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Sterne, Laurence

tristram shandy life death

(Irish, 1713–68)

Born at Clonmel, Ireland, Sterne spent most of his life as a minor clergyman in North Yorkshire, writing only sermons and journalism. The suppression by church authorities of his Swiftian satire A Political Romance (1759) provided the impetus for Sterne's masterpiece, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1760–7), which greatly expanded the possibilities of fiction. Published serially in nine volumes, the novel was immediately both acclaimed and derided for its narrative eccentricities and scurrilous humour, and it made Sterne into a celebrity. Tristram Shandy can be read as an endlessly digressive and entertaining cock-and-bull story, but it is much more, playing games with narrative and the experience of reading. Tristram's life story from conception onwards is constantly interrupted, particularly by the author. A gallery of delightful characters are encountered: benevolent Uncle Toby, his servant Trim, blustering Dr Slop, the amorous Widow Wadman. Comical and sentimental episodes are interspersed with learned puns, mock scholarship, comments on time and mortality. The book's self-consciousness as fiction made it especially influential with twentieth-century writers, and it remains fun to read, albeit with now essential footnotes. Parson Yorick, whose death causes an entirely black page in Tristram Shandy, reappears as the narrator of A Sentimental Journey (1768), which is based on Sterne's own travels in France. In a burlesque of the Grand Tour, Yorick encounters squalor, pathos over the death of an ass, and sexual temptation.

Jonathan Swift, Flann O'Brien, Jaroslav Hašek, James Joyce  JS

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