A Cock and Bull Review
There are some things that, after long absences from the current vogue, just keep coming back. The belief that bread products are good for you. Art that looks like recognizable objects in the world. Yes, in the fullness of time, even pants that cover our bellybuttons will entice shoppers once more. Call them the phoenixes of the style world. Call it, Seussically, the Sneetches Syndrome--today we like stars upon ours, tomorrow we scorn stars upon thars. So it is with books. Hemingway might be a bit done through for our generation. Let him cool his heels another decade. Maybe Tennyson is so out, he's in. Like anything else, styles of writing come and go, then come again.
Tristram Shandy's glory days, I believe, are here once more. Written serially by Laurence Sterne in the 1760s, Tristram Shandy launched guerrilla warfare on the novel before the genre was even old enough to fight back. Though a novel itself, it attacks in a hundred sly ways the novel's penchant for intellectualizing and aestheticizing reality, its at least conditional or partial trust in a narrator, and its need to tame the chaos of life into penetrable motives and logical consequences. It is also about two hundred thousand words long, utterly absurd, and perhaps one of the funniest books in the English language. Immensely popular in its day, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman had become something of a museum curiosity, the bane of English majors, and the fetish of literary weirdoes ever since.
However, maybe the taste for the verbal grotesque has returned once more. By grotesque, I mean that excrescences and flourishes of form both obscure the original form and compete with function for our attention. Think of the frame of a Rococo mirror, for example, or the tympanum of Gaudi's Sagrada Familia church in Barcelona . Today we have the postmodern overstuffed novel à la Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which like Tristram Shandy interrupts prose altogether for blank pages, pictures, and non sequitur asides. There's the "bizarre" and "obsessive" "writerly authority" of the David Foster Wallace school (cf. "Grammar and Authenticity," HBR VII:2). The purposeful aimlessness of n + 1. And, of course, the hallowed ground reserved in any college course catalog for granddaddies of the grotesque James Joyce-- Ulysses, like Shandy, bends genres, voices, languages, and rules of space and time like pretzel dough--and, more recently, Vladimir Nabokov--whose completely wacky and compelling Pale Fire turns an annotated poem into an explosive tangle of madness and surreality. (It also takes its fictitious country name, Zembla, from Tristram's discourse on geography.)
Tristram poses as a first-person bildungsroman, but the bildungs gets bottlenecked--it takes a few volumes before Tristram is born, and both the narrator and the reader are too exhausted after a fifth of a million words to follow Tristram through to adulthood. This year's film Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, by Michael Winterbottom, seeks to capitalize on both the mythic unreadability and exuberant self-indulgence of the original book. Called a "movie within a movie within a movie," Tristram Shandy mock-documents the comic disaster of a period-film adaptation of the novel. Winterbottom's closely nested confluence of realities (and unrealities) aims for the grotesque sensibility of both Sterne's time and our own.
Just as modes of storytelling dive and resurface in literary history, so too do modes of reading and comprehension. For nearly as long as we've been able to read, humanity has speculated on how to do it more intelligently. Some ancient and Renaissance scholars advocated reading any text multiple times in different ways: beginning to end to "get the gist," backwards to understand the individual words, middle to end to beginning to middle to understand the individual thoughts regardless of overall progression, and beginning to end to put the whole darn thing together again. Medievalists memorized what they read in order to build a fixed mental warehouse of compartmentalized idea storage. Nabokov, who took Shandy 's Nova Zembla and ran it wonderfully amuck, argued: "Although we read with our minds, the seat of artistic delight is between the shoulder blades. That little shiver behind is quite certainly the highest form of emotion" produced by human creativity.
By contrast, the bulk of Harvard education aims to nudge our reader response mechanism up the spinal cord and into the brain. Expos teaches freshmen to read and respond with an eye for argument. Two Core areas have "Reasoning" in the title; a third, "Analysis." This is not necessarily because "feeling" doesn't count, but because it's hard to teach. It's hard to explain why Tristram Shandy is good bad writing, why intentionally shoddy prose is so much more delightful than its unintentional cousins, or why it is absurd to fault Tristram Shandy for breaking 21 of 43 rules in Strunk and White's Elements of Style . The most we can do is explain the explainable: what makes Tristram's conception scene comic, for example, or what Sterne's beef with the Enlightenment was.
Here at HBR, we occasionally debate the purpose of reviewing a book. Is it to provide SparkNotes-style ersatz erudition, making readers feel well read without the requisite time and energy that involves? Is it to infect others with our own tastes? Is it pure performance? Or are we teaching people how to read? Most editors agree it's a bit of all four reasons, and mostly the last one. I have no idea what my goals are in reviewing--other than an avoidance of stupidity--but teaching to read hardly ranks, since at best one can impart the logic but not the shiver. In fact, a re-view, literally a seeing again, implies that I haven't quite figured out how to read either: otherwise, what's the point of seeing the same thing twice? We look again because the view always changes. We look again for parallax--whether a phrase strikes hot or cold, whether our chuckle becomes a smile or a guffaw. The shiver is mutable, and changes as we change, even if the mind reads with unshakeable logic. Still, though the artistic means to the shiver pass in and out of style, luckily, the shoulder blades remain.
Laura Kolbe wishes either her father or her mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot her...