Here’s a passage from Patricia Meyer Spacks’s discussion of Tristram Shandy in her book Novel Beginnings:
The narrator’s intense involvement with the workings of his own consciousness generates the novel’s unique enchantment. The leaps and sallies of his mind, the alternations of peevishness and jollity, the exuberance of wordplay, the excursions into bawdiness (with attendant rebukes to the reader for seeing it), the liveliness of imagination — such aspects of Tristram’s central subject create much of the intense enjoyment (and perhaps patches of irritation as well) that many readers experience with Tristram Shandy. Much of the enjoyment, but not quite all; some comes from the preposterous behavior of characters besides Tristram, as seen through his eyes. At the heart of the encounter with Sterne’s novel, though, lies the exploration of mind and sensibility, not by means of systematic introspection but by a precursor of stream of consciousness writing.
The passage makes me want to read Tristram Shandy again, although I’ve read it at least twice, maybe three times already. And I have to say, I never felt any “patches of irritation” that Spacks mentions. It was all pure pleasure. To give you a small taste of what it’s like, here’s the first chapter in its entirety, where Tristram complains about the circumstances of his conception and the scattering of the “animal spirits” that then took place, which, Tristram believes, is the cause of all his troubles in life:
I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me; had they duly consider’d how much depended upon what they were then doing; — that not only the production of a rational Being was concern’d in it, but that possibly the happy formation and temperature of his body, perhaps his genius and the very cast of his mind; — and, for aught they knew to the contrary, even the fortunes of his whole house might take their turn from the humours and dispositions which were then uppermost: — Had they duly weighed and considered all this, and proceeded accordingly, — I am verily persuaded I should have made a quite different figure in the world, from that, in which the reader is likely to see me. — Believe me, good folks, this is not so inconsiderable a thing as many of you may think it; — you have all, I dare say, heard of the animal spirits, and how they are transfused from father to son &c. &c. — and a great deal to that purpose: — Well, you may take my word, that nine parts in ten of a man’s sense or his nonsense, his successes and miscarriages in this world depend upon their motions and activity, and the different tracts and trains you put them into, so that when they are once set a-going, whether right or wrong, ’tis not a halfpenny matter, — away they go cluttering like hey-go-mad; and by treading the same steps over and over again, they presently make a road of it, as plain and as smooth as a garden-walk, which, when they are once used to, the Devil himself sometimes shall not be able to drive them out of it.
Pray, my dear, quoth my mother, have you not forgot to wind up the clock? —– Good G–! cried my father, making an exclamation, but taking care to moderate his voice at the same time, — Did ever woman, since the creation of the world, interrupt a man with such a silly question?
Pray, what was your father saying? — Nothing.