The best comic novel ever written?
Author: Thomas Graham
Source: BBC (http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20190521-is-this-the-best-shaggy-dog-story-ever-written)
Written in the middle of the 18th century by Lawrence Stern, an Anglican Parish priest who wanted to become famous, the autobiography of the fictional character Tristram Shandy, “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman” is a wildly original bestseller which influenced some of the greatest writers of the 20th century. The book was a smash hit upon publication. ““The first two volumes were wildly popular,” Judith Hawley, an expert on 18th-Century literature, tells BBC Culture. “So much so that the name Tristram Shandy entered popular culture. There was a lot of branded merchandise; race horses were named after him; lots of imitation novels. It became a marketing phenomenon.””
So what exactly did Sterne do which marked this books out as one of the most original books ever written?
Firstly, the chronology used in the book is deliberately messed up: “to describe them as a sequence belies the screwy time scheme of the book, which is by turns stretched and squashed, folded back on itself and internally disordered. The author’s preface turns up in the third volume, when Tristram’s mother is giving birth (to him) and the Shandy men have dozed off: “All my heroes are off my hands; – ’tis the first time I have had a moment to spare, – and I’ll make use of it, and write my preface”. The end, “Finis,” comes at the close of the fourth. In the sixth volume, as if regretting his tendency to digress, Tristram suggests he will get on with the story from them on “in a tolerable straight line.” He immediately jumps to a travelogue in France. At one point, Tristram notes it is a year since he started writing, and he’s not even a day old in the book. He’s falling ever further behind.”
Secondly, Sterne creates a narrative style which would nearly 200 years later (once it was used by James Joyce and Virgina Woolf) be called the “stream of consciousness”: “Throughout, Tristram’s voice is the only real sense of continuity. A precursor of the stream-of-consciousness style, it runs on the association of ideas, with an idiosyncratic use of dashes to mimic the structure of thought and conversation. The dashes cover every page, varying in length and expressivity but showing the seams between one idea and the next that chips in, usually before the first was fully formed. They give a sense of constant improvisation.”
Thirdly, the book was notable for its highly original and bold formatting even by today’s standards: “Sterne was absolutely serious about its physical production. His surviving letters to publishers are exacting in their demands about paper quality, print type and lay out, and he would supervise the printing of each volume. That’s because they involved some very particular visual elements, including three famous disruptions to the text….The first appears midway through volume one, as Tristram narrates the dying moment of Parson Yorick. As the chapter ends, the facing page is simply black, a slab of ink, as is its reverse side. The second is a marbled page found in the third volume. Originally, these were marbled by hand before being stuck into each book. In modern editions, the marbled page is monochrome and uniform, robbing it of its meaning. The idea was that each reader would have a unique design in hand – that everyone was reading the same book, and yet in fact their copy was singular. And the third is a blank page, at the end of the sixth volume, when Tristram introduces Mrs Wadham, and tells the reader to get a pen and “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.””