Book review: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

🎧  The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman,
by Laurence
735 pages
Narrated by John Keating
Literary fiction / Humor
It counts for The Classics Club

Alas, I had to stop, after listening to 15% of the work (that is about 3H30 out of 22 hours, and an equivalent of 110 pages out of 735 pages).
I don’t have the patience to finish (plus the narrator was a bit boring in his tone)The , though what I listened to enabled me to appreciate the originality of the book and its qualities.
The book was published in 1767, and displays amazing characteristics of modern novels, including some elements that are even found in Oulipo authors, such as Perec for instance.

Here is what struck me in The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman:

digressions leading to digressions, leading to more digressions.
For instance, the narrator announces he is going to talk about his life. So he starts with his own birth, but before getting there (hundreds of pages later), he talks about the midwife, and why that woman was chosen to be the midwife by his parents; which leads to talking about his parents, his father and his brothers, etc. You get the idea.
Some critics call that hyperfiction, hyper in the sense of hyperlink: when you click on a link, you open another page, which can lead you to another link and page, etc.
It’s actually a type of stream of consciousness, when one thought leads to another thought, or in conversation.
I’m sure you have experienced moments in conversation, when you are wondering, how did we get to that topic? And it’s not easy to retrace the thread. In the same way, it’s not unusual for Sterne to wonder aloud, how did I get to that digression?
This leads to funny passages, and self-derision, especially at the beginning of the book.
There’s actually a lot of humor in the book, on all kinds of topics – sex for instance.

Because of the above, it’s hard to fit the book in our traditional understanding of a “novel”. This is a novel, and so many more things. Sterne talks about it at one point as a “tristra-paedia“! Indeed, he talks about anything and everything in it!

In this excellent lecture (highly recommended to all lovers of classics. It made me want to read this book), Salman Rushdie highlights that Sterne also plays with the form of the novel, using graphic games, but I listened to it, so I missed that. I will try to fnd a print copy to see what it looks like.

– I mentioned self-derision above. It’s one element of metafiction, as in the course of the book, Sterne often reflects on his own style.

– I love the many enumerations (which looks so much Oulipo before the Oulipo time, I’m thinking especially of Perec and Calvino here).
Here is an example on auxiliary verbs:

You excite my curiosity greatly, said Yorick.

For my own part, quoth my uncle Toby, I have given it up.——The Danes, an’ please your honour, quoth the corporal, who were on the left at the siege of Limerick, were all auxiliaries.——And very good ones, said my uncle Toby.—But the auxiliaries, Trim, my brother is talking about,—I conceive to be different things.——

——You do? said my father, rising up.


MY father took a single turn across the room, then sat down, and finished the chapter.

The verbs auxiliary we are concerned in here, continued my father, are, am; was; have; had; do; did; make; made; suffer; shall; should; will; would; can; could; owe; ought; used; or is wont.—And these varied with tenses, present, past, future, and conjugated with the verb see,—or with these questions added to them;—Is it? Was it? Will it be? Would it be? May it be? Might it be? And these again put negatively, Is it not? Was it not? Ought it not?—Or affirmatively,—It is; It was; It ought to be. Or chronologically,—Has it been always? Lately? How long ago?—Or hypothetically,—If it was? If it was not? What would follow?—If the French should beat the English? If the Sun go out of the Zodiac?

Now, by the right use and application of these, continued my father, in which a child’s memory should be exercised, there is no one idea can enter his brain, how barren soever, but a magazine of conceptions and conclusions may be drawn forth from it.——Didst thou ever see a white bear? cried my father, turning his head round to Trim, who stood at the back of his chair:—No, an’ please your honour, replied the corporal.——But thou couldst discourse about one, Trim, said my father, in case of need?——How is it possible, brother, quoth my uncle Toby, if the corporal never saw one?——’Tis the fact I want, replied my father,—and the possibility of it is as follows.

A WHITE BEAR! Very well. Have I ever seen one? Might I ever have seen one? Am I ever to see one? Ought I ever to have seen one? Or can I ever see one?

Would I had seen a white bear! (for how can I imagine it?)

If I should see a white bear, what should I say? If I should never see a white bear, what then?

If I never have, can, must, or shall see a white bear alive; have I ever seen the skin of one? Did I ever see one painted?—described? Have I never dreamed of one?

Did my father, mother, uncle, aunt, brothers or sisters, ever see a white bear? What would they give? How would they behave? How would the white bear have behaved? Is he wild? Tame? Terrible? Rough? Smooth?

—Is the white bear worth seeing?—

—Is there no sin in it?—

Is it better than a BLACK ONE?

I think this is a very characteristic passage.
So even though I’m currently lacking the patience to listen to 22 hours of this work, I actually appreciated what I read, and I’m glad I discovered the book.
That might be the first book I DNF even though I l liked it!
Again, if you remember this was published in 1767, all the above was then extremely innovative.

Another blogger pointed to me that he wrote a book on his travels to France, so I’m planning to try it.

VERDICT: An impressive modern novel before modernity!

Rating systemRating systemRating system

Do you have another example of very unique book?


21 thoughts on “Book review: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

  1. As I said before, I think this would be a really hard book to listen to — kudos for even giving it a try. I ought to make another attempt after I hated it my college 18th Century Fiction class, but so far I have not had the energy. The travel book sounds more congenial, is that A Sentimental Journey? I put it on my Classics Club list but never got around to it either. Someday!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy sounds like I’d need alot of patience to stick with it. Glad you enjoyed what you did listen to and hopefully you’ll like the author’s other book about France.


  3. If you are interested in a French analogue to Tristan Shandy, I recommend Jacques le Fataliste. It’s not tremendously long but quite interesting. I recall it also being funny.


  4. Pingback: Sunday Post #82 – 03/12/2023 | Words And Peace

  5. Do have a look at a print copy of the Sterne, it’s much more fun, though I confess I never got very far with it on my initial go. A Sentimental Journey is much shorter and (though this is not saying much) more straightforward.

    There is a film with Steve Coogan and Rob Bryddon called A Cock & Bull Story which is yet another layer of metafiction, purporting to be a period adaptation of the novel. This is funny as well as shorter than the novel, and is no less straightforward than the novel!


  6. Let’s try posting from a different wordpress profile. If this doesn’t work, this doesn’t work. I won’t spam your comments box again.


    • I don’t see any profile here, in the comments. It now just says “Fariba” without any link or whatever. If I click on User info, it gives me your email address, but says “no website”.
      Ah! I did a search, and found your Moose Mysteries blog through your Goodreads!


  7. This is on my classic’s list. I think books with so many pages are impossible to listen to, you have to read them. As I understand from your review, this have to be done in batches. I will still keep it on my list, but who know if I ever get to read it. Thank you for the review.


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