The Dr Johnson Reading Circle met to discuss Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. It’s a book which caused heated debate and discussion in 1759 and continued to do so in 2023.
Some members picked beloved copies off the shelves for a cosy re-read, others clutched fresh, new copies and others finally finished the copy they’d bought for a pound and abandoned sometime in the last millennium. Initial reactions were largely split between people who held it as one of their favourite books and people who found it an unfunny slog, finished out of a sense of duty.
Tristram Shandy purports to be the life story of the title character, who frequently finds himself distracted from his stated purpose by his love of digression. The character is conceived in the first chapter but not born until the second book (of nine). Most commonly, he is drawn from his straight and narrow path by the quibbling of his overbearing father, Walter or the good-natured bumbling of his Uncle Toby. He’s also taken away from his story by legal debates, old curses and creaky compendiums of knowledge about noses. Anything that can lead Tristram away from a topic at hand does so.
There was discussion over whether the book ever moves forward or not. Some readers found it a static, stuttering book that was determined to waste its reader’s time. Others agreed with Tristram that his were ‘progressive digressions’ which allowed the reader to understand the narrator and his world in ways that would be denied in a more straight-forward narrative. The book is obsessed with minutiae, with tiny items like lead window weights and a creaky door hinge given huge importance. These details that may never have been noticed in an ordinary book, yet in Tristram Shandy they are devoted whole chapters.
Each (male) character in Tristram Shandy is given a hobbyhorse, an overriding obsession which colours their worldview. One of the clearest is given to Uncle Toby, an injured soldier who has becomes obsessed with the subject of fortification. As such, he frequently finds himself daydreaming and lost in the pseudo-intellectual conversation of his brother until he says a certain word related to fortification, which pulls Toby back in. Discussions of the bridge of a nose will remind him of fortified bridges in European towns or a Doctor’s description of a woman’s anatomy will bring various dykes and culverts to mind. He’s boxed into his own limited understanding, besieged in his own mind. This acts a source of farce and comedy but also irritation - expressed by both the other characters and the reader.
The book is very interested in conversation and communication. Some of the Reading Circle felt the book presents a nihilistic view of connection, with all characters imprisoned by the inadequacies of language and forced into solipsistic cycles where communication is impossible. Others felt that while the book portrays difficulties to connect, there are frequent moments where characters do, despite all the blocks and limitations. There was a big discussion about whether Tristram Shandy uses laughter to cover its bleak view of human life, or is a celebration of those moments when we touch each other across the gulf of our inner lives.
Of course not all communication is verbal and many of the most successful connections in the book are non-verbal. Corporal Trim, a man who likes to hear his own voice, is most effecting when he drops his hat on the floor to symbolise the shortness of life, or waggles his cane to show the difficulties of married life. The brothers communicate by their posture and body language as much (probably more) than the words they use. The book itself mixes verbal conversation, including direct address to imagined readers, with a succession of non-verbal queues, from the frequent dashes and asterisks, to blank and black pages.
One of those pages is a marbled one, which was originally unique in every copy. We reflected on the loss, in a mass produced age, of these individual pages and reflected further on how older books were produced from rag-paper, with each page containing clothes that formally travelled from lords to beggars before becoming a book. It was a suitable digression for a conversation about Tristram Shandy.
The biggest divide about the book was not whether the teasing nature of it’s telling is fun (or even readable) or not, but about whether Tristram Shandy is a heartless book, whistling Lillibullero in the face of a cruel and pointless life, or whether it’s a celebration of the complexity of even small lives. It seems a heavy conversation for a seemingly light book but is a good indication of Tristram Shandy’s unique power that it prompted such discussion. As to an answer of that question, it’s best for the dear reader to decide.