A novel published over seven years, in nine volumes. An autobiography whose protagonist is actually the narrator’s Uncle Toby. A satirical social commentary and wacky observation of human nature.
Tristram Shandy is certainly unique.
Despairing when, in this so-called story of ‘The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman’, I reached the end of the first volume and the loveably incompetent storyteller had digressed so far as to prevent him from reaching the occasion of his birth, I considered giving up and abandoning the further 453 pages of apostrophes to dead Greek philosophers and virtually incomprehensible 18th century double entendre.
I cursed the quirky English Literature teacher who recommended that I read it for my Extended Project Qualification essay on Jane Austen. I wondered how this spoof of a novel, with its frequent and bizarre detours from the main story, could possibly help me to analyse Pride and Prejudice (stubbornly refusing to accept that this level of familiarity with Austen’s forerunners was necessary).
But once I resolved to give Tristram a second chance (after all, he does suffer many misfortunes as a young child which couldn’t help elicit my sympathy, including an accidental circumcision), I found myself smiling at his witty, if annoyingly irrelevant, observations and obscurities. I became enthralled by some of his digressive tales of Spanish romances, country clergymen and, best of all, the power of long noses. Yes, an entire chapter – on noses.
I couldn’t say it has become a favourite – or that I’m not relieved to see the back of this hefty 18th century satire; it ultimately lacked the diversity of characters and depth of emotions which I find so enjoyable in the likes of Austen, Eliot and the Brontës.
And yet, though it didn’t offer me a beloved friend and role model of the calibre of Maggie Tulliver or Anne Elliot, I can’t deny that Tristram Shandy had me laughing and tearing my hair out in equal measure – and I can’t help but feel that that might have been just what Laurence Sterne intended.