Q: What's Tristram Shandy all about?
A: Tristram Shandy is one man's attempt to tell us his life story as comprehensively as he can. On the face of it that seems a straightforward task - start at the beginning and carry on until you reach the point you're telling the story from - the present. Except, when you try you're faced with the question of what actually is the beginning? Where does it all start? For Tristram this is particularly important because the moment of his birth is quite complicated and things happen to him at that point which he sees as having shaped the whole of his life so he needs to explain them if he's going to give a convincing account of himself. So, how did it come to pass that a Doctor, a Midwife and his parents were squabbling over the manner of his birth? And how did that affect what happened to him? Tristram feels that must be a part of his life story. And if that's a part of his life story, what about the events that led to his conception -because surely that had an effect on the way he is now? And while he's telling us about that, doesn't he need to tell us about the personalities of the people who were involved at these various points and how they came to have an effect on his life, and so on and so on. As soon as Tristram tries to tell the story of his life he discovers how horribly complicated the whole things is. And while he's trying to sort it out and tell his story in a straight line, he realises that it's taking up a lot of time and that as he's telling it story so he's living more and he has more of his life story to tell. But then the whole book demonstrates how, in the process of getting apparently bogged down in telling his life story he manages to tell it to us rather beautifully and movingly and comprehensively and very, very funnily.
Q: Why's it such an influential book?
A: It's written in the middle of the 18th century and it's a very early English novel and it doesn't do what the English novel has generally done - which is to lay out a picture of the world in convincing, objective detail. In Tristram's own words it's digressive and heads off in all directions, but it's progressive too, so even whilst he's doing a detour round his opinions about sleep or buttonholes or what his Uncle Toby was up it's still moving forwards and managing to tell the story that it pretends it can't. It's had a big influence on people's ideas about the possibilities of story telling and the challenge to what's called linear narrative, that is stories that have a beginning, middle and end and move forwards in a straight line. It's particularly influential on novelists who are writing about interior psychological landscapes, or about the relationship between past and present and future, or who are taking apart the assumptions on which writing about the exterior world is based - all the big experiments of modernism in fact - James Joyce, Virgnia Woolf - but also people who are thinking about other ways of writing or creating narratives, so film-makers, - Memento and the Usual Suspects and Pulp Fiction are all indebted to the ground breaking work of Sterne - or people who are working with the possibilities of writing interactively or on the Web, there's something of the Blogger about Tristram Shandy.
Q: Why adapt it?
I've always wanted to dramatise the novel, partly because I wanted to introduce it to an audience - I think there's a lot of mystique about the book, people are told that it's difficult and I think that when I read it originally I thought it was difficult because nobody told me it's also funny, very, very funny. And as soon as you're aware of the kind of elevated Carry On of the novel you're away, away with the humour of it and then it's a delight. But at the same time it's not just funny, it's also powerfully sad. Laurence Sterne wrote it over a period of years as he was being projected from being a local cleric in the village of Coxwold, North Yorkshire, to a life of national fame as a hugely popular author. And at the same time he'd begun to realise that his life was ebbing away as the result of consumption which had affected him for some years. The book was released in two volume chunks and written partly in response to its popularity, kind of keeping ahead of the game. And Tristram's gradual decline mirrors the decline of his author.
Q: What are the problems of trying to adapt it for radio?
A: There are a lot of them. I've always felt that at the core of the novel are a set of dramatised scenes which it keeps returning to - the moment leading up to Tristram's birth, where we spend time with his father and his uncle who have an endless comic, bantering avoidance of the reality of what's going on around them. They live in a little bubble really and spend time with each other, enjoying each other's company and pontificating about the world and they make a wonderful contrast in the way they pontificate because Tristram's father is full of great ideas and ambitions and philosophies and knowledge, all of which he balls up into a knotted set of hypotheses and theories about the world that he's always trying to put into practice. Alongside him is Tristram's Uncle Toby, a retired solider, wounded in battle, who's the complete opposite, a man of very little worldly knowledge but infinite goodness. So that provides a frame. The main problem of adapting it for radio is trying to catch the torrent of narration and then trying to represent all that in the book is presented to us in Tristram's own language. Everything he shows us in the book is filtered through his playful twisting and turning of the story so that at one moment he'll present us with a scene which he couldn't have witnessed, which is before his birth, where his family are talking to each other almost in the way a 19th century realist novel would and then he'll suddenly interrupt it, he'll pull a curtain across the scene. Or he'll start playing a violin, or he'll suddenly remind us that three chapters ago he was telling us the story of something else which he didn't quite get around to finishing so he'll want to bring it back in. All these structural twists and turns have to be married up into a drama. And I think what we've found - particularly because we had the opportunity of this episodic structure of 10 fifteen minute parts - is a way of matching the story's desperate desire to account for everything in Tristram's life and the comedy of the impossibility of that wish with the presentation of chunks of the story which gradually build until we get a sense of the kind of world that Tristram inhabits and of the people who are around him.
Q: Why should we listen ?
Because it will unfold quite beautifully in front of you, because it's very funny, very absorbing, very well performed and produced, but also because if you begin at the beginning and end at the end you'll meet someone who'll tell you a lot about yourself and other people - which might sound a bit pious, but I really believe to be the case.