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How film, despite its critics, opens a door to literary exploration

By M.V. Moorehead

July 29, 2006

John Updike has famously bemoaned his inability to finish The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.

After seeing Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, Michael Winterbottom’s very funny cinematic sort-of-adaptation (out this month on DVD) of Laurence Sterne’s great comic sort-of-novel, I was filled with bibliophilic ambition: I would conquer a final page that Mister Big-Shot-New-Yorker-Contributor had not the stamina to turn.

So I picked up the Modern Library edition of Tristram Shandy. Very quickly, it was clear that I wouldn’t do much better than ol’ John.

For the uninitiated, the central joke of the book, which was published in nine volumes from 1759 to 1767, is that it’s a novel made up entirely of digressions. It begins with the titular narrator’s conception, and with the exception of a few short episodes from his later life, he never gets much farther than his own birth and christening.

The rest of the 500-plus pages are taken up with detailed, frequently off-color backstory about his waspish father and his befuddled, lovable Uncle Toby; philosophical and literary and historical and religious and linguistic discussions of deliberately maddening pedantry; long passages in Latin and other languages; whole pages blacked out—it’s as if Sterne was simply trying to see what he could get away with.

Only a few dozen pages, in my case.

Yet there was something to Tristram Shandy that wouldn’t get out of my head, either. So I did something I’ve never done before. I went to the tape—the Naxos Audiobook, that is--an abridgement brilliantly read by John Moffat, an English actor unfamiliar to me.

And Moffat’s droll vocal art, even more than Winterbottom’s film, brought Sterne’s comedy and his finely-drawn characters wonderfully, at times even touchingly, alive for me.

The abridgement, it should be said, is considerable. But Moffat’s exhilarating performance sent me back to my Modern Library edition to fill in the blanks.

John Updike, if you’re out there—I’ve found the way in.

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