The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman
Book review by: Witney Seibold
In honor of the celebrated author of the nine-volume comic epic that is The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, the wise, funny and upright Brit, Laurence Sterne, I am going to attempt to write this entire review in a single sentence – a sentence, I hope that will convey the sparkling genius, the madding comedy, and the driest-possible wit of the author and his masterwork, and, in doing so convey my usual highest-possible-recommendation for yet another little oddity that I have discovered in my travails across this lonely planet (the readers of my film reviews probably spot the odd obscure reference, you see) – travails that rarely lead me to book written around 1760 and have rather boldly decided to base themselves solely around the act of digressing from the main story while attempting to tell a long (possibly self-)important story involving the birth, opinions, injuries (Tristram’s nose was broken at birth and manhood removed by a falling window, ouch,), theories, family (his uncle is a nut for ancient architecture and his father has rather extended passages on what he thinks of certain names), and, finally, absurdities of our hero (this mould – of long complicated sentences that seem to serve a poetic thrust rather than a narrative one – is one that would be followed by James Joyce in his own masterworks Ulysses and, if you like, Finnegans Wake), but whereas the likes of Joyce tried to use his digressions and stream-of-consciousness, and, in some cases, lack of punctuation, to depict an accurate and poetic cross-section of the human life experience-cum-dreamstate, Sterne uses his witty digressions to elicit laughter, joy; to point out the usual absurdities of upper-class (and in many of the stories, especially involving narrator Tristram’s blusterous uncle Toby, lower-class, – or perhaps just low-class) British existence – an attitude that would extend all the way to the comedies-of-manners of the infinitely witty P.G. Wodehouse – what with the ultra-mannered and dry-as-a-bone-comedies of Jeeves and Bertie Wooster – which, in turn, would inspire modern British comedians like Douglas Adams and the boys from Monty Python (and, to be quite honest, any book that can be likened to both James Joyce and Monty Python should be, in this humble critic’s opinion, an interesting enough work to elicit enough interest in the reader to trek on down immediately to Midnight Special, or some such independent bookshop, and check out a copy of said work, having elicited, in itself, such a comparison)(I must point out at this rather awkward juncture in my ambitious one-sentence review, due to my incredibly glowing recommendation of this heavy, maddening, and utterly brilliant piece of literature, that Laurence Sterne writes pretty much the way I have always wanted to write: in long, complicated sentences that can contain every idea in my mind simultaneously – in some cases contradictory ideas – and still have those sentences be light and funny, not to mention peppered with obscure references, and interesting in a way that slips you forward to the end of the work in either a slippery comic interest in the funny subject matter, or merely as a hurdle the reader leaps in order to finish said sentence as an act of fierce defiance).
Wow. I did it. Well, I cheated here and there. Now I just hope I was clear. If you got lost in that sentence here’s the gist of it: read The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. It’s a funny book.