Monday, August 01, 2011

"The beginning is not a beginning at all," or, Maybe it's time to read Tristram Shandy again?

I pulled Adam Thirlwell's The Delighted States: A Book of Novels, Romances, and Their Unknown Translators, Containing Ten Languages, Set on Four Continents, and Accompanied by Maps, Portraits, Squiggles, Illustrations, and a Variety of Helpful Indexes (2007), a book as precious yet as satisfying as its title, off my shelf over the weekend because I remembered that Thirlwell wrote well on the topic of Tristram Shandy. And I wasn't disappointed. Here, for example, is as good a distillation of Shandy as I could imagine being crammed into five sentences:
The essence of Sterne's novel is the way, deadpan, he makes Tristram a character who is stricken by a mania for comprehensiveness. To describe this type of mania, Sterne came up with the word hobbyhorse. Sterne's style is predicated on the hobbyhorse. All his destabilising of beginnings and endings (and everything in between) are part of his way of describing character: a construction helplessly at its own mercy, in thrall of compulsions of its own making. And Tristram's mania for comprehensiveness creates havoc with the book.
Writing a novel, you can try to get it all in; you can leave it all out; you can strike a middle ground and pretend that you've covered it all. Brutally: David Foster Wallace; Chekhov; Trollope. Sterne decided to make a game of pretending to care most about trying to get it all in; we've been playing in his playground ever since.

But Thirwell's next paragraph is even better, because it can so easily be turned on us, readers racing through our piles of unread books:
Tristram takes his life so seriously that his Life becomes impossible. For Tristram discovers that no beginning is ever a beginning. Every description of a beginning requires another description of the beginning's beginning, and so on. Therefore, although Tristram's Life, in its final state, take up around 600 pages, he has still not managed to get past the first few months of his life.
We read, in part, to illuminate and understand our experience, but what is the balance? When, instead, should we put down the book and go out?

All of this reminded me of a line from an early review of the novel in the Royal Female Magazine of February 1760, collected in the Norton Critical Edition of Tristram Shandy, which makes up for its ugliness as a book with this section of contemporary reviews:
The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy . . . affects (and not unsuccessfully) to please, by a contempt of all the rules observed in other writings, and therefore cannot justly have its merit measured by them.
The reviewer does, however, go on to complain of the "wantonness of the author's wit" and to wish that a note of delicacy could have been introduced. The very idea of a delicate, inoffensive Sterne boggles the mind (a topic that came up a couple of years ago in connection with Thirlwell and one of those oh-so-eighteenth-century volumes, The Beauties of Sterne).

Then there's the first review of the novel, by William Kentrick in the December 1759 issue of the Monthly Review, which notes what is still a valid objection, and its, if not refutation, then at least its leavening factor:
There prevails, indeed, a certain quaintness, and something like an affectation of being immoderately witty, throughout the whole work. But this is perhaps the Author's manner. Be that, however, as it will, it is generally attended with spirit and humour enough to render it entertaining.
Which, if my memory of sixteen years ago is true, remains the case these 250 years later. There is, in Tristram Shandy, some flop sweat, but it's more than made up for by the true humor, inventiveness, surprise, and even genius on offer elsewhere in the book. Yet sixteen years is a long time to be away from a book one professes to love: perhaps it's time to revisit Tristram and Uncle Toby and the rest? Any thoughts, readers?

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