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The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman
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233 of 242 people found the following review helpful
on April 18, 2004
Format: Paperback
Composed long before there were rules about what a novel is supposed to look like, "The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy" is a visionary piece of literature, a book so original in construction it almost defies genre. Conceived by an Anglican vicar who, under the comic influence of Rabelais and Swift and equally informed by Cervantes and Shakespeare, turned to writing fiction later in his life, it is an inadvertent masterpiece, the product of a writer who just wanted to have fun and entertain his readers and ultimately entertained generations.
The book is not a fictitious autobiography, although its narrator Tristram Shandy might have intended it to be; most of the story is concerned not with his life but with his idiosyncratic family and the circumstances surrounding his conception and birth, with many digressions on various related and unrelated subjects. His father Walter, whose conjugal duties coincide with his having to wind the clock the first Sunday of every month, compiles a compendium of information he calls the Tristrapoedia for the education of his newborn son. His uncle Toby, an expert in military architecture, rides a hobby-horse and occupies his time with the science of besieging fortresses. Other characters include Corporal Trim, a former soldier and now Toby's valet and factotum; Dr. Slop, a dwarfish physician who delivers the baby Tristram; and Yorick the parson, who naturally is descended from the infamous jester of the Danish royal court.
There are two aspects to this book that distinguish Sterne's style. The first is that he provides several different channels of narration and never really settles on a main plot thread; he interrupts the flow of one narrative with another, delivering narrative flights of fancy like a marriage contract, a sermon, a notice of excommunication from the Catholic Church, a travelogue for France and Italy, and amusing anecdotes about extracurricular characters. In this way he presages the modernism of many twentieth century authors.
The second is that he does not restrict his text to English words; he intersperses Greek, Latin, and French passages where he likes, and on occasion he does not even use words at all, but symbols and glyphs to express certain concepts. A cross appears in the print when a character crosses himself; a character's death is memorialized by a black page; a blank page is provided for the reader to draw (mentally or physically) his own vision of the voluptuous Widow Wadman, who has a romantic eye for Toby; long rows of asterisks and dashes are used for things that are better left unsaid. At one point Sterne even draws squiggly lines to illustrate the sinuosity of his narrative, celebrating his own whimsy.
"Tristram Shandy" was published in nine volumes over the last nine years of Sterne's life, and whether these were all he had intended is debatable because the narrative is implied to have neither a beginning nor an end; it seems very much like a work in progress. As such, by modern literary standards it may not be considered a novel, but in the sense of its unconventionality, its supply of so many bemusing surprises for the reader to discover, it is as literal an example of the term "novel" as there is.
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69 of 71 people found the following review helpful
on January 12, 2004
Format: Paperback
This work is OLD but reads like the most innovative avant-garde novel of today. The book is about Tristram Shandy and his birth, his uncle and his war wound and his father with his love of names and noses. Seriously! This is the original story-with-no-story and the beauty of the book is in the way that it's written. In reality, Sterne talks about anything and everything. He makes digressions lasting 20 odd pages, rambles to the reader, apologises for rambling, then discusses how he plans to get the story finally under way.
The book is out of order chronologically. One of the funniest things about the book is that it's meant to be an autobiography of the fictional Tristram. Half the book is spent telling the story of the day of his birth. Then, the author moves to another scene, mainly revolving around Tristram's uncle Toby and the novel finishes several years before Tristram's birth.
Sterne's writing is chaotic resembling a stream of consciousness. Sentences run onto the other, there's heaps of dashes and asterisks being used for various purposes. Sterne adds scribbles to signify the mood of the character. When one character dies, to symbolise his end, Sterne has a black page to describe it. When introducing a beautiful female character, Sterne says he can't be bothered describing her so he leaves a blank page for the reader to draw his/her own rendition.
The book - though technically not a satire - in the process of going nowhere and saying nothing makes fun of many religious, political and societal topics. Sterne was a minister but from the book it can be gleaned that he was a particularly irreverent one.
The work is divided into 9 books, published serially. This is a work where you can just pick up a chapter and read it. Some are several pages. Others are two lines. It takes a while to get used to Sterne's writing "style" so read slowly. This goes for the whole novel as there's so much hidden underneath the surface.
This edition is great in having footnotes on the same page and reviews of Tristram as well as critical essays and Sterne's own letters about the work - many of which are very good.
Tristram is funny, ridiculous, clever and very very eccentric. An absolute MUST!
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64 of 68 people found the following review helpful
on July 4, 2004
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
If you read and enjoyed Don Quixote, with its endless digressions and ridiculous situations, you are likely to enjoy reading Tristram Shandy. Even if you hated reading Pamela, you may still enjoy Tristram Shandy. "Learned nonsense" describes it very well. The demands it makes on the reader, however, are comparable to those made by works such as Ulysses, Gravitys Rainbow and J.R.. The Penguin edition contains over 120 pages of notes as well as a useful "Glossary of Terms of Fortification" to help the reader along. (You just never know when you might need to know what a "circumvallation" is.) All the same, I first read T.S. in the old Signet Classic edition, ($.95) which contained virtually no annotations, and I still enjoyed it. And then there are the strange neologisms (such as "hobby-horsical"), and the even sillier names. It gets better with repeated readings and it will make you laugh. After T.S., you may want to tackle Anatomy of Melancholy. My only disappointment with T.S.: there was no mechanical duck!
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51 of 54 people found the following review helpful
on September 1, 2001
Format: Paperback
I'm so glad I didn't do English Lit at college. I've just read the customer reviews of this wonderful book and seen how being forced to read something you wouldn't normally read makes you bitter, twisted and intent on ensuring no-one else gets pleasure out of it. It also makes you cemented in your opinion that if you don't like it, it must have no redeeming feature (after, all "I did a degree in Eng Lit, so I must know what I'm talking about"). All great difficult books suffer from this -- Ulysses, At Swim-Two-Birds, Lanark, The Trial, and that's just the 20th century. Oh well. People should read what they want, when they want: they should also accept that there is little out there with no value, it's taste that causes us to like different things.
That said, what do I think of it? I think it's one of the most fun reads there is, once you get yourself back into an 18thC mode of reading (MTV has so much to answer for with our attention spans). Also, forget all this bunk about it being postmodern or deliberately experimenting with the novel. When this was written, there WAS no novel, that came in the 19thC. Before this there was Don Quixote, Robinson Crusoe and little else that could be called a novel. All Sterne was doing was writing to entertain, and that he does marvelously. He had no boundaries to push - they weren't there - so he made his own (and they just happened to be a long way away from where he originally sat).
Anyway -- if you like the idea of a book that coined the phrase "cock and bull story", includes blank pages to show discretion when two characters make love, that draws wiggling lines indicating the authors impression of the amount of digression in the previous pages, you'll love it. But just stop if you don't like it, instead of perseveering and then taking it out on everyone.
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29 of 31 people found the following review helpful
Format: Paperback
In a classic episode of The Simpsons, Grandpa Simpson gives the following advice of how to deal with some workers on strike: "We can't bust heads like we used to. But we have our ways. One trick is to tell stories that don't go anywhere. Like the time I caught the ferry to Shelbyville. I needed a new heel for m'shoe. So I decided to go to Morganville, which is what they called Shelbyville in those days. So I tied an onion to my belt. Which was the style at the time. Now, to take the ferry cost a nickel, and in those days, nickels had pictures of bumblebees on 'em. Gimme five bees for a quarter, you'd say. Now where was I... oh yeah. The important thing was that I had an onion tied to my belt, which was the style at the time. You couldn't get white onions, because of the war. The only thing you could get was those big yellow ones..."

Such a cock and bull story has formed the basis for a mighty novel, and one of the mid-18th century no less. That was not usually an era of radical experimentation, but Laurence Stern's TRISTRAM SHANDY is the oddest duck of English literature from that era. As the young gentleman Shandy sets out to write his memoirs and offer his views on life, he cannot help but go off on tangent after tangent. Only at the end of the second volume is he actually born. Soon the narrator basically gives up on his own autobiography, preferring to tell of the odd people around him. There is his eccentric Uncle Toby who, after being wounded in a siege at the turn of the 18th century, spends all his days constructing miniature citadels on his bowling green in which to play war games. There's his father, struggling to maintain the greatness of the Shandy family against his poor bad luck. And there is Parson Yorick, an Anglican cleric who doesn't always keep to the orthodox line, and so is a self-portrait of Sterne himself.

The novel is revolutionary as literature, foretelling the narrative games and unreliable narration of 20th century Modernism. But is it actually fun to read? Sadly, I found TRISTRAM SHADY a wearying experience. This story based on digressions is woefully uneven, and for every laugh out loud moment there were two or three lame episodes. And this is from a reader who, equipped with his not ordinarily useful liberal arts education, understands all of Sterne's references to history and theology.
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29 of 31 people found the following review helpful
on July 31, 2005
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
"The Life and Opinions..." is perhaps impossible to really classify. It purports to be a biography of the fictional Tristram Shandy, but I don't think you can call something a biography when it only covers a year or so of the subject's life! I would say that more than half of the novel actually falls into the "Opinions" referred to in the title. The rest consists of short stories on Tristram's father, uncle, and a couple other minor characters.

I have never in my life read so many digressions from the topic at hand, most of which were utterly irrelevant but the charm of it is that Sterne *knows* they're irrelevant, but mockingly expresses his license of authorship in forcing the reader to go off on these sidetracks. His attitude is: "If you can't wait a chapter or two to get back to the story, well, go take a flying leap, I'm the author." Sometimes the digressions are exasperating. Very unlike Victor Hugo's signature habit of digressing, say when a certain main character in Notre Dame decides to enter the Paris sewers, Hugo takes thirty or more pages to give a history of the design and construction of the Paris sewer system. At least Hugo's digressions have *something* to do with the story.

Well, maybe that's the problem. There isn't a main story in this novel. It's not a storybook. There are many short stories nested within the main framework, but there is no real protagonist or overarching theme of any sort. Indeed, the end comes abruptly and there is absolutely no resolution of any conflict.

It's not trying to teach anything, really.

So what is it? I'm not sure. More a comedy than anything else. Right up there with Dickens' "Pickwick Papers" in terms of humor, but lacking the story. Maybe funnier than Dickens and just as clever. I was rolling in the aisles so many times I lost count.

I read the Penguin edition, edited by Melvyn & Joan New. The back cover does a better job than I could ever do in providing a sense of what you're getting into when you pick this one up:

"No one description will fit this strange, eccentric, endlessly complex masterpiece. It is a fiction about fiction-writing in which the invented world is as much infused with wit and genius as the theme of inventing it. It is a joyful celebration of the infinite possibilities of the art of fiction, and a wry demonstration of its limitations."

It's a large work, it will take a while to work through. It's worth it. There are passages I want to go back to and make copies of to tape to the walls, they're that brilliant.
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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on April 1, 2001
Format: Paperback
This is one of my favorites. It's not a book to rush through so that you can check it off on your lifetime reading plan. It's a profoundly human and wonderfully funny tale that needs to be savored. It was originally published in nine small volumes over a period of six years or so and no one at that time thought they had to sit down and read all nine volumes at once. This is a book you need to spend time with, pick up when it suits you or when you need to be refreshed and let one of the great writers in the language chat you up for awhile about the lovable Shandy family. Ignore the nonsense on the back of the Penguin edition about it being a novel about novel writing. This is a book about life. Two of its characters, Walter and Toby Shandy, rank with the best of Shakespeare, Fielding and Dickens. There are some truly great belly laughs, some really thoughtful philosophy and even a tear or two. Sterne's hobby horse theory is an extremely acute behavioral insight. If you give it a chance, you'll end up being very grateful to Laurence Sterne for adding such a beautiful piece to the literature of English speaking people.
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18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on April 26, 2002
Format: Mass Market Paperback
I'd never heard of this book until I saw it featured in the ultra-trendy 'Wallpaper' magazine. A model was reading it and she had a really curious look on her face. I'm so glad I found out about this book. I really advise you to ignore the negative reviews about it being "self-consciously frustrating", pointless, etc. because it really isn't. If they simply didn't like it because they thought it was poorly written, that would be understandable, but it really sounds like they didn't get it and that they weren't open to the great pleasures of this book, which is pretty pathetic for English professors and students. It really isn't that hard to understand. I've only read a few of the classics before this, and the version I was reading had no editor's notes or explanations, but I had no problem understanding this book after reading the first ten chapters and getting used to it. I found it to be much more accessible then anything I've read by Shakespeare, anyway. I read somewhere a comparison to a Seinfeld in that it's "about nothing", but in a really humorous way. The book does have some jarringly post-modern elements, surprising for a novel from the 1700's (literally one of the first few novels ever written). In this it is unique because it is probably one of the only works of literature that can be thought of in modern times as both quaint and post-modern at the same time. But understanding this is not necessary to get involved in this book. It really is like an eighteenth century sitcom. There are mad digressions, stories within stories are started, delayed, started, delayed then forgotten about. There are quite a few genuinely funny moments where I laughed out loud as well as keen insights into human behaviour and the human condition, sometimes light and amusing and others melancholy. It was a really addictive read, simply because it was so entertaining and enjoyable...
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
Have you wanted to read a book where the author decides to "rip out" one of the chapters, or leaves a blank page for you to 'draw' one of the characters? Would you enjoy a story which takes many chapters before the hero manages to be born? This 18th-Century tale is touchingly told. The characters are real, and fascinating. It's not their fault that their story is frequently and impishly interrupted by outlandish "digressions" on the part of an author so creative that his modern descendants are considered to be Joyce and Beckett, as well as many others. Would you enjoy a chapter on Chapters? About buttonholes? About whether parents and their children are kin to each other? A chapter on curses? Poor Laurence Sterne has so much trouble getting two of his characters down the stairs that he finally calls in a "critic" to help! Advice on reading such an unusual, even unique, book: read the first several chapters, then stop and reread them. Continue that process and soon the book will feel quite familiar, and that's when the fun really starts. The Oxford World's Classics edition follows the first edition of the book, and is preferred. Amazon also offers the fully-annotated edition, the "Florida" edition, in three volumes. A caution about the Everyman hardcover edition: they reprinted a later edition which groups Tristram Shandy into three volumes, not nine. And then they renumbered all the chapters! That's OK unless you read secondary sources that refer you to Book VII, Chap 4: good luck ever finding it.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
Format: Paperback
A line from the movie "adaptation" put it best: this was a postmodern novel before there was any modernism to be post to.

Simply put, Laurence Sterne threw out all the literary conventions of what a novel should be and how it should be arranged, a few hundred years before more recent writers like Calvino, Joyce and Danielewski did. The result is "The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman," a gloriously rambling, richly entertaining sort-of-novel.

"I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me." So begins Tristram, who starts his life story with his "begetting," and attempts to tell the story of his birth and life, as well as the descriptions of relatives -- his lovable uncle Toby, his eccentric dad, his patient mother (who's in labor for most of the book).

But as he tries to tell us about his life, Tristram keeps getting sidetracked by all the stories that surround him -- his uncle's romance with the Widow Wadman and the war in which he received a nasty wound in a sensitive spot, the French, the doctor who delivered him, letters in multiple languages, the parson, the personal history of the midwife, and what curses are appropriate for what occasions.

Most novels are pretty straightforward -- they have a beginning, a middle and an end. But "The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman" totally ignores that, by having a beginning that lasts for the whole book, dozens of "middles," and no real end (it just stops at a suitable spot). All of this is without a real structure.

And he took this postmodern, break-all-the-rules mentality all the way, by including odd little illustrations -- when speaking of the death of Parson Yorick, Sterne includes a black page. Random empty pages. Asterisks instead of important paragraphs. And a bunch of squiggly lines to demonstrate precisely how the narratives in previous chapters looked.

At first glance, Sterne's writing style was pretty typical of his period -- detailed, somewhat formal in tone, and very talky. It takes a little while for Tristram to start dipping out of of his narrative -- at one point, he starts interrupting himself in midsentence. By the middle of the book, he's completely lost control of his own story.

And he twisted it around with lots of bawdy humor (such as poor Uncle Toby's groin injury, which causes quite a few problems), and the continuous comic stumbles of all the characters. On the subject of his own name, Tristram describes his dad's reaction: "Melancholy dissyllable of sound! which to his ears was unison to Nincompoop, and every name vituperative under heaven.")

Life is too rich to be encapsulated in a single story -- that's the problem with "Tristram Shandy," whose story is a classic comic delight of premodernist-postmodern skill.
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