Sunday, January 22, 2006

Tristram Shandy

The prolific British film director Michael Winterbottom'’s latest film Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story is ready for release. It was also shown at this year'’s New York Film festival where it got great reviews. I liked Winterbottom'’s 2001 quasi-documentary In This World a lot which is the only film by him that I have seen so far. And the fact that he is trying to adapt one of the singularly unique novels that I have ever read makes me even more excited about this film.

It'’s been almost three years now that I read Tristram Shandy, or as it is actually called, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman and reading articles about the film on the internet reminded me of the hilarious characters and incidents from the novel, most of which I had almost forgotten. The Eighteenth century novel was written by an Anglican clergyman named Laurence Sterne and it tells the story of the eponymous narrator who is attempting to write his autobiography. The reader gets to know that he is in for something highly unusual in the first paragraph itself, when the narrator starts not with his birth but with his conception itself. Narrator'’s mother interrupts her husband at a crucial juncture by reminding him of winding the clock. Then follows a long rambling commentary on medicine, birth defects and "“homunculus". It is only after almost hundred pages that the narrator finally manages to bring himself into the world. In the meanwhile the great cast of the characters are introduced. Tristram'’s father Walter Shandy is a polymath with an almost maniacal knowledge of arcane theories about medicine, science, philosophy, logic and virtually everything else. He has, it seems, read all the books ever published in Latin and Greek and more importantly sees every minor problem as some intellectual puzzle to be solved by the application of his recondite theories.

Narrator'’s Uncle Toby, easily the most interesting character in the book, is obsessed with the science of fortification. He is nursing a groin injury that he sustained in one of his battles. Now housebound, his passion remains the enactment of the battle scenes in his garden through artificial models of defence and embankments. He is eagerly supported in all his pursuits by an even more enthusiastic servant Corporal Trim. His servant has a tendency of giving speeches just like every other character. The two are obviously modeled on the the great characters of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.

Then there is a fun loving parson names Yorik who rides a horse names Rocinate (one of the many references to Don Quixote in the novel). After the scene of his death, the narrator insists that the next page be black and blank as a mark of mourning! There are also many other typographical inventions. One page is left blank for the reader to draw the face of one of his characters (I think it is Widow Wadman). There are sentences full of asterisks and dashes to indicate things which should better be left unsaid! The preface and acknowledgements appear in the middle of the novel out of nowhere. And towards the end there are a few chapters about narrator's excursions to France written in a highly detached style parodying the travel writing. Then there is the final episode concerning the Widow Wadman who tries to seduce uncle Toby, oblivious to whatever happened to his groin, and how uncle Toby utilizes his knowledge of the science of fortification to protect his "“honour"”.

Other than being a wildly funny romp through the life of very eccentric characters, the novel explores some very interesting and important themes. First, life is just too chaotic and complex to be straitjacketed into any sort of narrative. So Sterne's contention that any conventional novel, with a beginning, middle and end can never be true to life. Second is the philosophy of "“association of ideas" first postulated by John Locke (which later became the "“stream of consciousness" associated with Woolf, Joyce and other modernists), which says that human thought doesn'’t follow a logical and linear pattern but works more like hyper text, freely transcending space and time. Third is the idea that "we are what we are passionate about"”. In other words, the importance of our "“hobby-horses"” in defining our world-view and a sense of who we are to ourselves and to others.

The book is funny but it is not easy to read at all. Honestly, I had to skip many paragraphs just because I had no desire to look up every second word in the dictionary. And then there are Latin words galore. The edition I had didn't have good footnotes and index. I should have used the Penguin edition which I later found out has more than a hundred pages of index and footnotes and more importantly, it has a glossary of words used in the science of fortification which would significantly reduce the dictionary usage time while reading the book. I will keep that in mind the next time I pick up Tristram Shandy.

By the way, it was this article about A-Z of the book that prompted such a long post. And an interesting collection of photographs of the first edition of the book. And wikipedia entry on fortification, in case you are wondering what the fuss is all about. And finally the official film website which has a "meta" quality just like the book and the film!


Herr K. said...

Happened across this post while wandering about -- new blogger, trying to learn the ropes -- and wanted to let you know, in case you haven't seen it, that the movie is a lot of fun. Just went to a showing tonight, in fact. The actual scenes from the novel are very well done and true to the source, while the metafilm around it seems perfectly appropriate to Sterne. (Modernized, obviously.) It even includes Yorick's "page of mourning." ("I don't think an audience would find a black screen all that interesting, actually....") Hope you get a chance to see it.

Alok said...

this film hasn't released here yet and I am quite excited about it. Will definitely catch it when it arrives. Tristram Shandy is one book I absolutely love!

btw, you have got a fantastic name for yourself and your blog :)