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Sterne, the Moderns and the Novel
Thomas Keymer
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
£45.00, 222 pages, ISBN 0199245924 (hardback).

Min Wild
University of Exeter

This is a heroic book, for its author has attempted to negotiate a new path through one of the most notorious critical impasses of the twentieth century. Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, which found its way into publication between 1760 and 1767, has long been a bone of contention among critics. The attention given to it by the Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky, who celebrated Sterne as a ‘radical revolutionary as far as form is concerned’ (22), has continued into the era of post-structuralist and postmodernist criticism—here, not least for its interdeterminacy, intertextuality and deferral of closure, Tristram Shandy has been hailed as sui generis. Yet at the same time a formidable body of work has gone into claiming that, far from looking forward with a strange prescience to postmodernity, the book actually looks back over its shoulder. It is a belated participant in the ‘tradition of learned wit’ identified by D.W. Jefferson, and it self-consciously advertises itself as part of this, looking to Rabelais, Thomas Burton and Menippean satire as its precursors.

Thomas Keymer charmingly explains that in this context the goal of his study will seem ‘doubly perverse’ (6), for his aim is not to reject either of these positions, but to insist that Tristram Shandy is neither of these things exclusively: it should be resituated in its specific time of production, in a number of ways, but most importantly because it engages with ‘the novel genre in the crucial period of its formation’ (6). Tristram Shandy was recognised at the time as ‘the defining work of its immediate day’ (4) and Keymer’s book seeks to restore for us that sense of Sterne’s ‘flagrant modernity’ (3). So, while he constantly acknowledges the presence of the ‘learned wit’ tradition in Tristram Shandy, he also grants a place to its sophistication: the sophistication that speaks most clearly nowadays to postmodernity. He explains this latter though, as an effect of the book, rather than some kind of preternatural cause, and finds a number of ingenious ways firmly to place it in the hectic world of the expanding literary marketplace. Oddly, Keymer’s guide in this is Samuel Johnson, who perceived and distrusted this element of fashionableness in the book, proclaiming with devastating inaccuracy that ‘nothing odd will do long. Tristam Shandy did not last’ (101).

Where it might seem, then, as though Keymer’s aim is to have three cakes and eat them all, this orgy of possession is fully justified. This is because his approach is not only rich in knowledge and perception, but is also genially appreciative of both past and present writings in ways that few scholars can match. He structures his claim around a few key aspects of what might be called Sterne’s ‘contemporaneity’, attending to the way that plot device, functions of narrativity and choice of focus in Tristram Shandy echo both major (Fielding, Richardson) and minor novels of the period prior to its publication—novels by both men and women. Forerunners of the kind of typographical experiment—the blank or marbled pages— that give such pleasure in Tristram Shandy are identified in works of the time. These concerns are linked in a typically acute explanation of Tristram Shandy’s celebrated blank page (upon which readers are invited to draw their own portrait of the charming Widow Wadman) as ‘literally enacting’, and thus ridiculing by exaggeration, Fielding’s refusal to attempt to describe Sophia in Tom Jones (48). Keymer’s attention to the effects of serialisation in the book demands some close attention, and this will be considered shortly.

The latter part of Keymer’s book takes on a more speculative cast, and his juxtaposition of Tristram Shandy with Macpherson’s Ossianic experiments—he works hard to show that ‘many historical, cultural and thematic connections’ exist between the two—may not convince all readers. The last section of Sterne, the Moderns and the Novel rests on a slightly rickety three-legged claim: Tristram Shandy betrays ‘the ghostly and ambient presence’ (202) of Marvell’s poems of retirement, and Uncle Toby’s horticultural militarism stands as criticism of 1760s war party rhetoric. Keymer is never less than stimulating, however, and where some might find this bravura work a little stretched, in structure if not in necessarily in content, they should none the less applaud his open-minded yet immensely knowledgeable adventurism in the field.

Where Keymer is most impressively successful, however, is in his focus on Tristram Shandy as shaped by the demands of serialisation. He is well justified in his claim that ‘ it is worth the effort of imaginatively reconstructing the experience of its first audience, for whom access to Tristram Shandy came in five distinct stages of reading, phased over eighty-five months’ (85). The process of serialisation accounts for a great deal of what appears ‘postmodern’ in the book—for example, ‘the resistance of memory and ongoing experience to textual capture; the human consciousness of time, and the manipulation of time in narrative’ (85-86). Yet the process also has the mysterious effect of making Tristram Shandy appear to parody, by some weird foresight, the more familiar serialisation of the Victorian novel.

By meticulously careful examination of the publication history of both Eliot’s Middlemarch and Tristram Shandy, Keymer shows his readers just exactly how eighteenth- and nineteenth-century serialisation differed, and makes it clear that what Sterne was parodying was in fact prevalent idiosyncrasies of serialisation in his own day: ‘It is now clear […] that Tristram Shandy’s parodic anticipation of Victorian serial fiction is directly rooted in Sterne’s responsiveness to comparable forms of paradox and impasse in earlier serial writing’ (135). The discussion here beautifully exemplifies Keymer’s trademark of moving profitably from the particular to the general, for this ‘parodic responsiveness’ finds its form in a refusal to conclude: one always leaves the door open for another volume. The ontological core of the book lies here, in its ‘larger anxiety about the human capacity to comprehend and signify, to make one’s mark before death in an unstable world’ (135).

Keymer, taking issue with Wayne Booth, suggests that Sterne did not necessarily see Tristram Shandy as finished, and might have intended to resume it: for both Sterne and Tristram, though ‘dying in mid-text’ was an ‘occupational hazard’ (139). Keymer’s is a humane book, and he makes the plight of both of them painfully clear, without conflating writer and narrator. There Tristram was, as he himself said, with ‘forty volumes to write, and forty thousand things to say and do, which nobody in the world will say and do for me’ (141)—and there too was Laurence Sterne, dying of a pulmonary haemorrhage at the age of fifty-five.

Sterne, the Moderns and the Novel is a fascinating and rewarding book, with an astonishingly wide frame of reference—it makes an important new contribution to both eighteenth- and twenty-first century scholarship. I have two small quibbles: in keeping with its status, the book should be furnished with a comprehensive bibliography, and one could wish on occasion that Keymer had realised that he of all people can do without such cant phrases as ‘the problematization of subjectivity’ (63). Conversely, he can surprise the reader with a sly wit worthy of Sterne himself, which makes the book not only required reading for anyone interested in eighteenth-century print culture, but also—unusually in these utilitarian times—a delight for its own sake.

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