Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Tristram Shandy

For some reason, I didn’t get on with this book. But, unlike with other novels that I’ve read this year, I don’t have any desire to criticise it. Sometimes books annoy me or I think I can see flaws in them, but I didn’t see many flaws in Tristram Shandy. In a way, I wondered whether it was just a bit cleverer than me. Perhaps Tristram Shandy is like the cool kid on the playground and had better things to do than explain why it was so awesome to a loser like me. But whatever the reason, we just weren’t friends.

How I read

I think partly, it comes down to how I read books. My mind tends to focus in on what it thinks is ‘important’. I’ll follow one narrative thread, and make sure I know what’s going on. That means that books with a split narrative can be frustrating to me because my mind wants to zoom in on one set of events.

I also often think about other things whilst I’m reading. My mind will briefly flutter to work, the news or economics (weird, right?). I think it’s a bad habit and I’m trying to improve my focus, but right now it’s the way I read. The question I subconsciously ask when my mind crashes back into the book world is, ‘did I miss anything important?’ If the story is where I expect, I read on. If not, I’ll skim backwards to find out what I missed.

All of this completely conflicts with reading Tristram Shandy. Because it isn’t a split narrative, it’s an exploded one. So I found I would read down the page, think about something else for a second, come back, and ask the question ‘did I miss anything important?’, and the answer would invariably be ‘I don’t know what the hell is going on’. The narrative was always in an utterly different place.

And it conflicted in another sense too. The whole of Tristram Shandy is one big joke. There are scores of pages on how the narrator's father believes bigger noses are a sign of higher intelligence. This goes on and on and on, culminating in a thirty page ‘extract’ from a fictional philosopher telling a story that illustrates this point. So when my mind asked ‘did I miss anything important’, the question always seemed a bit irrelevant - nothing in Tristram Shandy is ‘important’ at all...

Going deeper

I read for lots of reasons, but the main one is to learn things about life, to become wise, to gain knowledge of what makes us human. I think Tristram Shandy offers a more... aesthetic experience.  It’s designed to be funny, humorous, and clever. It’s a book to be enjoyed in the moment, rather than giving you anything you can really take away. It’s not deep, it’s not emotional, instead it’s clever, humorous, a hoot.

And I have to confess, I found it quite hard work. I felt like I was expending a lot of energy in forcing my mind to plough through hundreds of pages of light jokes that I didn’t find funny. There was also a lot in there that I just didn’t understand, and I think I missed a lot of the cleverness. There were many references, for example, to things that I had never heard of. Overall, this has been the book that I’ve least enjoyed this year. I hated Wide Sargasso Sea, but it was more of a problem with what it stood for than any lack of reading enjoyment. Tristram Shandy, on the other hand, was a real struggle for me.

The End

Tristram Shandy has been described by the Guardian as the seventh best novel of all time, and was originally thought of as ‘too popular’ to really be a literary success. I loved the concept. It’s a raucous send-up of the idea of a novel,  a seminal textbook of metafiction, and imbued with a riotous disregard for form. Frankly though, a lot of the time I felt lost and confused. I blame myself entirely, and I’ll file this under ‘one to read again’.

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