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
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.