Somewhere in the convoluted depths of my mind there is a list of books I've somehow never read, but by virtue of being one of the classics of literature have always meant to read. One of these is The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, by Laurence Sterne. But it was not until I saw a funny little movie called Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story that I found myself wanting to read the book that was "number 8 in the top one hundred films of all time." (It was a chronological list, retorts the interviewer). The film was about the impossibility of making a film adaptation of a novel that is essentially unfilmable, which of course meant I had to read it immediately.
Eighteenth-century English novels tend not to be funny, but this one begins with: 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; had they duly consider'd how much depended upon when they were then doing; - that not only the production of a rational Being was concern'd in it, but that possibly the happy formation and temperature of his body, perhaps his genius and the very cast of his mind...Had they duly weighed and considered all this, and proceeded accordingly,-I am verily persuaded I should have made quite a different figure in the world, from that, in which the reader is likely to see me. It is rare to come across a book which makes me laugh out loud from the first words; what remains to be seen is whether it goes on as well as it begins.
It is a convoluted story, if you could call it a story. Rather more along the lines of a rambling narrative about the life and thoughts of Tristram Shandy, beginning with the circumstances of his own conception and his subsequent birth. His life, it is Tristram's belief, has been a series of mishaps and missed chances from the moment he was conceived. But the story progresses slowly, as he writes that he has undertaken...to write not only my life, but my opinions also; hoping and expecting that your knowledge of my character, and of what kind of mortal I am, by the one, would give you a better relish for the other. But the pleasure of this novel is more than the story, it is the languages, Sterne's language, which is like nothing I have experienced before. It must be unwound, the intricate twists and unfamiliar words becoming familiar rhythms, as familiar as the relationship between Shandy and the reader grows as you learn his story. As you proceed further with me, says our narrator, the slight acquaintance which is now beginning betwixt us, will grow into familiarity; and that, unless one of us in fault, will terminate in friendship. I think that friendship has already begun, but I cannot wait to see how it will continue.
Sterne, Laurence. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. Penguin Books, 2003. pp 5, 11.