
'It is, in short, the most diverting book I ever read.' Someone – my wife, it may be, I forget – forgetfulness being the chosen weapon of the middle-aged – but let us suppose for the moment that it is indeed my wife – it will move the narrative forward somewhat – asks me what Laurence Sterne's book is about. We find ourselves all unknowing in the grounds of the old lunatic asylum, which had a life more recently as a university campus and is now - lest the buildings end their days troubled by the brooding twin spirits of their past - undergoing a transfiguration into an elegant Care Home. Our conversation, such as it is, concerns The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy.
'It is, Madam,' I advise my companion as we stop to listen to the activities of a desultory woodpecker - 'about not a lot.'
There ensues a long and awkward pause, long enough for a cool marital silence to set in. The woodpecker abates his noise in trepidation. My answer, so given with an air of great authority, is scarcely considered sufficient.
I hurriedly refer my partner in life to the words written by Sterne himself at the closing page of the ninth and final volume – he had proposed twenty – life proved too short – there was another book to write - A Sentimental Journey - also too short – in short, Time outdistanced him. His short summary alone remains:
'L—d! said my mother, what is all this story about? – A COCK and a BULL, said Yorick – And one of the best of its kind, I ever heard.'
The story questioned by Mistress Shandy was indeed about a cow led by Obadiah upon a 'pop-visit' to a bull. Where the cock came from – you need not ask – it is another story altogether, one to which we might return later, if we are spared. Sterne's own summary is – in the nature of things – misleading - an author is rarely permitted to write the words he planned. It is - of course - a book about the winding of clocks, about injuries to the groin, the naming of children, about obstetrical instruments, knots, noses, critics and the very low cut of pockets on coats at the latter end of Queen Anne's reign; and so forth. We might add that there is more than one digression – if I might be permitted to list them: on the matter of knots and squirts, of ravelins and half-moons and counterscarps and demi-bastions, on the tightness (or otherwise) of breeches --
'Do not digress, Sir,' insists my wife, or that woman, or troubled spirit, who, accompanying me on my wanderings, is eager to gain some knowledge of the Shandean world. 'Does the book at least have a hero? A heroine? And a villain? Whose side is it on?'
All questions, honoured reader, which aim straight at the heart of the matter – it is only to be expected of a woman whose intelligence and practicality far exceed my own. But how am I to explain nicely the unavoidable fact that - it has no heroes, it has no villains, it has no morality? It contains merely members of the human race with all their foibles. And whose side it is on cannot readily be answered – it is hard to determine whether it is even on the side of the author, who - despite his stated animosity towards digressions and interruptions - finds himself dragged willy-nilly down side-lanes and interrupted by insistent characters at every turn. Take, Madam, the closing words of the seventh volume:
'I go on straight forwards, without digression or parenthesis, in my uncle Toby's amours –
I began thus –'
Ending with a beginning, Sterne then occupies the first several chapters of the eighth volume with several false-starts tilting at the questions of Love and Cuckoldom, and a lengthy and detailed aside concerning Widow Wadman's night-shifts, the length thereof, and the corking-pins thereto which hold her in. But then - having got as far as Chapter 19 in the new volume - noticeable progress at last having been made - he is interrupted in his exposition to permit Uncle Toby's servant Trim to attempt to tell 'The Story of the king of Bohemia and his seven castles', which story is itself interrupted several times before it can get off the ground – and is never completed, owing to other digressions on uncle Toby's groin - a matter of the greatest interest to the Widow Wadham, a digression which is never concluded, consequent upon an argument as to whether a wound to the knee (being Trim's case) is more painful than one to the groin. Our author returns to Uncle Toby's amours only in the ninth volume at a point -
'So, Sir,' my fair companion interrupts with some show of impatience, 'Mr. Sterne cannot bear to be interrupted? Why then -?'
I interrupt her objection.
'Sometimes it is an affair of Life and Death,' I advise. With that explanation, she falls silent. Life and Death are no small matters to the mother of my children. I pursue my advantage. 'Mr. Sterne writes, for example, that Death comes calling and interrupts him just as he is in the middle of telling the story of a nun who fancied herself to be a shell-fish and of the monk who was damned for eating a mussel. "Did ever so grave a personage get into so vile a scrape?" remarks Death in wonderment, before retiring.'
There is a silence. I gaze gravely at my feet upon the path.
'Does even Fifty Shades of Grey contain such bawdiness?' scolds my wife.
I express my confidence on that score, but since neither of us has read that illustrious work, it is a fruitless argument.
'And this book,' she proceeds without diversion, in a manner which reminds me positively of the hobby-horsical method of Uncle Toby, 'is there much more in it of matters of -----?' She terminated her sentences with a series of dashes, for a lady does not like to talk of certain affairs. Far better that, than to talk outright of *** and *******.
'Ah!' I exclaim with an enthusiasm which – had I but once paused to think - was a shade too ardent for the occasion, 'there is a story of copulation interrupted by the monthly winding of the clock, another story of a man with an admirably elongated nose, and there is the unfortunate incident of the sash-window which fell down upon the infant Master Tristram's pride-and-joy when the maid Susannah persuaded him to piss out of the embrasure, the lead-weights which should have supported it having been requisitioned to cast additional field-pieces for the re-enactment of the Siege of Namur in Uncle Toby's back garden.'
My wife, like any woman who hears of the misfortunes of small boys, is concerned. 'And did poor Tristram ever recover?'
'That is an injury from which a man rarely recovers,' I advise her knowledgeably.
'It affected him all his life, then?'
'I cannot tell,' I confess. 'For, after nine volumes, Mr. Sterne has barely been able to bring Tristram into infancy, let alone the remainder of his life. Life is - as I believe I stated once before - too short.'
'It has at least, this book, a plot? It has a plot, Sir, tell me that!'
I shake my head regretfully. 'Not the least sign of one. It does not require one.'
'Let us take this other path,' says my wife, breathing heavily.
We direct our weekly promenade sharply to the right. I propose another argument. 'Mr. Sterne's book,' I indicate, the while ticking off the points of my defence on my left-hand glove - for it is a cold morning and numb fingers will not help in the case, 'is a book where the process of writing is kept in full view. There are blank pages, to mark a quiet gap in events. There are chapters that are only one sentence long. There are squiggly lines –'
'Squiggly lines, Sir?' snorts my wife, disentangling her umbrella from an overhanging branch.
I proceed regardless - 'which illustrate how the story is proceeding – that is, rather at random. There are marbled book covers placed bang in the middle of the third volume. Two pages are entirely black representing, alas, poor Yorick's grave.'
My companion repeats her earlier snort.
'This, Madam,' I point out, 'in a book over two hundred and fifty years old.'
'Age is no excuse, Sir. If it were, we would have no need of Care Homes.'
I fall silent, pondering that irrefutable train of logic.
The silence lasts longer than I might have wished. I must bring my polemic to a close. 'With asterisks and dashes does Sterne cover our ears, leaving us with no option but to read the thus-starred rude words and fully take cognisance of the bawdy significance.'
'Ah!' exclaims my wife in triumph, 'and there we have it. Fifty Shades of Grey again!'
'Madam,' I protest, 'I am no bawd, and I have loved this book for almost forty years, since I first opened its covers.'
She says nothing.
'Almost exactly as long as I have loved you, since I first opened -'
My wife taps me on the wrist and bids me be quiet - she proposes that we take a turn through the woods once more.
'By the bye,' I observe in due course, 'the bull was in no way equal to the employment which had been thrust upon him.'
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]