Thursday, November 12, 2015

Fabula and Syuzhet in the Tristram Shandy Handbook

To my knowledge there is no Tristram Shandy Handbook, nor a handbook for any other literary text. What do a mean by handbook? I’m imagining a single source containing consensus information about a given text. That source might be hardcopy or, these days, online. In the case of minor texts, texts that have received little study, the amount of information would not warrant a single volume of its own and so would be bound into a volume with such information about other texts.  This issue, of course, does not exist for online texts, which can be of any magnitude. Tristram Shandy, of course, is not a minor text.

It is one of the central texts of the Western canon and had been subject to decades of study. Students new to the work can select from I don’t know how many casebooks and study guides, and many of those study guides are online. Some of the materials that belong in this hypothetical handbook can be found in those casebooks and study guides. The idea of a handbook is to collect those materials in one place that is accessible to all.

One thing that I would like to see in a Tristram Shandy Handbook would be a complete mapping between the events Sterne narrates listed in chronological order and the actual order in which they appear in the text. In many narratives these two orderings are the same. But not in Tristram Shandy. Early in the 20th century the Russian Formalist critics used the terms fabula (chronological) and syuzhet (textual) to designate these two orders. Tristram Shandy is an extreme example of their divergence [1].

The ordering of events is a standard topic in Tristram Shandy criticism and, judging by what I’ve found through a bit of Googling, bits and pieces of chronology have been worked out here and there and perhaps, perhaps the whole thing. But the relationship between that text and the chronology is nonetheless obscure. Can anything be done to clarify it?

A Problem of Description

This is a problem of description, one of my favorite hobbyhorses [2]. What does it mean to describe the relationship between fabula and syuzhet in a text as complicated as Tristram Shandy? I don’t know.

 Let me explain. I have found, but not really read, an article from 1936:

Baird, Theodore. “The Time-scheme of Tristram Shandy and a Source”. PMLA 51.3 (1936): 803–820. DOI: 10.2307/458270

After a page and a half of introduction Baird runs through the chronology, from 1689 (Trim joins the army) to 1750 (Yorick’s sermon on conscience), saying more or less what happens in the year. References to the text of TS are given by volume and chapter in footnotes. I found that article in a recent dissertation:

Duncan W. Patrick. Libertinism and Deism in Tristram Shandy and Other Writings of Laurence Sterne. Dissertation. Department of English, Leicester University, 2002. URL: https://lra.le.ac.uk/bitstream/2381/30274/1/U162249.pdf

That dissertation includes a chronology as a five-page appendix running from 1509 (Shandy family ranked high at the time of Harry VIIIth) through 1768 (Stern’s death). The chronology is in the form of a table with the dates on the left and the gloss, including references to the text, again by volume and chapter. I assume that Patrick’s chronology includes Baird’s.

First, given a table like Patrick’s, I think, as a matter of principle, that it would be useful to have the same information organized in a table by textual order so that we can examine the temporal structure of each volume independently. Second, these chronologies give no sense of the detailed structure of the text. THAT’s the big descriptive problem, and I don’t know how to solve it. It’s not merely that I don’t know what such a thing would look like, how it would work, but I don’t know what kind of effort would be required to create such a facility.

For I pretty much assume that that’s what it would be, some kind of online facility based on the complete texts. Beyond that… I have this vague idea that, if I were on the faculty of some appropriate graduate school, me and a half dozen graduate students, some with computer skills that I don’t have, could get a sense of the problem in a semester’s work. We might even be able to produce a crude prototype of such a facility.

At this point you might be wondering: If it’s going to take that much work, will the results be worth the effort? I feel pretty sure that they will, but of course there’s no guarantee. At this point my confidence is based on a fair amount of experience in describing literary texts and films. Something interesting always turns up, always. Still, as I’ve said, there’s no guarantee. Given that I’ve already written a great deal about description, I see no need to repeat that here [2].

Instead, I thought I take a small step toward dealing with the first problem I mentioned, ordering the dates by order of appearance in the text. There’s quite a bit of Shandy material online [3], including the University of Milan’s Tristram Shandy Web, which contains an online facsimile text along with supporting materials of various kinds [4]. Among those is a relatively short chronology, URL: http://www.tristramshandyweb.it/sezioni/TS/johnson.htm

I have taken that chronology and 1) placed it into a table and then, 2) sorted the table into order by volume and chapter. Those tables constitute the next two sections of this post, with a short list of references at the end. Given that second table it was an easy matter to produce the following list:

Volume 1:       1658-1761
Volume 3:       1713
Volume 5:       1689-1723
Volume 6:       1706-1717
Volume 7:       1762-1764
Volume 8:       1693-1695
Volume 9:       1713-1766

Notice the Volumes Two and Four don’t appear at all and Volume One has the widest range, but that both Volumes Six and Nine contain dates more recent than the most recent one given for Volume 1. None of the other volumes give a date earlier than the earliest one in Volume One. Moreover, I assume that the dates are only those for events directly related to Tristram and his close associates. For there are earlier incidents recounted in the book.

Given the sparseness of the data I don’t think much of anything can be concluded from this. I’m just trying to get a feel for the material by doing what I can.

Events Sorted by Year 

Date
Event
Vol
Ch
c.1658
Aunt Dinah elopes with her coachman.
1
21
1689
Trim joins the army.
5
11
1693
Trim wounded in the battle of Landen; nursed by the Beguine.
8
10
1695
Mrs. Wadman's husband dies ("a seven years' widowhood,").
8
9
1697
Toby wounded at the siege of Namur.
1
25
1702
Toby and Trim go down to Shandy Hall, Yorkshire.
1
25
1706
Death of Le Fever.
6
6
c.1712
Yorick procures a midwife for his parish.
1
10
1713
Mr. Shandy retires from being a merchant in London and goes down to Shandy Hall.
6
6
1713
Peace of Utrecht and demolition of Dunkirk; Toby's courtship of the widow.
3
24
1713
Peace of Utrecht and demolition of Dunkirk; Toby's courtship of the widow.
6
12
1713
Peace of Utrecht and demolition of Dunkirk; Toby's courtship of the widow.
9
18
1717
Mrs. Shandy makes her husband carry her up to London for a false pregnancy.
1
15
1717
Billy Le Fever goes off to fight the Turks.
6
12
1718
March: Tristram conceived.
1
4
1718
November 5: Tristram born.
1
5
1723
Billy Le Fever returns; six weeks later, Tristram suffers the accident with the window sash ("I was five years old").
5
17
1733
April 10: the letter from the Sorbonne about prenatal baptism.
1
20
1741
Tristram accompanies Mr. Noddy's son on the grand tour.
1
11
1759
March 9: Tristram writes volume I, chapter 18 of Tristram Shandy.
1
18
1759
March 26: he writes volume I, chapter 21.
1
21
1761
August 10: Tristram writes volume V, chapter 17.
1
17
1762-1764
Tristram tours France, meets Maria.
7
10
1766
August 12: Tristram writes volume IX, chapter 1.
9
1

Events Sorted by Text order

Note that I didn’t rearrange the column order for this table, so you have to read the text order by the two right-hand columns. Notice that Volume One had by far the largest number of dates in this particular list.

Date
Event
Vol
Ch
1718
March: Tristram conceived.
1
4
1718
November 5: Tristram born.
1
5
c.1712
Yorick procures a midwife for his parish.
1
10
1741
Tristram accompanies Mr. Noddy's son on the grand tour.
1
11
1717
Mrs. Shandy makes her husband carry her up to London for a false pregnancy.
1
15
1761
August 10: Tristram writes volume V, chapter 17.
1
17
1759
March 9: Tristram writes volume I, chapter 18 of Tristram Shandy.
1
18
1733
April 10: the letter from the Sorbonne about prenatal baptism.
1
20
c.1658
Aunt Dinah elopes with her coachman.
1
21
1759
March 26: he writes volume I, chapter 21.
1
21
1697
Toby wounded at the siege of Namur.
1
25
1702
Toby and Trim go down to Shandy Hall, Yorkshire.
1
25
1713
Peace of Utrecht and demolition of Dunkirk; Toby's courtship of the widow.
3
24
1689
Trim joins the army.
5
11
1723
Billy Le Fever returns; six weeks later, Tristram suffers the accident with the window sash ("I was five years old").
5
17
1706
Death of Le Fever.
6
6
1713
Mr. Shandy retires from being a merchant in London and goes down to Shandy Hall.
6
6
1713
Peace of Utrecht and demolition of Dunkirk; Toby's courtship of the widow.
6
12
1717
Billy Le Fever goes off to fight the Turks.
6
12
1762-1764
Tristram tours France, meets Maria.
7
10
1695
Mrs. Wadman's husband dies ("a seven years' widowhood,").
8
9
1693
Trim wounded in the battle of Landen; nursed by the Beguine.
8
10
1766
August 12: Tristram writes volume IX, chapter 1.
9
1
1713
Peace of Utrecht and demolition of Dunkirk; Toby's courtship of the widow.
9
18

References

[1] The Wikipedia entry gives a useful set of links, URL: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fabula_and_syuzhet

[2] I’ve got three working papers devoted to description:

Description as Intellectual Craft in the Study of Literature (2013) 33 pp. https://www.academia.edu/4262467/Description_as_Intellectual_Craft_in_the_Study_of_Literature

Description 2: The Primacy of the Text (2013) 41 pp. https://www.academia.edu/4866743/Description_2_The_Primacy_of_the_Text

Description 3: The Primacy of Visualization (2015) 48 pp. https://www.academia.edu/16835585/Description_3_The_Primacy_of_Visualization

I’ve got a working paper on ring composition, which describes a particular set of texts and their characteristic features: Ring Composition: Some Notes on a Particular Literary Morphology, URL: https://www.academia.edu/8529105/Ring_Composition_Some_Notes_on_a_Particular_Literary_Morphology

[3] Masaru Uchida’s Laurence Stern in Cyberspace is a good gathering point, URL: http://www1.gifu-u.ac.jp/~masaru/Sterne_on_the_Net.html


[4] The Tristram Shandy Web, URL: http://www.tristramshandyweb.it

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