January 1: The first installment of Laurence Sterne’s TristramShandy was published 250 years ago today. Some of the novel’s first criticsdismissed it—”Nothing odd will do long,” Samuel Johnson sniffed—andsome just threw up their pens: “This is a humorous performance, of whichwe are unable to convey any distinct ideas to our readers,” said the LondonCritical Review. But the book was an immediate hit, and the author, untilthen an unknown Yorkshire parson, became the rage of literary London. Today,says Italo Calvino, Tristram Shandy remains important as the “undoubtedprogenitor” of the avant-garde novel for its structural inventionsand oddities—misplaced chapters, sentences that begin in one volume and finishin the next, doodles, and empty black pages.
Calvino’s “progenitor”alludes to the famous clock-winding scene in which Sterne’s young hero isconceived. A regular man, Mr. Shandy was in the habit of enjoying two householdprivileges on the first Sunday evening of every month. The first was to windthe big family clock; the second was embraced upon retiring to bed. The soundof Mr. Shandy tending to the clock aroused little more than apprehension inMrs. Shandy, though her husband was not normally denied. On the Sunday inquestion, Mr. Shandy was fully wound, but Mrs. Shandy does not appear to havebeen concentrating:
Pray, my dear, quoth mymother, have you not forgot to wind up the clock? ——Good G—! cried my father,making an exclamation, but taking care to moderate his voice at the same time, ——Didever woman, since the creation of the world, interrupt a man with such a sillyquestion?
Apparently this passagegained such notoriety that some London prostitutes took to approaching the morebookish-looking of their potential clients with an offer to wind their clocks.If so, it could only have pleased Sterne: when Bishop Warburton asked him totone his subsequent volumes down, he said he’d try, “though laugh my lord,I will, and as loud as I can too.” My book, he said, “is for thelaughing-part of the world—for the melancholy part of it, I have nothing but myprayers—so God help them.”
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.