Laurence Sterne’s inspiration for the Shandean spirit may have been his own father, a hare-brained but good-hearted army ensign, who married the daughter of a sutler he owed money to, and was run through the body at Gibraltar in a duel over a goose. All of this is truer and funnier than anything in Tristram Shandy, the outpourings of an obscure clergyman who appears to have been simmering twenty years in a stagnant Anglican bye-corner, where his only diversion consisted in a parochial dispute over the post of sexton & dog-whipper, worth three pounds a year, upon which head he wrote the satire, A Political Romance; which, to its credit, caused sufficient affront to have been burned wholesale by the Archbishop of York. It appears that this was encouragement enough for Sterne to embark on Tristram Shandy, the life and opinions of a gentleman, in nine volumes.
The word shandy, I am informed, is a north country provincialism for crack-brain; and the Shandean spirit, of which this novel serves as a declaration, is one of vain contrariness in the face of an inimical world. Thus, just as life has never wrought with his family in the accustomed way, so Tristram’s father Walter, as a point of principle, always sets his course straight across the grain of received wisdom. He insists that the possession of a long nose is a necessary requirement for greatness, as is having the right name; and is frustrated on both counts when his son gets his beak crushed flat by the obstetric forceps, and is then, due to an unhappy confusion, baptised not Trismegistus – meaning Thrice-Greatest – but TRISTRAM, which Walter holds to be the lowest and most contemptible name in the world.
Despite being all but noseless, and losing his foreskin in an accident with a sash-window at the age of five, Tristram’s heart turns out to be Shandean to its bottom. Chief among his opinions is that, in writing, “one stroke of native humour” is worth more than the traditional process of selecting the proper elements and putting them into a right order. Thus he determines to tell his story in his own way, which is without any pretence at arrangement.
Tristram starts his life-story before it begins, claps his preface in the middle of Vol. III, and announces in Vol. IV that, “it is from this point properly, that the story of my LIFE and OPINIONS sets out.” But, the reader will find that it doesn’t. Instead, Tristram continues just as before, flying off from what he is about, ambling away on digressions, departures, apostrophes within diversions &c., so that the story gets told tardily, if at all. We are even denied some of the promised asides, chapters on pishes, button-holes, whiskers, and straight lines all being proposed, but never appearing; while the story of the King of Bohemia and his seven castles is begun and broken off five times by discourses on Montero caps, or giants, or England’s shameful withdrawal from the field of conflict in Europe in 1712, all which subjects are deemed by the author, in their turn, to take precedence, by virtue of them having occurred to him.
It is hinted that Tristram is not simply dodging the point – if there is one – but is, in truth, expressing Locke’s theory of the association of ideas, whereby chains of thought are created when one notion triggers another, and so on; and which, as Tristram understands it, is a licence to write about anything that pops into his head. The resulting un-navigable lump is leavened with a dash of cloying sentiment and a good sprinkling of cock jokes, and it has brought in the jingling guinea for the space of nine volumes over the last seven years, whilst annoying the Anti-Shandeans and thrice-able criticks Sterne has pointedly set himself up against – notoriety being in no way incompatible with commercial success.
My compeers over at the Critical Review have termed the work, “a humorous performance, of which we are unable to convey any distinct ideas to our readers,” and by “humorous”, they simply mean odd. But to this critic’s mind, while there is nothing so amusing as an authentic crack-brain, neither is there anything so tiresome as a calculated one, one that bawls its mad-cappery like a hawker, and weighs itself out in servings like turnips at the market. Though if it gets you reading Locke, fair enough; that may be more than Sterne has done.