Rediscover the World's Greatest Stories

Frank Lavallo hosts two readers and the three of them summarize the world’s greatest works of classic literature, giving their reactions along the way. If SparkNotes had an audio best friend, it would be us!

Listen on Apple Podcasts Listen on Spotify Listen on Pandora

“The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy” by Laurence Sterne

| S:7 E:6

S7 Ep 6

Host: Frank Lavallo

Readers: Elizabeth Flood and Phil Setnik

Author: Laurence Sterne

Year of Publication: 1759

Plot: A novel published in nine volumes, this extraordinary work of literature details the accounts of the four comical mishaps which shaped the course of Tristram Shandy’s life from an early age. Tristram’s life story is nothing short of a strange, eccentric, endlessly complex masterpiece.

Frank: Hello and welcome. I’m Frank Lavallo and this is Novel Conversations, a podcast about the world’s greatest stories. For each episode of Novel Conversations, I talk to two readers about one book; and together, we summarize the story for you. We introduce you to the characters, we tell you what happens to them, and we read from the book along the way. So, if you love hearing a good story, you’re in the right place.

This week's novel conversations is about the novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne and I’m joined by our Novel Conversations readers, Elizabeth Flood and Phil Setnik. Elizabeth, Phil. Welcome.

Elizabeth & Phil: Thank you. Thanks Frank.

Frank: And now onto our show. Before we start our conversation about today's novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, let me read a quick summary although I guess ‘summary’ is really not a good word for a novel that encompasses 600 pages.

Our novel written by Laurence Stern and published in a series of installments between 1759 and 1767, Tristram Shandy is both a fictionalized author of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy and the main character whose conception, birth, christening, and circumcision, form one of the major sequences of the narrative. The adult Tristram Shandy relate certain aspects of his family history, including some events that took place before his birth. In the Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, hid opinions we get in abundance; especially those about writers and writing and lawyers… actual details of his life though, we get much less.

Frank: Phil, before we start our discussion of Tristram Shandy the character, I want to talk about the form of the novel itself. This is not a very linearly structured novel, is it?

Phil: Not at all. I mean the title of the book is that the life and opinions so there's a lot of digression, there's a lot of tangents that Stern goes on, that don’t necessarily seem to make sense of the time, but then he revisits them in different forms throughout the book. And it all kind of comes together. But it's more like floating in an ocean and letting it wash over you as opposed to reading a progressive narrative. You just have to give yourself over to the narrative if you're going to get through the book.

Frank: Elizabeth, there’s actually two narratives going on in this story. One of the narratives, as we said, is the life of Tristram Shandy. But the author Tristram Shandy, is also giving us the life of his uncle.

Elizabeth: That's right. And maybe even a third because we get the story of him writing the book. He likes to talk often about how much work this is writing his book, and please bear with me in this how I'm going to do it…

Frank: Sure, the adult Tristram Shandy, who's writing this novel about his life and opinions doesn't really give us much of the story of his character Tristram Shandy. (Elizabeth: Right.) He gives us the story of him writing the story of Tristram Shandy.

Elizabeth: And I think he likes to focus so much on his Uncle too because he gets so much of his information about his early life and even before his life, from this Uncle, he so admires and thinks of equal to a father figure.

Frank: Phil for me it's very important that the novel is titled The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy. The popular novels of this time were all ‘the life and adventures’ of certainly the Adventures of Don Quixote; Henry Fielding's Tom Jones was the life and adventures of Tom Jones; Laurence Sterne, the author of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, really wanted to say something different. He didn't want the life and adventures. He wanted the life and opinions and we get a lot of opinions.

Phil: Yeah, I think in a lot of ways he's lampooning the novel. The current form of the novel, there are points in the book, where he makes references to certain conventions in the novel of that time and mocks them a little bit.

Frank: Yes, frequent references to some of the novels of the time, as I said, he mentions Don Quixote a lot. He mentions the novel Candide. He also mentions John Locke's work on human understanding. So, he brings in a lot of literary references but, as you said, I think to lampoon them a little bit; to show up some of their shortcomings. Elizabeth, would it be fair to call this a Don Quixote Without Swords and windmills?

Elizabeth: Oh, that's good yeah. Yeah, at some points you wonder, where is he going and why is he doing this? Then you find yourself laughing.

Phil: I mean I think it's even more novel of his mind and imagination than Don Quixote was. I mean this is such a free associative novel that it makes Don Quixote look mainstream.

Frank: I know in some of our earlier talks you compared this book favorably to James Joyce's Ulysses, certainly the beginnings of free associations and stream of consciousness are seen in this novel.

Phil: Yeah. It's a book that you can reread and certainly get different meanings from and you could probably reread this book 10 times and I'd be a different book. And I think part of that is because each little scene or sequence that he digresses on could be its own standalone piece; which are great in and of themselves. You just have to be able to give yourself over to that… otherwise you'll go crazy.

Frank: There really is no plot line to follow in this novel.

Elizabeth: No. And it took me a while to surrender to that.

Frank: But there are plot points in this novel, are there not? (Elizabeth: Yes.)

Break #1

OUT: And what I like to do now take a break and when we get back, we’ll pull out those plot points and form them into some sort of linear narrative. So, our listeners will understand a little bit about the story that we do get from this novel. Right now, you’re listening to Novel Conversations. We’ll be right back.

IN: And we’re back. You are listening to Novel Conversations. I'm your host Frank Lavallo. Today I'm having a conversation about the novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne and I’m joined in conversation today by Elizabeth Flood and Phil Setnik. Alright, before we took a break, I wanted to dive into the plot points of this novel.

As we said, there's the story of Tristram Shandy, his birth and some of his life. There's a story of his Uncle Toby and a few of the events in his life. And then, as you said, there's probably a third narrative of the writer, Tristram Shandy, and how he's going about writing this novel of his life. So, pull out these plot points and form them into some sort of linear narrative. This way our listeners will understand a little bit about the story that we do get from this novel.

Frank: So, let's start. Unlike Charles Dickens and David Copperfield - I don't know if you remember David Copperfield - but that novel starts ‘I am born.’ Tristram Shandy and Laurence Sterne start their novel even sooner than that… they start in the egg.

Phil: Yeah. He starts the book with his conception. It's an interesting digression he makes about how when you are being conceived, everything that is happening at that point affects how you're born and what kind of person you become, which is really very funny.

Frank: And it's the story of his conception that he telling us… (Phil: Yep.) What is the story of his conception and how has it been passed to him?

Elizabeth: It is a very funny story and Tristan learns this through his Uncle Toby… how his father is a creature of such habits that he is known to wind the clock every first Sunday night of every month. And this is also the occasion that he takes his wife to bed. (Frank: Also, on the first Sunday of every month…) to get these two items on his task list completed and out of the way. And this particular night his wife interrupts the act of conception to ask him, ‘Have you wound the clock?’ And that has completely interrupted his train of thought and thereby set the course of Tristan's life any unfortunate beginning.

Frank: That's right. Walter, Tristam’s father, is such a creature of habit that just one little remark by his wife completely throws him off his game.

Phil: Yeah. In fact, the quote is, “Good God! Did ever woman since the creation of the world, interrupt a man with such a silly question?”

Frank: And really, this is the first example we get of Walter's crazy philosophical beliefs and how they tend to color his view of the world; and of course, then come to color Tristram’s view of the world.

Phil: Yeah, Walter Shandy believes that because he was so frustrated at Tristam's moment of conception, that this is then going to affect Tristam’s entire life and how he has raised and who he is as a person, really.

Frank: That's right. Tristam and his father Walter believe, it is from this moment on that Tristam’s life of misfortune began. He was ill conceived.

Phil: Yeah and I think that really sets the tone for the book and the kind of satire that we're gonna be dealing with. Not only because it's a kind of a ridiculous situation, but when you think about it, it could be believable… which is what makes it so funny and satirical.

Frank: But Elizabeth, that's only the first strike against Tristram Shandy. The next strike is soon to follow… Not only has he been ill conceived, now he's about to be ill formed at birth, as well.

Elizabeth: Yes, at birth. It's so unfortunate. It's a comedy of errors. Downstairs we have the father and the uncle and the doctor and the attendants arguing upstairs. Mrs. Shandy is in a very difficult labour; and the midwife and the nurse and everybody is injuring themselves.

Frank: But there's actually a funny little priest story as to why Tristram Shandy’s mother is at home having this birth with a midwife and not safe in London with a doctor. This is one of the digressions that we get from Tristram Shandy as he's starting to tell us the story of his life. He hasn't even been born yet and already we're taking a trip to London.

Elizabeth: I find this hysterical… He shares with us the legal document of their marriage. (Frank: Marriage of his mother and father…) it’s a marriage license I think he calls it but it's really like a prenuptial agreement, where upon they agree, how they will be handling the birth of their children and their trips to London. (Frank: What is that agreement?) They agree that should she become pregnant they can't go to the big city to see the doctor that she prefers in London and receive the best medical care. The catch being…

Should she ever take them to the city for a false alarm pregnancy then Mr. Shandy has the right to say, on the next occasion, he's going to require them to stay at home which is an amazingly detailed prenuptial agreement - which is part of the satire I think.

Frank: All right but let's get back to Mrs. Shandy upstairs in the bedroom with the midwife. Apparently not only has Tristram been ill conceived, he's now having trouble being born.

Phil: Yes, the midwife is upstairs and she's having problems. I think it's a breach birth and the menfolk are downstairs Uncle Toby, Walter Shandy, and Dr Slop. And Dr slop has this newfangled medical device called forceps. He tries them out on Uncle Toby's fist and winds up skinning Uncle Toby's fist. And the funny thing is that they decide to use them anyway to aid in Tristam’s birth which lead to Tristam’s broken nose.

Elizabeth: The situation is just so funny… as you read, this the poor woman's attended now by maybe six people total… they're cutting their fingers, they're falling down and bruising their hips, and using this faulty forecep device, yanking Tristam out, they can’t whether it’s his head or his butt… they can’t tell up from down… it’s really a big debacle.

Frank: Well what is the final result of this comedy of errors?

Elizabeth: Well the poor baby is finally born with a broken nose and you might even add another strike against the poor kid. Not only was he ill-conceived and now ill-born but the father has always had a terrible paranoia of short noses in his family, anyway. So now this even compounds an unfortunate physical appearance to his son.

Frank: You know Elizabeth I'm glad you brought up the story about his paranoia with the noses because we should really tell our listeners that throughout the story that we're telling them, we're getting a lot of as we call them, digressions. When they introduced a midwife, we then get her entire backstory in history. He spends 25 pages telling us about the midwife. He then introduces Dr. Slop and we get another digression we get another 25 pages. So really between the time of his ill conception and the time of his birth we've gone through almost 150 pages and three volumes of our novel already.

Elizabeth: And that's why it's hard to describe because there really is so much and there's also so little and it's hard to explain how funny it is because it does take him, sometimes, a little while to get there.

Frank: All right. But finally, as we said a hundred and fifty-two hundred pages into our novel he's been conceived. He's finally been born. Now the next big event in his life he needs to be named. And again, we get a comedy of errors.

Phil: They think Tristram is dying because he's turning blue. (Frank: Well he's had a hard birth.) Yeah, he's had a very hard birth and so he's turning blue and they're afraid that he's going to die before he's baptized so they have to come up with a name very quickly. And Walter Shandy, the father, has been debating a name and comes up with Tresmegastas which is a ridiculously grand name and he thinks it's going to offset the fact that Tristram has had such a hard birth; but in the rush to baptize him they just call him Tristram.

Frank: But the father knows this is coming… when he gives the maid the name. He says, ‘Oh Susanna you're a leaky vessel and some of this will spill out.’ And so then of course she runs upstairs and instead of remembering the whole name all she can come up with is Tristam.

Elizabeth: And it's so unfortunate because the father, as he is known to have all these grand philosophies and theories of life, and the way it should be, had even written an essay about the unfortunate state of the name, Tristram. He did not like that name.

Frank: You know I'm glad you brought up the father's philosophies because it's right about this time that in our novel, the concept of hobby horses is brought up…

Phil: Yeah. In fact, early on, Tristram goes on a tangent about hobby horses… (Frank: …another tangent.) Yeah. And he talks a little bit about the necessity of hobby horses; how every man has his own hobby horse that he rides that he uses that he obsesses over in his life. There’s a quote here, he says, “Sir, have not the wisest of men in all ages not accepting Solomon himself, have they not had their hobby horses, coins cockle shell, drums, trumpets, fiddles palettes...” And it goes on in a lengthy description.

Frank: Now, Elizabeth I know you looked up the word hobby horses in the dictionary.

Elizabeth: I did, because he brings this up so often. Not only is it the model of the horse's head on a stick. (Frank: That's the first definition.) Yes, that children will ride around on… but the later definition is a favorite hobby or a topic with which one is obsessed. A fixation. And that is how he described so many of these funny characters. They all have their obsessions and that makes them so crazy.

Frank: And that's the connection I made when you talked about Tristram Shandy’s father Walter, and his philosophizing and how he felt it was so important to be conceived in the right way, to be named the right name. That was sort of his hobby horse.

Elizabeth: It is. He is so obsessed with sometimes the thinking of the occasion he misses the occasion.

Frank: That is a great point. We'll come back to hobbyhorses and talk a little bit more about them as they relate to Tristram Shandy, and of course Uncle Toby, has we'd say the biggest hobbyhorse in the novel. So, we’ll definitely will come back and talk about both of them. But now let's move on… Tristram Shandy is now not only ill conceived, ill born, he's now ill named. He's about to have one more tragedy befall him and then he's really going to disappear from our novel and this has taken us 400 pages to get here.

Phil, you wanna tell me about that last tragedy that befalls?

Phil: No, I'd rather not talk about that Frank…

Frank: You wanna pass that one onto Elizabeth for now?

Phil: Yeah, it's a very painful passage to read actually. He's accidentally circumcised by a window sash.

Frank: Elizabeth, how the heck did that happen?

Elizabeth: Well, he's at the window with Susanna, the maid, and the window falls. He's standing too close. (Frank: He's being held too close.) Yes and he brushes this off has to say, ‘I didn't lose but two drops of blood.’ It really wasn't that big of a deal but poor Susanna has been scarred for life. She runs from the house. She can't go back in. There's tremendous arguments and now the whole town believes this child is so ill formed. So, they solve this problem by putting him into adult pants…

Frank: … and really, he becomes an adult in our novel. (Elizabeth: That’s it.) We never meet the young Tristram again. (Elizabeth: No.) The next stories we really have after we get some of Uncle Toby's story is Tristan travelling through France. (Elizabeth: That's right.) And basically, that's where part 1 of this novel ends. We've gotten the life of Tristram Shandy up to this point and now it takes another abrupt digression and we move into Uncle Toby's story and that really takes the rest of the book - the last hundred and fifty, two hundred pages or so…

Break #2

OUT: But we'll take a break here and when we come back that's when we'll talk about Uncle Toby's life. And we also want to talk about Uncle Toby's hobbyhorse probably the largest hobbyhorse in this novel. But right now, you're listening to Novel Conversations

I'm your host Frank Cavallo, we’ll be right back.

IN: Welcome back. I'm your host Frank Lavallo and today I'm having a conversation about the novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy written by Laurence Sterne.

All right before we took our break, we wrapped up the first part of our narrative the story of Tristram Shandy and his very early misfortunes. Now, just like in the novel, we're gonna take a digression and talk about his Uncle Toby, practically the entire last third of the novel is Uncle Toby's story. Phil, do you want to tell us about Uncle Toby?

Phil: Yeah, I love Uncle Toby. He's the most tragic and funny character in that whole book, I think. His story is centered around his military career and the wound he received at the Battle of war (?). And how his whole life then becomes about reenacting that battle and healing from his wound.

Frank: What was that wound?

Phil: A groin wound. (Elizabeth: Another unfortunate wound!)

Phil: Yeah. So, in order to overcome this and heal himself he becomes obsessed with recreating this battle.

Frank: Elizabeth how does he recreate that battle?

Elizabeth: While he is healing, his aide suggests that they recreate this battle and he becomes obsessed with the idea and it grows and grows. He eventually sets the whole yard area into the troops and the barricades and everything that is involved with the battles itself.

Frank: It becomes like the Civil War enactments. He's going to reenact the entire battle that caused his wound. (Elizabeth: Even while the war is continuing.)

Frank: That's right. And Phil, this becomes his hobbyhorse.

Phil: Yeah, he definitely is obsessed with recreating it, to the most minute detail, along with his manservant Corporal Trim.

Frank: But of course, they never get to the reenactment of the wound. We never actually find out how he was wounded, do we?

Elizabeth: No, and when the war ends and he announces to his aide, ‘We will now retreat to England,’ he says, ‘Sir we're already there.’

Frank: I've got to tell you that these scenes really stay funny. They never become pathetic. They stay funny and satirical. (Elizabeth: They’re really funny.) Now, what's the rest of Uncle Toby's story? Doesn't it become enamored with the widow Wadham.

Elizabeth: Yes, the neighbor has observed the making of this reenactment. She's fallen in love with him. He's unaware of it for quite some time. Eventually, she almost tricks him into looking at her. She says she has something in her eye.

Phil: Yeah. She occasionally comes out to the reenactment site and casually bumps into Uncle Toby in order to seduce him, while feigning interest in the reenactment site.

Frank: Elizabeth, is this going to be a Shandy who finally has a successful moment?

Elizabeth: No, it's quite sad. (Frank: What happens?) Well, Uncle Toby and his assistant agree they're going to win the favors of the widow and her assistant and they set out to win their affections. She finally asks him about his wound… (Frank: … and there's a rumor in town about this wound.)

Phil: Yeah, there's a rumor that Uncle Toby's impotent and when she asks him, ‘where were you injured?’, she wants to know if he can ever have children. He wants to show her exactly where he was wounded on his map.

Frank: So, there's another comedy of errors!

Phil: And it's also very funny that Uncle Toby and his manservant turn this into a military campaign; and the use of military language and the seduction is really, really funny. And eventually they think they've conquered these women. But in the end, they don't.

Elizabeth: Because he never really tells her exactly how and where he's wounded and explains to her if they can be married and have a family together, so she gives up on him.

Frank: And essentially, that's where our novel ends. Instead of with a bang, it ends with a groin injury.

Phil: Which is apropos for the entire book.

Frank: And again, we should tell our listeners, the story of the Widow Wadham is another one of these digressive stories that are peppered throughout this novel, where Laurence Sterne - through his author Tristram Shandy - takes 35, 40 pages to tell us the story about this widow. That story really has nothing to do with the life or opinions of Tristram Shandy; tangentially it has a bit to do with the life of Uncle Toby. But it's just one more story… just like we get the story of the midwife, the story of the parson, the story of Dr. Slop. We get these full character studies and yet they don't really have too much to do with what is essentially a plotless novel.

Phil: But you do get a sense of who Tristram Shandy is through these people because he himself has his hobbyhorse which is, this book. Telling of his life. That he is in fact very much like all of these people who have their own hobby horses.

Frank: Sounds like what you're saying is, that these stories that I'm willing to dismiss as digressions, really are somewhat important to our novel. They need to be there even though they seem to us on first reading to be interruptions.

Phil: Yes, like Walter Shandy has a digression within Tristram Shandy’s digression. So, there's all these levels to the book that work. And I think that's what makes it so interesting and readable…

Elizabeth: … and funny… he goes off on a digression of how Uncle Toby won't hurt a fly. He catches a fly at dinner and opens the window and lets him go. And then later on Uncle Toby's reenacting a war. But it's a fake war. He's not actually out in battle. So, it does tell you a little bit more about the character and makes it a funnier read.

Frank: One of the funny digressions for me is the story of the parson. The parson his last name is York. And through our novel we're led to believe that this is the great-great great-descendant of Shakespeare's, York. And it does add to the novel. Maybe it doesn't add to the narrative but clearly it adds to our story.

Elizabeth: And that's on his headstone, ‘Alas poor York.’

Phil: That's actually one of my favorite parts of the book. The dying scene with York which is really funny and actually very sad… you know within this comedy, there is a lot of tragedy. That's what makes it so funny. This is funny because there's tragedy interspersed within a lot of these comic pieces.

Frank: And even though we attempted to try to pull out the narratives within this novel and try to make them somewhat linear; the fact that they're not linear, the fact that all these other stories do get involved in our main story, really does complete the novel.

Elizabeth: And that’s why a second read is really helpful. You can enjoy it so much more and find much more of the humor.

Phil: Yeah absolutely. There were just little gems throughout the entire novel. Not only describing his life, but the opinions really are both ridiculous and oftentimes insightful.

Frank: I'm glad you mentioned Tristam Shandy’s opinions because as Elizabeth said I think that's our third narrative line, is what Tristram Shandy the author, is saying to us through his book. Obviously, we're not getting too much about his life. We do get plenty of his opinions… his opinions about lawyers, his opinions about doctors, and certainly his opinion about writing and writers. So, let's pick up with that. He isn't Tristram Shandy’s hobbyhorse, writing and writers?

Phil: Yeah. Actually, this book is his hobby horse. And throughout the course of the book he engages you in a conversation. And he tells you that he's gonna be going on digressions and asks you to forgive him and explains away some of his rambling in certain ways.

Frank: These are conversations he's having with you the reader, as the author, Tristam Shandy.

Phil: Yeah. He also goes into everything's fair game. He chooses this topic and then plums it satirically until it's over and then goes back to the narrative, and says, ‘Now I'm gonna go back and tell you what we were talking about before.’

Frank: Right, before I interrupted you to tell you about the midwife; and her license or before I interrupted you to tell you about the prenuptial agreement between the parents; he gives us twenty-five pages of the prenuptial agreement… I think he had to comment om the writers, the lawyers, of these prenuptial agreements and these licenses.

Elizabeth: And I enjoy when he breaks to talk to you, the reader, he refers to the reader as Madam or Sir or Your Honor, and it is different each time. So, he's supposing a different person is reading each time. He'll often say, ‘What didn't you catch that we'll go back and reread that chapter.’

Frank: … and not only that but he also reminds you of where he was. He warns you that he's going to take a digression now, but he'll come back to it. At one point, I think he tells you, ‘I'm sorry that I'm taking this digression, don't blame me, blame my pen. I don't know where it's going.’

Phil: Yeah. He also really mocks the style of the day. And if you read novels from around this period, a lot of the paragraphs begin with… ‘if it pleases the reader’ or ‘dear and gentle reader.’ (Frank: Right.) And so, you know, as he is addressing the reader, he really trusts the reader, and he's really making fun of that whole convention of addressing the reader. And maybe he thought it was kind of a condescending way.

Frank: And I think that's one of the reasons we have that quick little story about his trip to France. He doesn't really want to tell us about France. He wants to mock the travel writing of the day. In fact, I have a quote here from Tristram Shandy:

“Now, before I quit Kalay, a travel writer would say, it would not be amiss to give some account of it…” And he goes on to say… “Now, I think it's very much a myth that a man cannot go quietly through a town and let it alone when it does not meddle with him but that he must be turning about and drawing his pen at every candle he crosses.” End quote.

Phil: There is a point to where he is talking about writing and he says, quote: “It's even more pardonable to trespass against truth than beauty.” You know these little small details are what make this book readable.

Frank: Another one for me that works very well is at the beginning of volume five. He has two quotes at the beginning of the volume one is a quote from Erasmus, and I think one is a quote from Ovid. And then right when he starts the chapter, he complains about authors who borrow quotes from other authors.

Elizabeth and Phil: (laughing) Yeah that's great. That’s a good one.

Elizabeth: He also observes in their travels as they pass these herds and herds of donkeys; he says, “Did you think the world itself Sir had contained such a number of Jack Asses?” But he does not use it as one word. He actually capitalizes the J and the A and then goes on to of course satirize attorneys, doctors, men and women in their relationships, travel writing and other writing. I think he's really saying… everybody's ridiculous.

Phil: I mean there's points where he says, here are the rules, I know the rules, but I don't really care. At times I'm going to tell you that these are the rules, but I'm not going to always follow them, and I'm gonna basically do whatever I want.

Elizabeth: And he does do whatever he wants. He skips chapter numbers and then he will remind you ‘I skipped a chapter there because you weren't ready to hear that tale yet. But I'll tell you what would have been in that chapter, had I written it.’ And something is not appropriate to be told, he uses rows and rows of asterisks to let you fill in the blanks.

Frank: Another quote of his is, “The more I write, the more I have to write.”

Break #3

OUT: But you know what Elizabeth, Phil before we use up all our favorite lines and passages from the novel let's take a break here and then when we come back, I want to know what made this a book worth reading for you. And then we'll get to some more of our favorite moments and passages. You're listening to Novel Conversations. We’ll be right back.

IN: Welcome back to Novel Conversations. I'm your host Frank Lavallo. And today I'm having a conversation about the novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne. Ok, let’s move into our last segment and what I'd like from you both now, is what made this book worth reading for you?

Phil: One of the things that we've touched on but haven't talked a lot about… this is a great book about family. And it's about how they've all come to form this one character and influence Tristram Shandy; and how family coexists. We all know that all families are kind of crazy in their own way… (Frank: And this family clearly was crazy in their own way.) Mm hmm yeah. The satire is great, but I think the heart of it is that it's a story about a family.

Frank: Elizabeth what made this book worth reading for you?

Elizabeth: Despite the lengthy nature of the novel, I had no idea that it was going to be so involved or have the uniqueness that it did. So, it was a nice surprise for me.

Frank: Certainly, the structure of this novel makes it challenging to read… but the stories, and what Lawrence Stern actually had to say, makes it very enjoyable.

Phil: There's so much wisdom and insight in this book. You have to think about it and think, ‘Was is he being funny or is he not being funny?’ But it really doesn't matter because it affects you in a way that's fairly deep. And he throws it in with the satire which makes the satire even more satirical and which makes the insights even more insightful.

Elizabeth: So there's this constant play between all those elements that are really quite brilliant, I think very funny, and some great observations of men and women at the time which I enjoyed to see.

Frank: For me, what makes this a book worth reading is the satire. It's the spoofing and the parody; of lawyers and their documents; of doctors and their newfangled inventions; of philosophers and their hobby horses; and clearly of writers… the amount of satire on the writing of the day and the popular novels of the day…. For me just made it very, very enjoyable to read.

Elizabeth: Absolutely. And the military and the war and their battles and they're formalities.

Frank: All right. Obviously, this is a 600-page book. We've mentioned there's lots of characters some of which we did not get a chance to mention. Lots and lots of great moments of parody and insight. But Phil do you have another moment that you want to share with us?

Phil: I do. And this is a very funny book but there's also a lot of tragedy in it and this struck me as a beautiful scene. And this is the death scene of Parson York presumably the descendant of Shakespeare's York where Euginia, his servant, comes to visit him on his deathbed. And the quote is: “A few hours before Yorik breathed his last, Eugenia stepped in with an intent to take his last sight and last farewell of him, upon his drawing and York's curtain and asking how he felt himself. York looking up in his face took hold of his hand and after thanking him for the many tokens of his friendship to him, for which he said, if it was their fate to meet hereafter he would thank him again and again he told him he was within a few hours of giving his enemies the slip forever.” End quote.

Frank: That is a good line.

Phil: I just think that's a beautiful description of dying… his enemies the slip forever.

Frank: Elizabeth. Do you have a line or moment you want to share with us?

Elizabeth: I do. I enjoyed so much the tricks he would play on us as readers. I find myself often saying, ‘Oh he got me again.’ I believed him for this and then he led me somewhere else… in particular… he opens a chapter saying, “I wish I could write a chapter upon sleep…” and now I think that's so funny because he's asleep of course, how can he write this? But he actually succeeds in doing so. He goes on to say, “It's a fine subject and yet as I find as it is… I would undertake to write a dozen chapters upon button holes.” He goes off a little bit more. He describes minutia of clothing and sleep and at the end of the chapter he says “… and so much for sleep.” And he's actually done it. (Frank: He went to sleep.) That is a short chapter, but it is funny. He's done it. Those are the small little things you enjoy. Even though we've talked about how he'll take 25 pages to describe something to us… you get all the little treats in there along the way.

Frank: You have to read the pages in between.

Elizabeth: You do. So, Frank do you have a favorite chapter?

Frank: I'm glad you asked Elizabeth. In fact, I do have a couple lines here I want to read and actually this is Tristram Shandy, the author again, talking to us as his readers. And this is very very early on… chapter six… and he's telling us what to expect. The quote is: “

“You must have a little patience. I have undertaken, you see, to write not only my life but my opinions also; hoping and expecting that your knowledge of my character, and of what kind of immortal I am, would give you a better relish for the other. As you proceed further with me, the slight acquaintance which is now beginning betwixt us will grow into familiarity and that, unless one of us is at fault, will terminate in friendship.” End quote. And I think this did terminate in friendship. I struggled a little bit with the reading at the beginning myself and then I read it a second time. First time, I just sort of took it all in, the second time I put the pieces together and formed it into a novel in my mind. And absolutely I have made a friendship with Laurence Sterne and with Tristram Shandy.

Elizabeth: I remember reading that and liking it. He says we'll be friends…

Frank: … and if neither of us are at fault, we'll come out friends at the end. And certainly, I did. I hope you guys did as well.

Elizabeth: Absolutely. Phil: Absolutely. I feel like I go back and read this again.

Frank: Ok, I think that’ll end our conversation today about the Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy. I want to thank my guests today Elizabeth and Phil.

Elizabeth: Thanks so much for having us!

Phil: Thanks Frank, I loved this book discussion.

Frank: You are welcome, it was a pleasure. Thanks again, Elizabeth and Phil. You’ve been listening to Novel Conversations.

View Less

Recent Episodes

View All

Season 7 Blooper Reel

Novel Conversations
Another epic outtake reel featuring Host, Frank Lavallo, and Readers, Elizabeth Flood, Phil Setnik, Peter Toomey & Katie Smith as they blunder and...
Listen to Season 7 Blooper Reel

“1984” by George Orwell

Novel Conversations | S:7 E:8
S7 Ep 8: A summary of Orwell’s wildly popular dystopian novel that explores, with great suspense, a totalitarian and surveillance society....
Listen to “1984” by George Orwell

“A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court” by Mark Twain

Novel Conversations | S:7 E:7
S7 Ep 7: Mark Twain’s unique genre-mashing novel follows a modern man through time… From Connecticut to Camelot....
Listen to “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court” by Mark Twain

“The Tenth Man” by Graham Greene

Novel Conversations | S:7 E:5
S7 Ep 5: A short novel by British novelists, Graham Greene, explores the consequences of a wartime decimation order....
Listen to “The Tenth Man” by Graham Greene