By Chet Yarbrough
By Laurence Sterne
Narrated by Peter Barker
There may be better versions of “Tristram Shandy” (1759-1767) than this audio book but to call “Tristram Shandy” one of the “…greatest comic novels in English” is an exaggeration.
After trudging through half the book, intellectual posturing, disguised as a satiric comedy, beggars the idea of comic satire. In fairness, “Tristram Shandy” may be handicapped by unfamiliarity with 18th century English custom but Laurence Sterne’s writing is a rambling version of “Ulysses” (published 1922) before “stream of consciousness” became avant-garde.
Aspersions are cast on religion, war, medical treatment, physical appearance, sexual practice, philosophy, and manhood with vignettes of conversation and physical hi-jinx but the stories are rarely “lol” funny, and often, not worth a smile.
The story is told by Tristram Shandy who is not the primary character; i.e. although Tristram is sometimes the subject of the satire, it is not a story about his life. The main characters are father Walter, Tristram’s mother, Uncle Toby, and Toby’s servant Trim.
There is a Doctor Slop that is a modern 18th century physician that uses pediatric forceps to deliver Tristram but, as would be expected with a name like “Slop”, the doctor’s forceps slip, smashing Tristram’s nose. Tristram goes on to explain how his father Walter is depressed by the incident because Walter knows big noses are the mark of a successful gentleman; small noses, not so much.
Along the way, the story is told of Uncle Toby’s balls being smashed in the war. In spite of this horrible injury, Uncle Toby has an affable outlook on life and chooses to dedicate his life to the study of war fortifications. He is aided by his servant, the loyal and religious Trim. Trim lugs mortars and makes models of war fortifications to support Uncle Toby’s obsession. Uncle Toby is often the foil and sometimes the receiving end of father Walter’s “know all there is to know” opinions.
Tristram’s father is classified as the philosopher of the family. The quality and validity of father Walter’s philosophy is evident when Tristram notes his father’s belief in Astrology. He has strong opinions about names given to children having a great deal to do with their greatness in life; then it is explained that Tristram’s name was a mistake by his mother because she misunderstood what Walter said when she places Tristram’s name in the registry. Tristram’s future is clouded because of that errant registration.
Some of these stories seem funny in review but Sterne’s writing is like a comedian’s delivery of jokes with bad timing. Sterne does not win a hobbyhorse’s race by a nose; i.e. he loses by a lap of the track.