I happened to notice that Michael Winterbottom’s Cock and Bull Story – his brilliant reworking of Laurence Sterne’s classic eighteenth century ‘novel’ Tristram Shandy – was on telly the other night. Long regarded as unfilmable, Winterbottom engages the book on its own terms by throwing complexity at it. He makes the film about an attempt to make a film of the unfilmable book, and allows the question of when and whether the actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon can be identified with the central characters ‘Steve Coogan’ and ‘Rob Brydon’ to fold endlessly in on itself (a process all three have continued to ramp up even further in the comedy foodie travelogues The Trip and The Trip to Italy, which could perhaps be seen as time-travelling Shandean footnotes (foodnotes? Oh dear. I do hope no-one has read this far)).
Anyway, not content with deconstructing the conventions of novel writing almost as they are being formulated (basically, Tristram is trying to tell the story of his life, but keeps being forced backwards by the necessity of explaining what has gone before, digressing and amplifying whenever he encounters something that interests him, to the extent that he does not even get as far as describing his own birth until volume three) Sterne sets about doing the same for printing and bookbinding, which is why I mention it here. His use of formal and typographical invention – printing a squiggly line to describe the flourish of a stick being wielded by a character holding forth on the freedoms of unmarried life (pictured left), or printing a solid black page when a character dies – unpick the fledgling conventions of eighteenth century publishing that the industry is only just beginning to knit together.
And Sterne has acted as an inspiration for other authors who wanted to push against the formal conventions of bookmaking. The twentieth century English novelist BS Johnson created both deeply personal and formally challenging works which refused to compromise in any way to make life easier for either his readers or his publishers. He is the subject of Jonathan Coe’s fabulous 2005 biography Like a Fiery Elephant, which I very much enjoyed reading, but was troubled by the device in Albert Angelo (the story of a dissatisfied stand-in teacher) whereby holes are cut through certain pages to allow the reader to glimpse events set further forward in the book… I took this to be an attempt to physically embody a sense of foreboding, which I can see is a brilliant device, but which (speaking as a printer) more than anything made me imagine what a nightmare to typeset and bind it must have been!
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