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Cogitus Interruptus

Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Portrait of Laurence Sterne

He was a Yorkshire Anglican clergyman who just happened to write one of the five greatest novels ever written, Laurence Sterne (1713-1768) gave us The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentlemen (1759-1761), a book that can be read and re-read with pleasure over an entire lifetime. It was in the mid 1960s that I first encountered it in Chauncey C. Loomis’s class on “The Eighteenth Century English Novel.” Loomis was my favorite professor of English, which happened to be my major at Dartmouth. I am still re-living that class and re-reading the books that he assigned. That makes his class one of the best I ever took.

Tristram Shandy revolves around four plot points that would seem to be pretty thin. All the plot points involve either interruptions or “abridgments” of various sorts:

  1. Just as Mr Shandy and his wife are approaching orgasm, the latter asks her husband if he has rewound their clock.
  2. When Tristram is being born, the forceps of Dr Slop, who presides at the birth, crush the little lad’s nose.
  3. As a result of a miscommunication with one of the servants, the new baby is christened Tristram instead of Trismegistus.
  4. Tristram is accidentally circumcised when a window crashes down upon his foreskin.

How these four main plot points are stretched out over some five hundred pages of warmth and hilarity is a major miracle. The plot is positively Ptolemaic, with little epicycles and interruptions that create hilarious interludes.

It has always amazed me that it is the young Tristram Shandy who is narrating the novel. Yet he is not born until midway through the book, after we have been exposed to numerous incidents which the young Shandy could not have experienced as he was still in utero.

I can see myself coming back to Tristram Shandy again and again, paging at random to the beginning of a sequence, and reveling in it again … and again.