This is the book that was always in the back of my mind when I thought about this project of tackling all the Great Books I should have read. For years I thought I ought to have read Tristram Shandy, and several times I actually tried, but I could never get past the first few pages. It’s got all the language barriers of an eighteenth-century novel without any strong storyline to pull the reader forward — in fact, the plotlessness of the book is kind of the whole point. Also, it was apparently considered both hilarious and naughty at the time it was published (in nine volumes, 1757-1767), but a lot of the humour and innuendo don’t translate well across the centuries.
So, to put it mildly, this was a slog. It took me months (the months of July, August and September, to be exact).
That said, it wasn’t an entirely unrewarding slog. Much like Infinite Jest, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shady, Gentleman is a book I’m very glad to have read, even if reading it was tedious at times. It contains a few real gems both of wit and of wisdom, and a few bits of humour that manage to translate through the years (such as when Tristram is travelling through Europe and accidentally leaves the notes he’s writing for a book on his travels in a carriage that he sells. Going to the home of the man who bought the carriage, he finds that the man’s wife has used Tristram’s papers to put up her hair. The papers are returned in their mangled state and each one has to be carefully untwisted and straightened out, Tristram philosophically musing that if his words ever get into the hands of a publisher, they will be twisted far worse).
Tristram Shandy anticipates and incorporates many of what we now consider “postmodern” elements of fiction, mainly its completely self-referential nature. The best description I’ve seen of it is that it’s a book about a man attempting and failing to write his autobiography; the story starts with the first-person narrator’s conception and three books later he hasn’t even been born yet, due to the author’s constant digressions from the story. Really, it is a book about the process of writing a book, in which Tristram-as-narrator frequently addresses the audience directly about the difficulties he encounters in telling his tale, making him far more real and interesting than Tristram-as-character, who does virtually nothing. It’s worth reading because of its place in the history of the English novel and because it helps point out the extent to which later writers were not, perhaps, being as innovative as they thought they were — but don’t expect it to be an easy read.