Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman is #963 on the 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list. See the whole list and my progress here. This summer, I’m reading from the list for my 20 Books of Summer challenge, and instead of straight reviews, I’m going to compare the 1,001 Books write-ups with my own impressions.

Tristram Shandy is a tough book to summarize, let alone in the couple of paragraphs granted each 1,001 Books entry. Contributor Drew Milne makes a good attempt, touching on the absurdities of a book about “the life and opinions” of a man who isn’t even born until several volumes in, and the experimental nature of Sterne’s writing, which acknowledges the futility of trying to capture life on the page.

But most importantly to me, he touches on some of Sterne’s biggest influences, Rabelais and Cervantes. Theirs aren’t the only works referenced in Tristram though, by a long shot. Here’s an incomplete list of books referenced in Tristram that have also stood the test of time and made the 1,001 Books list, a good reminder that as singular as Tristram seems to modern readers, Sterne wasn’t writing in a vacuum:

  • Émile; or, On Education – Jean-Jacques Rousseau
  • Julie; or, the New Eloise – Jean-Jacques Rousseau
  • Candide – Voltaire
  • Tom Jones – Henry Fielding
  • Jacques the Fatalist – Denis Diderot
  • A Tale of a Tub – Jonathan Swift
  • Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
  • Gargantua and Pantagruel – Françoise Rabelais

The 1,001 Books doesn’t include plays, essays, or anything other than novels. I won’t even attempt to list all the philosophers, playwrights, etc. referenced in Tristram, just the two I’m most interested in:

  • Hamlet by William Shakespeare- Tristram isn’t the only book that heavily leans on Hamlet (Infinite Jest, anyone?) and I would probably do well to actually read it one of these days
  • The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton – heavily referenced, borrowed from, and satirized in Tristram, I tried to read this behemoth after hearing about it on Backlisted podcast but was intimidated by its language and bulk.

Tristram super-fans, or “Shandeans”, are not quite as numerous as, say, Janites, but they are as passionate*. They count Tristram Shandy as the funniest book in English, as groundbreaking as Moby-Dick, and Sterne as a modernist or even post-modernist, hundreds of years before those movements existed. The legacy of finally reading Tristram for me, though, will be the other books it made me want to read. I am certainly not suggesting I will read these books anytime soon, or in order, or close together. Maybe I won’t get to them at all. Reading Tristram made me realize how much more there is to read, and how little time there is to do so – entirely appropriate for my 1,001 Books reading project.

A brief summary of Tristram in 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die

*In my travels, I did find this essay about the ADD tendencies of Tristram, by a Shandean/Janite, so the fandoms do overlap!

9 comments

  1. roughghosts

    Have you seen the movie Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story? So funny. Ouch now that I’ve typed this I notice “Shandy” is a nickname for our not-so-beloved Minister of Health here in Alberta. Will have to cleanse that association.

    • lauratfrey

      No, and it’s a hard one to find. Not streaming anywhere that I can see. I think I deserve to watch it 🙂 And yes, I have certainly noticed the “Shandy” nickname, as if!! I wonder what Walter would think of the name “Tyler” haha.

  2. volatilemuse

    That’s some list of influences. Must confess I haven’t read it. I agree about the so many books and too little time – I seem to become more aware of it daily.

  3. Brian Robson

    Great post – hope you manage to get to it this Summer, and look forward to reading what you think.

    There’s a great episode of Backlisted podcast all about Sterne: https://www.backlisted.fm/episodes/137-laurence-sterne-the-life-and-opinions-of-tristram-shandy-gentleman – I purchased a copy off the back of that, but haven’t grappled with it yet.

    I’ve also discovered that Sandy lived about 15miles from me, and his home is open to the public (or at least, is in non-covid times – currently its just the garden) – so hope to get there at some point. The garden might be a good spot to start my own Shandy reading.

    • lauratfrey

      Yes, I listened to that episode as well! To psych myself up. Will probably relisten now that I’ve read the thing.
      That is so cool. I would love to do a Shandy pilgrimage one day!

  4. Pingback: 20 Books of Summer 2021 | Reading in Bed

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