The people have spoken: The first title we’ll be reading for the Slate Academy series A Year in Great books will be The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne. And we’ll let you in on a secret: This was our favorite choice of the four as well. Join us as we explore one of the wildest and funniest rides in English literature, a book that caused a sensation when it was first published and has been inspiring adventurous authors (and filmmakers) for the past 250 years.
Tristram Shandy is a relatively early novel famed for its inventive narrative gambits and bawdy wit and often seen as an influence on such contemporary postmodernists as Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace. Virginia Woolf marveled at how naturally Sterne’s style—full of dashes—evoked the speech of a “brilliant talker.” In Sterne’s prose, she wrote, “the order of the ideas, their suddenness and irrelevancy, is more true to life than to literature.”
Tristram, our narrator, begins by describing the moment of his conception—but he isn’t actually born until volume four, about a third of the way through the book. At one point he laments his sidetracking by drawing pictures of the plot line as strands of loops, switchbacks, and squiggles. Then he promises to do better. Spoiler: He fails.
These are not Tristram Shandy’s only playful touches: The novel also features an all-black page and perhaps the most famous blank page in all of literature. (You can see images of the original edition here.) Should a novelist pull such tricks today, the result might be labeled “experimental” and seen as too esoteric or meta for the general public. But Tristram Shandy was a stone blockbuster. The first two volumes were published in London in January 1760. By April, when the author made an impromptu trip to the capital from his home in Yorkshire, he had become the most celebrated (nonroyal) man in England.
The ninth and final volume of Tristram Shandy would not be published until 1767. Sterne’s original readers experienced the book not as a complete work but also not in the bite-sized magazine installments through which, say, Dickens’ readers first encountered his novels. Tristram Shandy was serialized rather like a Netflix show designed to be binged on a full season at a time. It captured the mercurial spirit of its time and place, one of the most vibrant in history. Everyone talked and wrote and speculated about Tristram Shandy. Critics kvetched that the third volume wasn’t as good at the first two, then hailed the fifth as a return to form. William Hogarth, the most celebrated engraver of the day, was hired to illustrate it. As with most bestsellers, people who fancied themselves more discerning than the hoi polloi complained that Tristram Shandy was too madcap, too frivolous, too irreverent and (especially) too obscene—which isn’t all that surprising given that the novel’s very first scene is a sex scene.
At heart, though, Tristram Shandy is a comic family saga, although, as Tristram observes, “nothing ever wrought with our family after the ordinary way.” It’s about chamber pots, hot chestnuts, and cut thumbs as well as sex, birth, and death. Most of all, it’s about people. Naive and tenderhearted Uncle Toby stands as one pole and Walter, Tristram’s father—a sort of sardonic rationalist—serves as the other. Walter has a penchant for formulating and kicking around crackpot theories, most famously on the momentous effect that a grand first name and a large nose must have on the future success of a child. (Tristram insists that by “nose” he really does mean nose and not a less mentionable anatomical feature, which causes the reader to immediately assume otherwise. Sterne himself had a prodigious honker.) Walter’s placid wife refuses to tangle with him on any of this. Not only does she have no interest in debate, but she never even asks a question; it drives Walter to distraction. Sterne’s is a comedy of character and personality, which never loses its savor: “Humph!—said my uncle Toby … but as an interjection of that particular species of surprise, when a man, in looking into a drawer, finds more of a thing than he expected.”
Tristram Shandy makes fun of nearly everything, but especially the pompous and pedantic. It isn’t quite high-minded or angry enough to qualify as satire. Sterne found his own society and the human condition to be fundamentally ridiculous, but it tickled him to see things that way. Perhaps the single word that best suits this book, and Sterne in general, is “merry.” Tristram Shandy is full of jests and naughty puns and allusions, many of which would have been instantly recognizable to an 18th-century English reader but are sadly less so to her 21st-century counterpart. So find an edition with footnotes; you’ll get more fun out of the book if you’re in on the jokes. Be prepared for cheek. When the Bishop of Gloucester, a patron of Sterne’s, wrote to the author to suggest that he take more care, in future volumes, to “give no offense to any mortal,” Sterne wrote back—we can only assume with less than complete sincerity — to say that he would try, “though laugh, my lord, I will, and as loud as I can, too.”
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I’ll be discussing The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman with Slate technology correspondent Will Oremus at the beginning of March, when you can also vote on the next selection for A Year of Great Books. You’ll need to be a member of Slate Plus to hear our conversation—and to join the discussion on our Facebook group. Find out more at slate.com/greatbooks.