Au­dio Books

The Oldie - - BOOKS - PAUL KEEGAN

‘At present, noth­ing is talked of, noth­ing ad­mired, ex­cept what I can­not help call­ing a very in­sipid and te­dious per­for­mance: a kind of novel, called The Life and Opin­ions of Tris­tram Shandy, whose hu­mour con­sists in the whole nar­ra­tion al­ways go­ing back­wards’ – thus Ho­race Walpole in April 1760, when the first two vol­umes of Sterne’s mas­ter­piece had be­come the rage. By 1776 Sa­muel John­son was declar­ing ‘Noth­ing odd will do long. Tris­tram Shandy did not last.’

They were right about the odd­ity, and the go­ing back­wards. The novel mostly un­folds be­fore its hero has any Opin­ions, and a third of it be­fore he has a Life – he isn’t born un­til vol­ume four, and the ac­tion ends in a cul-de-sac sev­eral years be­fore his birth. There is scarcely room for him amid the anec­do­tal clut­ter and hu­man relics ly­ing around from a previous age. An­ton Lesser’s unabridged record­ing of the novel for Naxos is won­der­ful, be­cause with Sterne we need the whole pack­age – the way the thin air of ex­per­i­ment thick­ens un­ex­pect­edly into the nov­el­is­tic do­mes­tic­i­ties of Wal­ter and Mrs Shandy, and Un­cle Toby and his loyal cor­po­ral Trim; and Par­son Yorick in the par­lour, who can­not abide grav­ity; and the mid­wife and Dr Slop who jointly at­tend on the event­ful birth of the hero; and their ser­vants and an­i­mals. (Sterne makes us feel the tex­ture of an age in which Eng­land had more sheep than peo­ple and a par­son could love his horse.)

An­ton Lesser’s de­fence is all-out at­tack, abet­ted by can­dour and an in­gen­u­ous ea­ger­ness – like an 18th­cen­tury hero, in fact. He rightly avoids irony (the novel’s ironies be­ing sit­u­a­tional rather than ver­bal). It is a hobby-hors­ing voice with an elo­cu­tion­ary flour­ish, and his en­er­getic de­liv­ery drives Sterne’s mazy sen­tences, which might oth­er­wise run out of steam. At the same time Lesser lets Sterne’s ‘pe­ri­ods’ have free rein; he parses them so con­fi­dently that he does not mind where they go, for they have an Au­gus­tan lu­cid­ity even at their most way­ward (they merely wear their syn­tax on the out­side, as the Pom­pi­dou Cen­tre wears its pipes). This is a feat of in­tel­li­gent lis­ten­ing, first and fore­most, and it makes hear­ing the novel more in­volv­ing for long stretches than read­ing it for our­selves, which can be a fear­ful and blindfold busi­ness.

The declam­a­tory as­pect is key be­cause Tris­tram’s ver­sion of events is all per­for­mance (as Walpole per­ceived), his char­ac­ters read­ing aloud or speechi­fy­ing or quot­ing or ser­mon­is­ing. But this record­ing also pays at­ten­tion to the un­said and un­sayable. Sternes’s di­gres­sive prin­ci­ple is based on Locke’s the­o­ries of the as­so­ci­a­tion of ideas, which seemed to ex­plain the com­i­cally un­govern­able work­ings of the head and heart. We mud­dle our sto­ries, like Un­cle Toby. We can­not know our own minds be­cause they are con­founded by the va­garies of lan­guage – and are at­tached to bod­ies, which have minds of their own. Which is why ges­ture is so im­por­tant, and is of a piece with other un­hear­able things in the novel, its blank pages and as­ter­isks and dashes and so forth. At this point an au­dio read­ing be­comes an in­trigu­ing com­men­tary on what Sterne is up to.

By the same to­ken, we can­not know each other. The fi­nal chap­ters, when the com­edy of the sexes comes to a head with Un­cle Toby’s thwarted woo­ing of and by Widow Wad­man, are in­com­pa­ra­ble. Lesser does jus­tice to Wad­man’s gen­teel but in­cor­ri­gi­ble solic­i­tude con­cern­ing Toby’s wounded groin, and to the ux­o­ri­ous par­ry­ings be­tween Wal­ter and Mrs Shandy, the bland­est ex­changes in the his­tory of the novel, in which noth­ing is said yet some­thing (but what?) is in­ti­mated. An­ton Lesser reads these pas­sages with just enough side-wind of hes­i­tancy or re­serve, as of some­thing blow­ing the read­ing slightly off-course, to al­low their si­lences to sound in our ears. In an age which felt sud­denly con­fi­dent that the novel could know ev­ery­thing, Sterne ex­tended this to in­clude the knowl­edge that other peo­ple are a mys­tery story.

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