I’d like to compare two novels that seem about as unlikely as possible: Tristram Shandy and my last entry here, On the Road. Written some 200 years apart and in almost violently different styles, these novels seem about as far apart as possible. Kerouac takes things so seriously, even when he presents humorous anecdotes; Sterne, even when taking the most serious topic on, seems incapable of seriousness.
Why, then, do I choose to compare them (aside from the fact that I just read and reported on On the Road)? Although I’m not crazy about either of these works on a personal level–which, by the way, is not required for a serious student of literature–I find more to admire in the somewhat antique Tristram Shandy than in the oh-so-cool On the Road.
Neither author honestly goes anywhere in the course of their novel. Kerouac, significantly, travels extensively only to wind up exactly where he began, having accomplished nothing of consequence. Sterne’s narrator drags us through his life in the most circuitous manner imaginable. Neither of them seems to make any genuine progress, but only Sterne seems to realize the fact.
As Sterne writes, he seems intent on playing with the possibilities of the printed novel. Freed from the formal constraints of verse–and recall this novel was written only forty years after Robinson Crusoe, which many literary historians would mark as the first true English novel–Sterne seems intent not on telling a story, as Defoe had done, or on making a didactic point, as John Bunyan had done a few decades before Defoe. Instead, Sterne revels in language, voice, character, and wit. One imagines this author to have been a great deal of fun to share a table with.
Kerouac, on the other hand, seems like he’d be a lot of fun provided you aren’t female or riding in the car after he inebriated himself or depending on him in any long-term way. Sal Paradise, after all, is largely Jack Kerouac, but Tristram Shandy is only a caricature of Sterne, if the two overlap at all.
The puritan reader might–and probably did–dismiss Tristram Shandy as frothy and inconsequential stuff. (Thomas Jefferson and his wife apparently loved it, which would be another negative vote from the puritan camp.) Sterne, I’m fairly certain, would concur with this evaluation, but would argue that we all need some froth and inconsequence in our lives. As an Anglican priest, he was decidedly not puritan in his orientation, yet by all accounts he took his vocation with reasonable seriousness, performing his duties until his writing could provide better support. As the puritan argues that Tristram Shandy will never lead a reader to God, I believe that Sterne would rejoin with the idea that this is not the novel’s purpose.
The puritan reading On the Road, on the other hand, would find the work to be no less lacking in consequence. The key difference, I think, is that Kerouac and the other beats seemed to think that their froth and inconsequence truly mattered, that it could take someone to God or god or enlightenment or somewhere worthwhile.
If one can put delicate sensibilities aside for a season, Tristram Shandy is a marvelous lot of fun. Profound? No. Life-changing? I don’t think so. But it is spendidly written and possessed of many witty and insightful observations on life in both the eighteenth century and today.