Tristram Shandy, by Laurence Sterne

Second paragraph of third chapter:

—My mother, who was sitting by, look’d up,—but she knew no more than her backside what my father meant,—but my uncle, Mr. Toby Shandy, who had been often informed of the affair,—understood him very well.

So, my local interest in Tristram Shandy is this. (Actually, it’s very respectful to the spirit of the book to start my review in the middle, as it were. The whole point is not to get to the point too quickly.) My daughters live close to the small village of Neerwinden, which is the site of the battle usually known as the Battle of Landen which took place in 1693. Tristram Shandy’s Uncle Toby’s manservant, Corporal Trim (pay attention there in the back) was wounded in the knee at that battle and exclaims in Chapter 19 of Book 8:

Your honour remembers with concern, said the corporal, the total rout and confusion of our camp and army at the affair of Landen; every one was left to shift for himself; and if it had not been for the regiments of Wyndham, Lumley, and Galway, which covered the retreat over the bridge Neerspeeken, the king himself could scarce have gained it – he was press’d hard, as your honour knows, on every side of him.

Neerspeken is obviously a mistake for Neerhespen, which I often drive through when I take my oldest back from a visit to the Beemden nature reserve in Landen. We usually stop off at the Chapel of the Holy Cross. (In the spirit of Tristram Shandy, I should record that I usually go to Landen by the more southern route via Eliksem and Laar.)

I first read Tristram Shandy when I was 23, more than thirty years ago, and still have the slightly mildewed paperback that I picked up off a Cambridge bookstall one day in late 1990. I can’t honestly tell you what happens in it; I can’t find any particular lines that resonate or are very quotable; the most memorable moment is when our hero’s penis gets caught in the windowframe in Book 5 Chapter 17. (Sorry for the spoiler.)

And yet somehow I love it. It’s rambling, self-indulgent, full of references to things I know nothing about; and at the same time the stream-of-consciousness narrative, the refusal to make many concessions to the reader who wants to know what is actually going on, are part of the charm. It’s clearly an inspiration for Joyce, Woolf, and lots of the modernist writers who I really like; but it’s a book of its own time, requiring friendly engagement and repaying that engagement with warmth and humour. You can get it here.

Total Bechdel fail. The most prominent female character, Tristram’s mother, spends most of the book giving birth to him, so her conversation is necessarily about her motherhood. The other women are all defined by their relationships with the male characters.

This was my top book acquired last year; next on that pile is Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey.