The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

Tim Parnell – Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-67)

The Goldsmiths Prize launched in the tercentenary year of Sterne’s birth and the exuberantly inventive author of Tristram Shandy is one of its tutelary spirits. Written before the novel came to be narrowly associated with verisimilitude and linear anecdote, Tristram Shandy’s restlessness with conventions points to the genre’s near-limitless possibilities. Tristram’s life and opinions stand in ironic contrast to the life-and-adventures formula of much mid-eighteenth-century fiction, but like the best anti-novels Sterne’s book is about much more than the debunking of literary clichés. For all their comedy, the ‘pitiful misadventures’ of the novel’s ‘small HERO’ have an integrity and pathos of their own and Tristram’s inability to tell the story of his life without making ‘fifty deviations from a straight line’ is informed as much by a worldview as an unorthodox poetic of fiction. Just as the complexity of things is shown to be ill-explained by the systematic thinking beloved of Tristram’s father, Walter, so, the very structure of Tristram Shandy implies, linear, chronological narrative can’t do justice to what Sterne calls the ‘riddles and mysteries’ of existence. Hence Tristram Shandy’s open, digressive form offers both an alternative to the inevitable reductions of plot and a foil to the tyranny of the will to system.

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