Image: © Visual Editions
Image: © Visual Editions
Image: © Visual Editions
Image: © Visual Editions
Image: © Visual Editions
Image: © Visual Editions
Image: © Visual Editions
Image: © Visual Editions
Image: © APFEL

Looking and reading simultaneously: A Practice for Everyday Life on "Tristram Shandy"

[TPL’S NOTE: This piece by Helen Williams was originally published in the 23rd volume of the scholarly journal The Shandean (2012) and is reproduced here by kind permission of the editors, who made us very happy by granting it.]

APFEL love typography. When the London-based designers were commissioned to design the brand identity for The Hepworth Wakefield they created a new typeface, Hepworth, in collaboration with Emma Williams. They hung neon text-lighting from the gallery walls in the “Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990” exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum. For the Bauhaus exhibition at the Barbican they employed an updated, digital version of Breite Grotesk, an iconic letterpress font used by the Bauhaus (FF Bau, designed by Christian Schwartz). And in 2010, when approached by publisher Visual Editions, they tackled “Tristram Shandy” (fig. 1). In that typography informs so much of their work, it is perhaps unsurprising that APFEL have been so successful at reinvigorating the most typographically renowned novel of the eighteenth century; the resulting volume was shortlisted for ‘Designs of the Year 2010’ in the graphics category.

APFEL have succeeded in pinpointing the innovations in “Tristram Shandy”. They expand one paragraph of dashes (representing Tristram’s skim-reading) to ten pages of orange lines (7.544-54); the fading cries of Amandus and Amanda literally become fainter through being represented in paler ink (7.534); manicules gesture boldly from the very edge of the paper (2.116; 6.443) (fig. 2); while the ‘T’ of ‘to a T’ looms large and fluorescent orange beneath the rest of the text on the page (2.099) (fig. 3). Each of these examples describe instances in which APFEL have shaken up typesetting innovations in Sterne’s novel, reinterpreting them for a modern audience, but they also contribute additional innovations to “Tristram Shandy”. Just as a contemporary reader of Sterne’s may have wondered who exactly was responsible for the experiments in the strange little volumes – typesetter, editor or author – modern readers are encouraged to ponder the origins of each experiment in the Visual Editions book: which devices were inspired by those in the first edition, and which were devised by APFEL? Regardless of how we answer this question, each time APFEL surprise us with such a typographic innovation we are encouraged to align their approach with that of Sterne, and to view his comparative experiments in the first edition of “Tristram Shandy” not only as authorship but as book design.

But it is not just typography that APFEL manipulate in the Visual Editions work. The designers’ experience of working with museums and galleries also makes itself felt throughout their bookish endeavour, as they treat Sterne’s nine duodecimo volumes not merely as texts but as three-dimensional artefacts, much as he did: ‘do, Sir, sit down upon a set’ (6.426). Accordingly, APFEL have changed the shape and the feel of the petite volumes, making their own weighty tome distinctive by carving into its contours. The point at which Tristram demands the reader ‘——————Shut the door——————’ is perhaps the most memorable, as APFEL print this line in orange, on a folded-down edge of paper, creating a physical divide in the volume between those pages addressed to simply anyone and those that remain reserved for the privileged readers admitted into Tristram’s confidence (1.019). APFEL literally tear out Sterne’s ‘torn-out’ pages, leaving a toothy gap in the codex and a margin-width stump in place of each page (4.322-33). They overlay Widow Wadman’s blank page with a smooth, reflective oval of varnish (6.483), splotches of which also appear on those pages dealing with radical moisture (5.408-9) (fig. 8). Such pages cry out to be touched.

APFEL’s methods are wide-ranging, as, indeed, were Sterne’s. And like Sterne, who exploited the range of technologies available to him and his contemporaries in the print shop, in the Visual Editions version of the novel APFEL have similarly utilised widely available print and graphic technologies in innovative and surprising ways. In many respects, through their visual and typographic ingenuity, APFEL’s “Tristram Shandy” looks, reads, and feels like a Sternean design. Consider, for example, the ways in which the designers have not only taken on (like Sterne’s old jacket described on the fly-leaf) Sterne’s ethos of appropriation-cum-experimentation, but they have also, whilst deploying so many twenty-first-century print techniques, retained many eighteenth-century print cultural references. The florescent orange ink, for example, used to emphasise the visual experiments in the book reminds us of the red ink occasionally used on the title-pages of popular or classic texts to highlight and advertise their contents. The skewed angle of the phrase ‘AND SO THE PEACE WAS MADE’ resembles “Clarissa’s” Mad Paper X (7.552), while the relocation of Sterne’s notes from the foot of the page to the margins gives the commentary the appearance, at times, of “A Tale of a Tub” (e.g. 2.149).

In this interview, APFEL explain their thoughts behind some of the most arresting visual and tactile devices in the Visual Editions “Tristram Shandy”. What unfolds is their desire to stay true to the original through deploying existing ‘graphic language’, tensions between natural pagination and stylistic intervention, and a love for the works of George Perec. Above all, however, by framing the novel within the modern context of book design, the designers’ conceptualisation of Sterne’s experiments, evident both in their creative response to Sterne’s classic text and their responses in this interview, helps inform our own understanding and appreciation of Sterne’s experimentation as it appeared in 1759.


Helen Williams: You have included your own visual pages, adding to the range that Sterne offered in the first edition. Could you describe for us your frontispiece to Slawkenbergius’s Tale (4.235)?

APFEL: Our ambition was to bring the book back to life again—breathing new life into the text, but finding the balance between adding new visual elements while staying faithful to the original spirit of the novel. Slawkenbergius’s Tale is a “stitched-in digest” of everything you might need to or not need to know about noses: ‘the excellency of the nose is in a direct arithmetical proportion to the excellency of the wearer’s fancy’ (3.226). The frontispiece was inspired by Sterne’s fascination with perfect noses—the nose here is an illustration of an imperfect nose printed over the idea of perfection represented by the golden triangle (fig. 5).

Helen Williams: Do you feel that there is a distinction between an illustration and a visual page?

APFEL: The visual elements in the book aren’t just decorative, they are inseparable from the text itself.

Helen Williams: Is your marbled page (fig. 9) the emblem of your work, or did you aim to reconceptualise the emblem of Sterne’s?

APFEL: Marbling was a process often used in eighteenth-century book printing on endpapers, but never before seen as an ‘illustration’. Sterne refers to the marbled page as ‘a motly emblem of my work’. We interpret this as that the marbled page is an illustration—its obscurity, colours, process are all considered and intended to be read into. Sterne was obsessed with the production of his volumes, and narrates the production of them alongside the other stories. Imagine the horror he would have felt if he saw the reproduction of identical marble pages in black and white (as you see in many editions). The very nature of marbling is that each one is different and it is a kind of abstraction that when Sterne puts a marbled page deliberately in the position of book plate, you read into it as you would an illustration rather than merely as decoration. Our new edition is printed lithographically. If Sterne or indeed Shandy were considering print production now, he would not be nostalgic and use marbling, but he would embrace the current printing techniques to communicate the same concept. We made parallels to the marble pattern with the moiré created from the clash in the dot-screen pattern in the superimposition of the litho printing plates. The moiré pattern created can be unpredictable and different on each issue—the effect could be interpreted as another chaotic, motley emblem, through which you may start to see the something more figurative or a hint to a later tale in the book (3.219-20).

Helen Williams: I was delighted to see a black page that didn’t take the shape of a gravestone (there are so many!). Are we right in thinking that your version of the black page is a printing of every word included in the novel up to the point of Yorick’s death (fig. 6)?

APFEL: Yes, the black page is the point in the text which marks the death of Yorick. We took all the text leading up to this point and overprinted it—basically an accumulation of his life in type (1.044-5).

Helen Williams: What do you think about the double-sidedness of Sterne’s black and marbled pages? Could you talk about why you opted for a two-page spread for the black page, and a mirror image for the marbled one?

APFEL: In the original, we guessed that the double-sidedness of these pages was a consequence of the printing process and the way that the book had been bound, as particularly if you were marbling a page, it would likely have been ‘tipped in’ later in the binding process. For our edition, the black pages’ appearance was partly determined by the way that they fell in the overall pagination of the book, whereas the mirroring of the marbled page is intended to echo Sterne’s original and emphasise the notion that it has been inserted into the book by itself and is distinct from the other pages.

Helen Williams: I couldn’t help thinking that some of the skewed type was reminiscent of Mad Paper X in “Clarissa”. Who are your biggest influences when it comes to typography and creative typesetting?

APFEL: Our typographic influences are quite diverse—we look to everything from Tschichold’s asymmetric typography to the work of Wim Crouwel, Herbert Spencer and Derek Birdsall, among others, and the poetic, experimental work of Marinetti, Apollinaire and Mallarmé. Then, of course, there’s the found lettering we have collected and sought out, as many graphic designers do; things like old signage, packaging, pamphlets, books and ephemera. Our studio is full of typographic samples and beautiful pieces of print that we have all picked up over the years.

Helen Williams: The fluorescent ink made a profound impact on my reading of the novel, especially on my ability to mentally process Sterne’s dash. I suppose it changed how I ‘hear’ Sterne’s prose, breaking up his long sentences into (appropriately) incomplete sound bites. I wonder if you could talk about the bits of the novel that you selected to be printed in the fluorescent ink, and perhaps about your choice of colour?

APFEL: We wanted to literally highlight the interventions that have a subtext. Initially we started by setting all the dashes at the same lengths as the original, and making all of them fluorescent orange (the various lengths mean either that Shandy is pausing for a length of time, or he is censoring something he is thinking whether it’s too obscene or deemed inappropriate). This ‘highlight’ then grew to become a language that encourages the reader to start looking and reading simultaneously, like two stories running hand in hand.

Helen Williams: You’ve changed the physical shape and the feel of the book, as in the folded page (fig. 7), the torn-out chapters, and the raised plasticky-bits on widow Wadman’s page and those dealing with radical moisture (fig. 8). Was this a response to Sterne’s vision of the novel as a tactile form? Could you talk about the fantastic raised dots?

APFEL: Simply reproducing the first edition would have been a very different project and a different challenge! Instead, by reading and studying the book we’ve pulled out interventions which Sterne made, and amplified them. Throughout the book, Sterne’s Shandy is obsessed with the book as a tactile form (as are we!), and also with the publishing and production of his book—he even writes about visiting the printing press and obsessing over every detail of its production. For us, therefore, it was key that (like the original) all our interventions would only use the graphic language and existing ‘tools’ of a book: typography, symbols, line, figures, paper, plates, printing ink. This also draws attention to the self-reflection of Shandy himself and the self-consciousness of the writing style. The dots are a varnish, illustrating the cold sweat that Shandy is experiencing at that moment; again, using a normal production technique that is relatively common to books and printing, but in an illustrative way.

Helen Williams: If you were going to design another visual book in the future, which novel would you choose and why?

APFEL: That’s a good question—there are so many books that we love, and that would be interesting to re-interpret through their design. J.G. Ballard’s “Crash” would be a potential candidate, as would Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven”, which might make a good, small book. The idea of applying this visual approach to poetry rather than prose is an interesting one, although the extent to which you can impose upon an existing text without changing it completely is something to be carefully considered. The work of Georges Perec is also overdue a visual overhaul, and would be a really wonderful project to work on.

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