Progression by Digression

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In many ways The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman is a maddening book. It is funny, of course, but also eccentric, anarchic and longwinded; and it’s hard to understand why it survived to become a classic. Perhaps these days only university students and professors read Tristram Shandy. But for two centuries it was a family favourite. My great-grandfather Walter Congreve discovered it while lying wounded in hospital during the Boer War. He carried it with him – alongside the Bible – through the First World War, to his military command in Palestine and thence to Malta as governor.

Another forebear, Henrietta Maria Stanley, gave an autographed first edition of Tristram Shandy to her grandson Bertrand Russell when he asked for it for his birthday. Normally she was dismissive of her shy grandson: on one occasion she quizzed him about science books, none of which he had read, then turned to her roomful of visitors and sighed: ‘I have no intelligent grandchildren.’ But this request pleased her greatly. ‘I won’t write in it,’ she told him, ‘because people will say what an odd grandmother you have!’ She inscribed it nonetheless.

One of my cousins was christened Tristram after Sterne’s narrator. More recently my stepson, a former drama student, wrote a very creditable stage adaptation of the book, though it was never performed. About the same time a film appeared called A Cock and Bull Story (the title taken from the novel’s last line) which mimicked on screen Sterne’s theme of a work which is trying, but failing, to get itself written.

As for me, I suppose I owe my first job to Tristram Shandy. In the late ’60s I was a hopeful Cambridge graduate trying to get a job on a newspaper. But jobs were scarce; and graduates were viewed (at least in the provinces) with deep suspicion. At length I was granted an interview with the Yorkshire Post where the editor, unimpressed

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In many ways The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman is a maddening book. It is funny, of course, but also eccentric, anarchic and longwinded; and it’s hard to understand why it survived to become a classic. Perhaps these days only university students and professors read Tristram Shandy. But for two centuries it was a family favourite. My great-grandfather Walter Congreve discovered it while lying wounded in hospital during the Boer War. He carried it with him – alongside the Bible – through the First World War, to his military command in Palestine and thence to Malta as governor.

Another forebear, Henrietta Maria Stanley, gave an autographed first edition of Tristram Shandy to her grandson Bertrand Russell when he asked for it for his birthday. Normally she was dismissive of her shy grandson: on one occasion she quizzed him about science books, none of which he had read, then turned to her roomful of visitors and sighed: ‘I have no intelligent grandchildren.’ But this request pleased her greatly. ‘I won’t write in it,’ she told him, ‘because people will say what an odd grandmother you have!’ She inscribed it nonetheless.

One of my cousins was christened Tristram after Sterne’s narrator. More recently my stepson, a former drama student, wrote a very creditable stage adaptation of the book, though it was never performed. About the same time a film appeared called A Cock and Bull Story (the title taken from the novel’s last line) which mimicked on screen Sterne’s theme of a work which is trying, but failing, to get itself written.

As for me, I suppose I owe my first job to Tristram Shandy. In the late ’60s I was a hopeful Cambridge graduate trying to get a job on a newspaper. But jobs were scarce; and graduates were viewed (at least in the provinces) with deep suspicion. At length I was granted an interview with the Yorkshire Post where the editor, unimpressed, gloomily passed me on to the sister paper, the Evening Post.

Its editor Ewart Clay seemed more inclined to hire me. However, behind him at the interview stood the imposing figure of his deputy Edmund Hillas, who was plainly losing patience with the naïve graduate with his philosophy degree and toffy accent from the soft South. He broke in suddenly: ‘Does tha’ know Shandy Hall?’

There was no reason why I should. But I did. ‘It’s the house in Coxwold where Laurence Sterne wrote Tristram Shandy,’ I said. Hillas was astonished. ‘’E knows Shandy Hall!’ he exclaimed, turning to the boss. And I was in. (I thought it imprudent to add that I knew the place only because it was a few miles from my Yorkshire public school.)

One reason why the book has lasted, you could say, is that the world has finally caught up with it. For, apart from its language, Shandy is a postmodern novel. Ironic, self-conscious, tricksy, it breaks all the rules of structure, muddles fiction with fact, confuses author and narrator, and shamelessly displays its inner workings to the reader, who is directly addressed, cajoled and upbraided.

There are all kinds of typographical tricks: blank pages, diagrams, suggestive asterisks for the juicy bits. Chapters are out of order, pages are missing. Sterne doesn’t get round to writing his preface until halfway through Volume 3. It’s all part of a game to demonstrate the supposed inadequacy of language and the struggles of authorship. But Stern’s facetiousness is erudite. He throws in obscure words like ‘epiphonema’, ‘erotesis’ and ‘hypallage’ – and he can write most elegantly when he chooses.

His models were Rabelais, Cervantes and Montaigne but his satire reminds me rather of Swift or Pope. His target seems to have been the pretensions of the Enlightenment, in particular the philosopher John Locke whose theory of the association of ideas becomes the central theme and instrument of Sterne’s pseudo-academic mockery.

Digression is the dominant motif of the book. Digression, says Sterne, is the art of Progression. And he uses it ruthlessly. Some of his excursions are delightful, like the story of the Abbess of Andouillets and her novice, abandoned by their carriage driver in Volume 7 and forced like muleteers to use obscenities to get the animals moving. Others are long and tedious, like the story of Slawkenbergius and noses in Volume 4. Looked at another way, this use of digression is only an exaggerated form of what was to come 150 years later. Sterne is anticipating the ‘stream-of-consciousness’ mode of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. Likewise, his enjoyment of microscopic description – how Walter Shandy takes off his wig, how Corporal Trim stands while reading aloud one of parson Yorick’s sermons – has been copied by many a would-be Booker winner.

When Tristram first appeared in 1759, some commentators were outraged that an Anglican vicar should have written a book containing so much sexual innuendo. However, women reportedly were avid readers. Sterne was no misogynist – rather the reverse – but he did have a robust attitude to sex even if it was veiled with suggestive asterisks, obscure double entendres and Latinisms which probably went over most readers’ heads. Described as an irreverent but devout clergyman, Sterne I should say is bawdy rather than lewd. So we meet Dr Kunastrokius, Signor Coglionissimo and an ancient authority called Phutatorius (copulator). We learn that to ‘wind up the clock’ is intended as a double entendre and that ‘old hats’ are female genitalia (‘because often felt’, explains the Oxford edition). Sterne borrows copiously, but from relatively few sources: Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy and Chambers’s Cyclopaedia in particular. His profligacy with names and quotations, invented and real, is an editor’s nightmare; and my edition has no fewer than 54 pages of footnotes.

The central joke of Tristram Shandy is about Time. The narrator will never catch up with his own life. Tristram is not born until Volume 3; in the middle of Volume 4 he declares he’s a year older, yet on paper he’s not yet lived a whole day. The more he writes, the more he will fall behind, and so the faster he will have to write. It’s good news, says Sterne, ‘for papermakers and quill-pluckers’. The mature Bertrand Russell tackled the paradox in The Principles of Mathematics, explaining that Tristram would complete his biography, however eventful his life might be, only if he lived for ever.

Sterne’s title is of course a misnomer. What we learn about Tristram amounts to little more than that his nose was damaged at birth by Dr Slop’s careless application of forceps; that he was supposed to be baptised Trismegistus but the servant Susannah who carried the message couldn’t pronounce the name; and that he was accidentally circumcised by a falling sash window whose cords, pulleys and counterweights had been purloined for a project on Uncle Toby’s bowling green.

Which brings us to the real heart of the book: the Shandean hobby-horses. ‘Shandy’ is said to be Yorkshire dialect for ‘crackpot’; and Uncle Toby is its chief exponent. Innocent, guileless and goodhearted, he is obsessed with military fortifications. He has been wounded at Namur, in the groin, and with the help of his loyal servant Corporal Trim spends his time recreating the sieges of the War of the Spanish Succession in his back garden. There he is watched by his ‘concupiscible’ neighbour the Widow Wadman whose desire for him is clouded only by anxiety about the state of his marriage-tackle.

Toby’s obsession drives Walter mad; and though Walter explodes, he always forgives his tender-hearted brother. But he, too, has his hobby-horses – so many, indeed, that it’s hard to find a subject on which he does not have an eccentric, impregnable opinion. Walter gathers opinions like fallen apples and makes them his own, says Tristram: ‘His road lay so very far on one side from that wherein most men travelled.’

When he speaks of family life, the Shandys and their household staff, Sterne’s humour is no longer satirical but ‘sentimental’ – a newly coined word meaning sympathetic and affectionate, not having our modern sense of artificial or cloying. His minor characters are important: Susannah the maid, Obadiah the ‘fat, foolish scullion’, Jonathan the coachman, Dr Slop and the parson Yorick (who represents Sterne himself).

Tristram Shandy was a hit with the public, and Sterne was a tireless promoter. Today he would be inviting himself to every literary festival in the country. The book’s popularity waned as successive volumes emerged, while its author was meanwhile dying of ‘the vile cough’ tuberculosis. Volume 8 has some of the best writing of all – verbal gymnastics, monstrous metaphors and showers of synonyms. But it dribbles to a close in Volume 9 with Sterne unable to find an ending (how could such a book have one?).

Sterne aimed mainly to please. Like Sancho Panza he wanted to rule ‘a kingdom of hearty laughing subjects’. True Shandeism, he declares at the end of Volume 4, ‘opens the heart and lungs . . . forces the blood and other vital fluids of the body to run freely thro’ its channels, and makes the wheel of life run long and chearfully [sic] round’. And it found many distinguished fans and imitators: Diderot, Jefferson, Nietzsche, Karl Marx and, of course, Bertrand Russell among them.

My great-grandfather (Walter, like the elder Shandy) plainly enjoyed the military nonsense. Whether you get on with Tristram Shandy depends, I suppose, on your sense of humour or your character, or maybe just your mood. It’s best read as it suits you: skip where you want, savour where you can. Taken in small doses, it is the perfect bedside book.

On the other hand, of course, you may just find it maddening.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 67 © Christian Tyler 2020


About the contributor

Christian Tyler gratefully acknowledges Sterne’s help in his career. He continues to feel sentimental towards Yorkshire.

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