Friday, September 14, 2007

Books: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, by Laurence Sterne

And you thought that I had given up reading! No, I've not, but: if all literature were like this, I probably would. Tristram Shandy is an over-rated dreadful bore, credited as the ur-postmodern novel, but in actuality as grimly frivolous (as opposed to delightfully overripe) as other aged literature, like the Canterbury Tales (pace throwback professor-types, I will be as young and irreverent as I please; I've earned that right by slogging through 650 pages of Sterne's semi-madcap drivel).

I haven't anything but praise for the concept and the structure of the book: a narrator who sits down to write his memoirs, but gets so caught in the details, the digressions, and the details of the digressions, and further digressions based on the first digressions' details, that he writes at a slower rate than he lives, such that he will never be able to complete his history. This is an insight into memoir and memory, record-keeping, journalling, and my reading list (I read much more slowly than I add books to my list).

It is, sadly, in the details that Sterne fails us. Small delights, like Tristram's father's obsession with noses, and his belief that the larger the nose, the better the man, wear out after one hundred pages of discourse, including a very Canterbury-like tale of a traveler in Europe whose nose was bigger than his entire body, who incited burning curiosity in the minds of everyone he met as to whether it was organic or not. And then, after Sterne spends half of the book on being born, he seems to tire of writing, and then jump to childhood and then on, until he abruptly stops, completely without warning. Perhaps we are to assume that Mr. Shandy died? He does not stop, however, mid-sentence, which would have been much more dramatic if that is indeed the case, and would too have been much more avant-garde.

But Sterne, I think, has no intention of being avant-garde, unlike the earlier defining authors of postmodernism, and this may be why his books is so banal. For the real deal (and you won't hear me say this often), watch the movie, featuring the ever-brilliant Steve Coogan.

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