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A quite extraordinary book, published in nine volumes between 1759 and 1767, virtually impossible to describe in any sensible way. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, to give it its full title, is a comic novel by Laurence Sterne, or rather, a parody of a novel, which then was a new art form.

Most novels are connected sequences of events in regular narrative order, with a beginning, a middle, and so on. Tristram Shandy constantly overturns every expectation and convention. Yet, remarkably, amid Sterne's fun and games, it contains some of the most vivid and best liked characters in literature.

Tristram, son of Walter Shandy of Shandy Hall, sets out to write his life story. He tries to start at the beginning, with his birth, but finds himself so overcome with interruptions and diversions in the tale that whole volumes go by before he gets round to it, and he is writing events slower than they occurred, so he can never finish.

The other characters include his Uncle Toby, a very kindly, gentle, and lovable old soldier, who has a bee in his bonnet about fortification, and Toby's manservant Corporal Trim, who is his faithful companion in all his fantasies. There is Yorick the parson, Obadiah the servant, Doctor Slop who is eventually to deliver Tristram, and the Widow Wadman, who sets her cap at Uncle Toby.

There are, it is true, snatches of narrative that can be glimpsed briefly through the book, like the courtship of Uncle Toby and the widow, and his curious groin wound, but most of it is Tristram's exclamations, stories cut short, and re-started over and over again, and thoughts close to stream of consciousness form.

Typographically, it is bizarre, and is constantly undermining the normal invisibility of the book. He uses CAPITALS, ************, asterisks, dashes and ----

--- Lots of dashes! -- Hey there! What? You want more dashes --- why --

Chapters can be a few lines long. Two consecutive chapters of Volume IX are blank. When Yorick dies there's a black page. Another page is hand marbled, yes that's right --- marbled, coloured, by hand.

******************* ************** ********** *************** *********** ******************* ********** ********* ******** ******* *************** !!!!

There's a blank page for you to draw a picture of Widow Wadham. There are odd squiggles for diagrams. Page numbers get rearranged. One chapter is missing with the consequence that recto/verso numbering goes wrong.

As he's fleeing from Death, somewhere in France he tells the story of an abbess and a novice who are in a mule cart when ther muleteer goes off to sample the delights of a local inn, and they are stuck by themselves with night drawing in, and the mules absolutely refusing to move. The novice reveals that she knows two words that are guaranteed to get mules moving, but it is grievously sinful to say them. The abbess, on learning of this, advises that there is no sin in saying the syllable fou and no sin in saying ter, so if one keeps saying fou and the other keeps saying ter, and they alternate, they can do it without harm to their souls. Likewise one can say bou and the other ger. So they puff alternately: fu, / cker, / fu, / cker, / fu, / cker and bu, / gger, / bu, / gger...

The book ends abruptly by declaring something the story of a COCK and a BULL.

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