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Laurence Sterne's Black and Marbled Pages

Posted by Josh Rothman  May 31, 2011 07:06 AM

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Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy (full title: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman) is one of the weirdest books in the Western canon. Written from 1759 to 1769 in seven volumes, it tells the madcap life story of its title character in the most digressive way possible. Sterne, in the eighteenth century, wrote fiction that seems wildly 'postmodern' even by today's standards: the novel 'remixed,' for instance, the text of other books to the point of plagiarism (a prime source, hilariously, was Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy).

Sterne used visual and typographic tricks, too. There are two very famous ones. The first is the Black Page: When Yorick, the town parson, dies, Sterne frames the words "Alas, Poor Yorick!" in a little box, and then fills the opposite page -- page 73 -- with black ink, laid on so thickly that it shows through on the other side. It provides a surprising, moving counterpoint to the book's wordy excesses, as though, when it comes to death, no words are necessary or will do. Tristram Shandy has always been an inspiration to other writers and artists (grad students everywhere are still waiting on the minimalist composer Michael Nyman, who has been working for decades to turn the book into an opera). In 2009, to mark the 250th anniversary of the Black Page, 73 artists made their own black pages in an exhibition organized by The Laurence Sterne Trust; the artworks were displayed in Sterne's home, Shandy Hall, in Yorkshire.

This year, meanwhile, is the 250th anniversary of the colorful Marbled Page, which Sterne called "the motley emblem of my work." It appears in Volume III, on page 169. On the page opposite the marbling, Sterne wrote:

I tell you before-hand, you had better throw down the book at once, for without much reading, by which your reverence knows, I mean much knowledge, you will no more be able to penetrate the moral of the next marbled page (motly emblem of my work!) than the world with all its sagacity has been able to unraval the many opinions, transactions and truths which still lie mystically hid under the dark veil of the black one.

Sterne's printers made sure that every edition of the book used a different pattern for the Marbled Page, allowing the "motly emblem" to change over time. (Unfortunately, modern editions of the book usually reprint the same marbling in black and white.) To mark the anniversary, a second exhibition is being mounted in Shandy Hall -- this time with 169 artists. You can watch online as the new marbled pages are posted one-by-one over the coming months. In the meantime, it's worth looking back at Tristram Shandy. The book, written at a time when novels were new and hadn't yet settled into a conventional shape, is continually challenging and surprising. And with his two famous pages, Sterne created a singular work of art: death and life, represented simply and vividly.


Laurence Sterne by Joshua Reynolds.
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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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