Tristram Shandy is a rambling, anarchic cult classic that was wildly experimental for its time. It also made its author a huge celebrity, writes Thomas Graham.

“Of all the several ways of beginning a book which are now in practice throughout the known world, I am confident my own way of doing it is the best – I'm sure it is the most religious – for I begin with writing the first sentence – and trusting to Almighty God for the second.”

So claims the narrator Tristram Shandy towards the end of his fictional autobiography, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, written by Laurence Sterne in the middle of the 18th Century. Strange, then, to remember how he did begin his story: “ab Ovo”, at the very moment of conception. “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…” Alas, an interruption at the crucial moment “dispersed the animal spirits”, and this, apparently, endowed Tristram with the traits that make him such a singular narrator.

‘Shandy’ is a Yorkshire word meaning odd – or crack-brained

His creator, Laurence Sterne, was a middle-aged, Anglican parish priest in Yorkshire in the north of England. Tristram catapulted Sterne into celebrity. “The first two volumes were wildly popular,”  Judith Hawley, an expert on 18th-Century literature, tells BBC Culture. “So much so that the name Tristram Shandy entered popular culture. There was a lot of branded merchandise; race horses were named after him; lots of imitation novels. It became a marketing phenomenon.” Sterne loved his newfound fame. “I wrote not to be fed, but to be famous,” as he liked to say. By the time he died, just eight or nine years after the first volumes, he had written seven more.

Such was Sterne’s celebrity by then that when grave robbers stole his freshly buried body and sold it to a professor of anatomy at Cambridge, a student at the dissection table recognised Sterne’s face. The body was returned to its resting place, with a partial incision into the skull. Or, at least, that’s how the story goes. It would be rather neat, since “Shandy” is a Yorkshire word meaning odd – or crack-brained.

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Tristram Shandy had such success because it was a sensational book: not just a good yarn, but wildly experimental. It messed about with the novelistic conventions of the time, such as linearity and a structured plot, and took innovations like the self-conscious narrator to an extreme. “And Sterne integrates those things with this extraordinary narrative of these funny dysfunctional characters living out their fractured lives,” says Hawley.

There’s Tristram, of course, who is writing the autobiography but isn’t born until the third volume. His father, Walter, who adores abstruse intellectual argumentation. The gentle Uncle Toby, wounded at war and now obsessed with everything about fortifications; and Corporal Trim, Toby’s manservant. Dr Slop, the local midwife, and Parson Yorick, a witty and misunderstood clergyman, complete the core characters. At least some are present for the events of Tristram’s life that form one major sequence of the narrative: Tristram’s mishandled conception, birth and christening, and his accidental circumcision by a falling window sash.

But to describe them as a sequence belies the screwy time scheme of the book, which is by turns stretched and squashed, folded back on itself and internally disordered. The author’s preface turns up in the third volume, when Tristram’s mother is giving birth (to him) and the Shandy men have dozed off: “All my heroes are off my hands; – ’tis the first time I have had a moment to spare, – and I’ll make use of it, and write my preface”. The end, “Finis,” comes at the close of the fourth. In the sixth volume, as if regretting his tendency to digress, Tristram suggests he will get on with the story from then on “in a tolerable straight line.” He immediately jumps to a travelogue in France. At one point, Tristram notes it is a year since he started writing, and he’s not even a day old in the book. He’s falling ever further behind.

Throughout, Tristram’s voice is the only real sense of continuity. A precursor of the stream-of-consciousness style, it runs on the association of ideas, with an idiosyncratic use of dashes to mimic the structure of thought and conversation. The dashes cover every page, varying in length and expressivity but showing the seams between one idea and the next that chips in, usually before the first was fully formed. They give a sense of constant improvisation.

But to call the voice Tristram’s is a simplification. It knows things it shouldn’t, and doesn’t know things it should. Sterne himself comes close to the surface at times, like when he finds space in each new volume to parody the critics who’d said rude things about the last. “Sterne is playing with veracity, voice and identity,” says Patrick Wildgust, curator of Shandy Hall, a museum in the Yorkshire house where Sterne wrote Tristram Shandy. “When you try to get down to the crucial point, the mist rolls in and we just don’t know. And that’s rather good.”

If the tone of the book was whimsical, Sterne was absolutely serious about its physical production. His surviving letters to publishers are exacting in their demands about paper quality, print type and lay out, and he would supervise the printing of each volume. That’s because they involved some very particular visual elements, including three famous disruptions to the text.

A tall tale

The first appears midway through volume one, as Tristram narrates the dying moment of Parson Yorick. As the chapter ends, the facing page is simply black, a slab of ink, as is its reverse side. The second is a marbled page found in the third volume. Originally, these were marbled by hand before being stuck into each book. In modern editions, the marbled page is monochrome and uniform, robbing it of its meaning. The idea was that each reader would have a unique design in hand – that everyone was reading the same book, and yet in fact their copy was singular. And the third is a blank page, at the end of the sixth volume, when Tristram introduces Mrs Wadham, and tells the reader to get a pen and “paint her to your own mind – as like your mistress as you can – as unlike your wife as your conscience will let you – ’tis all one to me – please but your own fancy in it.”

“Sterne certainly made his ideas manifest,” says Wildgust. “The marbled page is beautiful. The black page is unpredictable. And with the blank page he is saying that the most important thing of any book is the imagination you bring to it.”

On the face of it, Tristram Shandy was unprecedented. Sterne was a parish priest who had done some journalism and a bit of satire, and then, aged 46, sat down and wrote this completely unique book. But the influences are there to be found.

At that time in the 18th Century, the novel did not exist in the form and prominence it does today. But several authors and their imitators had already established conventions. One was Henry Fielding, whose omniscient third-person narrator in Tom Jones is a clear precursor to that of Tristram Shandy. Two others were Samuel Richardson, with Pamela and Clarissa, and Daniel Defoe, whose book Robinson Crusoe helped introduce the tradition of the cradle-to-grave story: “I was born in the Year 1632, in the City of York…,” it begins. Sterne, of course, took that idea to an absurd extreme. But he was also looking further back, imitating Don Quixote and Rabelais, as critics of the time noted. “There was a paradoxical sense of it being both innovative and imitative at the same time,” says Hawley.

Tristram Shandy set the stage for experimental literature

Although the first two volumes of Tristram Shandy were rejected by Robert Dodsley, the London publisher, and had to be privately printed, they were an instant hit. The nine volumes were published over a period of seven or eight years in installments. (Sterne doesn’t seem to have planned it out, as Charles Dickens later did with his serialisations. He might well have come back to Tristram for fame or food.) But not all the critics were convinced. In 1776, no less a figure than Dr Johnson proclaimed, with mirthless certainty, "Nothing odd will do long. 'Tristram Shandy' did not last.”

But last it did. And not just in itself, but in its influence elsewhere. “Dickens had the self-consciousness about time; Thackeray had a Doctor Slope based on Doctor Slop,” says Hawley. “One of the enduring legacies into the 19th Century was the character of Uncle Toby, the sentimental, lovable hero. I think Mr Dick of David Copperfield is partly based on him… But it’s in the 20th Century that you get people imitating the formal experiments much more: the craziness with time, the radical experiments with chopping up pages.” And the 2005 film adaptation of the book, Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, is similarly unconventional – with an elaborate, digressive structure, and lots of dark humour.

Tristram Shandy set the stage for experimental literature. It was perhaps the first stream-of-consciousness narrative – a style later adopted by James Joyce. Sterne’s exploration of what constitutes a novel, and of the relationship between author and reader had a big influence on writers like Virginia Woolf. Then the way he challenged the reader’s passivity and invited moments of reflection – not least through the special pages – introduced a shot of chance and individuality to every reader’s experience with the book. Perhaps that’s why it still feels so avant-garde.

“You can analyse something, you can create it formally, and you can turn it into an experiment with a quod erat demonstrandum at the bottom, but also it does have to have life pulsing in it somewhere, that is often reliant on chance,” says Wildgust. “And that ingredient in Tristram Shandy is the one that is the most significant. The emblem of Sterne’s work – the marbled page – was created by chance.”

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