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nov·el 1 [nov-uhl]

1. a fictitious prose narrative of considerable length and complexity, portraying characters and usually presenting a sequential organization of action and scenes.
The film, Cock and Bull, refers to its source, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, as "a masterwork of postmodernism before there was any modernism to be post." What we might ask is whether it is possible to explode conventions before they have been established?

When I was a lad we were told that Don Quijote was the first novel. But it produced no flowering of the form in Spain, so it does seem fair to credit the British instead. I'd consider Gulliver's Travels a novel, so Jonathan Swift would be my choice, but many cite Samuel Richardson as the father of the novel. Whomever you place first, they were promptly followed by Daniel Defoe, Henry Fielding, Frances Burney, and Laurence Sterne, among others. And the novel quickly became the preferred form of English-language literature.

But consider that form, as defined above, and Sterne emerges--there at the very birth of the novel--as the skunk at the garden party. Because his Tristram Shandy steadfastly refuses to follow any kind of sequence, does not contain much action, and is, in fact, ultimately devoid of a plot. Sure, it's supposed to be the fictitious autobiography of the eponymous "hero," but never gets much beyond his conception and birth.

Instead Sterne seems hellbent on making the novel yield to the reality of everyday life, so instead of a linear plot we get a book that consists mainly, and famously, of digressions. It's a funny book and one I enjoy reading in chunks, but it does defy a sustained reading for precisely these reasons. The lack of any narrative drive frustrates as much as it entertains. We can concede Sterne's point, that life is a series of digressions rather than a straight line from birth (or even conception) to death, but the fact remains that every life does proceed from the starting point to the end point eventually. The narrator's refusal to do so is exactly as provocative as Sterne presumably intended.

On the other hand, the film can be enjoyed in a sitting and richly rewards the viewing. Michael Winterbottom and his terrific cast--I assume they're improvising at some points--give us a movie about making a movie about a book that has always been considered unfilmable. So we get not just hilarious set pieces surrounding Tristram's birth and his unfortunate encounter with a window sash, but a discussion between the actor playing young Tristram and Steve Coogan, who plays adult Tristram and his father, about how the scene should be played. It's almost a mockumentary about filmmaking itself and the opening scene between Coogan and Rob Brydon, who plays Uncle Toby, as they are being made-up for their roles, is as funny as anything in Spinal Tap. The make-up artists can't contain their laughter and you won't be able to either.

In the end, what really makes us appreciate Sterne is his pre-modern anticipation of the post-modernists. Where Cervantes accidentally lost control of his Don and served up metafiction even as he was creating (co-creating?) fiction, Sterne quite willfully blew past the boundaries of the novel well before they had been set. In so doing, Sterne--and Cervantes--made all the future criticisms and experimentations sound stodgy rather than revolutionary. Because of them, post-modernism is an entirely retrograde movement based on rather conventional notions, the conventions having been established at the novel's nascence. And that's undeniably funny.


Grade: (B+)


Laurence Sterne Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Laurence Sterne
    -BIBLIOGRAPHY: Tristram Shandy: An Annotated Bibliography (Jack Lynch, Last updated 3 April 1995)
    -WIKIPEDIA: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman
    -FAN SITE: Laurence Sterne in Cyberspace (Masaru Uchida)
    -HYPERTEXT: Tristram Shandy (IULM)
    -IMAGES: Laurence Sterne (National Portrait Gallery)
    -JOURNAL: The Shandean [established in 1989 as an international scholarly journal for the critical and historical investigation of all aspects of the works and life of Laurence Sterne (1713-1768)]
    -INFO: Laurence Sterne (The Guardian)
    -ETEXTS: Tristram Shandy (Project Gutenberg)
    -STUDY GUIDE: TRistram Shandy (SparkNotes)
    -GOOGLE BOOK: Tristram Shandy)
-ESSAY: Reading Tristram Shandy in an Age of Distraction: Sarah Moorhouse on Laurence Sterne’s Novel of Rabbit Holes and Procrastination (By Sarah Moorhouse, January 30, 2023, LitHub)
    -ESSAY: How the bizarre novel “Tristram Shandy” became an 18th century meme: Tristram Shandy is filled with digressions, irrelevant observations, and parodies of literary tropes. The novel made its author, Laurence Sterne, famous. It became a "marketing phenomenon," complete with branded merchandise. By breaking the rules of literature, Sterne created new opportunities for future writers like Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. (Tim Brinkhof, 12/01/22, Big Think)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Cutting his lining: The excessive ingenuity of Tristram Shandy (Min Wild, 10/08/21, TLS)
    -ESSAY: Tristram and the tyrants: How Laurence Sterne’s 250-year-old masterpiece was used as a moral litmus test (Gawain Towler, October 2021, The Critic)
-ESSAY: Tristram Shandy and the consolations of comedy: The story of “A COCK and a BULL . . . And one of the best of its kind, I ever heard”: (Standpoint Magazine, 28 August, 2020)
    -ESSAY: The Moral in Phutatorius’s Breeches: Tristram Shandy and the Limits of Stoic Ethics (Brian Michael Norton)
    -ESSAY: BOOKS: THE LIFE AND OPINIONS OF; TRISTRAM SHANDY: Laurence Sterne's vast, hilarious 18th-century masterpiece has been adapted into a mighty comic book. Here, with pages of his elaborate, brilliant and perhaps totally insane project, the artist explains how (and even why) he did it (MARTIN ROWSON, 01 SEPTEMBER 1996, Independent)
    -ESSAY: Tristram Shandy: Pre-Modern Post-Modernism (CHAD BEARDEN, APRIL 12, 2012, DC Examiner)
    -ESSAY: Tristram Shandy and the Comedy of Context (George P. Landow, Victorian Web)
    -ESSAY: LET ‘EM LAUGH : Tristram Shandy and the Humanity of Laughter (James Sloan Allen, Worldly Wisdom)
    -ARTICLE: Uncle Toby Dicky Bird Society Mug (BBC: History of the World in 100 Objects)
    -ARTICLE: Sterne’s post-mortem journey (BBC)
    -ARTICLE: Shandy Hall in Coxwold was once home to Laurence Sterne (BBC, 1/27/10)
    -ESSAY: The Scrapbook Mind of Laurence Sterne (Ron Schuler, 11/24/05, Parlour Tricks)
    -ESSAY: Locke, Hume and Hobby-Horses in Tristram Shandy (AE Davidson, 1981)[pdf]
    -ESSAY: Tristram Shandy, Dilettante: Laurence Sterne and the Pleasures of Attention-Deficit Literature (Ted Scheinman, July 27, 2012 , The Millions)
    -REVIEW: of Tristram Shandy (Eileen Myles, BookForum)
    -REVIEW: of Tristram Shandy (Carol Watts, The Guardian)

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