This article examines the figure of an undulating line, or “squiggle,” printed initially in Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy and copied by two nineteenth-century writers: first, by the German E. T. A. Hoffmann, in a little-known fragment, and, second, more famously, by the French Honoré de Balzac as the epigraph to his novel La peau de chagrin. These three squiggles form a triangulated relationship of imitation across two centuries, three countries, and three languages. Through attention to William Hogarth’s line of beauty and Johann Caspar Lavater’s physiognomic contour lines, the article considers the history of the undulating line as a figure for reading. It suggests that, for Sterne, Hoffmann, and Balzac, the inclusion of a pictured line within text may be seen as a “reverse ekphrastic” maneuver, one that aims to reflect the movement of narrative in visual form. In this way, the “squiggle” is foregrounded as a new and concrete motif for comparative criticism on Hoffmann and Balzac, identifying a shared interest in Sterne, as well as in the relationship and entanglement of text and image.

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