Tristram Shandy: A load of cock & bull?

Tristram Shandy, the most impenetrable book ever, is now a film. Will we be any the wiser? Unlikely. John Walsh does his best to help us out
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A is for Action. Nor a word you associate with Tristram Shandy. For every inch forward taken by the plot, there are 15 miles of essays. The book covers the years 1680-1766.

B is for Babyhood. Tristram's conception, birth, christening and childhood accidents take up six of the nine volumes. Also for Robert Burton, whose Anatomy of Melancholy, with its jumble of maxims, was a major influence.

C is for Clocks. The single joke that most readers remember appears in Chapter One, when Tristram's mother asks his father: "Pray, my dear, have you not forgot to wind up the clock?" - an enquiry that infuriates her husband who has been "interrupted". We assume the "interruption" was of a conversation. Then we realise it was an interruption of marital relations.

D is for Dr Slop, a "scientifick operator" fascinated by surgical instruments.

E is for Elizabeth, Tristram's mother. Furious at not being allowed to have the baby in London, she insists on having a midwife at the birth, rather than the useless Dr Slop. The name of Laurence Sterne's wife, and of his last love, Elizabeth Draper.

F is for Father. Tristram's dad, Walter Shandy, is a deranged repository of learning on every subject, an explainer of crackpot hypotheses in medicine, the law, history, science, the arts, classics, philosophy, logic and religion. Unstoppably eloquent, a monster of omniscence.

G is for Graphic trickery. Many of the book's best moments are non-verbal. Sterne was the first novelist to incorporate visual japes in his work, with asterisks, dashes and funny typefaces. Corporal Trim's stick flourished in the air becomes a squiggle of ink on the page. Why? Because it was funny.

H is for Hobby horse, a central image of the book, as well as its defining idiom. The narrative is interrupted so often by disquisitions and digressive sermons, they become the main text. Sterne is mocking the idea that human life can be given a coherent structure, a consistent plot and a clear narrative line. Personal obsessions and rude life, he implies, will always get in the way. And: "So long as a man rides his Hobby-horse peaceably and quietly along the King's highway, and neither compels you or me to get up behind him - pray, Sir, what have either you or I to do with it?"

I is for I don't want to discuss it. Uncle Toby, the gentlest person in a noisy household, never argues. If pressed to respond, he invariably whistles "half a dozen bars of Lillabulero" [the World Service signature tune.]

J is for Dr Johnson, who was not a fan. Said he could imagine an author amusing cronies with the idea of Tristram Shandy, the impossible book, but couldn't imagine anyone being mad enough to write it.

K is for Knob jokes, of which Sterne was fond. An early misfortune of Tristram's is to be accidentally circumcised by a falling window-sash. A chronic misfortune of Uncle Toby's is a malfunctioning groin.

L is for Laurence Sterne, the author. Spent much of his childhood in Army barracks. Schooled in Yorkshire from age 10, studied philosophy at Cambridge, contracted TB. Took holy orders, received parish of Sutton-on-the-Forest, Yorkshire, in 1738. Married Elizabeth, who went mad. One daughter, Lydia. Enjoyed dining out and chasing women, despite his striking resemblance to a sheep. After 1760, lionised by London society, invited to court, painted by Reynolds. Settled in Shandy Hall, Coxwold, Yorkshire. Moved to France for health reasons. Published A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy in 1767, but died next March. His corpse was stolen by grave-robbers, but was recognised during an anatomy lesson and returned.

M is for Maidservant. Susannah the chambermaid is responsible for many of Tristram's troubles. It is she who, at the christening, fails to pronounce the name "Trismegistus" as a result of which the local cleric names the baby after himself - Tristram.

N is for Noses. Tristram's nose is flattened at birth. In Book Four, Walter Shandy holds forth at length to his brother about Slawkenbergius's Latin treatise on noses. The point at which many readers jump ship.

O is for Obadiah, the Shandys' irrepressible servant.

P is for Publication. The book came out in nine volumes, the first two in York in 1759 after being turned down in London. The last came out in 1767, the year he fell in love with Elizabeth Draper, wife of an official in the East India Company. (She was packed off to the subcontinent pronto.)

R is for Ramparts. Through Uncle Toby's interest, you learn more than you need about army defence emplacements (and their use as sexual metaphors).

S is for Shandyism. A shandy is a combination of serious alcohol and light fizz. It also used to mean "half-crazy". In Volume Six, Tristram explains that he is writing "a civil, nonsensical, good-humoured Shandean book." In Shandyism: The Character of Romantic Irony, Peter Conrad argues that TS is a vital link between Shakespeare and the Romantics, successfully blending comedy and tragedy. Also for Stream of Consciousness, which some critics claim Sterne invented.

T is for Tristram. Hardly exists as a character but is a likeable narrator, engaged in the impossible task of writing about his life while living it. This is the central irony of the book - that it's being written more slowly than the life is being lived.

U is for Uncle Toby, the book's most human character. A soldier, he was wounded in the groin by a stone that fell from a parapet during the battle of Namur. When recovered, he moved to the country, where he reconstrucs the battle in replica and becomes obsessed with the history of fortifications.

Vis for Speaking Volumes. Sterne says: "Writing, when properly managed (as you may be sure I think mine is) is but a different name for conversation."

W is for Widow Wadman, an alluring neighbour who plans to marry Uncle Toby. A courtship ensues until she begins to enquire as to the state of his groinal equipment.

X is for X-rated. The fingers-going-into-a-glove imagery in Volume Four was considered very saucy when studying it (in 1975.)

Y is for Yorick, the parson, an impulsive, witty fellow. He comes closest to the voice of Sterne, no-nonsense, scathing about pretension.

Z is for Zzzzzzz. The prolonged curse of Enulphus of Rochester in Volume Three would send a charging elephant to sleep.

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