Reading Tristram Shandy in an Age of Distraction
Sarah Moorhouse on Laurence Sterne’s Novel of Rabbit Holes and Procrastination
Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, which he published in nine volumes between 1759 and 1767, has a bit of a complicated reputation. Along with, perhaps, James Joyce’s Ulysses, it’s known to be a singularly difficult novel, read mostly by students or eighteenth-century enthusiasts. Perhaps what puts people off are the novel’s “digressions,” as Sterne’s narrator, Tristram, calls them. He sets out to write an autobiography but ends up meandering, continually side-tracked by recollections about his father Walter and uncle Toby.
Sterne denies us the narrative order on which we usually rely to differentiate fiction from the messiness of our everyday thinking. His work refuses to behave itself: the story is, as Tristram puts it, “digressive, and […] progressive too, -and at the same time.” The plot of Tristram Shandy is the act of plot-making and the eccentric Tristram delights in his restless creation, telling us that the work is a “machine” that shall “be kept a-going.” Surveying the many cogs of his tale, Tristram is confident that his work can sustain itself indefinitely by turning over its own infinite possibilities.
From its first publication, the novel has generated mixed reviews, and was described by Edmund Burke, the great forebear of the Romantics, as a “perpetual series of disappointments.” This unflattering assessment was topped by Samuel Richardson, the novelist of eighteenth-century bestsellers such as Pamela and Clarissa: in a letter to Bishop Mark Hildesley, Richardson declared that he could not but describe Sterne’s volumes as “execrable.” It’s a novel that has always frustrated its readers.
We cannot help but wish, at times, that Tristram would just get on with it instead of saddling us with “chapters upon chapters” and breaks in the narrative “to remind you of one thing—and to inform you of another.” Tristram makes us aware of how much, when reading a novel, we are in the writer’s power. Like his favorite philosopher, John Locke, Tristram sees his readers’ minds as “blank slates” on which he can scribble or write neatly as he chooses. We must go along with our narrator’s disorientating ruminations if we are to experience his story at all.
My own reading of Tristram Shandy has been a digressive process. When I first encountered Sterne’s novel at age sixteen or seventeen, I was delighted by the opening chapters, in which Tristram tells us, with wry humor, how his conception was interrupted when his mother asked his father whether he had remembered to wind up the clock. I became bewildered, however, as the narrative changed course. “Hobbyhorses” abound in the novel: Tristram’s uncle Toby is obsessed with them. As I struggled through the first couple of volumes, the plot itself felt like a rocking horse, playing at moving forwards rather than really getting anywhere.Tristram’s experience of time is too close to our own unstructured reality; consumed by distractions, our narrator is adrift in his own mind.
Put off, I didn’t come back to the novel until it appeared on a reading list during my Master’s degree. My reading of the text was again fragmented. Assigned sections to read by my tutors based, it seemed, solely on their own interests, I came away more perplexed than ever. What kind of a novel is best read and discussed in pieces? Should we really deal with Tristram’s lapses in attention by chopping the text up and digesting it in parts?
I was assigned the “Le Fever” episode, a sequence about Toby’s generosities to the poor written in the sentimental style that was popular in Sterne’s day. Read separately, these pages seem like something out of Henry MacKenzie’s The Man of Feeling, a novel famous when it came out in 1771 for making its readers weep in sympathy with its protagonist. But Tristram Shandy isn’t—as reading this section by itself might make us think—about pathos. In trying on different genres and styles, our narrator is performing to us.
Tristram is doing something else, too: he is procrastinating. He puts off telling us the story of his life because he’s stymied by the following concern: the more time that passes whilst he writes his life-story, the more of his own life there is to tell, so he’ll never be able to finish his autobiography. He laments that since it takes him so long to narrate even one day of his life,
instead of advancing […] I am just thrown so many volumes back […] at this rate I should just live 364 times faster than I should write–It must follow, an’ please your worships, that the more I write, the more I shall have to write–and consequently, the more your worships read, the more your worships will have to read.
Tristram would need an infinite number of days to write his autobiography: he would need, as the twentieth-century philosopher Bertrand Russell explained in what he called the “Tristram Shandy paradox,” to be immortal. What’s more, we readers are implicated in Tristram’s problem: the more he writes, the more there is for us to read. We too are limited by our mortality.
In telling us that the story of his life is doomed from the outset, Sterne’s narrator denies us the most comforting illusion of fiction: a clear path through time. We are, as the Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky put it in 1929, “overwhelmed by a sense of chaos” when we read the novel. Tristram’s experience of time is too close to our own unstructured reality; consumed by distractions, our narrator is adrift in his own mind.
I picked up the novel for the third time late last summer, having graduated from university with only a vague picture of what I wanted to do next. With the structure of the educational institution removed, time had ballooned alarmingly. Tristram’s worries about his inability to complete what he has started offered a mirror of my own state of distraction. In my job hunt, I put off deciding on my own next steps by allowing myself to be swamped by information, particularly online.
Scrolling through random social media pages, Wikipedia articles or company websites, I realized that the internet has primed us to experience time the way that Tristram does. Its algorithms offer us limitless information, feeding on whatever catches our attention to entice us deeper into a personalized maze. Any time we use a screen, these internet rabbit-holes await, allowing us, click by click, to scurry away from our original purpose.
My generation, as we are constantly reminded, has had our focus ruined by modern technology, and the fractious Tristram is a spokesman for our state of mind. His project—to write down his life, and thereby get around his mortality—is ever hampered by his vulnerability to distractions. Frustrated by language, he resorts often to images, offering squiggled lines to represent his wayward progress.
Aiming to create a plot that is a “tolerable straight line,” fortified by “a vegitable diet” and “a few of the cold feeds,” Tristram resolves afresh to tidy up his narrative. The thing is, however, neither Tristram nor his readers can escape the maze of thoughts, and the best way to read this novel is not to resist its varied currents. Tristram articulates the frustration of trying to lay hold of things when the ground beneath us is constantly buckling.
Our lives today exist in multiple dimensions: the present, the past, and online. Sterne’s novel might help us to make sense of this tangle. Reading Tristram Shandy for the third time, I realized that my previous frustration was not a failure to understand the book. Sterne’s digressions are both rich and unsatisfying in equal measure, as any surfeit of information must be. But whilst trawling the internet often leaves me drained or feeling numbed by variety, Sterne’s novel invigorates as it overwhelms.
Like a painting with multiple points of perspective, or a piece of music in raucous polyphony, it draws the reader back, entering again through a fresh act of attention. Tristram keeps his story “a-going” by refusing to satisfy his readers and, for this reason, it continues to startle me with its vitality. In denying the neat frame of narrative time, Sterne’s novel chimes with how the world feels to me now: indefinite, uncertain, but charged with possibility.