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This review is from: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (Paperback)A line from the movie "adaptation" put it best: this was a postmodern novel before there was any modernism to be post to.
Simply put, Laurence Sterne threw out all the literary conventions of what a novel should be and how it should be arranged, a few hundred years before more recent writers like Calvino, Joyce and Danielewski did. The result is "The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman," a gloriously rambling, richly entertaining sort-of-novel.
"I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me." So begins Tristram, who starts his life story with his "begetting," and attempts to tell the story of his birth and life, as well as the descriptions of relatives -- his lovable uncle Toby, his eccentric dad, his patient mother (who's in labor for most of the book).
But as he tries to tell us about his life, Tristram keeps getting sidetracked by all the stories that surround him -- his uncle's romance with the Widow Wadman and the war in which he received a nasty wound in a sensitive spot, the French, the doctor who delivered him, letters in multiple languages, the parson, the personal history of the midwife, and what curses are appropriate for what occasions.
Most novels are pretty straightforward -- they have a beginning, a middle and an end. But "The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman" totally ignores that, by having a beginning that lasts for the whole book, dozens of "middles," and no real end (it just stops at a suitable spot). All of this is without a real structure.
And he took this postmodern, break-all-the-rules mentality all the way, by including odd little illustrations -- when speaking of the death of Parson Yorick, Sterne includes a black page. Random empty pages. Asterisks instead of important paragraphs. And a bunch of squiggly lines to demonstrate precisely how the narratives in previous chapters looked.
At first glance, Sterne's writing style was pretty typical of his period -- detailed, somewhat formal in tone, and very talky. It takes a little while for Tristram to start dipping out of of his narrative -- at one point, he starts interrupting himself in midsentence. By the middle of the book, he's completely lost control of his own story.
And he twisted it around with lots of bawdy humor (such as poor Uncle Toby's groin injury, which causes quite a few problems), and the continuous comic stumbles of all the characters. On the subject of his own name, Tristram describes his dad's reaction: "Melancholy dissyllable of sound! which to his ears was unison to Nincompoop, and every name vituperative under heaven.")
Life is too rich to be encapsulated in a single story -- that's the problem with "Tristram Shandy," whose story is a classic comic delight of premodernist-postmodern skill.