A close look at the swirls of Tristram Shandy’s famous marbled page, which helped define the art of the modern novel
Here’s a marbled page from the book’s first edition:
Why all the fuss about a single page of a single book? Well, it’s not just any page. First, there’s the fact that the design itself, particularly in the 18th century, was exceedingly exotic: Richard J. Wolfe, writing inMarbled Paper: Its History, Techniques, and Patterns, notes that the craft of marbling, which flourished in Turkey and elsewhere in the Middle East, first became known to Europeans only in the 16th and 17th centuries, and commercial production in England did not begin until the 1770s. One reason this took so long is that making marbled paper is complicated: liquid pigments are suspended on a liquid medium, creating the colorful swirls, and then transferred to paper laid upon them. In the case of Tristram Shandy‘s first edition, this was done by hand and repeated on both the front and back of a single page with the margins folded in—a process so involved that later versions of the book usually resorted to mechanized reproductions. Stranger still was that the book, the first volume of which appeared in 1759, used marbled paper at a time when it was still almost unknown in England. The appearance of the material in the novel, Wolfe writes, was “a curious and intriguing development that has about it some of the mysterious elements of a modern spy thriller.”
The marbled page also has unusual literary significance. As the Sterne Trust puts it, on the preceding page “Sterne tells the reader that the next marbled page is the ‘motly emblem of my work’—the page communicating visually that his work is endlessly variable, endlessly open to chance.” In encapsulates the spirit of the pioneering book as a whole, and gets at the good old—or, in Sterne’s case, not yet invented—theme of the reader’s personal subjectivity. In the words of Sterne scholar Peter de Voogd, “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.”
In most contemporary editions of the book, the marbled page is the same for every copy, in black and white rather than color. Still, it serves as a reminder of how this wildly eccentric book filled with wildly eccentric characters pushed the limits of how graphics can interact with words. The “black page,” for example, mourns the death of a particular character, and there’s also a squiggly line indicating the motion of a stick in the air. Call it a relative of design books that examine text, like Arabic Graffiti (recently featured here on Life by Maria Popova), or the subjectivity-saturated literary pyrotechnics of Ulysses. Just don’t lump it in with most other early novels—which, especially in the case of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, are sometimes so anesthetizingly boring as to make you want to reach for, well, a hot chestnut.
Images: Courtesy of the Laurence Sterne Trust
JUN 13 2011, 11:38 AM ET – http://www.theatlantic.com/life/archive/2011/06/the-250th-birthday-of-english-literatures-most-unusual-page/240278/#slide4