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Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Shandying it

James Marcus at House of Mirth notes that there is a new film version of Tristram Shandy, one of my favorite books. This both intrigues and alarms me. But before we get to that, let me explain why I like the book.

I had heard of Tristram Shandy as an undergraduate at Northwestern, and I may have even been required to read it. I can't be certain because at that stage of my life, I really hated 18th Century work. I remember really struggling through those classes with very long books by the likes of Henry Fielding, Samuel Richardson and the like. Not so much because of the prose--though in the case of Richardson, because of the prose, but I rather liked Fielding's work--but because it was soooo long. I probably fell asleep more often during Tom Jones than Pilgrim's Progress. Even if Tristram had been in that group, I most likely wouldn't have even noticed its genius in my soporific state.

But as I started learning more and more about modernist and then postmodern works--James Joyce, Wm Faulkner and Nabokov and then John Barth, Don Barthelme and Pynchon--I wandered back to the 18th Century when the novel was unmoored, and authors were willing to try much more than the confining 19th and early 20th century. Laurence Sterne's novel blew me away on this second reading. It was postmodern before pomo was cool. In effect, it opened my eyes to the alternate strain of writing, a DeLillo-esque underground history that was obscured by the mainstream literary historical march to John Updike. (Granted, this might just be what I gleened from my education--always biased by those teaching me. Perhaps lots of other people were taught that Tristram Shandy was the preeminent novel of the 18th century). Suddenly, I could see a literary timeline that included Burton's Anatomy of Meloncholy, Cervantes' Don Quixote, Wm Byrd's History of the Line, and countless other texts that are more or less overlooked in the general survey course.

I loved TS, if only for the motled page and the completely black page. These two moments were as powerful as Pale Fire's index and Barthelme's Glass Mountain. I loved Sterne for writing a novel about itself; a self-conscious work so twisted that the narrative couldn't even find its way past its own main character's conception. I've reread it a number of times, and with this movie coming out, I'll probably take another whack at it.

Back to the movie: I'm terribly worried about how a director can put on screen a work so completely antagonistic to representation. Indeed, a main theme (if not the main theme) of TS is the inability to represent reality. I fear that any film version will merely capture the superficial story and characters--funny in their own right, but not the masterpiece that the novel as a whole is.

But if Michael Winterbottom attempts to capture the spirit of the book in the way that a screenwriter like Charlie Kaufman reworked The Orchid Thief, the movie might have some merit. From the article in The Guardian, it certainly sounds like Winterbottom has created a very self-reflexive film. In any case, I look forward to its US arrival.


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