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?
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.