#62 The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, Laurence Sterne

 

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Ah, the profoundly put-downable Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy. My old nemesis.

Tristram Shandy had it out for me from the beginning. That’s how it looked from where I was sitting, anyway. I picked it up with wildly inaccurate expectations, having read several Amazon reviews describing this 18th-century faux-autobiography as “hilarious.”

It is not hilarious.

It is an incomprehensible, unrewarding chore of a book.

Tristram Shandy‘s user-unfriendly utter unreadability stems largely from its devotion to digression. Digression is Tristram Shandy‘s partner in crime, its lifelong companion and its soul mate, while Plot is a sporadic business trip mistress who’s always complaining they don’t spend enough time together. Digression shows up, unwelcome, mid-sentence, mid-paragraph, mid-chapter, and between chapters. (Notice that was “and,” not “or.”) Digression is the rule and ruler in Tristram territory.

Add to this Sterne’s stormy refusal to relate any of the book’s events in chronological order, and you’ve got leather-bound misery between your hands.

You don’t believe me, do you? You are putting on your shoes to trudge to the nearest bookshop, or hovering over an Amazon shopping cart, aren’t you?

Well, just for the record, here’s Sterne’s attempt to define the word “nose”:

I define a nose as follows – entreating only beforehand, and beseeching my readers, both male and female, of what age, complexion, and condition soever, for the love of God and their own souls, to guard against the temptations and suggestions of the devil, and suffer him by no art of wile to put any other ideas into their minds, than what I put into my definition – for by the word Nose, throughout all this long chapter of noses, and in every other part of my work, where the word Nose occurs – I declare, by that word I mean a nose, and nothing more, nothing less.

This is, by the way, one of the more straightforward excerpts I could find.

Imagine the glitter bomb of gratification and relief I felt, after that whole “hilarious” Amazon review prank, when I stumbled upon Shmoop’s Tough-o-Meter rating for Tristram Shandy: an 11/10, or a “Mount Everest” among books. As they put it,

[Sterne] leaves people stranded on a staircase and only comes back to them five chapters later; he introduces three different versions of himself; and he writes entire chapters in Latin.

So, yeah, I’m feeling a little less embarrassed that it took me something like six months to slog my way through Tristram, page by agonizing page. Needless to say, I got little out of the experience and am waiting for literary karma to make it up to me with some buried treasure of a book. Or, like, a random house call from Harper Lee.

[Five-minute fantasy break.]

The good news? Now that I’m done reading and reviewing this tangled up Life and Opinions, I can make a solemn vow never to speak of it again.

Is It One of the 100 Greatest—according to me, anyway—because I wouldn’t want to blindly accept the judgment of a bunch of barely credible publications and a so-called algorithm—who even needs math, amirite?—well, except for, like, architects—all both of them—wait, did we ever even bother to define “Greatest”?—meh, let’s not and say we did—Books of All Time?

Huh?

Favorite Quotes

(…Well, Relatively):

There is nothing more pleasing to a traveller – or more terrible to travel-writers, than a large rich plain; especially if it is without great rivers or bridges; and presents nothing to the eye, but one unvaried picture of plenty: for after they have once told you, that ‘tis delicious! or delightful! (as the case happens) – that the soil was grateful, and that nature pours out all her abundance, etc. . . . they have then a large plain upon their hands, which they know not what to do with – and which is of little or no use to them but to carry them to some town; and that town, perhaps of little more, but a new place to start from to the next plain and so on.

We live in a world beset on all sides with mysteries and riddles – and so ‘tis no matter – else it seems strange, that nature, who makes everything so well to answer its destination, and seldom or never errs, unless for pastime, in giving such forms and aptitudes to whatever passes through her hands, that whether she designs for the plough, the caravan, the card – or whatever other creature she models, be it but an ass’s foal, you are sure to have the thing you wanted; and yet at the same time should so eternally bungle it as she does.

Read: 2015

#ThanksgivingBooks

Remember #BoozyBooks last month? Well, today Twitter got its game on with #ThanksgivingBooks.

My personal favorites:

Much Ado About Stuffing (Barnes & Noble)

A Thousand Splendid Spoonfuls (Emily Ancinec)

Something Pumpkin-Flavored This Way Comes (mammaf)

A Farewell to Diets (Kathryn Elliott)

Life of Pie (Bridget)

Eat, Eat, Eat (Barnes & Noble)

GET IT???

Happy Thanksgiving-Is-in-One-Week Day, and happy reading!

75 Books! a.k.a. Three-Quarters! a.k.a. My Deathbed!

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Today is a good day. Today, I finished my 75th book on The List, which—if I remember how Math works—means I’m officially 3/4 of the way through The 100 Greatest Books Challenge.

Of course, these numbers are slightly misleading, since In Search of Lost Time, for all intents and purposes, is not actually one book but six. And, at over 1500 pages, Clarissa might as well be two novels—not to mention The Tale of Genji and The Count of Monte Cristo.

But still. Today is a day for celebration, so let’s pretend Math is our friend and invite him to the festivities.

At some point during this last year of fervent and wild-eyed reading, I started to wonder how I would measure the value of the Challenge. Measuring success is, of course, easy: Victory will be had when I can tick off the last book, raise my fists in the air, and shout to a surprised neighborhood that “I came, I read, I conquered.” Success is 100 books, plain and simple.

But my triumph will mean little if that’s all I get out of it—five minutes of bewildered and exhausted satisfaction before I move on to some other masochistic hobby. Relief never stays as long as the Distress that ushered it in, despite our warmest welcome. I’m aiming for a grander, more profound takeaway.

I’d settle, obviously, for enjoyment—for entertainment. If, at the end of all of this, I can say that I actively took pleasure in reading most of the works I’ve undertaken for this Challenge, it will all be worth it. The thing is, I’ve never actually sat down and counted.

To this end, I decided, on this Day of the 75th Book, that it’s time. It’s a good thing we invited Math after all.

There’s a game I play sometimes called “Love or Hate.” The rules are simple. All you have to do is choose one or the other—Love or Hate—based on a prompt (e.g., tofu, Taylor Swift, Florida).

There’s no sitting on the fence in this game; “Neutral” is not an option. The idea is to search your feelings—to decide once and for all which way you’d lean if the madman with a gun to your head really, really wanted to know your opinion on leggings-worn-as-pants.

Today, I will be playing “Love or Hate” with the 100 Greatest Books of All Time.

Well, OK, 75 of them, anyway (or so says Math).

The books I’ve read are in self-congratulatory bold. Here we go:

  1. Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes (L)
  2. Ulysses, James Joyce
  3. Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov (L)
  4. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain (L)
  5. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald (L)
  6. 1984, George Orwell (L)
  7. War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy
  8. In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust
  9. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy (L)
  10. Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert (L)
  11. The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky (L)
  12. Middlemarch, George Eliot (L)
  13. One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez (L)
  14. The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner (H)
  15. Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison (L)
  16. The Catcher in the Rye, J. D. Salinger (L)
  17. To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf (L)
  18. On the Road, Jack Kerouac (L)
  19. Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift (L)
  20. The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck (H)
  21. Moby Dick, Herman Melville
  22. Beloved, Toni Morrison (L)
  23. The Portrait of a Lady, Henry James (L)
  24. The Iliad, Homer
  25. Absalom, Absalom!, William Faulkner (H)
  26. A Passage to India, E.M. Forster (H)
  27. Native Son, Richard Wright
  28. Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf (L)
  29. The Odyssey, Homer (H)
  30. Catch-22, Joseph Heller (L)
  31. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce (H)
  32. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen (L)
  33. The Trial, Franz Kafka (L)
  34. As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner
  35. Brave New World, Aldous Huxley (L)
  36. Emma, Jane Austen (L)
  37. Nostromo, Joseph Conrad
  38. Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe (H)
  39. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee (L)
  40. Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad (H)
  41. The Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien (H)
  42. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë (H)
  43. The Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri (L)
  44. Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë (H)
  45. Lord of the Flies, William Golding (L)
  46. All the King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren (L)
  47. Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell (L)
  48. The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton (L)
  49. The Aeneid, Virgil (L)
  50. Tom Jones, Henry Fielding
  51. The Tin Drum, Günter Grass
  52. Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackeray (L)
  53. The Call of the Wild, Jack London (L)
  54. The Good Soldier, Ford Madox Ford (L)
  55. Malone Dies, Samuel Beckett (H)
  56. Animal Farm, George Orwell (L)
  57. Frankenstein, Mary Shelley (L)
  58. Oedipus the King, Sophocles (L)
  59. Gargantua and Pantagruel, François Rabelais
  60. U.S.A., John Dos Passos
  61. The Tale of Genji, Murasaki Shikibu (currently reading, currently loving)
  62. Tristram Shandy, Laurence Sterne (H)
  63. An American Tragedy, Theodore Dreiser
  64. Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston (L)
  65. The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer (L)
  66. Clarissa, Samuel Richardson
  67. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll (H)
  68. The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway (H)
  69. The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins (L)
  70. Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe (L)
  71. Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut (L)
  72. Sons and Lovers, D. H. Lawrence
  73. Finnegans Wake, James Joyce
  74. Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  75. Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh (L)
  76. The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame (L)
  77. Women in Love, D. H. Lawrence (H)
  78. The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann (H)
  79. Charlotte’s Web, E. B. White
  80. Under the Volcano, Malcolm Lowry
  81. Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan (H)
  82. The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne (H)
  83. Hamlet, William Shakespeare (L)
  84. A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway (H)
  85. The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing (L)
  86. Light in August, William Faulkner (L)
  87. Rabbit, Run, John Updike (H)
  88. The Stranger, Albert Camus (L)
  89. Herzog, Saul Bellow (H)
  90. Go Tell It on the Mountain, James Baldwin (L)
  91. The Awakening, Kate Chopin (L)
  92. A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess
  93. Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison
  94. Faust, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
  95. King Lear, William Shakespeare (L)
  96. Dangerous Liaisons, Pierre Choderlos de Laclos (L)
  97. Journey to the End of the Night, Louis-Ferdinand Céline (L)
  98. The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas (currently reading, currently loving)
  99. Great Expectations, Charles Dickens (H)
  100. Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie

Whew. That was brutal, if you could have peeked behind the curtain. Let the record show, though, that if forced, I will admit to liking a reasonable 52 out of 75 classics.

All is well until we hit Faulkner and Steinbeck, those sadistic sons of bitches, at #14 and #20. What did we ever do to them, right?*

From there, though, the love is touch-and-go. My most neutral feelings (and, therefore, the hardest decisions) were reserved for Forster’s A Passage to India, Homer’s The Odyssey, and Mann’s The Magic Mountain. And it would be a stretch to say I LOVED The Brothers Karamazov, Robinson Crusoe, or The Stranger, but I loved them more than I hated them. So I guess that qualifies as value in some microscopic form.

I’m starting to suspect that the ultimate value of The Challenge will be the opportunity (via this blog, and a busybody mouth) to share my thoughts and reading recommendations with others. And while I have a tendency to mock even those classics I loved (one of few victimless crimes, as far as I’m concerned, unless fans of Tolkien count), it’s good to know there’s plenty of staggering, transformative, extraordinary reading behind me—and, hopefully, ahead of me.

Since I celebrated 50 books in November of last year, savoring 75 books now means that my brain swallowed up 25 whole classics in the last 12 months (there’s that Math again; does he ever shut up?). I note this with more fatigue than pride. But all that reading has given me lots to contemplate, appreciate, and share. So before we sign off on this Day of #75, let’s look back at some of the best sentence inventions I’ve read all year:

From Catch-22 by Joseph Heller:

Appleby was a fair-haired boy from Iowa who believed in God, Motherhood and the American Way of Life, without ever thinking about any of them. 

From Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe:

There was a saying in Umuofia that as a man danced so the drums were beaten for him. Mr. Smith danced a furious step and so the drums went mad.

From A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway:

I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain. We had heard them, sometimes standing in the rain almost out of earshot, so that only the shouted words came through, and had read them, on proclamations, now for a long time, and I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it. There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity.

From Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh:

“Sometimes,” said Julia, “I feel the past and the future pressing so hard on either side that there’s no room for the present at all.”

From The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky: 

I am writing a curse, yet I adore you! I hear it in my heart. One string is left, and it sings.

From Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin:

As the years passed, she replied only: “I’m going away from here.” And it hung, this determination, like a heavy jewel between her breasts; it was written in fire on the dark sky of her mind.

From The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James: 

I don’t want every one to like me; I should think less of myself if some people did.

From Light in August by William Faulkner:

Yet neither surrendered; worse: they would not let one another alone; he would not even go away. And they would stand for a while longer in the quiet dusk peopled, as though from their loins, by a myriad ghosts of dead sins and delights, looking at one another’s still and fading face, weary, spent, indomitable.

From King Lear by William Shakespeare:

But his flawed heart—
Alack, too weak the conflict to support—
’Twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief
Burst smilingly.

And, finally, from All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren:

The best luck always happens to people who don’t need it.

That’s all for today. Happy reading to you and yours! May you read ever, and much.

*This blog post was drafted before Faulkner worked his August magic on me. I still think he’s a sadistic son-of-a-bitch, though. So I left that part in.

Faulkner’s Mission in Life (and Death): Keeping Me on My Toes, Apparently

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Never let your reader’s guard down, folks. When you least expect it, literary surprises will arrive in your lap wrapped up in Christmas paper, or spring out of musical jack-in-the-boxes, or throw pebbles at your window in the dark of night. You may not even believe what you’re seeing when they emerge from the shadows, out of unprecedented horror or incredulous joy. But they’re everywhere, and they’re waiting for you.

I know. It happened to me.

Guys:

I just found out that Faulkner can write normal, coherent books like a normal, human writer.

I swear it’s true. I’ve seen it—I’ve read it—with my own two normal, coherent(?), human eyes. And if you don’t believe me, remember this is coming from a person who once suspected Faulkner’s collective literary output of being the result of his cat jumping on his typewriter.

It happened just this week. There I was, sitting on the couch all alone across from a sad homemade smoothie, when, at once, I heaved a sigh and turned to the first page of Light in August.

And then I read it.

And then I turned to the second page of Light in August.

And then I read that, too.

And then, I don’t even know how it happened, exactly, but one thing led to another, and within a handful of days I had read all 507 pages of Light in August.

Read and understood them.

WITHOUT SPARKNOTES.

Because, you see, Light in August is a normal, coherent book written by a normal, human writer for a normal, literate audience. It is not a battlefield of a book, like The Sound and the Fury. It is not a book that made 18-year-old me quake in my English Major boots, like Absalom, Absalom! It’s a treat, is what it is. Or, if not a treat, then, like, a yogurt. Interesting enough, when you’re in the mood for it.

I am still in shock, truth be told. At odd moments, I actually felt myself enjoying Light in August. I felt myself compelled to read on so I could find out what happened next. I felt myself invested in Lena, and Byron, and Rev. Hightower, and Joe Christmas’s individual and shared plight(s). I felt myself awed by Faulkner’s obvious talent.

All of this forces me to admit that I might have been wrong about Faulkner—might have judged him too soon. Yes, some of his books are roughly as intelligible as a word search read from left to right. Yes, some of his books reveal the inner workings of a sadist’s mind (all Southern decay, incest, and bootlegging). But that’s not all Faulkner’s (so-called) genius yielded in his 43-year career. Every sadist has a soft spot, and—knowing that I’m duty-bound to sweat through four of his novels—I think Faulkner just found one for me.

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It all—and by “all,” I mean the Challenge, and my sanity—hinges on As I Lay Dying, number four of four. If you’re listening, Faulkner, do me a solid and tone down the babbling nonsense you’re so famous for this one last time. Hit me with your best shot, but make it straight and true. Go easy on me—and I think we just might get along.

Quote of the Week

In the shattered schoolhouse where for the first time he had felt the security of power, a few feet from the room where he had come to know the uncertainty of love, Arcadio found the formality of death ridiculous.

-Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude