Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

The Association Game

Over the years I've been inspired by various bloggers who've hosted readalongs or have liveblogged their current volume, and these have introduced me, or recalled to me, much excellent literature. And so I'd thought, well, maybe something like this would help me to get through my current aspirational read. You know the aspirational read. It sits on top of your pile and gathers dust as you pull out book after book from beneath it, because you just don't have time to tackle the big guy.

I've been thinking about reading Tristam Shandy, by Laurence Sterne, for a while. First I just thought about it. Then I talked to my neighbor down the street, a lit professor, who loves it, and that made me think about it for a while longer. Then I went to the library, but the library didn't have it, which bought me some more thinking time. Then I searched for it on Amazon, but I couldn't find a hardcover copy, and I didn't like that. So I thought about it some more. Finally I just bought a nice new Modern Library edition and read some of the introduction. That did me for a while, but eventually I began to feel like an intellectual dilettante despite my advanced degree in procrastination, and so I took up and read.

But you don't just read Tristam Shandy straight through. There's nothing straight through about Tristam Shandy. It's vignettes and by-the-ways and digressions and sentences that would make William Faulkner sit up and take notice of a master.

CHAP. 1 
I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me; had they duly consider'd how much depended upon what they were then doing;—that not only the production of a rational Being was concerned in it, but that possibly the happy formation and temperature of his body, perhaps his genius and the very cast of his mind;—and, for aught they knew to the contrary, even the fortunes of his whole house might take their turn from the humours and dispositions which were then uppermost;—Had they duly weighed and considered all this, and proceeded accordingly,—I am verily persuaded I should have made a quite different figure in the world, from that in which the reader is likely to see me.—Believe me, good folks, this is not so inconsiderable a thing as many of you may think it;—you have all, I dare say, heard of the animal spirits, as how they are transfused from father to son, &c. &c.—and a great deal to that purpose:—Well, you may take my word, that nine parts in ten of a man's sense or his nonsense, his successes and miscarriages in this world depend upon their motions and activity, and the different tracks and trains you put them into, so that when they are once set a-going, whether right or wrong, 'tis not a half-penny matter,—away they go cluttering like hey-go mad; and by treading the same steps over and over again, they presently make a road of it, as plain and as smooth as a garden-walk, which, when they are once used to, the Devil himself sometimes shall not be able to drive them off it. 
Pray my Dear, quoth my mother, have you not forgot to wind up the clock?Good G..! cried my father, making an exclamation, but taking care to moderate his voice at the same time,—Did ever woman, since the creation of the world, interrupt a man with such a silly question? Pray, what was your father saying?—Nothing.
And that's chapter one, and very charming it is too, and as pretty an example of usage of em dashes as even a devotee such as myself could hope to see. And this absent-minded conception leads him to ponder in subsequent chapters the poor wee Homunculus making his way to the security of the womb; his good uncle Toby, from whom he learned the story of his conception; how he can be sure of the exact date of this occurence; how he was born under ill auspices; how he begs the reader's patience for taking a long time to get back to how he was born, with reflections on the beginning of a friendship; how his midwife received her license, with much bawdy punning about hobby horses; a reflection on hobby horses that leads him to write a dedication to any Lord who will purchase it; an advertisement for this dedication; back to the story: how the parson who paid for the midwife's license rode around on an old nag...

And that's as far as I've gotten, ten brief chapters, twelve pages, and I'm dizzy, I tell you. Tristam Shandy is a book of associations. One thing leads to another, rabbit holes and side roads galore, until you hardly remember what started everything off until Sterne yanks you back and you take one more step forward and ten all over the place. The reading map looks like one of those diagrams of how to dance.

And that's the point of Tristam Shandy, as I take it. Life isn't a straight line, from conception to wherever we're going next, which I still haven't figured out textwise. Everything is connected, and everything runs into everything else, and no man is an island, and neither are any of his thoughts. So I can't really tell how to read the thing, because I feel like if I read it in bite-sized chunks I'll forget what he was talking about earlier, and if I read it straight through in spates I'll get a headache. This doesn't make for promising readalong material. In fact, I only mention it here to hold myself accountable, because I feel like this is going to take at least a year, on and off, of intermittent binges and fasts, and reading the same line for a few days, and getting through a whole volume some other time. One matches one's reading to the material, and Sterne seems to invite just such an approach.


Brandon said...

I love Tristram Shandy. The main thing with it is not to try to keep the whole story in your head, because you will never actually get any such story. It's episodic literature with a vengeance, more like a variety show than a narrative.

You're certainly right that it doesn't require reading straight through all at once. It's worth remembering, too, that its original audience wouldn't have done so: each of the nine books of the work was originally published separately as a pocket book -- a volume designed to fit in the pocket of an eighteenth century coat pocket, to be carried around and read at odd moments when there was nothing else to do, like eighteenth century iPhone.

Itinérante said...

I love Tristram Shandy. I have memorized chapter one! ^^
My sister and I wanted to copy it all by hand... We were a little too ambitious hehe

I think the spirit of William Faulkner is following me! I have heard/read quotes/mentions of him everyday since last Friday totally randomly and I discovered that he is born same day as I am!!
I have not read anything for him yet, I do not know what to ready (any help?)

MrsDarwin said...

As to Faulkner, I don't know what would be a good introduction to his style. I just happen to love Absalom, Absalom! and I've read it three times, every blessed word. It's the story of the rise and decline of a Southern dynasty (or attempted dynasty, anyway), and it's told by an old woman to a young man; by the young man to his Canadian roommate, who finds the South totally incomprehensible but who tells a lot of the story anyway; by flashbacks and letters; and all in sentences about seven pages long. I have roots in the South, though, so I can say with Quentin Compson, "I don't hate it! I don't hate it!"

MrsDarwin said...

And now I wish my Tristam Shandy was in pocket-sized pieces to whip out instead of a phone. That would be awesome, and an effective use of reading time too. And yet I hate reading literature on the phone. I once had to read a novel on it, when I was stuck on bed rest, and it like to kilt me, as we say in the South.

Jenny said...

Tristam Shandy sounds like an extended conversation with digressions and diversions where you just can't quite remember where the story was going and what were we talking about again?

It sounds fun! That style appeals.

Melanie Bettinelli said...

Tristram Shandy was the one novel in my British novels course that I never finished. I don't think I ever got any further than you are now. And I'm thinking that if I couldn't hack it when I was young and my brain was more agile, I'm sure as heck not going to be able to follow it now. I'm not sure I like episodic literature.

Catholic Bibliophagist said...

I know that I read at least part of Tristam Shandy when I was in college. At this distance, I have no recollection of how much of it we read. As I was only a first or second year student, it is not surprising that I couldn't make heads or tails of it. Which puzzled me because I'd never had trouble reading anything before. Now I realize that I just didn't have enough background to get the references in it. (Not surprising given my high school.)

Your post inspired me to see if I still had a copy. I did, and flipping through it makes me feel that I could probably read it now. Especially because this edition has notes for the many allusions Sterne makes about men and books well known in his century which are no longer generally recognized. (I wish I'd had this edition for my first attempt.)

So I guess I'll be reading along with you. And probably in the same manner.