Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne


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Tristram Shandy is probably one of the greatest books ever written, if I hadn't decided to put the ancient classics first I probably would have put it at the top of the list.

This book is nothing but zany fun from start to finish, and anyone who's read a few of the more straightforward novels of the same century (Like maybe Tom Jones, I think, is fairly contemporary, and Smollet wrote his stuff not that long afterwards) will be amazed at the frivolity and absurdity of this feverish mess of a novel.

It's the absolute freedom of Tristram Shandy that excites me the most about it. Sterne stopped at nothing for laughs, employing endless insane digressions, obscure and meaningless literary references (I decided to call my own life's work the 32 books of Hermes Trismigistus after a passing reference to him in Tristram Shandy), typographical oddities, and the main and overpowering conceit of the book itself: That it is a novel about a man who, as the book somewhat haphazardly comes to a close, hasn't been born yet.

When a book is so out of control that it defies every convention of narrative fiction known to the human imagination, when it employs irony on so many levels that irony itself is twisted into something so contorted that even post-modern theory and deconstructive criticism is rendered speechless before the cheek of it all, when every whim and idea of the modern gentleman is constantly and self-conciously challenged in a self-referential paroxysm of apoplectic fervor, you have an achievement that would be the envy of any writer of the present day if Sterne were writing of our modern world in the same breathlessly unabashed fashion.

But Sterne would never be published today. Experimentation on a level such as he carelessly dashed off would be assailed on every level of criticism I could imagine; plus, who could so easily abandon all of the rigid conventions and expectations ingrained into one by the overwhelming history of the novel as it now stands?

Tristram Shandy deserves to be read as a document of a more innocent time when, if you sat down to write something, originality was relatively unconstrained by the combined weight of commercial interests or false assumptions of the expectations of the reader.

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