The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman is a novel by Laurence Sterne considered one of the greatest comic novels in English. It was published in nine volumes, the first two appearing in 1759, and seven others following over the next 10 years. Laurence Sterne (1713 - 1768) was an Irish-born English novelist and an Anglican clergyman. Please note: This is a vintage recording. The audio quality may not be up to modern day standards.
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The shaggy dog story may be a tale told aloud that never quite makes a point, or gets to a point. Like a verbal meme, you find yourself trying to re-tell the story, a bit like whistling a tune that lingers in your mind. If the story touches on married life and even approaches the bawdy, the prose and the humor are so innocent that even good-humored blue-noses have secretly enjoyed Sterne for literal centuries.
If you read the ink and paper version - even if you never quite finished - you may find Peter Parker's reading opens whole new vistas. Besides accents and cadences, this book cries out for a slower, no-slimming approach. A bit like rolling an elegant coffee over your palate. The Librivox version is a joy, but Parker is a quiet but unanswerable argument for the thoughtful, professional reader.
A gentle, laughing ramble through unlikely but kindly people, with philosophy as love of wit and wisdom and the ever-surprising.
In an oddly post-modern opening, the dedication to the English prime minister (Pitt the elder, French and Indian war leader in American terms) is followed by an offer to sell the dedication for the second and following printings. Not the passionate and personal rejection of noble patronage, but writing and reading for joy, laughter and elegant stories.
How about a chapter on "whiskers" as a word for "bawdy," or Uncle Toby whistling Liliabollero (there are recordings on the web, and whistling along is itself a hoot) discussed and characterized as formal rhetoric following Aristotle and Cicero?
Whether you enjoy or ignore the Military History channel, Uncle Toby's model of the fortification outside Nemours (where the original Dartagnon won fame) partly frames the intricate technical terms of fortification (a boulevard originally meant a street built where a large, low earth-core wall once stood; Toby watched them being built around most serious cities in West Europe).
The title character of Laurence Sterne's unique classic The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-67) was ill-conceived when his mother asked his father an ill-timed question (“Did you wind the clock?”), which led to Tristram's “Homunculus” fretting inside the womb without his full compliment of animal spirits for nine months, which led to his becoming the “perpetual sport of fortune,” a prey to "a thousand weaknesses both of body and mind, which no skill of the physician or the philosopher could ever afterwards have set thoroughly to rights." Best not to mention the accidents attendant on his delivery, christening, and circumcision! In nine books and umpteen chapters (some consisting of a single sentence), Tristram uses the story of his unfortunate begetting and birthing as an excuse to entertain us with spicy digressions, irreverent opinions, and rich character studies, which, told with a lively wit and a deep humanity, evoke eight parts mirth and two parts pathos so as to relieve us from the hard life we must live in "this scurvy and disastrous world of ours."
Tristram says that in writing he’ll not confine himself "to any man's rules that ever lived," because, after all, rules should follow a man and not vice versa. He writes a chapter on chapters, a digression on digressions, a preface on prefaces, a dedication on dedications, and, I suppose, a novel on novels. He "writes" blank spaces, black pages, marbled pages, blank chapters ("I look upon a chapter which has only nothing in it with respect"), and a torn out chapter. He archly conceals risque matters behind asterisks and dashes and draws a set of squiggly lines representing the "progressive digressive" plots of his books before drawing a perfectly straight one that he (falsely) promises will structure the next book as "the path-way for Christians to walk in!" He tells his reader, “Do anything, only keep your temper.” It's hard to lose it with Tristram, "child of misfortune," because he maintains a "just balance betwixt wisdom and folly" in writing his "Shandyian book," believing "That every time a man smiles--but much more so when he laughs--it adds something to this Fragment of Life."
Through the follies, wisdoms, and kindnesses of his father and uncle and their cronies, Tristram parodies and illuminates philosophy, psychology, politics, war, love, health, education, procreation, writing, story-telling, and so on. The characters are rounded and winning caricatures: Tristram's whimsical, unpredictable, philosophical, frustrated father; his benignant, humane, groin-wounded, Lillabullero-whistling, hobbyhorse-riding Uncle Toby; his long-suffering, normal mother (who escapes her husband's intellectual foibles by acquiescing to them); the loyal, commonsensical, advice-giving Corporal Trim; and the humane, waggish "enemy of the affectation of gravity" Parson Yorick (descended indeed from THAT Yorick). Even that "whoreson" of a gossiping and none-too-competent Doctor Slop and his nemesis the maid Susannah are fun to encounter. (In effect, all the characters ARE Tristram, who, as a character is absent from his own story.) The novel "ends" when Uncle Toby's climactic "amours" with the Widow Wadman are interrupted by a digression about Tristram's father's bull and a servant's cow.
Although we do not learn much about matters like Tristram's life after infancy, the fate of his elder brother Bobby, or the identity of his "Dear, Dear Jenny," we do learn amusingly much about knots, noses, eyes, whiskers, britches, chestnuts, conscience, in utero baptism, love, learning, and the like. There are comic erotic moments to enjoy, like a Christian knee rub and a sausage-making marriage proposal. Even when catching himself babbling, Tristram entertains: "But this is neither here nor there--why do I mention it?--Ask my pen,--it governs me,--I govern not it." And of course he writes many witty lines about life:
--An eye is for all the world exactly like a cannon, in this respect; That it is not so much the eye or the cannon, in themselves, as it is the carriage of the eye--and the carriage of the cannon, by which both the one and the other are enabled to do so much execution.
--'It is with Love as with Cuckoldom'--the suffering party is at least the third, but generally the last in the house who knows any thing about the matter.
--What a jovial and a merry world would this be, may it please your worships, but for that inextricable labyrinth of debts, cares, woes, want, grief, discontent, melancholy, large jointures, impositions, and lies!
Tristram Shandy is an encyclopedic novel, as is evidenced by its incorporation of many branches of knowledge and its many lists of everything from Roman footwear, scholarly child prodigies, excommunicating curses, and auxiliary verb conjugations to apothecary treatments for illnesses, elements of fortifications, attributes of love, and traits of tutors. Such pleasurable lists, along with the rich style, the bracing irreverence, the fertile imagination, the comedy and tragedy of life, and the sheer pleasure of the writing so evident in the reading, all prefigure works like Moby-Dick and Ulysses.
With his appealing voice and manner, Peter Barker gives a fantastic reading of the novel, deftly handling pauses and emphases, moments of incomprehensible whispering when Sterne hides juicy bits with asterisks, French and Latin, and even things like this: "Ptr...r...r...ing--twing--twang--prut--trut--'tis a cursed bad fiddle." Barker audibly breathes and turns pages, but such sounds only enhance the conversational book, as if we were listening to a witty, creative, and live man progressively digress.
Because much of the pleasure of Tristram Shandy derives from Sterne's typographical play and 18th-century punctuation, while listening to the audiobook it might help to have the actual book handy.
People interested in comic digressive epics or unique classics should read Tristram Shandy; my only regret is that I waited to do so until after my father, who loved Sterne's novel, died.