the guardian Fri 28 August 2009
As a general rule I go along with the advice that if a book doesn't grab you by the end of chapter 4, don't waste your time, there are plenty more. Yes, but not like Tristram Shandy. Nothing I've ever come across is like Sterne's extraordinary comic tour de force published 250 years ago which, I freely admit, I found pretty hard going a long way past chapter 4. And then, suddenly, I got it. Or at least I realised I was coming at it from the wrong direction. It isn't a novel. It has no plot. Chapters break off in mid-sentence because, advises the narrator, "I would not give a groat for that man's knowledge in pen-craft who does not understand this: That the best plain narrative in the world, tacked very close to the last spirited apostrophe to my Uncle Toby, would have felt both cold and vapid upon the reader's palate; therefore I forthwith put an end to the chapter, though I was in the middle of my story." And which story might that have been? The one about Uncle Toby's dalliance with the widow Wadman? Or his manservant Corporal Trim's tireless reconstructions of Flanders campaigns, complete with battering rams and catapults on the bowling green behind the vegetable garden? Or of Dr Slop, summoned to assist at the narrator's birth, being thrown from his horse and ... Enough. If you've ever sat spellbound listening to a witty, satirical, outrageous, digressive raconteur regaling you with endless stories about preposterous characters that lead nowhere but keep you hanging on every word, trust me - they learned their craft from Sterne. So did postmodernists such as James Joyce and Flann O'Brien. It is tailormade for audio, as is Anton Lesser's reading - intelligent, humorous, charming. Dr Johnson admired the book enormously, but opined that "nothing odd will do long". For once he was wrong. Tristram Shandy is decidedly odd and extremely long, but it has stayed the course.