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A very naughty boy

A Yorkshire parson reinvented the novel— and threw in some rude jokes, finds Lucinda Smyth

“The trouble with life (the novelist will feel) is its amorphousness, its ridiculous fluidity”, writes Martin Amis in his memoir Experience. “Look at it: thinly plotted, largely themeless, sentimental and ineluctably trite. The dialogue is poor, or at least violently uneven. The twists are predictable or sensationalist. And it’s always the same beginning; and the same ending…” Amis’s words show the extent to which Laurence Sterne was an unorthodox writer, even by contemporary standards. For Amis, writing fiction ought to be a reaction against the incomprehensibility of life, the writer slotting fictional episodes into a sleek, coherent narrative. Useful in this process, says Amis, is “the novelist’s addiction to seeing parallels and making connections.”

But what is striking about Sterne—who died 250 years ago—is how much of his work retains the “amorphousness” and “ridiculous fluidity” of life. His masterpiece, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman does not “organise” its ideas into something coherent, let alone digestible. Rather, it is a free-flowing stream of philosophical musing, character sketches and bawdy jokes. There is no consistent storyline whatsoever. Ostensibly it is a fictional autobiography, but ultimately we learn little about his life, and less of his opinions. The dialogue is digressive as well as “violently uneven.” The twists can be sentimental (famously the death of Tristram’s jolly minder Yorick) but are often undercut with a joke. And the book ends with an interruption from Tristram’s mother: “L—d! said my mother, what is all this story about?—A COCK and a BULL, said Yorick—And one of the best of its kind, I ever heard.”

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In Prospect’s October issue: Rafael Behr argues that politics has been poisoned by Twitter—the platform often drives the political news agenda, encourages people to descend deeper and deeper into echo chambers and sees MPs and their families regularly abused. Meanwhile, former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger explains how Oxford picks its students and says that more needs to be done for the colleges to be more inclusive. Also, Jasmin Mujanovic outlines how Bosnia’s elections this month could tip the country back into conflict. Elsewhere in the issue: Alex Dean highlights the alarming decline in the number of students studying a foreign language at GCSE and beyond. Will Self reviews a series of new books about liberalism, arguing that “we need more than just social freedoms and the free market.” Aimee Cliff charts the story of the dying dream that London would be a 24-hour city.