Laurence Sterne's magnificent novel "The Life & Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman" is least of all about the life and opinions of Tristram Shandy, as the title might suggest, for it begins on the day Tristram was begotten and ends with a conversation that took place about four years before he was born. Instead the book deals with Walter Shandy (Tristram's father)'s theories on pretty much everything, with his uncle Toby's martial hobby-horse and meek courtship with the widow Wadman, with noses in general and in particular - and let me remind you here that the autobiographer makes it quite clear that when he is talking about noses he does not intend to hint at anything beyond, or below, a nose -, with the loyalty of Toby's man Trim, with the resolution of Yorick, the rector, never to ride a good horse again, with radical heat and radical moisture, with auxiliary verbs ...
But most of all, it deals with the problems befalling a conscientious narrator, as the following passage might elucidate:
"I am this month one whole year older than I was this time twelve-month; and having got, as you perceive, almost into the middle of my fourth volume - and no farther than to my first day's life - 'tis demonstrative that I have three hundred and sixty-four days more life to write just now, than when I first set out ; so that instead of advancing, as a common writer, in my work with what I have been doing at it - on the contrary, I am just thrown so many volumes back - was every day of my life to be as busy a day as this - And why not ? - at this rate I should just live 364 times faster than I should write - It must follow, an' please your worships, that the more I write, the more I shall have to write - and consequently, the more your worships read, the more your worships will have to read. Will this be good for your worships' eyes?"
It definitely will be! Because the ingenuity with which Laurence Sterne plays with narrative conventions, actually making fun of them by taking them all too seriously opens our eyes to the limitations of literature, while at the same time enriching it with a cock and bull story of unprecedented proportions. For example, in Book I, Chapter 21, Walter Shandy asks his brother Toby a question, but Uncle Toby's answer is interrupted after the introductory words "I think", because Tristram, the narrator, deems it fit to let his readers in on some important biographic information on his uncle first, which, in their turn, are the starting point of various digressions - so that Uncle Toby's full reply to his brother's question will have to wait until Book II, Chapter 6.
Tristram is likewise at a loss when he has to give a description of Mrs. Widman and her inimitable charms; until he finally resolves on leaving a blank page and giving his reader the opportunity to draw a picture of her in his own words, encouraging his reader by saying, "Sit down, Sir, paint her to your own mind - as like your mistress as you can - as unlike your wife as your conscience will let you - 'tis all one to me - please but your own fancy in it."
The snags and snares awaiting him who endeavours to tell a story are also illustrated by Trim's attempts at telling "The Story of the king of Bohemia and his seven castles" and his finding himself challenged to pinning it down somewhere (or somewhen?) in the infinities of time. His repeated suggestions of tagging a year to the beginning of this story are discouraged by Uncle Toby's mild objections until he finally gives up the whole narrative project altogether.
But "Tristram Shandy" is more than a brilliant comment on the difficulties of turning reality into narration. It is infinitely witty, especially when it comes to learned wit, which is the basis of Walter Shandy's numerous odd theories, which one way or other, tend to seem quite sensible when you look at things from Walter's point of view. Take Walter's theory on names and their influence on the characters and lives of their owners. When faced with misgivings on the validity of his theory, Walter simply asks the question, "Your son ! - your dear son, - from whose sweet and open temper you have so much to expect. - Your BILLY, Sir ! - would you, for the world, have called him JUDAS ?"
Although Walter Shandy's theories and opinions are invariably linked with his desire to forestall chaos and disorder, life always proves too unpredictable and multifarious to be organized à la Shandy. Walter's work on the Tristrapaedia proceeds so slowly and takes up so much time that the book is constantly lagging behind Tristram's actual development, and that the father has no time at all to spend on educating his son as he is busy planning his son's education. Tristram's nose is crushed as a consequence of a carefully worked-out marriage contract, and his *****'s intactness is affected by his Uncle's need for scrap-iron. Even the moment of his procreation is thwarted by a mistimed question of his mother that has its roots in Walter's habit of winding up the clock and fulfilling his marital duties on the first Sunday of each month. Order clearly begets disorder here.
Sterne may have created characters that appear too odd to lay any claim to verisimilitude, but nonetheless he humorously hints at conflicts that reveal his knowledge of human nature - in this case probably derived from his own hapless marriage -, as for example here:
"' - My brother Toby, quoth she, is going to be married to Mrs. Wadman.
- Then he will never, quoth my father, be able to lie diagonally in his bed again as long as he lives.
It was a consuming vexation to my father, that my mother never asked the meaning of a thing she did not understand.
- That she is not a woman of science, my father would say - is her misfortune - but she might ask a question.
My mother never did. - In short, she went out of the world at last without knowing whether it turned round, or stood still. - My father had officiously told her above a thousand times which way it was, - but she always forgot.
For these reasons a discourse seldom went on much further betwixt them, than a proposition, - a reply, and a rejoinder; at the end of which, it generally took breath for a few minutes, [...] and then went on again."
And, for all his preoccupation with recondite theories, learned wit, intertextuality and the like, Sterne, more often than not, can be quite astonishingly bawdy, as the following observation will prove: "I won't go about to argue the point with you, - 'tis so, - and I am persuaded of it, Madam, as much as you can be, 'That both man and woman bear pain or sorrow, (and, for aught I know, pleasure too) best in a horizontal position.'"
In short, "Tristram Shandy" is a microcosm of anarchic wit, and Sterne's trick of portaying himself in the character of Yorick, the parson, is anything but amiss, for, as we all know, Yorick was a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy, and has borne us on his back a thousand times. There is only one single thing would please me more than reading "Tristram Shandy", and that is to be able to lay claim to the feat of having written it.