The Stuff That Dreams Are Made On: Paper, Ink, Letter and Word

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word though there Sterne is attention black and of aware deal recommend the stridulous parcel burn it

In Tristram Shandy, Laurence Sterne draws the reader’s attention to the stuff a book is made of: the pages, the spaces, the ink, the letters, and the words. I have already written about this in “Tristram Shandy ****s Up the Page,” but much more could be said about the earliest and still most complete metafictional novel ever written.

Sterne makes us aware of the page by leaving large sections of the page blank, such as on 144 where there are two  empty spaces framed by Latin quotes, one at the top of the page and one in the middle. Sometimes he leaves blank spaces and invites readers to fill in the space with their own words, such as when he asks readers to add whatever swear words they prefer (in response to the realization that Tristram had left his remarks in a Chaise, a kind of carriage, which he had sold): “I leave this void space that the reader may swear into it any oath that he is most accustomed to” (428). I didn’t actually write in the worst oath I could think of (                                         !), but I certainly imagined it.

The page, after all, is nothing without the ink; it is “no more than the vehicle—–and that the oil and lamp black with which the paper is so strongly impregnated does the business” (265). Sterne makes the ink obvious by including a completely black page, front and back (33 and 34) and by referring directly to ink, as when speaking of the terrible battles of literary history which have caused “so much gall and inkshed” (73).

He draws our attention to letters that writing is made of by including two (incomplete) alphabetical lists: “Lord A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, L, M, N, O, P, Q, and so on” (17 – 18), and the wonderful acrostic about LOVE.

“—–Love is certainly, at least alphabetically speaking, one of the most

A gitating
B ewitching
C onfounded
D evilish affairs of life–the most
E xtravagant
F utilitous
G alligaskinish
H andy-dandyish
I racundulous (there is no K to it) and
L yrical of all human passions: at the same time, the most
M isgiving
N innyhammering
O bstipating
P ragmatical
S tridulous
R idiculous—–though by the bye the R should have gone first” (448).

Many of these words are invented words, though based on other words, indicating the arbitrariness of words long before Sausurre and structuralism. Notice though that he insists on the correct spellin of “irancundulous,” — “there is no K in it.” He also plays around a great deal with typeface by using all of the options available to him: bold, italics (perhaps the first to use italics to indicate thought), CAPITAL LETTERS, letters in various fonts, other alphabets and even pointing hands.

He uses different languages to make us aware of the kinds of words in the world and makes us keenly aware of the disconnect between the languages by translating Slawkenbergh’s tale, which is barely four pages long with eighteen pages of translation. Clearly a translated text is not the same as the original.

Book materials often figure prominently in the plot. In the story of the hot chestnut which falls into Phutatorius’ open fly and burns his *****. The recommended cure is a literally a literary one: “send to the next printer, and trust your cure to such a simple thing as a soft sheet of paper just come off the press—–you need do nothing more than twist it round” (265). The only stipulation to curing a burn (which I remind you is fictional) with paper is that the pages must not contain any bawdry, any lewd material, which might be transfer some lewdness by osmosis to the poor man’s *****.

Ealier I mentioned the scene where Tristram loses his remarks. Throughout this scene, there is a delightful confusion between the remarks themselves and their written form on page. Tristram first thinks his remarks where stolen, implying simple theft or plagiarism, “(which, by the bye, may be a caution to travellers to take a little more care of their remarks for the future)” (428).

He later asks Mr. Commissary if he had dropped any remarks as he stood beside him. Mr. Commissary replies that ihe had indeed dropped a great many. “Pugh! said I, those were but a few, not worth above six livres two sous—–but these are a large parcel” (428).

To trace down his remarks, Tristram goes the seller and finds out who has purchased the chaise then goes to ask for his remarks back. Alas, he finds his remarks have been turned into a hairdo, the pages have been twisted into papillotes. “O Seigneur! cried I—–you have got all my remarks upon your head, Madam” (430). He is relived, however, that his remarks did not go any further than the top of her head: “’tis well, thinks I, they have stuck there—for could they have gone deeper, they would have made such confusion in a Frenchwoman’s noodle—–She had better have gone with it unfrizzled to the day of eternity” (430).

At his insistence she removes his remarks from her head and puts them in his hat (again associated with the head), one twisted this way and the other that. Tristram adds, “ay’ by my faith; and when they are published; quoth I,—– They will be worse twisted still” (430). Once he has his remarks his says, “And so away I posted” (430). In other words, Tristram mails himself away, becoming nothing more than a document himself that can be delivered.

(Check out my posts: Tristram Shandy ****s Up the PageProgressive Digressions in Tristram ShandyThis is not the name of another post about Tristram ShandyHistory is an Angel Blown Backward Through Time.) To read more about metafiction, check out my book Narrative Madness, available at or on Amazon.)

Sterne, Laurence. Tristram Shandy. New York: The New American Library of World Literature, Inc., 1960.

word though there Sterne is attention black and of aware deal recommend the stridulous parcel burn it
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2 thoughts on “The Stuff That Dreams Are Made On: Paper, Ink, Letter and Word”

  1. I would have included some ______________ remarks (insert your own words) if my 7 year old boy Andre’ had not spilled orange juice on them and completely washed them away. (Of course that is fiction).

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