It’s difficult to call The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman a novel. The first of its nine volumes appeared in 1759, while the novel was still being developed as a genre. But that’s not why the term “novel” seems pathetically imprecise for this book. Endlessly digressive, the title character isn’t even born in his own supposed autobiography until about a third of the way through. Large portions of texts are cribbed from other writers (if adapted to new purposes). But most fascinating to me is Laurence Sterne’s use of the physical traits of the book to add meaning to his text.
Most obviously, Sterne uses unusual punctuation to create meaning. The copious and expressive dashes jump out even with the quickest of flips through any edition of Tristram Shandy. One of my favorites is just after Phutatorius has dropped a hot chestnut onto his…lap. The chapter begins with the curse Zounds! It is followed by dashes covering more than two full lines, then another curse—but this time: Z—ds! “As if,” according to J. Paul Hunter, “on second thought, Phutatorius has the propriety to censor himself.”
But Sterne didn’t just drive the printer and his compositors crazy with minute demands over punctuation and other typographical quirks (such as purposefully including bad French grammar the compositors kept trying to fix). He incorporated entirely unexpected pages as well:
The Black Page (I, p. 73): Memorializing the late Parson Yorick
The Interactive Blank Page (VI, p. 147): The reader is encouraged to draw a picture here of the Widow Wadman “as like your mistress as you can—as unlike your wife as your conscience will let you.”
The Skipped Pages (IV, ch. 24): This chapter doesn’t even exist. Nine pages are omitted, once again leaving the printer with an irritating scenario: now the right-hand page picks up with an even-numbered page number 156—whereas in every other book the right-hand page is always odd numbered.
It would be easy to dismiss these gimmicks as part of some shallow shtick. But there is more going on here than first meets the eye.
I think we’re ready to talk about the Marbled Page (III, p. 169). I love this page something fierce.
I’ve spoken elsewhere about paper marbling, one of the most beautiful and unusual arts used in book production. Sterne insisted on incorporating a page, marbled on both sides to the dimensions fitting the text, and calling it:
“(motly emblem of my work!)”
Let’s unpack that parenthetical. By nature, the process of marbling paper creates a unique page every time. Each page features a variegated design, special to that marbling’s moment of conception. These dappled glories are a powerful visual metaphor for the philosophy behind this work.
This wandering, unexpected, bawdy, silly, gorgeous, labyrinthine work.
The clergyman Sterne would likely have appreciated a later celebration of the peculiar by the Jesuit priest Gerard Manly Hopkins:
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
(“Pied Beauty,” 1918)
Do you know how expensive it would have been to create these handmade marbled pages, with the additional work of the careful folds to match the dimensions of the text? Sterne hides behind the appearance of whimsy, but underneath the façade he is going to great lengths to allow some brilliant notions to boil.
(Forgive me. I’m about to borrow from Sterne and use a typographical quirk to communicate an aural concept. Given the expense of marbling, many later editions—and most modern editions—depict the marbled page with a black-and-white photocopy of a marbled page WHICH ENTIRELY DEFEATS THE POINT OF THE BEAUTIFUL UNIQUE SNOWFLAKE CONCEPT at the heart of it. These editions have–yes, I’ll say it–metaphorically ripped the heart out of Tristram Shandy.)
(While we’re digressing, I can happily say that not all modern editions disappoint. More particularly, Visual Editions has published a stunning edition that updates Sterne’s quirks, such as a page of redacted lines in place of the Black Page. Oh, it is lovely.)
In an important article about the marbled page, Peter J. De Voogd argues that the page is more than a symbol of Sterne’s style, but a commentary on how we read: “Each marbling is unique, as is each reading of Tristram Shandy. It is fitting that your copy of Tristram Shandy is different from mine, since your subjective experience of the book is different.”
But I’d like to take it a step further. This book is the character Tristram Shandy’s attempt at an autobiography. When Tristram then calls the marbled page the “emblem of my work,” he is drawing a direct connection between the page and his own life.
The marbled page is more than a symbol of his style, or of the reader’s experience. The marbled page is each of us, in our own glorious “pied beauty.”
Sources and Further Reading:
- The J. Paul Hunter quote is from his article, “From Typology to Type: Agents of Change in Eighteenth-Century English Texts,” in Cultural Artifacts and the Production of Meaning: The Page, the Image, and the Body ed. by Margaret J.M. Ezell and Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe.
- The Voogd quote is from his article, “Laurence Sterne, the marbled page, and ‘the use of accidents’,” in A Journal of Verbal/Visual Enquiry, 1:3.
- Also check out Voogd’s article “Tristram Shandy as aesthetic object,” in Word & Image: A Journal of Verbal/Visual Enquiry, 4:1.
- For more somewhat related visual-literary criticism, take a look at Christopher Fanning’s “On Sterne’s Page: Spatial Layout, Spatial Form, and Social Spaces in Tristram Shandy,” in Eighteenth-Century Fiction, 10:4; and W.B. Blake’s book Laurence Sterne and the visual Imagination.
- A couple of years ago there were two amazing fundraisers for the Laurence Sterne Trust centering on the Marbled Page and the Black Page as inspirations for original new art. This is my form of internet nerd heaven.