The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman
by Laurence Sterne
Illustrated by T.M. Cleland
The Heritage Press, New York (1935)
Having survived the unusual experience of reading Tristram Shandy, I want to say a few words about the book while it is still fresh in my mind. While I recommend it heartily, it doesn�t rank as one of my all-time favorites. It is definitely fun to read and well worth the effort, as long as you are willing to take your time and pay attention. Story-wise, it ends pretty much in the same place it begins, which is no particular place at all. There is no conflict in the usual sense, and there are no satisfying revelations or epiphanies.
Why, then, have I included Tristram Shandy in Favorite Books & Authors? A partial answer: Laurence Sterne has a great sense of humor; he makes effective use of an impressive vocabulary and a wealth of trivial knowledge; for him nothing is sacred; and he derives great joy from writing. Best of all is the way Sterne so happily breaks literary rules. His approach to punctuation and capitalization ���� is all his own, * * * * * * * Although it does follow a consistent pattern; he skips chapters and returns to them later; some sentences begin in one chapter and end in the next; ���� On one occasion, he even leaves a blank page so the reader can draw the scene to suit his own * * * * * * * imagination. Not only is this not a distraction, it actually strengthens and serves the story � which, as I have said, isn�t really a story at all. Rather, Tristram Shandy is a 444-page digression, a witty, intelligent excursion that takes the reader in many directions at once, without deviating from the overall message, which is that the reader should sit down, relax, and enjoy himself.
Are there characters? Yes, there are characters. Are they someone a reader can care about? Yes � especially the narrator�s Uncle Toby and his humble, eternally grateful and devoted servant, Corporal Trim. Uncle Toby is as good and kind and honest a person as there ever was, if there ever was a person that good and kind and honest. That he usually misunderstands or misses the point of what his brother, Walter Shandy (the narrator�s father), says, makes him all the more endearing. Like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, these two converse at cross purposes throughout the book. Each listens intently to the other, assumes he means something else, and replies accordingly. Walter Shandy knows a little about everything, but not enough about any one thing; due to his voracious appetite for the arcane and having too much time on his hands, he has come to some rather strange conclusions about human behavior, its causes and effects. This leads him to embark on the massive project of writing something he calls his Tristrapaedia, which is a long set of highly detailed instructions meant to help guide his son through life. The trouble is, Tristram grows up faster than his father can write, so whole sections are obsolete upon their completion.
This, then, is Tristram�s dilemma: he was born to a family of oddballs, with odd ideas, and with ample time to pursue them to their most illogical conclusion. No wonder I felt at home. Come to think of it, this might well be the reason Tristram Shandy has hung around for 237 years. Other reasons, I leave for intelligent people to decide.
Now a brief word about T.M. Cleland�s illustrations: they�re great. They capture scenes and attitudes in minute detail, without losing their spontaneity.
* * * * * * * which is to say * * * * * * * , not that I am in any position to argue. Furthermore ���� And that cannot be denied.
Note: Not too long after I began reading Tristram Shandy, I wrote a poem about reading Tristram Shandy. In fact, that�s what it�s called: Reading Tristram Shandy. Looking at it now, I can�t help thinking Mr. Sterne would have approved. I feel safe saying that, knowing he is dead. Anyway, I had a lot of fun writing it.
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�Digressions are the sunshine of reading.� � Laurence Sterne
From Tristram Shandy
by Laurence Sterne
. . . The whole secret of health, said my father, beginning the sentence again, depending evidently upon the due contention betwixt the radical heat and radical moisture within us;�the least imaginable skill had been sufficient to have maintained it, had not the schoolmen confounded the talk, merely (as Van Helmont, the famous chemist, has proved) by all along mistaking the radical moisture for the tallow and fat of animal bodies.
Now the radical moisture is not the tallow or fat of animals, but an oily and balsamous substance; for the fat and tallow, as also the phlegm or watery parts, are cold; whereas the oily and balsamous parts are of a lively heat and spirit, which accounts for the observation of Aristotle, �Quod omne animal post coitum est triste.�
Now it is certain, that the radical heat lives in the radical moisture, but whether vice vers�, is a doubt: however, either an unnatural heat, which causes an unnatural dryness�or an unnatural moisture, which causes dropsies.�So that if a child, as he grows up, can but be taught to avoid running into fire or water, as either of �em threaten his destruction,��twill be all that is needful to be done upon that head.� . . .