"Read, read, read, read, my unlearned reader! Read...for without much reading, by which, your reverence knows, I mean much knowledge, you will no more be able to penetrate the meaning of my next marbled page (motly emblem of my work!) than the world with all its sagacity has been able to unravel the many opinions, transactions and truths which still lie mystically hid under the dark veil of the black one." (III.35)
There's the most-quoted bit from Tristram Shandy, which is full of references to obscure works, works made up, works misquoted, and works wholly plagiarized.
Well, okay, Shandy is an experiment. Titularly the story of its narrator, it turns out to be something entirely different: a story about his uncle, his father, the passage of time, the difficulty of telling a story...noses...it's anything other than Tristram Shandy's story. It's been described as a perfect capture of the way the mind works: twisting back on itself, skipping, tangentializing. And yeah, that's how my mind works, too, and as far as that documentation goes, it's bravura. But isn't the point of writing a novel to concentrate your mind, to focus all those disparate thoughts into a coherent whole? If I wrote down my mind right now, I would tell you about this book, Eric B & Rakim on my CD player, my dog snoring, my wife asleep, my left calf aching slightly, the wine in my mouth, I suspect this review doesn't make much sense, and not in an awesome post-modern way, my fingers are a little cold, I'm still puzzling about a dream I had last night in which I told my wife that while she was gone on a business trip I'd shovel out the eight inches of sand I'd covered the floor of our library with, which she's been surprisingly obliging about but I was starting to get the impression that enough is enough...
That's not a very good narrative, and even the most forgiving of Tristram Shandy's critics have admitted that it's not a page-turner. The word is self-indulgent.
Shandy belongs to the Quixotic tradition - not as in the word, but as in the talking about the Cervantick [sic] influence - and I love that genre. It's writing about writing, and I was hoping to love this book, and I was excited about lots of parts of Shandy. For example: the page following the quote that opens this review is marbled; it was different, then, in every edition of this book as it was originally published. That's weird,
and not lamely weird. There's also a part where Sterne threatens to describe the widow Wadman and then just leaves the next page blank, so you can draw her yourself, "as like your mistress as you like - as unlike your wife as your conscience will let you." (VI.38)
And he leaves IV.24 out because, he says, he realized after writing it that it was so good it would throw the balance of the rest of the book off; it would make everything else seem worse by comparison. Again, that's a funny joke. But I found myself a little disappointed by IV.25, because unlike 24, it existed. And when one finds oneself wishing that all of the chapters of a book had been excluded, one has to admit that one may not be enjoying reading it.
Tristram Shandy is a clever book. It might even be a worthwhile book, if you're really interested in books. But it's a bitch to read.