From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Laurence Sterne (November 24, 1713 – March 18, 1768) was an Irish-born English novelist best-known for his novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, adapted for film in the early 2000s by Michael Winterbottom as A Cock and Bull Story. He is counted (with Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding and Tobias Smollett) as the most important writer of 18th century English literature.
Sterne's early writing life was unremarkable. He wrote letters, had two ordinary sermons published (in 1747 and 1750), and tried his hand at satire. He was involved in, and wrote about, local politics in 1742. His major publication prior to Tristram Shandy was the satire A Political Romance (1759), aimed at conflicts of interest within York Minster. A posthumously published piece on the art of preaching, A Fragment in the Manner of Rabelais, appears to have been written in 1759. Sterne did not begin work on Tristram Shandy until he was 46 years old.
Sterne is best known for his novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, for which he became famous not only in England, but throughout Europe. Translations of the work began to appear in all the major European languages almost upon its publication, and Sterne influenced European writers as diverse as Diderot and the German Romanticists. His work had also noticeable influence over Brazilian author Machado de Assis, who made exceptional (and outstandingly original) usage of the digressive technique in the masterful novel Epitaph for a Small Winner. Indeed, the novel, in which Sterne manipulates narrative time and voice, parodies accepted narrative form, and includes a healthy dose of "bawdy" humor, was largely dismissed in England as being too corrupt. Samuel Johnson's verdict in 1776 was that "Nothing odd will do long. Tristram Shandy did not last." This is strikingly different from the views of European critics of the day, who praised Sterne and Tristram Shandy as innovative and superior. Voltaire called it "clearly superior to Rabelais", and later Goethe praised Sterne as "the most beautiful spirit that ever lived." Both during his life and for a long time after, efforts were made by many to reclaim Sterne as an arch-sentimentalist; parts of Tristram Shandy, such as the tale of Le Fever, were excerpted and published separately to wide acclaim from the moralists of the day. The success of the novel and its serialized nature also allowed many imitators to publish pamphlets concerning the Shandean characters and other Shandean-related material even while the novel was yet unfinished.
The novel itself is difficult to describe. The story starts with the narration, by Tristram, of his own conception. It proceeds by fits and starts, but mostly by what Sterne calls "progressive digressions" so that we do not reach Tristram's birth before the third volume. The novel is rich in characters and humor, and the influences of Rabelais and Cervantes are present throughout. The novel ends after 9 volumes, published over a decade, but without anything that might be considered a traditional conclusion. Sterne inserts sermons, essays and legal documents into the pages of his novel; and he explores the limits of typography and print design by including marbled pages and, most famously, an entirely black page within the narrative. Many of the innovations that Sterne introduced, adaptations in form that should be understood as an exploration of what constitutes the novel, were highly influential to Modernist writers like James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, and more contemporary writers such as Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace. Italo Calvino referred to Tristram Shandy as the "undoubted progenitor of all avant-garde novels of our century." The Russian Formalist writer Viktor Shklovsky regarded Tristram Shandy as the archetypal, quintessential novel, of which all other novels are mere subsets: "Tristram Shandy is the most typical novel of world literature."
However, the leading critical opinions of Tristram Shandy tend to be markedly polarised in their evaluations of its significance. Since the 1950s, following the lead of D.W. Jefferson, there are those who argue that, whatever its legacy of influence may be, Tristram Shandy in its original context actually represents a resurgence of a much older, Renaissance tradition of "Learned Wit" - owing a debt to such influences as the Scriblerian approach.
A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy is a less influential book, although it was better received by English critics of the day. The book has many stylistic parallels with Tristram Shandy, and indeed, the narrator is one of the minor characters from the earlier novel. Although the story is more straightforward, A Sentimental Journey can be understood to be part of the same artistic project to which Tristram Shandy belongs.
Two volumes of Sterne's Sermons were published during his lifetime; more copies of his Sermons were sold in his lifetime than copies of Tristram Shandy, and for a while he was better known in some circles as a preacher than as a novelist. The sermons though are conventional in both style and substance. Several volumes of letters were published after his death, as was Journal to Eliza, a more sentimental than humorous love letter to a woman Sterne was courting during the final years of his life. Compared to many eighteenth century authors Sterne's body of work is quite small.