Comedy of Heirs

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman BY Laurence Sterne. New York: Penguin Classics. 735 pages. $13.

The cover of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

TRISTRAM SHANDY sailed into eighteenth-century literary history alongside such bawdy picaresques as Tom Jones. But unlike the rest Laurence Sterne’s creation is an antinovel: It starts and stops, has entire pages that aren’t even text—blank or solid black or marbled or filled with lines and swirls that indicate the wayward shapes of the narrative (at such moments it seems like what Sterne really is is a concrete poet). On the occasions when the author doesn’t want you to know what naughty thing he’s saying (though he quit being a minister to write, Sterne was still a modest man) there are heaving piles of asterisks. By such means—explained in an insanely arch but persistently conversational manner—you get that the book in your hands is alive and it will turn any whimsical damn way he wants. Laurence Sterne is a funny guy and there is a devastating presentness to this work.

The list of Shandean admirers includes Karl Marx, Thomas Jefferson, James Joyce, Goethe, Virginia Woolf, and David Foster Wallace. All the fuss is because so early on in English literature there was this upstart minister laughing at the act of writing and metonymically he’s laughing at life itself. And it’s the heaven of this book for me on both counts.

Yet in the midst of Tristram Shandy’s wily form-defying nature—there’s still no agreement as to whether the book is a novel at all—there is this blatant subject matter that can be variously identified as castration anxiety, (wounded) masculinity, impotence, fear of female genitalia and power, and an anticipation of, or even the fact of, being cuckolded. And kind of not minding it. One critic pointed out that every male is impotent in Tristram Shandy, including the town bull who ends the story.

The story is somewhat this. Tristram’s father is thinking of nothing one day and his mother interrupts her husband to remind him to wind a clock—and that, Shandy (the author) asserts, is the source of the problem with everything. He moves (s-l-o-w-l-y) to the moment of his own birth.

Tristram’s mother wants a midwife, and her husband prefers his buddy Dr. Slop because he wants his child delivered by the cesarean method so he can enter life sideways. The descent factor of birth, that one comes down the birth canal and through the cunt, is disturbing to Walter Shandy. Women are considered mere vectors of children. Tristram quips that “the Shandy Family were of an original character throughout:—I mean the males,—the females had no character at all.”

The sidelined lot of women here is adamantly vehicular. While maintaining that the value of Tristram Shandy is, of course, the writing, the experience of seeing an author (for the first time?) frolicking inside the act of writing, I think there’s a way to look at Sterne’s specific contempt for women simultaneously. Writing a self pretty much means giving birth to yourself. So what that means here is that you just put the problematic woman inside the book, your man-womb. I’m delighted to have figured this out. Because I think the primary or secondary purpose of this early “life writing” is to wage war against women inside of the work and win.

Charles Robert Leslie, A Scene from Tristram Shandy ('Uncle Toby and the Widow Wadman') ca. 1829-1830, oil on canvas, 22 × 31''. Tate
Charles Robert Leslie, A Scene from Tristram Shandy ('Uncle Toby and the Widow Wadman') ca. 1829-1830, oil on canvas, 22 × 31''. Tate

Young Shandy is inadvertently circumcised while pissing out a window (on the advice of a maid and then the sash fell), losing the tip of his dick. Tristram’s uncle Toby Shandy, a veteran of the Nine Years’ War, is perpetually playing war games on the Shandy estate with his underling Corporal Trim. Their enterprise is punctuated by the constant reiteration of the fact of Uncle Toby’s war wound to the groin. Catch his audience: “Yes, Madam, it was owing to a blow from a stone, broke off by a ball from the parapet of a hornwork at the siege of Namur, which struck full upon my uncle Toby’s groin. —Which way could that affect it? The story of that, Madam, is long and interesting;—but it would be running my history all upon heaps to give it you here.” And indeed we have hundreds of pages of what adds up to nothing more than eighteenth-century PTSD performed thoughtlessly and relentlessly.

During his travels to Europe, Tristram has escapades with women but nothing happens. As well as being an antinovel it’s an anti-romp. Diligently he turns pages out, and you really feel all those pages. Laurence Sterne was amply educated in the classics, and Tristram’s and his father’s utterances are predictably ornamentalized by a Greek quote or a Latin quote—there are footnotes galore in the original language. Reading it can feel like being in prison with someone or being in a very small apartment during a pandemic, but then you begin to play word games both near and afar, and at that pitch of closeness you find your heaven.

For one thing it’s the when of it. The first volumes of the book were published in 1759. It thrills me somehow to be reading such a daily book from before the American Revolution. He’s in the air of it but now so am I. Sterne was only two hundred years away from Shakespeare and the language has the same sinuosity. It’s conducted at such a curlicue pace, but he often holds the words of it in his mouth for a long while, and it’s a poetic savoring of this earlier English language on such a slow day in the eighteenth century. I enjoyed the relief of searching the old words and phrasings on my computer as I moved (it took me about four months) through the interior of the book, which led me to “certes”—why don’t we say that anymore? It means “certainly.” It feels like “totes.” Things are “water-landish”; women of course are “triticale,” meaning trite, hackneyed. Though I don’t know how women even get tired if they are barely in the conversation. More like dull or hard of hearing, like the women in Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff who are aurally afflicted because of those damn bonnets.

And yet as Shandy gleefully puts it: “My way is ever to point out to the curious, different tracts of investigation, to come at the first springs of the events I tell.” Which simply put is the delight and the specialness of this book. He begins at the beginning, he even precedes it, and then he wanders about for as long as humanly possible, dividing hair upon hair of thought and time, taking this shaving brush of being human (male) and staring closely at each part, bending it, wetting it, letting language freely flick in every direction as what you do and know and experience—being perhaps the only inorganic and yet strangely alive thing, this virus, language, and this minister found his bully pulpit there.

Back at Shandy Hall toward the end of the book, Uncle Toby anticipates marrying the Widow Wadman, who massages and inspects, farmer-like, the neighborhood of Toby’s cock and balls to see what’s there and does it work. The process is titillating, everyone’s involved, but the results are unclear.

Eileen Myles is a poet, novelist, and art journalist whose book-length essay about writing, For Now, will be out from Yale University Press this fall.