Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, with Robert Chibka
Thursdays from 2-4 pm January 16, 23, 30, February 6, 13.
Classes will be held at The Wellfleet Library.
“Nothing odd will do long. Tristram Shandy did not last,” Samuel Johnson sneered nine years after the final Volume of the supremely odd The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman appeared. He wasn’t alone in scorning the hilarious, indecorous, self-consciously eccentric, dirty-minded, tender-hearted novel that made a country parson the scandalous toast of 1760s London—“One extenuating circumstance attends his works, that they are too gross to be inflaming” (Richardson); “not a page of Sterne’s writing but has . . . a latent corruption—a hint as of an impure presence” (Thackeray). Dissenting opinions: “The writings of Sterne . . . form the best course of morality that ever was written” (Jefferson; yes, Thomas); “In the power of approaching and touching the finer feelings of the heart, he has never been excelled” (Scott); “the freest writer of all times, in comparison with whom all others appear stiff, square-toed, intolerant, and downright boorish” (Nietzsche); “No writing seems to flow more exactly into the very folds and creases of the individual mind, to express its changing moods, to answer its lightest whim and impulse, and yet the result is perfectly precise and composed” (Woolf). Kundera, Rushdie, & innumerable other “post-moderns” are scarcely imaginable without Sterne.
It’s a trifling, deadly-serious brand of comedy, akin to what animates fools & gravediggers in Shakespeare’s tragedies, dramatizing in sublime prose both the (chiefly male) habit of intellectual posturing to mask ignorance & the staggering complexity of telling stories intelligibly. Through interruptions & interpolations, Tristram’s narrative vehicle dithers & darts. The book’s about family, bedroom-matters (sex, birth, illness, death), mischance, but above (behind) all it ponders mentality—thought’s rapid transits & mazy cul de sacs, obsession, misprision—& language’s fallible, absurd consolations.
Sterne isn’t for those who like assumptions unchallenged or loose ends tied up. It’s a playfully intricate, challenging read: exhilarating, captivating (tedious? puerile? those too, sometimes). But if you’ve ever enjoyed Don Quixote, Borges, Monty Python, puzzles (jigsaw, cryptic-crossword), Charlie Kaufman films, or a riproaring double-entendre-riddled sermon that aims to make you giggle till you weep & vice versa . . . you may be an unwitting Shandean. (If you’re witting, so much the better.) “It is written,” wrote Sterne, “in a bye corner of the kingdom, and in a retired thatch’d house, where I live in a constant endeavour to fence against the infirmities of ill health, and other evils of life, by mirth; being firmly persuaded that every time a man smiles,—but much more so, when he laughs, that it adds something to this Fragment of Life.”
If possible, students should acquire before the course begins the Norton Critical Edition, ed. Howard Anderson (W.W. Norton, 1980; ISBN #0-393-95034-4).