Say what you will- love it, hate it, ignore it- Sterne created something unique and groundbreaking with Tristram Shandy. He made something new. Something to add to the stock of literature.Tell me, ye learned, shall we for ever be adding so much to the bulk- so little to the stock?
Shall we for ever make new books, as apothecaries make new mixtures, by pouring only out of one vessel into another?
Are we for ever twisting, and untwisting the same rope? for ever in the same track- for ever at the same pace? Chap. 1, Volume 5, pg. 273.
But I found it tedious and really not that enjoyable. I know I’m not supposed to say that. I know it sets me up to be disregarded as a short attention-span rattled clod. But it’s true. Which doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate what Sterne did; especially in the time in which he did it. He used stream of consciousness. He used references to Locke and Shakespeare. He demonstrated that time is unique to the individual and the richness of one’s life is too big for a book. He was, in the most over-used academic shorthand slang of the last decade, meta. Which is all pretty impressive today… let alone the 18th century.
But it’s still tedious. Stern disregarded convention in a whirlwind of whimsy. Conversations blend together in sentence structure hell. Spastic shifts in topics leave the reader constantly disoriented. His themes are never fully explored. Plot is secondary to digressions and quirky tangents.
“Read slowly,” I’m told by fans of the book. Savor, re-read and let yourself get carried away. This is the advice needed to appreciate the book. But why? Some books are slow going because of the weight of the ideas. Some are just written poorly. Here, Sterne is being purposefully obscure. His inspiration is Rabelais, and it shows. Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel was an oversized, satirical absurdity. Sterne simply dispenses with the satire. He’s just messing with us. And he even tells us that. He says it’s a “cock and bull” story. He’s not even trying to suggest there’s anything more. It’s a self-contained creation for the sake of creation. I guess, in that way, it’s the very definition of art.
When I was a kid, I enjoyed Easter Egg hunts and savored the jelly beans I’d find in the plastic conjoined half-ovals hidden in couch cushions and mailboxes. I’d even eat the crappy black ones. The fruits (or fruit tasting fruits) of the hunt. That’s what Tristram Shandy is to me.