The Motley Emblem of His Work
by Laurence Sterne
In various editions. Originally published in nine volumes from 1759 to 1767. Penguin 2003
Reviewed by Seana Graham
I tell you before-hand, you had better throw down the book at once, for without much reading, by which your reverence knows, I mean much knowledge, you will no more be able to penetrate the moral of the next marbled page (motly emblem of my work!) than the world with all its sagacity has been able to unraval the many opinions, transactions and truths which still lie mystically hid under the dark veil of the black one.
Some books we judge. Other books judge us. Tristram Shandy is, I think, one of the latter, and I believe that it found me a little wanting in the end–perhaps also in the middle and in the beginning.
Over the last few years, a tradition of sorts has emerged in a small circle of my friends to read some long put off or perhaps less read English novel, and Tristram Shandy turned out to be the one we chose to wade into this time around. I had purchased a copy at a college book sale when I still was in college (which was a long time ago) but had never tackled it and it is still moldering away in my storage shed, untouched. I had also seen what you might call Michael Winterbottom’s tribute to the novel, which came out in the U.S. as Tristram Shandy: a Cock and Bull Story (the subtitle was the original full British title), but I can’t say that I was much further enlightened by watching it, entertaining though it was.
I ended up reading the book in ebook form, as well as listening to parts of it on Librivox, and I don’t think there’s any way to sugarcoat it: I struggled. It isn’t all that hard to read or understand, once you get going, but it is hard not to be gradually maddened by it. One of our group members pointed out that we were reading it in a way that Sterne never intended it to be read, and I found an article by Robert McCrum in The Guardian verifying this:
He enjoyed publishing his work serially, small octavo volumes of fewer than 200 pages. The full-length Tristram Shandy conveys none of the delight that the 18th-century reader could expect, collecting the novel, volume by volume from year to year.
In my opinion, the ebook version conveys few of the delights of the original printed form either. I seem to have missed entirely the addition of the ‘blank pages’, whether because they weren’t reproduced or because they didn’t strike me in my toil, I don’t know. But in the original, the first blank page is actually black and follows the words “Alas, poor Yorick!” Yorick is the name of a character here, the minister who some say is Sterne’s alter ego in the story, but yes, the Shakespearean echo is deliberate. In fact, and beyond my ability to distinguish, Sterne apparently stole freely from the likes of Richard Burton, Rabelais and others and “repurposed” their work for humorous intentions of his own. James Joyce, who was one of many subsequent authors to admire him, took a page from his book in this regard—and then some.
The second blank page, which faces the quote with which I started this review, is an illustration of mottled sheet looking a bit like an endpaper. Each edition of the original volumes used a different pattern for the page, although today they are usually rendered in standard black and white. In the recent celebration of the 250th anniversary of the book, artists were asked to create their own “emblems” of the page, which were then auctioned off to help maintain Sterne’s house in York, known as Shandy House.
But what is the book about, you ask? Well, yes—that’s the question. It’s about a family, mainly, and all the events preceding and surrounding the birth of one Tristram Shandy, gentleman. But I think I prefer the critic Christopher Ricks’ summing up of the novel. He called it “the greatest shaggy dog story in the language”.