15 Books: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

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

A couple months ago, I gave in to a Facebook meme wherein I was asked to list 15 books that have stuck with me in some way, shape or form.

For number 13, I’ve selected a book that, try as I might, I could probably never give an accurate description of: Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, which has been called the most thoroughly post-modern book ever written. It’s 300 years old. The book is essentially an assault on everything we imagine Victorian society considering good literature. Experimental to a point that wouldn’t be matched for hundreds of years, and laden with timeless humor that oscillates between bawdy and intellectual and that is still fresh and surprising in the 21st century, Sterne’s book makes it easy to forgive the fact that it’s almost impossible to get through.

More after the jump.

I’m a sucker for non-linear storytelling and for unreliable narrators–it’s why I love Lost and why I’m so enamored of How I Met Your Mother–and Tristram Shandy takes both to a wild extreme.  The book’s eponymous narrator sets out to tell his life story, but gets side-tracked and ultimately only makes it partway through his own birth.  The real story–or what there is of one–comes in the digressions, which are brimming with vaudevillian slapstick, racy innuendo, lengthy musings on the social, philosophical and scientific fashions of the time, and meta-commentary on the limits of the printed form.

It’s that penchant for digression and surprises like a black page being forced upon the reader in place of a moment of silent mourning that have made Tristram Shandy the great unfilmable novel.  Yes, it’s hard to weave a dramatic plot out of The Road, and rather difficult to fit Tom Bombadil’s role in Lord of the Rings into a movie, but try dramatizing a life story wherein the main character doesn’t even start to crown until a third of the way through.  (Oh, wait.  They did. And it was, against all odds, good.)

The novel all but dares you to actually read all of it, and taking years to get through it (or never finishing it) is more than forgivable.  As long as you don’t say you didn’t have fun.

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