All you need to know about the books you meant to read

This week: Gavin Griffiths on Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy

Plot: Notoriously absent. The novel is ruled by its narrator's whimisical rationality: beginning with an account of his own conception, Tristram isn't actually born until the third voume. Meanwhile, searching from effects to causes in an attempt to trace the reason for his existence, he moves backwards and sideways in a bafflingly baroque time scheme, unable to discover any durable threads of narrative. Digression sprouts digression, until the matted overgrowth prevents any discrimination between the essential and the trivial.

In Sterne's meticulously crafted muddle some genuinely "novelistic" characters emerge, including Tristram's father, Walter, who plays a serious minded Johnson to his son's fidgety Boswell, and who attempts, in a fever of mild exasperation, to ignore signs of encroaching chaos by paving his chat with general theories and sweeping rules.

Tristram's Uncle Toby is just as ineffectual: he obsessively relives the seige of Namcor where he was injured in the groin. Lost in this fantasy, he has difficulty warding off the energetic advances of Widow Wadman who is keen to give his wound a thorough examination.

Theme: A satire on novelistic form and humanity's pretensions to reason and understanding. Sterne believes that the clearly plotted linear storyis a misrepresentation of experience. Instead, he shows how knowledge, ideas, memories and so on create a bundle of impressions that continually cut across a clearly constructed narrative: therefore, the novel becomes the precise expression of loose ends.

Style: Tristram complains of the limits of language, but Sterne explores those limits, using doodles, pictures and blank pages to express the improbable. The writing is rococo, the disorderly profusion mirroring the arbitrariness of experience.

What they thought of it then: Immensely popular with the general public, it even spawned some crass imitations. The literati were slightly sniffy: Richardson considered it lewd, Dr Johnson thought it would never last.

What we think of it now: Seen as the forerunner of "stream of consciousness" which is fair enough, providing it is also conceded that both Joyce and Sterne ultimately stem from Rabelais and the tradition of scabrous academic wit.

Responsible for: Making most modern experiments in fiction appear ponderous or jejune.

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