Tristram Shandy Revisited

It was at the end of WW II that I, as a bookish young fellow who had been fascinated by the wit and judgment (viz. Locke) of Sterne's Tristram Shandy, found himself standing on the very parapet between the confluence of the two rivers where Uncle Toby had received his disabling wound in the campaign of l704. Everything was fresh in my mind from perusing the book in the previous year, I had been delighted by the idea of a novel which was not a novel, a story which was not a story, and a line of thinking which went back and forward, up and down, into one mode of speaking and without warning into quite another. And here was I at Namur having just brought a thousand exhausted German prisoners to a POW camp, again soldier in another war in another century.

In the town I was in an empty sparsely furnished beer hall, drinking some of that excellent Belgian beer you find only in small towns from traditional breweries. I asked in my weak school French about the wars in the old days, and the old men nodded and said there were terrible wars with the English who took everything good from the country and left it bare. Walking back to the fortified heights, I mused on this scrap of rummaged history, thought it was all less clear than Uncle Toby's view of Namur, because that was vested in art whereas the old men's memories and the ancient parapets were ordinary since they were just remnant bits of life.

Counting decades on the fingers of one hand, I am reading Sterne over once again, with the same enthusiasm I felt as a lad, but now I have complaints. Looking over the fringes of the vast scholarly literature on Sterne, I see serious studies on influences from Rabelais, from Cervantes, from Locke again and again, and marvel how the university scholars can bore themselves so well with bits and pieces from Sterne's abundant table and never manage to say anything about the actual Words. I revel in those words and the tumble of artfully piled phraseology, the Baroque quality of contrapuntal themes running into and out of each other with repeats and variations, and the constant decorations which do mordants endlessly on little clusters of sounds. Sterne had told us already enough about his influences, but where it all came from is something which came from Mr. Sterne's peculiar cast of life and demoniack way of living with the vanished Skeltonites ---- but even more from something inside his mind which was constantly playing tricks with his tongue. Joyce started off saner, ended up more recondite, but it is that same fast-paced mind-twitching which we find in both of them. Meanwhile the critics look for political influences, for preludes to a growing pre-Romanticism, to the Gothick, to anything on which you can write a dull paper to print in a dull Journal that nobody but colleagues in your field will ever read.

But if we come back to the words and the configurations of the curious phrases which jostle each other into long-line Baroque sentences, we find an undiscovered meadow for probing. I hate to mention something as formal as phonetic analysis, or the complexities of cascading configurations of sentences as they roll off one of the little 12mo pages onto another and expire on the verso. It is the art of words which Sterne professes, it is his ability to string out lines with his customary ------ dashes ------ and (spaces) which make his pages so easy to read even when we are not quite sure what he is talking about. His dear Jenny and Madam are not chauvinist marginal markings waiting for a Feminist Critic to pounce on a few centuries later. His crit on Locke's notion of Wit vs. Judgment has nothing to do with Locke, but a great deal to do with Sterne. But beyond all topics of reference, we have here a remarkable tableau of word-painted images the like of which the passing centuries were not the see for a long time.

One critic said Sterne's language was "conversational" in style, another went a step further and classed it as "conversationalistic". Critics to the Devil! We need time spent in close reading to find ways to read pages aloud with an intonation that suits the page. It may have to be one of those nervous and twitchy Brit accents which go from a musical pitch to the next peak, somehow disappearing as the UK goes flat in its speech patterns following the New World fashion and trans-oceanic commercialism. Becket could have translated some passages into French and read them better there, but Tristram Shandy is still an English language experiment and has to be tested out on whatever English we have in use now. Sioban McKenna read Joyce brilliantly, now we want a reader who can do justice to a few passages of Sterne so we have a proper sound in our ears before we open to book to read on a quiet summer's evening as the sun sets once more on the world of great literature.

A Note on Reading Tristram Shandy

It makes a great difference in what format we find ourselves reading Tristram Shandy. The edition I have been using to reread the book is from Harpers, their l962 copyright from the l925 copyright of Horace Liveright. Inc. with old LOC number 62-9480. This is a nicely printed edition with about forty lines to the page, about 60 chars/spaces to the line, and the whole volume coming to just over 500 pages. The font is well selected to match an l8th c. font face, but of course the appearance is modern with none of the irregularities of an original printing of that time.

Reading an older piece of writing in a modern format is something we usually accept without remark, but in the case of Sterne the case is different. The original printing of Tristram Shandy was in little duodecimo volumes which came out one at a time over a period of years. Size of these little l8th c. books is about the that of a piece of 8.5 x 11 typing page folded twice, but one inch longer, and this obviously regulated the way you read each page before turning to the next one. Since Sterne was especially interested in "format", not only the spacing of words with gaps and dashes and empty pages or black ones or even a page of fancy colored end paper ---- it is clear that his contemporary reader would be reading in a very different manner than a modern one. We can scan a Harper's page and see where it is going with all its interruptions under our eye, while a reader of the original, now very rare and valuable first edition would have his attention delayed ---- quite intentionally by the author, as it were ---- before going on to the next leaf.

There are many printed editions of Sterne you can find and several versions of the whole or pieces on-line now that the 20th century, having learned at last how to read Joyce, finally has discovered Sterne. But to read him authentically, we should be reading those little 12mo pages one by one, taking time to savor the words and their oddities and their inner jests and sub-meanings. For this the format of the original edition is essential, and I suggest you examine it with some care in the version of the whole set of the volumes of Tristram Shandy which you will find on this website. I suggest printing out the first volume so you have it in a readerlike and readable paper copy, to enjoy at leisure in your favorite easy chair, rather than staring into the backlit monitor and straining the eyes as you are doing at this very moment.

For further information ---- and see how it has burgeoned in this web-stuffed age of literary studies ----- the best source would be Jack Lynch's bibliography which has excellent reviews of each work listed furnished with Lynch's pertinent comments. I must caution the novice reader not to get lost in the forest of ----- often perpendicular or possibly oblique ----- commentary, with the end result of viewing the Book as illustration to the comments ( a typical error fostered by college courses taught by critics who distrust writers) ----- but on the other hand, when you have plunged deeply into Shandy, it does no harm to see if your impressions match those of other readers, and ----of course, I need not say it here-----if they do not match ( as in this as in other situations in this multifaceted and curious world)------ and the Devil with their views! ----- just go it on your own. Reading is a personal occupations and best done like prayer in a quiet room alone, far from the credit course and the lectern the professor likes to lean on while expositing his own personal wrong points of view.

William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College