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Book Cover: Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne
This book changed my life before I was even born. Just how it managed that is an amusing tale, which I'd like to share with you. But, in a Shandean spirit, not just yet.

Tristram Shandy lies, in many respects, midway between Don Quixote and Ulysses. It's a hugely playful and experimental book, brash yet subtle, flush with imagination and wit - which asks its readers to bring those same qualities to the table:

Writing, when properly managed (as you may be sure I think mine is) is but a different name for conversation. As no one, who knows what he is about in good company, would venture to talk all;-- so no author, who understands the just boundaries of decorum and good breeding, would presume to think all: The truest respect which you can pay to the reader's understanding is to halve this matter amicably, and leave him something to imagine, in his turn, as well as yourself.

For my own part, I am eternally paying him compliments of this kind, and do all that lies in my power to keep his imagination as busy as my own.       Book II, Ch. XI

Tristram Shandy is shockingly precocious. The language and subjects show that it was published in the 1760s, but the whimsical style and deliberate flaunting of all literary conventions taste thoroughly modern. This book was born about 150 years before it was due.

The great work of the 18th Century English novel was building the scaffolding of Realism. Defoe mapped out the grounding in external details, while Richardson brought a magnifying glass to the workings of the prick heart. Fielding strengthened the novel's scaffolding (Tom Jones is perfectly plotted), while embellishing it with humor and self-awareness. In Tristram Shandy, Sterne dazzles us with embellishment while he deconstructs the scaffolding.

As the full title declares, this book is The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman; but it holds far more opinions than life. Tristram is constantly interrupting his own digressions, so that he doesn't manage to get born until a third of the way through the book. Towards the end of the book (and of Sterne's life) we travel through France with the adult narrator; except for that trip, we never see Tristram grow past five years old. Sterne takes great pleasure in proceeding higgledy-piggledy and frustrating the reader's anticipations of plot developments. Tristram Shandy is probably the greatest shaggy dog story ever told.

There is a method to the madness. Sterne is fascinated by psychology, and his digressions paint a boldly original and insightful view of the human mind. He halfway invents the stream-of-consciousness style of narration. He does borrow from Locke, Bacon, Burton, Rabelais, Montaigne and Cervantes; but then he weaves them into a brand new fabric.

This book is not for everyone. You have to dive in for yourself, and see how it takes you. Either you'll love it (as Tolstoy, Goethe and Diderot did) or you'll hate it (as Richardson, Johnson and Goldsmith did).

In re-reading Tristram Shandy, I'm reminded how much wit, charm and confidence Sterne has. What I'm just discovering is how well-balanced the design is, and how soundly Sterne judges it. It's not perfect: my attention flagged a few times. Though, in fairness to Sterne, my attention isn't perfect either. Standing with Tolstoy et al., it seems to me that Tristam Shandy belongs with Tom Jones, Catch-22 and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, among the funniest books ever written.

Sterne brings careful balance and judgment to his creation, but he hides it well. He abhors rules and makes it seem as though, like many of his characters, he operates purely on impulse:

Sir, I can no more help it than my destiny:-- A sudden impulse comes across me-- drop the curtain, Shandy-- I drop it-- Strike a line here across the paper, Tristram-- I strike it-- and hey for a new chapter.

The deuce of any other rule have I to govern myself by in this affair-- and if I had one-- as I do all things out of all rule-- I would twist it and tear it to pieces, and throw it into the fire when I had done-- Am I warm? I am, and the cause demands it-- a pretty story! is a man to follow rules-- or rules to follow him?       Book IV, Ch. X

Seen as conventional fiction, Tristram Shandy's plot is a haphazard hodgepodge, lacking structure and direction; from a postmodern viewpoint, Sterne is plotting in a higher dimension, playing clever metafictional games.

Whatever you think of the plot, Sterne created some enchanting, well-rounded characters. The major characters are each ruled by their singular views and habits - or, as Sterne puts it, their Hobby-Horses. Tristram's father has a whole herd of hobby-horses, that he has corralled into a Shandean System of What Really Matters. What matters most to Mr. Shandy is his patrimony: ensuring that Tristram grows up healthy and energetic in body, mind and spirit. Tristram Shandy being the book it is, Mr. Shandy takes every precaution to safeguard Tristram's destiny, but nothing works out quite as planned. There are a few major crises/opportunities young Tristram must face to secure his noble destiny. So Mr. Shandy has a few specific wishes concerning Tristram's patrimony.

The first one - I shan't tell you. It's my favorite, and Sterne tells it far better than I can. Just read the first four chapters (only about four pages; start at "Chapter 1.I."), and you'll figure out the first wish, and also get a sense of whether you want to read the whole book.

Mr. Shandy's second wish for Tristram is that he shall have a long and jolly nose:

He would often declare, in speaking his thoughts upon the subject, that he did not conceive how the greatest family in England could stand it out against an uninterrupted succession of six or seven short noses.-- And for the contrary reason, he would generally add, That it must be one of the greatest problems in civil life, where the same number of long and jolly noses, following one after another in a direct line, did not raise and hoist it up into the best vacancies in the kingdom.       Book III, Ch. XXXIII
Tristram is concerned, at this point in his narrative, that when he writes of "long and jolly noses", we might infer that he means something else. To set our minds at ease, he spends several chapters testifying against double entendres, till he finally brings his argument to a head:
Now don't let Satan, my dear girl, in this chapter, take advantage of any one spot of rising ground to get astride of your imagination, if you can any ways help it; or if he is so nimble as to slip on-- let me beg you, like an unback'd filly, to frisk it, to squirt it, to jump it, to rear it, to bound it-- and to kick it with long kicks and short kicks, till, like Tickletoby's mare, you break a strap or a crupper and throw his worship into the dirt.       Book III, Ch. XXXVI
Sterne was a clergyman, so we must take him at his word, that all he meant by "noses" was noses.

In spite of Mr. Shandy's hopes, misfortune strikes again and, while Tristram is finally being born, his nose is squashed "as flat as a pancake". So Mr. Shandy resolves to counter his son's shortcomings with a Name of Power:

Now, my dear brother, said my father, replacing his forefinger, as he was coming closer to the point-- had my child arrived safe into the world, unmartyr'd in that precious part of him-- fanciful and extravagant as I may appear to the world in my opinion of christian names, and of that magic bias which good or bad names irresistibly impress upon our characters and conducts-- Heaven is witness! that in the warmest transports of my wishes for the prosperity of my child, I never once wished to crown his head with more glory and honour than what GEORGE or EDWARD would have spread around it.

But alas! continued my father, as the greatest evil has befallen him-- I must counteract and undo it with the greatest good.

He shall be christened Trismegistus, brother...

This Trismegistus...was the greatest of all earthly beings-- he was the greatest king-- the greatest law-giver-- the greatest philosopher-- and the greatest priest.       Book IV, Chs. XI and VIII

But of all the names in the universe, he had the most unconquerable aversion for TRISTRAM.       Book I, Ch. XIX
You can see where this is going...

Poor Mr. Shandy! He just found out about his son's pancake-nose, and "lay stretched across the bed as still as if the hand of death had pushed him down, for a full hour and a half". Then his brother Toby cheered him up enough to come up with his hail-Trismegistus play. Suddenly the maid Susannah rushes in, saying that the baby's face is black, he may die, and he needs to be christened instantly (unbaptised children won't get to Heaven). So, she asks, what shall we name the boy?

Mr. Shandy considers naming the boy Toby, to compliment his brother; it would be a shame to throw away the great name Trismegistus, if the baby's about to die anyway. But then, the boy may recover. So Mr. Shandy goes through with his third wish. But you must be careful what you wish for - or, at least, who you tell it to.

No, no,-- said my father to Susannah, I'll get up-- There is no time, cried Susannah, the child's as black as my shoe. Trismegistus, said my father-- But stay-- thou art a leaky vessel, Susannah, added my father; canst thou carry Trismegistus in thy head, the length of the gallery without scattering?-- Can I? cried Susannah, shutting the door in a huff.-- If she can, I'll be shot, said my father, bouncing out of bed in the dark, and groping for his breeches.

Susannah ran with all speed along the gallery.

My father made all possible speed to find his breeches.

Susannah got the start, and kept it-- 'Tis Tris-- something, cried Susannah-- There is no christian-name in the world, said the curate, beginning with Tris-- but Tristram. Then 'tis Tristram-gistus, quoth Susannah.

-- There is no gistus to it, noodle!-- 'tis my own name, replied the curate, dipping his hand, as he spoke, into the bason-- Tristram! said he, &c. &c. &c. &c., so Tristram was I called, and Tristram shall I be to the day of my death.       Book IV, Ch. XIV

Poor Mr. Shandy, and poor Tristram - everyone loses, but the happy readers. Now, even if you didn't follow that link to the first four chapters of Tristram Shandy, you have a sense of Sterne's playful style. Thank you, Dear Reader, for coming all this way with me. Here, as promised, is my own little tale, of how this book changed my life before I was even born.

My father loved Tristram Shandy. He was a bit like Mr. Shandy, in that he had his own eccentric system to explain What Really Mattered. He did think for himself, to an exceptional degree - which is how he found a way out from the shadow of his own father, the overbearing colonel.

When I came along, besides having an imposing father and grandfather, and a colorful mother, I also had seven older brothers and sisters. I was the caboose, the runt of the litter.

So my father, inspired by Tristram Shandy, decided to give me a Name of Power. If you know much about Bertolt Brecht, you already know it's not exactly a name of virtue. But it is, as my father would say, a name to conjure with. I'm pleased it worked out this way. If I'd been a girl, Papa was going to name me Zenobia.

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Questions for You:

If you wanted to give your daughter or son a name of power, what would it be?

What is your own Hobby-Horse (pet obsession)? Or, if you won't own up to it, what is your "friend's" Hobby-Horse?

Is there a particular novel that seems to you the most original that you've ever read? (please answer yes or no.)

Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Fri Jan 25, 2013 at 05:00 AM PST.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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