Monday, 5 June 2017

Book Report Part 5: "Tristram Shandy" and "If on a winter's night a traveller"

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman has sat on my bookshelves for at least 20 years. I've tried reading it a few times, but I've never managed to get past page 10. Published in nine volumes between 1759 and 1767, it is - as I'm sure you know - the greatest "shaggy dog" story in the English language and one of the most famous comic novels ever written. University-educated British comedians like Stephen Fry and Steve Coogan go into raptures over it: both were involved in the 2005 film-within-a-film, A Cock and Bull Story, which features episodes from the novel. The main running joke revolves around the author spending seven hundred pages of what is supposed to be an autobiography, barely mentioning himself: instead, he allows himself to be constantly sidetracked. Oh...

...my aching sides!

I'll come clean - this isn't really my sort of humour. Nor do I respond well to elbow-in-the-ribs jollity, especially not when subjected to it for 700 pages. But I rather enjoyed the first 300 pages or so. I even laughed several times: certainly, I often found myself grinning as I read. It's full of jolly, likeable characters and diverting incidents and endless plot twists and broad comedy and dirty jokes - in fact, it ends with a dirty joke, the "cock and bull story". It's certainly very clever: an endlessly self-referential novel about writing a novel, full of conjectures and arguments about religion, science, politics, and the nature of language, and pomposity-pricking satire and parodies of revered poets and philosophers and novelists. It's brilliantly experimental and original and endlessly inventive.

Nevertheless, by the 500 page mark, I was hankering for some seriousness, some linear story-telling, some genuine emotion - I wanted a reason to care about these squires and retired military men, parsons and doctors, mistresses of the house and servants. There is some seriousness in amongst all the levity and the intellectual pyrotechnics (there are remarks about slavery, which the Abolitionists later put to good use): but it would be ridiculous to expect an 18th Century writer to cater to the needs of a moderately intelligent and rather ill-read 21st Century reader unacquainted with most of Sterne's satirical targets. I'm ashamed to admit that I had to resort to quite a bit of speed-reading - and, yes, skipping - to reach the end. Perhaps it would have been better to read it in instalments over an eight-year period, as contemporaries of Sterne would have done.

As I've found myself saying about other books on my list, I won't pretend that reading Tristram Shandy was an unalloyed delight - but I'm pleased to have done so (and relieved there isn't any more of it to get through).

I followed Tristram Shandy with another novel about writing (and reading) novels - Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveller (I've just noticed that "traveller" is spelled with two ls on the cover of the 1982 Picador edition, but with only one l in the text - significant, or an oversight?). The plot is far too complex to describe in detail here. In essence, a reader buys the book, If on a... etc.. After about ten pages, he finds himself reading a completely different book - apparently, there has been a serious error at the printer's. So he (and a mysterious female reader and her sister or are they the same person) set out to hunt down a complete version of the original novel. The Reader thinks he has found one - only to discover that it is an entirely different novel, which, after ten pages or so, morphs into yet another novel. Yes, we have ourselves another shaggy dog story!

The novel consists of the opening ten or so pages of ten different novels. In between this series of opening chapters, we have a deranged plot which takes our Reader to South America and involves spies and revolution and dictatorships and... well, you get the drift. It has all the breakneck pace and playfulness of the best Golden Age science fiction of the 1950s (of which more fuss should be made). I found myself not giving a toss about all post-modern reflections on the relationship between the author and the reader and the nature of reality and the creative process - but, while I'm sure these matters will have reduced intellectuals around the globe to a state of quivering, gibbering, orgasmic excitement, they are skated over lightly, without overstaying their welcome or stodging up the narrative.

What I really, really enjoyed were the openings of the ten books, each of which is utterly distinct and equally compelling. These have the same effect on us as they do on Calvino's main character, the Reader, who, obviously, is the reader: we desperately want to go on reading the story, but find out selves presented with an entirely different story which we also desperately want to carry on reading...etc.

It's an audacious central concept, the execution is brilliant... and the novel is a mere 204 pages long. I don't know whether If on a winter's night a traveller is a "great" novel or not. But it's extremely entertaining and intellectually stimulating. I don't know why, but I had been expecting something rather pompous and pretentious - instead, it was a delight.

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