Tuesday, October 11, 2011

I Found Something Fun Last Week - Jesse Colin


During my visit to the Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, where I viewed an original version of Tristram Shandy, I wanted to know the year the book was published.  Instead of turning to the front of the book (turning pages in these ancient volumes is always risky and attended by some anxiety, and who knows how to read those pages anyway?) I simply opened Wikipedia.  By the time I had typed “The Life and Opinions” into the search bar the auto-complete function was giving me two suggestions.  One was of course Tristram Shandy.  The other was The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr.  I’m sure you are all familiar with the never-ending trap of the Wikipedia experience which seems to thrive on self-fed curiosity.

            This second novel is an early 19th century novel by the Prussian writer E.T.A. Hoffman.  Wikipedia quotes the cover sleeve:

"Tomcat Murr is a loveable, self-taught animal who has written his own autobiography. But a printer's error causes his story to be accidentally mixed and spliced with a book about the composer Johannes Kreisler. As the two versions break off and alternate at dramatic moments, two wildly different characters emerge from the confusion - Murr, the confident scholar, lover, carouser and brawler, and the moody, hypochondriac genius Kreisler. In his exuberant and bizarre novel, Hoffmann brilliantly evokes the fantastic, the ridiculous and the sublime within the humdrum bustle of daily life, making "The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr" (1820–22) one of the funniest and strangest novels of the nineteenth century."

            The title of the book certainly must be a reference to Sterne’s earlier novel.  Interestingly they both seem to pre-figure post-modernism with their imaginative forms and their meta-level of analysis.  Indeed book-making (and its flaws) is wrapped up in the creation of the second novel.  While post-modernism is correctly associated with the 20th century, some novelists were using very forward approaches to literature which we associate with our intellectual era. 

            Regarding the question “Are novels written today automatically post-modern?”  The answer is yes and no.  Post-modern works are a self-conscious attempt to create just that, but also we are surrounded by the post-modern condition.  Science makes us doubt the certainty of thousands of years of human tradition and meaning.  With respect to peoples of earlier times we are incredibly self-aware and aware of the various social and political situations around the whole world.  Post-modernism is, to borrow a phrase from one of my favorite teachers, the water that we are swimming in.  It was not the water that Sterne and Hoffman were swimming in and we have to give them that much more credit for understanding the rich possibilities of the medium of the novel. 


  1. This is insightful. Sterne "understanding the rich possibilities of the medium of the novel"... I agree. So in the pool that he was swimming in... in his world, he was a radical.

  2. I agree with Christina and Jesse. I think that this very interesting because the definition of post-modernism is so broad. In this article that I found, it states that there are three things that really categorize such novels as post-modern: (1) literature that are non-traditional and post- World War II (2) have modernist characteristics to the extreme and (3) refer to human conditions.

    These three characteristics however are very broad in defining the term still. I think that when relating it back to Tristram Shandy we see all these things being portrayed in a broader aspect, but not always in the smaller details.