Thursday, May 7, 2015

Four Jokes

On Amazon, readers tend to give Tristram Shandy either a 5 or a 1. It is very much what it is, and it is excellently what it is. So if you like what it is, you’ll give it a 5, and if not, you’ll give it a 1. For me, it's clearly a 5. One 1-star reviewer said that the book contains only one joke, that the one joke is digression, and that digression gets old fast. Even if that were the only joke, in the hands of Laurence Sterne that joke is hilarious. Are you going to dismiss Oscar Wilde because his plays all just contain one witty line after another? Should we forget Jane Austen because every book is just all about genteel ethics?

And anyway, Tristram doesn’t just have the one joke; it has at least four. (And if you ring the changes on them, that should be enough for six-hundred pages.) In addition to digressions within digressions and digressions about digressions, there’s (2) Uncle Toby’s obsession with sieges and (3) Mr Shandy’s poor attempts at being a classical scholar. And we mustn’t leave out (4) the concern by the Shandy men over the length of a certain body part. Tristram insists vehemently that when he says “nose” he means nothing more or less than a nose. But that’s not what gets smashed by the falling window one day. And why does the window fall? Because Uncle Toby has borrowed the counterweights for his model of the siege of Dunkirk. But not to worry: Mr Shandy convenes a conclave of classical scholars to discuss what should be done about Tristram’s injured “nose.” Oh, yeah, and there’s the joke about everything tying in to the same few jokes.

A description can’t make the book sound sufficiently funny any more than a description can make you feel the awe of a sunset. But it’s funny. It’s very funny. Through Tristram, Sterne makes fun of men, pride, hobbies, philosophy, doctors, sex, and conversation. But mostly he makes fun of the Enlightenment. Tristram takes half the book to get to the day of his birth because, like Diderot, he wants to write an encyclopedia, a book that establishes and clarifies every last detail about his life. Like John Locke, he builds a philosophy out of introspection. So how could Tristram not take three-hundred pages to get himself born? After all, once he realizes that his goal of being thorough is impossible since he’s living faster than he can write about it, he has to commemorate that thought, and so we get a digressive chapter on how life runs faster than the pen.

And now I realize it, too. I had so much more to say.

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