I have been meaning to do a post on this for a few months. I actually read the book back in June of '03 (which lapse of time astonishes me; I thought it had been much more recently), but, I saw the recent movie which took it up as its organizing inspiration sometime last fall, around which time I also saw the book referred to in several other places in ways which for one reason or another bothered me; so I thought I should write something about it from my perspective, for I guess I don't like what I perceive most of its readers to be primarily choosing to take from it. Why would I even care? Well, I don't care that much, but it is, or ought to be, one of the greatest of all books in English, and there is a certain quality in it that I seem to strongly desire to feel that other people share my particular enthusiasm for, which I somehow consider never quite to be the case.
Though I will probably overwrite here, my points are but simple ones, and are not intended to dismiss several centuries worth of deep scholarship and analysis. This analysis is not on the whole what is interesting and noteworthy to me about the book however.
I didn't much care for the movie. I didn't have any problem with what was done with it, the not making a regular straightforward narrative adaptation and so on (the idea was that the movie was about making a movie about Tristram Shandy, and the difficulties and mental processes that entails). It didn't work for me however. The parts set in the present, the contemporary characters and so on, were too coarse and uninteresting when set against the various scenes from the book which did manage to be filmed, which by comparison actually had something of the elusive, almost magical quality of the book. This may seem an obvious observation, but in it lies something of the key to my strong feelings in this instance. The book of course is exceedingly, famously clever, and witty, and subversive, and original, qualities which educated modern people value highly, and seemingly even the more highly the higher up the elite scale one goes. These therefore are the qualities for which the book is primarily honored today. But without the 'magical' qualities of the basic literary art and sensibility underlying all of this sophistication, you are left with the rather sarcastic, chilly, joyless wit and attitude of the modern Britons inhabiting the part of the film set in the present day, which is just as much, in my opinion, to miss the essence of Tristram Shandy as to be unattuned to the jests and subversions and Borgesian knowingness that make the book so attractive to the type of thinker, common in our age, who is not inclined to believe that anything significant in the universe can appear to the human intellect in its ordinary mode.
It would be ridiculous for me not to try to explain what I mean when I refer to the book's having 'magical' qualities. This is really just the writing, which is as utterly natural and clear and precise as any imaginative work in the language while at the same time the sensibility and approach to the narrative are equally unique. It is pretty much unlike anything else that exists in literature, nearly every little chapter a singularly finely cut and polished jewel, but with a skill in characterization, setting and dialogue that is Dickensian, even surpassing Dickensian; for while most of the dialogue and activity and thought in naturalistic terms amount to quite a bit of nonsense, rarely have more complete and vivid depictions of individual fictional intellects and personalities emerged out of the arrangement of words on a page. What is more, his technique is apparently virtually inimitable, for I have to think far more people would write in this manner, which is both fresh and immediately effective, if they were at all able. The only reason I can think of for its not being more highly loved than it is among people who are not in some way professional literary critics is that it is easy to be sure one doesn't understand it the way one is supposed to, which makes one hesitant to talk about it and therefore to be able regard it as an influence or model. But this is all I will try to say about it for the time being.
The timeline of Laurence Sterne's life in the Everyman's Library edition--most of which timelines are stuffed with a steady stream of publications, travels, affairs, political imbroglios, and so on, usually starting at the latest around the author's late twenties--is one of the few still out there that can give any hope to the person whose C.V. at age 40 remains rather thin. He got his B.A. at 24, was ordained vicar in the northern hamlet of somewhere-upon-Forest at 25, married and became a prebend at 28, got another parish at 30, had a daughter at 34, and then twelve long years of blank white space before finally, at 46, the first 2 (of 9) editions of Tristram Shandy, and self-published at that, are released (he also had an affair that year). At 47 he got a publisher in London, at 49 and 52 he traveled in France, at 51 he sat for a portrait by Reynolds, at 54 he finished the last edition of T.S., and fell in love with another woman, and at 55 had perhaps his most eventful year, publishing his other book, A Sentimental Journey, which is also supposed to be good, separating from his wife, and on March 18, before winter was even out, dying of a cause that was not disclosed on the timeline. I would still need to pick it up more than is probably achievable at this point however if I want to salvage something of my life in terms of serious writing and thought. I feel my brain has been coming back a little to some form of coherence from where it was a couple of months ago, but there is no reason to believe any kind of permanent breakthrough improvement is imminent.