Sunlit Water

November 11, 2006

What Prodigious Armies We Had In Flanders

Filed under: Culture — by teofilo @ 4:53 pm

It’s been a bit slow around the blogs the past few days, so I finally went back and reread A White Bear‘s Tristam Shandy posts (and also the comments, which I didn’t read at the time because I hadn’t yet finished the book). She says some interesting things that bring out some aspects of the novel I hadn’t really considered at the time, and the commenters add their own impressions, some of which were familiar to me and some of which were not. One thing about all this discussion that kind of puzzled me were the repeated mentions of the fact that a lot of people, even grad students in English, can’t stand the book, finding it to be frustrating or too self-consciously clever or otherwise irritating. At first I found this bizarre, because I absolutely loved Tristam Shandy. I think it’s one of the best novels I’ve ever read, and I didn’t have any trouble getting through it at all; in fact, at some points I couldn’t put it down. I couldn’t imagine how anyone could dislike such a wonderful and creative effort.

But then I saw this comment, by The Modesto Kid, and I began to develop a theory of why some people hate the book while others (including me) love it. Among other things, he says:

I want characters with whom to sympathize and through whom vicariously to feel passionate; and Sterne is not giving them to me. His characters don’t have any depth, they are just cardboard cutouts with a tape recorder pasted on the back of the cutout playing Sterne’s ramblings and jokes.

This is, of course, true; the characters are wooden and generally unsympathetic, and they mostly serve as conduits for what Sterne wants to say. I think for someone who reads a lot of novels and has a good idea of what they like in a novel, the way Sterne brazenly flouts so many narrative conventions could be upsetting and make the book nearly unreadable. For TMK, the important thing is well-developed characters. For someone else, it might be a coherent plot. There are many reasons people who read novels have for reading novels, and when confronted with a novel that doesn’t meet their expectations they see no reason to keep reading.

I, however, don’t read novels. I can’t even remember the last one I read before Tristam Shandy. It’s not that I dislike them, it’s just that reading a novel takes a long time and I’m generally not interested enough to make that commitment; I’d rather be doing other things. As a result, I don’t approach novels with any particular expectations for what they’ll contain or any clear sense of what I want from them. The drastic breaks with convention in Tristam Shandy don’t bother me, because I’m not attached to those conventions in the first place. In fact, it’s precisely the unusual nature of the book that I like the most about it. It’s interesting and different, and there are sudden surprises everywhere.

Obviously, plenty of people who read novels like Tristam Shandy, so I’m not claiming that this theory covers everything, but I do think it explains why a lot of people who are otherwise great bibliophiles have so much trouble with this particular work.



  1. I haven’t read the AWB posts yet, so sorry if this has already been said . . . One of the things that I love about TS is how lovingly the characters are drawn. A lot of humour, including some of my favourite humour, is sort of cold. But there’s just such warmth in the way that a character like, for example, Uncle Toby is described.

    At any rate, that’s my impression. I’m surprised that you concede that the “characters are wooden and generally unsympathetic.” I think Uncle Toby is absurd, but there really seems a lot of affection in the way the absurdity is presented. That doesn’t turn him into a character I can really identify with (besides, of course, a disfiguring injury to my groin), but what you’ve said still seems to me to go a bit far.

    Comment by Chris — November 11, 2006 @ 8:45 pm |Reply

  2. I guess I mean “unsympathetic” more in the sense of “difficult to identify with”; I also like Toby and find him affectionately drawn, but I can see how someone else might just see him as a caricature of a kindly but simple-minded uncle the same way Walter is a caricature of a cold, hyper-logical father.

    AWB mentions on one of those threads that liking Toby might be essential to liking the book. I can see that.

    Comment by teofilo — November 11, 2006 @ 8:55 pm |Reply

  3. […] big fan of novels, and this might actually be the first one I’ve read since Tristram Shandy (which I liked a lot more). For people who are, and who like gritty detective stories in particular, and who are not inclined […]

    Pingback by Every Generation Loses The Messiah It Has Failed To Deserve « Sunlit Water — January 13, 2012 @ 9:02 pm |Reply

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