By PABLO J. DAVIS
Sunday, March 4, 2018
Tonight marks an extraordinary anniversary… of an extremely ordinary event, one that occurs millions of times a day around the world. The kind of event that has never (as far as I know) been commemorated in a public way. So I seriously doubt you will hear of this anniversary anywhere else besides this page. And I happened to learn about it by sheer accident last night, 24 hours ahead of the big day.
When Laurence Sterne’s hilarious, bawdy, and yet (why “yet”?!!) philosophical novel Tristram Shandy first came out in 1759, it was like an earthquake through the English literary world, and ultimately shook literature around the globe. Even today, the book is unclassifiable, still a challenge to readers, and still an adventure to read–much as it must have been for Sterne to write.
The key to the novel might well be the phrase “That reminds me…” Among other things, and perhaps underlying all of its other qualities, Tristram Shandy is a meditation on the human mind’s penchant for associations. Looked at in a certain light, the novel is one long series of interruptions to the telling of a story… a ceaseless chain of digressions.
Last night I happened to sit down and re-read the first few pages of the book. In it, “Shandy,” the narrator, recounts how orderly his father was in his habits. Among the regularities the old man followed scrupulously was winding a clock: He “had made it a rule for many years of his life,–on the first Sunday night of every month throughout the whole year,–as certain as ever the Sunday night came,–to wind up a large house-clock which we had standing on the back-stairs head, with his own hands.”
And, it seems, Shandy’s father had over time also “gradually brought some other little family concernments to the same period, in order, as he would often say to my uncle Toby, to get them all out of the way at one time, and be no more plagued and pestered with them the rest of the month.” And, as a result of this habit of his father’s, Shandy tells us that his “poor mother could never hear the said clock wound up,–but the thoughts of some other things unavoidably popped into her head…”
One of those “little family concernments” of the old man’s turned out to be of great import to Shandy. For, you see, he tells us: “I was begot in the night, betwixt the first Sunday and the first Monday in the month of March, in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighteen.” Shandy then goes on to tell us readers how it is that he knows for certain that that was, indeed, the night.
So there you have it: a major literary anniversary. A three hundredth anniversary! Not Sterne’s birthday (that was Nov. 24, 1713); not the anniversary of the book’s publication; not even the birthday of the character, Tristram Shandy.
But rather, the date on which little Tristram was conceived.
And that, dear readers, reminds me of a story… Which will have to wait till another time.
To read Tristram Shandy free online, visit the Project Gutenberg page for the book at: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1079.