Monday, November 9, 2009

277. Tristam Shandy - Lawrence Sterne

History: This book was published in nine volumes, the first two appearing in 1759, and seven others following over the next 10 years. It has come to be seen as one of the greatest comic novels in English, as well as a forerunner for many modern narrative devices.
Plot: Tristram Shandy can always attribute the peculiarity of his nature and the strange events of his life to the fact that, when he was on the point of being conceived, his mother asked his father, the eccentric, henpecked Walter Shandy, whether he had not forgotten to wind the clock.
Immediately after Tristram's conception, which occurred sometime between the first Sunday and the first Monday of arch, 1718, Tristram's father journeyed from Shandy Hall, the ancestral estate, to London, a trip his sciatica had hitherto prevented him from making. Both noteworthy occurrences can be verified in Mr. Shandy's meticulously kept diary.
The reason that Tristram was born in Shandy Hall, instead of in London, and delivered by a mere midwife, instead of a real doctor, is ascribed to the peculiar marriage settlement between the elder Shandys. According to its terms, Mrs. Shandy would be allowed to bear her child in London, but if she ever falsely persuaded her husband to take her to the capital, she surrendered this right and would have to settle for a home delivery. Since she has done this once, Mr. Shandy feels justified in sparing himself the expense of taking his wife on a second trip to London, although he enjoys going there by himself.
On the night Tristram is born, his father and his Uncle Toby are comfortably debating some complicated and endless issue before a cheerful fire. When Susannah, the maid, informs them of the impending birth, they send for a midwife and for Dr. Slop, a local quack practitioner who had once written a cheap pamphlet on the history of childbirth. Dr. Slop's chief function at local births is to allow the midwife to do the delivering while he charges a handsome fee for drinking the father's best wine.
Before either doctor or midwife can arrive, Walter Shandy and his brother have some fine conversations about their past life. Uncle Toby was an honorable soldier in his day, but during the Siege of Namur in 1695 he received a wound in the groin, an embarrassing place and left the army to retire to the country. His loyal servant, Corporal Trim, joined him and suggested an ideal occupation for the retired military man. Near Shandy Hall is a patch of lawn where Trim constructed a miniature battlefield. There Uncle Toby reconstructs his campaigns by means of toy fortifications, trenches, and soldiers.
His delight in this pastime is not, however, shared by his more philosophical brother, who constantly interrupts his long-winded tales of vanished military glory with equally long-winded philosophical speculations. Walter Shandy has theories about everything, and they are often highly ingenious, but they are never even remotely applicable to the problem at hand, and usually get bogged down in oceans of arcane facts and meaningless, if charming, lore. One such philosophical divertissement, begun while the brothers await the arrival of the midwife and Dr. Slop, concerns itself with the reasons for Mrs. Shandy's preference for a female rather than a male attendant at her delivery. Uncle Toby suggests it might just be female modesty, but this idea is too simple to suit Walter Shandy who goes into a long and incomprehensible philosophical harangue about the complex nature of women.
The talk is interrupted by the arrival of Dr. Slop. While Corporal Trim diverts the Shandy brothers with the reading of a long sermon, Dr. Slop goes about his work with typical ineptitude. Mistaking the infant's hip for his head, the doctor flattens Tristram's nose with his forceps. Another portion of Tristram's anatomy will receive an insult on a later occasion when, as a boy, Tristram relieves himself out of a window only to have the window come crashing down on him. These episodes, Tristram feels, with some justice, have blighted life.
Finally, the lad is born, while Mr. Shandy reads the company his translation from a Latin treatise on npses by German scholar named Hafen Slawkenbergius. (Both author and work are Sterne's inventions.) When Mr. Shandy hears of the nearly disastrous episode with the forceps, he fears for his child's safety. Learning that the baby is unusually sickly, he sends immediately for the local parson, Mr. Yorick, to baptize the infant before any further mishaps occur.
Hastening to dress for the event, Mr. Shandy sends Susannah on ahead to tell Yorick that he wants his son baptized "Trismegistus" in honor of his favorite philosopher. But Susannah finds the odd name difficult to remember, and by the time she conveys the request to Mr. Yorick, she has transformed the name into Tristram, which also happens to be the clergyman's first name. This coincidence thrills Mr. Yorick. The child is baptized accordingly, and by the time Mr. Shanc arrives, fully clothed at last, he is too late to change matters, although he thinks Tristram is the worst name in the world and can only bring bad luck. The only hope for this disaster-hounded child now is a proper education.
Tristram's boyhood is marred by one sad event - the death at Westminster School of his older brother, Bobby. Different members of the family react differently to the untimely tragedy: Mr. Shandy philosophizes about the nature of death; in her grief, Susannah finds joy in the thought that she will inherit all her mistress' dresses when Mrs. Shandy goes into mourning; and Corporal Trim symbolically drops his hat as if he himself had died and delivers a magnificent funeral oration on the spot.
The Shandy family's next problems concern the sort of tutor, if any, to get for Tristram and the age at which the boy will be ready to wear long trousers. But these practical considerations take second place to the tale of Uncle Toby's pursuit by the Widow Wadman, a buxom lady who lives near Shandy Hall. The gentle Uncle Toby bears up well under the widow's efforts to win his heart.
One day, however, the Widow Wadman, more anxious than ever to be married, asks Uncle Toby an embarrassing ques-tion: precisely where was he wounded? He assures her he will allow her to touch the actual place where he received his famous wound; he then produces a map of Namur and puts her trembling finger on the appropriate portion of the battle-field.
Corporal Trim, less naive if just as good-hearted as Uncle Toby, has to point out to him that it is the spot on his person, not on the battlefield, that the Widow Wadman has in mind. When he is finally made to realize the awful truth, Uncle Toby beats a hasty retreat from any idea of marriage.
Review: I listened to this book, and found it the best way to catch the satire in the writing. This book is like no other book I've ever read, so it's difficult to even figure out how to evaluate it. It's wonderful, and strange, and frustrating, and hilarious. Piling digression upon digression upon digression, Sterne's narrative (or quasi-narrative) twists and turns, doubling back on itself before suddenly darting forward for a page or two before falling back into a sub-sub-plot: Making fun of his father, conversations between Father, Uncle Toby, and the servant, Trimm. Lots of attention paid to Uncle Toby's groin wound, and the curiousity of his fiance, Widow . I love the scene of making sausages. It takes an amazing talent to write a book like this that actually carries itself off in a way that works. Sterne does even better than that. It is no accident, then, that Tristram Shandy should have exerted a profound influence on the fiction of James Joyce, for both Sterne and Joyce are irrepressible jokers who delight in exploding the possibilities of prose fiction into something very different from the ordinary novel-perhaps best called the comic epic in prose. By means of caricature, digressions, ab-surdly inflated language to describe the most mundane things, puns, and a panoply of wildly eccentric characters, Sterne makes glorious fun in Tristram Shandy of such a sober predecessor as Samuel Richardson, and even of the more worldly Fielding.
Beneath the practical jokes played on his fellow novelists and on his readers, however, Sterne has laid a very solid substratum which gives Tristram Shandy, for all its seeming chaos, a strength of form and theme that has made it endure long after most practical jokes are forgotten. This substratum consists of the very human story, told in loving, even senti-mental detail, of the two immortal Shandy brothers-Walter and Toby-and their occasionally philosophical, occasionally ridiculous responses to the world around them.
Opening Line: "I wish my father or my mother or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me."
Closing Line: "Lord! 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
Quotes: "If it had not been for those two mettlesome tits, and that madcap of a postilion who drove them from Stilton to Stamford, the thought had never entered my head."
"Of all the cants which are canted in this canting world, though the cant of hypocrites may be the worst, the cant of criticism is the most tormenting!"
Rating: Good and Funny.

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