Either you love it, or you really have missed something. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, to give it its full title, is one of the most inventive, idiosyncratic, funny and deliciously conversational novels ever written. Its author, Laurence Sterne, died 250 years ago on Sunday. An entirely obscure Yorkshire clergyman, known locally for the wit of his conversation and of the sermon that he occasionally gave in York Minster, he burst onto the literary scene in 1760, in his late 40s, with the first two volumes of this book (he added another seven volumes at intervals over the next seven years).
Tristram, its narrator, tries to tell the story of his life but keeps being diverted by the need to describe the quirks of his utterly eccentric family. He starts at the moment (and I mean the very moment) of his conception, and then finds himself working backwards in time to explain the chains of events that made him who he is. Like all of us, he is the “sport of small accidents”, minutely and comically detailed. The book employs every kind of visual trick (blank pages, strange dashes and asterisks, diagrams, marbled pages, a waving line tracing the flourish in the air of a man’s walking stick).
This 18th-century novel makes much post-modern gimmickry look thin stuff, but rather than perplexing its Georgian readers, it delighted them. Sterne became perhaps the first unapologetic literary celebrity, relishing the smartest company offered by London and Paris. “I write,” he said, “not to be fed, but to be famous.”
When he died, Sterne had just completed the first part of his second novel, the equally droll A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy. He only got as far as France, leaving his narrator, Mr. Yorick (another alter ego) in a delicate situation, forced to share the only available room in an inn with a lady and her fille de chambre. They hang a sheet across the chamber to preserve modesty, but in the night the maid silently gets out of bed, “So that when I stretched out my hand, I caught hold of the fille de chambre’s—”
So Yorick’s hand stretches out forever, and Sterne leaves us with an interruption and a suggestive joke. It is a characteristic ending, for Sterne’s fiction is a singular mixture of subtlety and bawdy. And it is all interruptions. His novels do justice to the way that, while we try to make coherent narratives of our lives, something is always interrupting us. Which is why, as Tristram says, “my work is digressive, and it is progressive too,—and at the same time”.
Like his author, Tristram is tubercular and knows that death is always about to enter the room. “Are we not here now,—and gone in a moment?” Sterne’s novel jests at death (when his friend Parson Yorick dies, the whole page goes black). He would have appreciated his own death being remembered – preferably by our reading some of his inimitable fiction.