Tristram Shandy – Laurence Sterne (1767)
by Chingiz Ismailov
It’s rare to find a book (let alone read one) so full of warmth, friendliness, and gentle humour. Sterne’s Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman confesses to all of these qualities. The tone and style the original anti-novel stands alone in the world of Western literature, which has made the book a classic.
Of course, Tristram Shandy is known for turning convention on its head, then defenestrating it from the 5th floor. There is no plot as such, and it seems as though Shandy (who is the narrator) has set out to write an autobiography, but he barely gets past his own birth by the end of the book. Frequent digressions into almost everything imaginable pervade the book, but mostly lead to fun anecdotes about his father’s strange opinions, and his Uncle Toby’s shenanigans.
Another thing that stands out, and has become a huge influence on literature, particularly amongst the post-modernists, is the self-relfexive and self-aware quality of the novel. The book knows it is a book, and Sterne (via Tristram Shandy’s narration) comments and ponders on the nature of reading, and what a book is exactly, making it a wonderful early example of metafiction. Sometimes chapters will be a sentence long. Sometimes chapters will be blank. Sometimes Tristram will remember that he’s diverted from the main narrative (if there even is one) and will begin talking about why he has done this.
Everything considered, this is certainly one of the masterpieces and cornerstones of the Western canon, a fantastic novel, on the unfortunate life, and friendly opinions of Tristram Shandy, gentleman.
“But of all the names in the universe, he had the most unconquerable aversion for Tristram.”