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 second of two posts on the book for this series, Andy writes about his favourite novel in the English language, Laurence Sterne's The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy. (The first of the two posts is here.)
Andrew Drummond on The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne (a second instalment)
Put simply, this is the most entertaining book written in English in the last two centuries and a half. I refer to Laurence Sterne's pseudo-autobiographical Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, a book of considerable length which barely charts the life of the eponymous hero beyond his infancy. Sterne, early on, suggests the work will run to 20 volumes; in the event, he completed nine. Even if it had gone the distance, it is unlikely we would have learned much about Tristram beyond his early schooling. But what's to complain about? We are given several hundred pages of gentle humour, satire, digressions and discreetly-concealed bawdiness. There is enough in there to refresh your spirits, should you feel tired of the tackiness of Western civilization and seek shelter from the brutality of life in general.
It has no heroes. It has no villains. It promotes no morality. It happily disregards conventions for printed texts. It deals a lot with noses. It has no plot to speak of – unless you consider the heated wooing of an oblivious Uncle Toby by the Widow Wadman to be a plot: that particular strand of the narrative never actually leads very far. And all of that, in a book written in the middle of the 18th century, is nothing short of a miracle. To be sure, Voltaire, Diderot and Rousseau in France were liberating both the spirit and the form of writing, but they also had philosophical axes to grind, and did so with relish in their prose works. Sterne had only the foibles of humanity and the accidents of daily life to present, and he did so with great skill. Tristram's father and mother, Uncle Toby, the parson Yorick, Dr Slop, Trim and Susannah – all watch over the gestation and infancy of young Tristram like benevolent, clumsy, naïve gods. There is something almost Olympian in the majesty of their concerns, mistakes and distractions.
The Shandean universe is one beset by unfortunate accidents. The conception of Tristram himself is marked by a coitus interruptus when Tristram's mother suddenly reminds her husband that he has not wound the clock, a task that would be due at that precise time each month. This inattention to the task in hand is deemed by Tristram to have saddled him with poor luck for life. The sequence continues on the day of his birth. His entry into the world is attended by a feuding midwife and an interfering doctor, and the latter manages to break the infant's nose with his new-fangled forceps. The fates not being content with that, a baptism is hurriedly arranged from fear that the new-born will not survive: the boy is given the name Tristram – the one name of all possible names which his father would not have had for his son; but, while the father is struggling to get into his breeches, he makes the mistake of consigning the desired name 'Trismegistus' to the faulty memory of Susannah the maid for transmission down the passage to the parson.
There is no plot, but there are many stories. The charm – and entertaining irrelevance - of those stories is enhanced further by Sterne's mastery of the written word.
He is the master of the non-sequitur. A chapter will end with a throwaway line by one of the characters, or by the author himself, one which serves to neutralize any heightened emotions or gravity that might have been accumulated before. The reader is obliged to read on to find out whether the non-sequitur really is such, when it may in fact be the start of some other story.
Sterne is the master of the digression and interruption. There is barely a single chapter that goes by without some monstrous divergence from the matter under consideration. The whole book is a long, apparently rambling conversation – largely one-sided, admittedly – between Sterne and the reader. The author frequently rails against digressions, finding pages enough to do so. There is barely a single story which is terminated within 20 pages of its being started. In the lengthy story narrated by his supposed authority on noses, Slawkenbergius ('pile of tripe'), there is a desperate letter from a fair maiden to her absent swain, which terminates thus: 'You will arrive but to see me expire. Tis a bitter draught, Diego, but oh! 'tis embittered still more by dying un—. She could proceed no further. Slawkenbergius supposes the word intended was unconvinced, but her strength would not enable her to finish the letter.'
From that last example, it may be supposed that Sterne was also master of the discreet rude joke. There are many more of that sort in there – for those who wish to find them.
And then there is Sterne's playfulness with the printed form. There is one volume of the nine which terminates contradictorily with the words 'I began thus –'. There are chapters which comprise only a single sentence – 20 or 30 words. Chapter 1 of Volume 4 appears some 20 pages in from the start. There is a 'chapter on chapters', 'which I hold to be the best chapter in my whole work.' There are chapters which have nothing at all in them – pages of restful silence. There is a chapter of 10 pages which is completely missing. There are two pages covered entirely in black ink, representing Yorick's grave. Another pair of pages represent a marbled book cover. Lines and squiggles abound, as Sterne illustrates the way in which his narrative is taking the long way round. The 'Preface', when the author at last finds a quiet gap in the story, is a third of way into the book.
All the way through the work, Sterne discusses the act of writing, laying bare his thoughts and intentions in constructing the text. At the end of one chapter, he writes: 'Dr Slop... was just beginning to return the compliment... when the door hastily opening in the next chapter but one – put an end to the affair.' Not a mere interruption, but one from 'the next chapter but one...'! Or how about the following interruption to himself: 'I have fifty things to let you know first... a hundred difficulties to clear up... A cow broke in (to-morrow morning) to my uncle Toby's fortifications...'
And all of this postmodernist stuff in the 18th century?
Sterne just buttonholes us and keeps us listening. He makes no assumptions about us, and asks that we make no judgements about him. The conversation is deceptively easy-going, meandering, and surprisingly full of humanity.
The book is, in short, an attic full of dusty and delightful family treasures (and incidentally contains one of the longest curses to be found anywhere, extending over three pages, with a Latin parallel text). Those who have not read this – I demand that you try it. Those who have read it – read it again. It is a novel which I am pleased to read every couple of years, without ever tiring of it.
In his fourth volume, our author laments that he has spent a full year writing and has only reached the first day of Tristram's life: 'It must follow that the more I write, the more I shall have to write and consequently the more your worships read, the more your worships will have to read.' And who could ask more of a book?
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]