Tristram Shandy at 250

January 1: The first installment of Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy was published 250 years ago today. Some of the novel's first critics dismissed it—"Nothing odd will do long," Samuel Johnson sniffed—and some just threw up their pens: "This is a humorous performance, of which we are unable to convey any distinct ideas to our readers," said the London Critical Review. But the book was an immediate hit, and the author, until then an unknown Yorkshire parson, became the rage of literary London. Today, says Italo Calvino, Tristram Shandy remains important as the "undoubted progenitor" of the avant-garde novel for its structural inventions and oddities—misplaced chapters, sentences that begin in one volume and finish in the next, doodles, and empty black pages.

 

Calvino's "progenitor" alludes to the famous clock-winding scene in which Sterne's young hero is conceived. A regular man, Mr. Shandy was in the habit of enjoying two household privileges on the first Sunday evening of every month. The first was to wind the big family clock; the second was embraced upon retiring to bed. The sound of Mr. Shandy tending to the clock aroused little more than apprehension in Mrs. Shandy, though her husband was not normally denied. On the Sunday in question, Mr. Shandy was fully wound, but Mrs. Shandy does not appear to have been concentrating:

Pray, my dear, quoth my mother, have you not forgot to wind up the clock? ——Good G—! cried my father, making an exclamation, but taking care to moderate his voice at the same time, ——Did ever woman, since the creation of the world, interrupt a man with such a silly question?

Apparently this passage gained such notoriety that some London prostitutes took to approaching the more bookish-looking of their potential clients with an offer to wind their clocks. If so, it could only have pleased Sterne: when Bishop Warburton asked him to tone his subsequent volumes down, he said he'd try, "though laugh my lord, I will, and as loud as I can too." My book, he said, "is for the laughing-part of the world—for the melancholy part of it, I have nothing but my prayers—so God help them."


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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