Despite what you may have read elsewhere, most of the
experimental techniques of modernist and postmodernist
fiction were developed long before the 20th century. We
encounter arch meta-narratives in Cervantes and a self-
consciously absurdist fragmentation of texts in Rabelais.
The main ingredient of the magical realism novel can be
found in Apuleius's The Golden Ass, from the late 2nd
century A.D. A host of other transgressive styles, from
stream-of-consciousness to surrealism, all appeared on
the scene long before they became avant-garde literary
But the granddaddy of experimental novelists, the most
daring of the early innovators, was an Anglican clergyman
born in 1713.
Laurence Sterne was an unlikely
advocate for experimental fiction.
He didn't discover his talent for
storytelling until his mid-40s, and
his first novel received the
ultimate thumbs down from
critics. This satire, entitled A
Political Romance, was
suppressed and burned—only
six copies of the original printing
have survived. Sterne's career
prospects in the church hierarchy
suffered as a result, and his attempt to earn a living as a
gentleman farmer also failed to generate much income.
But his forbidden book had achieved a modest degree of
fame. "Ten times more was said about this piece than it
deserved, because it was burnt," the London Chronicle later
asserted. Sterne decided to seize the opportunity presented
by this passing moment of notoriety. He turned his attention
to writing, and began work on an audacious comic novel which
he named Tristram Shandy (or, in its full title: The Life and
Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman).
The book was written quickly, and in almost tragic circum-
stances. Sterne suffered from tuberculosis, and around this
same time his mother and uncle died, Adding to his domestic
woes, Sterne’s wife was so distraught when she found her
husband in bed with the maid that she threatened suicide
and was placed under the care of a physician. According
to one source, Elizabeth Sterne’s mental state was so
unbalanced that she thought she was the Queen of Bohemia.
Such travails are hardly
conducive to writing any
literary work, but least of
all a large-scale comic
novel. An early version of
the novel was rejected
because of the darkness
of its satire, but laboring
(in Sterne's words) "under the greatest heaviness of heart,"
he undertook to lighten the heavier passage, and accentuate
the more amusing qualities of his eccentric protagonist.
Perhaps I should say that you will be amused by Sterne's
protagonist if you stay around long enough for him to arrive
on the scene. Mr. Shandy is the narrator of the novel and
he apparently abides by the view that a life, or at least 'The
Life' (and Opinions, etc. etc.) begins at conception. "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," he begins on page one.
But this will be a long gestation, not to mention labor and
delivery. In Volume Four, he is still on the first day of his life.
Digressions and tangents existed in literature long before
Tristram Shandy, but Sterne was the first to understand that
the digression could serve as the main course. Instead of
deferred gratification, the deferment is the gratification in
these pages. Even the smallest actions in this novel can take
be a long time coming in this novel. Other writers can bring
their cast of characters to Mars and back with less effort
than Sterne expends in getting them downstairs.
Tristram Shandy secured lasting fame for its author and
found unexpected admirers. Schopenhauer and Goethe
praised it lavishly, and Karl Marx even tried imitating
Sterne's style in an unpublished comic novel he wrote as a
teenager. But many others dismissed it out of hand or
offered lukewarm compliments. Samuel Johnson predicted
that the novel would not have lasting appeal, because "nothing
odd will do long." Literary scholar Ian Watt denied that
Tristram Shandy was a novel, merely acknowledging the
book as "a parody of a novel." The work has "an indefinite
theme, worked out by a verve that has not the slightest
concern for order, unity or logic," announced the authors of
a 1933 textbook on English literature. Around this same time,
Ezra Pound admitted that Sterne’s book was required reading,
but was quick to add: “I don’t recommend anyone ELSE to try
to do another Tristram Shandy."
Pound's advice was roundly rejected by experimental authors
of the 20th century. Almost immediately after the publication
of James Joyce’s Ulysses, critics compared it to Sterne's
iconoclastic book—indeed, even Pound made the comparison.
“Ulysses is, presumably, as unrepeatable as Tristram Shandy,”
he explained; “I mean you cannot duplicate it, you can’t take it
as a 'model'."
And then the postmodernist writers of the last half of the
20th century did precisely that. Tristram Shandy was the
perfect role model for their purposes. In its pages they
found a wealth of material to imitate: short, choppy chapters
of Barthesian pithiness; self-conscious reflections on the
role of narrative; deliberate violation of readers' expectations
and literary conventions; a preference for cranky and eccentric
characters; a willingness to subvert plot at every turn; and,
above all, the rejection of any attempt at 'realism' in favor of a
celebration of the most fickle subjective attitudes. Or put
another way, form battled with content and lost in a first
round knockout. On almost every page, Sterne offered
a playbook that perfectly suited the literary temperament of
the age of Derrida and Lacan, Vonnegut and Calvino. As
hard as it was to believe, a quirky book older than the United
States was suddenly up-to-date to a frightening degree. As
one quipster put it: Tristram Shandy "was a post-modern
classic before there was a modernism to be post about."
But though Sterne took liberties, not all of them accrued to
his credit. Long before modern novelists started experi-
menting with cut-and-paste techniques, Sterne was doing
the same in Tristram Shandy. Alas, his particular way of
practicing the art of cut-and-paste usually goes by the name
of plagiarism. Fortunately for the celebrated novelist, Google
wasn't around in 1767, and these repeated borrowings went
unreported until after his death. But Sterne did little to hide
his fingerprints. Even an attack on plagiarism in the pages
of Tristram Shandy was itself plagiarized—from Robert
Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy!
Perhaps this was an inside joke? Pynchon would do something
just like this, no? Yet scholars have found that Sterne's
sermons from his days as a clergyman were also filled with
plagiarized passages. All the signs suggest that he was a
literary kleptomaniac, a writer who couldn't resist the temptation
to lift especially enticing phrases from unsuspecting owners.
Yet what he did with these borrowed ingredients was highly
original. There was nothing quite like Tristram Shandy in
the preceding literature, or among the works of Sterne's
contemporaries. Indeed, the first several generations of
readers who praised or condemned the book could hardly
even imagine the reasons why this novel would later have
such a fearsome reputation. They took it as one big joke, a
leg pull of epic proportions. How could an 18th century reader
possibly conceive that this odd, frustrating novel would serve
as a blueprint for serious writers of a later day or a harbinger
of trends some 200 years in the future?
Then again, perhaps the first readers were right, and we
are the ones who stumble. Do we err by viewing through
the eyes of theory what Sterne wrought with the intention of
wicked humor? In the current moment, Tristram Shandy is
an important book, a prescient novel, lauded for anticipating
the later evolution of literary form (or lack thereof). If Sterne
were alive today, I'm sure he would accept the praise (and
any royalty checks in escrow) with a pleasant smile, but
probably also chuckle at our expense. Those postmodernists,
he would be right to surmise, just don’t know how to take a joke.
Ted Gioia writes on literature, music and popular culture. His most recent
book is The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire.
Published July 15, 2013
|The First Postmodern Novel?
by Ted Gioia
a website devoted to radical,
unconventional and experimental
fiction with a particular focus on the
rise of modernism and its aftermath.
"Schopenhauer and Goethe
praised it lavishly, and Karl Marx
even tried imitating Sterne's
style in an unpublished comic
novel he wrote as a teenager."
|Tristram Shandy was "a post-modern classic
before there was a modernism to be post about."