First Lines: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy
November 1, 2009 1 Comment
Laurence Sterne’s ironical work of fiction, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, was first published in 1759. It baffled and intrigued Sterne’s contemporaries. You may feel the same way after reading the opening sentence:
I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had duly considered how much depended upon what they were then doing;—that not only the production of a rational Being was concerned in it, but that possibly the happy formation and temperature of his body, perhaps his genius and the very cast of his mind;—and, for aught they knew to the contrary, even the fortunes of his whole house might take their turn from the humours and dispositions that were then uppermost;—Had they duly weighed and considered all this, and proceeded accordingly,—I am verily persuaded that I should have made a quite different figure in the world, from that in which the reader is likely to see me.
You may wonder, “Does this start bode well for the rest of the book?” My copy runs to 526 pages. In 116 words, the loquacious Tristram says practically nothing. And yet, this sentence lies at the threshold of an acknowledged classic in literary fiction. What is of interest in this sentence is its vacuity, the very fact that it says nothing of interest.
Still not convinced? Well, then, did I mention that there’s also a film adaptation?
The description on the back cover reports that Laurence Sterne’s work is “impossible to categorize.” That may be so. But it is not alone in whatever general category it belongs. Another that I recommend is the Italian novel by Italo Svevo called Confessions of Zeno (1923).