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Synopsis

Radical even in the 21st century : Composed long before there were rules about what a novel is supposed to look like, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy is a visionary piece of literature, a book so original in construction it almost defies genre. Conceived by an Anglican vicar who, under the comic influence of Rabelais and Swift and equally informed by Cervantes and Shakespeare, turned to writing fiction later in his life, it is an inadvertent masterpiece, the product of a writer who just wanted to have fun and entertain his readers and ultimately entertained generations.

The book is not a fictitious autobiography, although its narrator Tristram Shandy might have intended it to be; most of the story is concerned not with his life but with his idiosyncratic family and the circumstances surrounding his conception and birth, with many digressions on various related and unrelated subjects. His father Walter, whose conjugal duties coincide with his having to wind the clock the first Sunday of every month, compiles a compendium of information he calls the Tristrapoedia for the education of his newborn son. His uncle Toby, an expert in military architecture, rides a hobby-horse and occupies his time with the science of besieging fortresses. Other characters include Corporal Trim, a former soldier and now Tobys valet and factotum; Dr. Slop, a dwarfish physician who delivers the baby Tristram; and Yorick the parson, who naturally is descended from the infamous jester of the Danish royal court.

There are two aspects to this book that distinguish Sternes style. The first is that he provides several different channels of narration and never really settles on a main plot thread; he interrupts the flow of one narrative with another, delivering narrative flights of fancy like a marriage contract, a sermon, a notice of excommunication from the Catholic Church, a travelogue for France and Italy, and amusing anecdotes about extracurricular characters. In this way he presages the modernism of many twentieth century authors.

The second is that he does not restrict his text to English words; he intersperses Greek, Latin, and French passages where he likes, and on occasion he does not even use words at all, but symbols and glyphs to express certain concepts. A cross appears in the print when a character crosses himself; a characters death is memorialized by a black page; a blank page is provided for the reader to draw (mentally or physically) his own vision of the voluptuous Widow Wadman, who has a romantic eye for Toby; long rows of asterisks and dashes are used for things that are better left unsaid. At one point Sterne even draws squiggly lines to illustrate the sinuosity of his narrative, celebrating his own whimsy.

Tristram Shandy was published in nine volumes over the last nine years of Sternes life, and whether these were all he had intended is debatable because the narrative is implied to have neither a beginning nor an end; it seems very much like a work in progress. As such, by modern literary standards it may not be considered a novel, but in the sense of its unconventionality, its supply of so many bemusing surprises for the reader to discover, it is as literal an example of the term novel as there is.

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