Thursday, February 09, 2006

Hysterical, but not historical

I went to see Tristram Shandy on Sunday afternoon with Ross and Brette. It was really, really delightful. I especially loved the banter between Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon.

I'll confess first of all that I haven't always been a fan of Tristram Shandy. I've insisted that I prefer Joseph Andrews and Shamela for sheer weirdness and experimentation with genre conventions. One of the interests that's guiding my work in graduate school as I prepare my lists for my oral exams is the genre of the unfinished project in the Enlightenment and eighteenth century. What happens when an author can't, doesn't, or won't finish a project, when an author loses steam, dies, finds that the conventions of the genre s/he started working in don't work, cannibalizes unfinished work into a new project, finds that the project is too large to finish or not worth finishing, etc.? I've made headway into asking this question about Francis Bacon's Instauratio Magna, the universal language projects of the seventeenth century, revisions of critical editions of Shakespeare, dictionary and encyclopedia projects of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and a few other odd things. During the film, I was struck by the possibility of doing something with Tristram Shandy and the Tristrapaedia. I started re-reading and found this quotation from volume I, chapter XIV (compare it to Johnson's preface of the Dictionary):

...[W]hen a man sits down to write a history,---tho' it be but the history of Jack Hickathrift or Tom Thumb, he knows no more than his heels what lets and confounded hindrances he is to meet with in his way---or what a dance he may be led, by one excursion or another, before it is all over. Could a historiographer drive on his history, as a muleteer drives on his mule,--straight forward;----for instance, from Rome all the way to Loretto, without ever once turning his head aside either to the right hand or to the left,--he might venture to tell you to an hour when he should get to his journey's end;-----but the thing is, morally speaking, impossible: For if he is a man of the least spirit, he will have fifty deviations from a straight line to make with this or that aprty as he goes along, which he can no ways avoid. He will have views and prospects to himself perpetually soliciting his eye, whic he can no more help standing still to look at than he can fly; he will moreover have various
Accounts to reconcile:
Anecdotes to pick up:
Inscriptions to make out:
Stories to weave in:
Traditions to sift:
Personages to call upon:
Panygericks to paste up at this door:
Pasquinades at that:--All which both the man and his mule are quite exempt from. To sum up all, there are archives at every stage to be look'd into, and rolls, records, documents, and endless genealogies, which justice ever and anon calls him back to stay the reading of:--In short, there is no end of it;
...
These unforseen stoppages, which I own I had no conception of when I first set out;---but which, I am convinced now, will rather increase than diminish as I advance,---have struck out a hint which I am resolved to follow,---and that is,---not to be in a hurry,---but to go on leisurely, writing and publishing two volumes of my life every year;----which, if I am suffered to go on quietly, and can make a tolerable bargain with my bookseller, I shall continue as long as I live.

The movie is a fantastic imagining of all those digressions and more. I do take issue, though, with film reviewers' comments like this one about the odd format of the book:
"Tristram Shandy is of those rare works of literature that seem to have been written in the wrong century. Even as the modern form of the novel was being born, Sterne was already messing with it: stepping outside the narrative to address the reader, apologizing for 'losing' chapters that later showed up in their entirety, even including an all-black page to mourn the passing of one character and a blank page for the reader to fill in his own description of another."

Fooling around with genre conventions and print formatting isn't unique to the twentieth century. I'd say something like, "especially as the modern form of the novel was being born..." would you see so many experiments with conventions, characters, and print formats. It's telling that the character in the film who utters the line, "it's post-modern before there was anything modern to be post" hasn't read the book. I'm not surprised by Sterne's presence on the web site for Asterisk*, the Centre for the study of the development of narrative, and I appreciate the gestures to eighteenth-century print culture, but the evocation of Sterne seems ahistorical:
"In our present society, where information is increasingly fragmented and juxtaposed, where media are rapidly converging, and the distinction between creators, editors and audiences is often blurred, it is both exciting and reassuring to discover an ancestral voice that engaged with, and brilliantly foresaw, the challenges and extraordinary opportunities that our modern condition offers. ... Tristram Shandy is the direct antecedent of contemporary hypertextual and non linear, convergent media experiments."

I don't want to push this point too hard, but I'm wary of developmental narratives, where something always has to prefigure something else or foresee something else--and do they mean precedent instead of antecedent? What other narratives could one develop about experimentation in the novel? Check out Tristram Shandy Web, which leads to all sorts of cool stuff, including these image scans of the marbled pages from different first editions of the book.

My friend Emily came to visit from London this weekend, and when I told her about my interest in unfinished projects, she gushed about how I needed to see an episode of "Blackadder," "Ink and Incapability," immediately. By some stroke of luck, that episode came on BBC America this afternoon. In "Ink and Incapability," Blackadder's servant appears to burn the only copy of Samuel Johnson's Dictionary, only at the end of the episode to reveal that he actually burned a the only copy of Blackadder's novel. Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver and John Banville's The Newton Letter deal with Isaac Newton's crisis when his work was burned, though of course everything is more hilarious when Rowan Atkinson is involved. When Blackadder, Baldrick, and George try to rewrite the dictionary before Johnson finds out, they struggle over how to define 'a'--and they don't make much more progress, though George is fond of using onomatopoeia to define 'belching.' I hadn't ever seen "Blackadder" before, but I loved it (Hugh Laurie, who I love so much on "House," plays George; Rowan Atkinson plays Blackadder; and Robbie Coltrane plays Samuel Johnson). It's odd that Byron and Shelley show up fully Romantic in the episode, set in 1766, but it does lead to a great line, "There's nothing intellectual about wandering around Italy in a big shirt trying to get laid." I bet the whole third series of Blackadder set in the eighteenth century would be fun to watch along with Tristram Shandy.
Blogger a Reader on Thu Feb 09, 11:34:00 PM:
"There's nothing intellectual about wandering around Italy in a big shirt trying to get laid."

Damnit!

ps you are now bookmarked. You are my gods.
M
 
Anonymous Seth on Wed Sep 27, 10:52:00 PM:
"Jane Austen is the only man writing today...a huge Yorkshireman with a beard like a rhododendron." I have the lot on DVD. You can borrow'em if you like.