This book was such a personality. I spent the first hundred pages or so wishing it would just stop being so much itself, because it was entertaining but it would’ve been more so if it would let me engage with it instead of jerking me around and showing off. It’s a party personality sort of book.
Then I decided the controlling qualities were the point, and more or less for my own good. The book’s (often-commented-on, when the book’s being commented on) digressions frustrated my expectations of what might be coming on the next page and my memory of what was written so far to the extent that I slipped into a “huh. guess I’m reading about this now” state of mind. Which was not entirely pleasant, but unusual and thus interesting. (Here’s an example, if you want to decide whether you blame me for being a lazy reader: on page 71 [Dover edition], it promises that soon “’twill be time to return back to the parlour fire-side, where we left my uncle Toby in the middle of his sentence.” The sentence in question was on page 48, and the beginning of it was, “I think.” We were more immediately in the middle of the story of Toby’s recovery from his groin injury and encyclopedic interest in the fortifications and cartography of the city he was wounded at. This as the story of how Toby got his hobby; this as a means of sketching his character, without which we can apparently not “enter rightly into [his] sentiments upon this matter” [of what he thinks in the suspended sentence]. We also get a summary of Toby’s arguments with his brother [more character-sketching], a defense of hobbies as the best insight into character, a defense of digressions as totally awesome, and sundry observations. The end of Toby’s statement, which required this backstory to be properly understood, is “it would not be amiss, brother, if we rung the bell” [page 78].)
My inability to have a whole picture of what was going on wore off by the end, though, when the themes (stuff-I-may-or-may-not-write-about-next-chapter, talking about cock without saying “cock” in a non-chicken context) became clear. Which was kind of nicer. All attempts to frustrate story aside, the book ends up telling one about Toby and his brother and his brother’s wife and his servant Trim hanging out and arguing and telling stories, and Toby and Trim being a little bit in love with each other and attempting to get Toby laid. Tristram hovers half out of the book, being all coy and trying to seduce everybody.
I wasn’t much in love with this book, which makes it hard to say what it is, but it’s not about “the life and opinions of Tristram Shandy.” That’s one of the jokes. It’s clearly supposed to be funny, but I think you have to be British or 300 years old. It’s also not, as the back cover claims, “a novel about writing a novel.” Its wordiness has substance and makes an impression, which is a thing to like. Also likable: the ritual of the widow Wadman’s maid folding and pinning up the bottom of her nightgown before bed–Wadman kicks a pin aside and that means she’s in love, Tristram dancing in a field in the countryside apropos of nothing, the sheet music for the song Toby whistles, Toby and Trim’s competitive agreement with each other, a whole story about Yorick the parson culminating emphatically in a Shakespeare quotation.
I Am Death won the poll eons ago. Onward!