The Life and Death of a Line: Saul Steinberg’s “The Labyrinth”

By Paul MortonMay 11, 2019

The Life and Death of a Line: Saul Steinberg’s “The Labyrinth”

The Labyrinth by Saul Steinberg

SAUL STEINBERG CALLED HIMSELF “a writer who draws.” Harold Rosenberg called him “a writer in pictures.” Critics compared him to Klee and Picasso, but reviews were just as likely to namedrop Joyce and Stendhal. He was friends with Nabokov as well as Saul Bellow, Primo Levi, William Gaddis, Donald Barthelme, John Hollander, Charles Simic, and Ian Frazier. Ulysses was his favorite novel. Nabokov’s essay on Gogol was his guidebook.

The tendency to think of Steinberg as a literary figure comes as much from his self-definition as it does from his identity as a New Yorker illustrator. His drawings would sometimes take up two-page spreads. Others would be wrapped by the text of a short story or a slice-of-life sketch. In this way they became another story to be read, one composed in an immigrant’s visual patois. (Steinberg grew up in Romania and studied in Italy before coming to the United States during World War II.) We read Steinberg’s wayward lines signifying nothing, his wispy depictions of Midwestern townscapes, his heavily inked Upper West Side partygoers. This approach raises questions. Is a Steinberg drawing a sentence in Lolita, a page in Ulysses, or one of Barthelme’s sit-down comic riffs? Are any of these images as thick and complete as a good paragraph? And if so, are we supposed to spend as much time studying every turn and every oddball gesture as we do rereading Lolita, intent on getting every joke in every word?

New York Review Books has just reissued Steinberg’s The Labyrinth, originally published by Harper in 1960. It’s a compilation of work from 1954 to 1960, much of it magazine pieces, mostly for The New Yorker. But it also contains drawings from murals that had been presented in Milan and Brussels, backdrops for a production of Rossini’s Count Ory, and drawings that had not up to that point been published. Steinberg rearranged this six years’ worth of material into an abstract, autobiographical narrative, about art, sex, children, language, politics, rural life, cultural memory, urbanization, the body, women, men, America, and Russia. Harper marketed The Labyrinth as a coffee-table book, a present for Christmas 1960. It didn’t sell, and the reviews, though positive, were unenthusiastic, treating Steinberg as an unorthodox comedian, a brilliant doodler.

Today we are more likely to take The Labyrinth as a graphic novel, which is to say our own conception of writing in pictures. But I would like to offer an alternative model. If you pick up The Labyrinth — and you should, since it exemplifies the great work NYRB does reviving landmarks of visual culture — go ahead and read it. But also watch it. Pause on a page the way you would on a cartoon streaming online, and study the frame. Take a moment and look at the lines. Then hit the play button and keep watching.

The best way to read The Labyrinth, I would like to propose, is as an animated film in book form.

Page 1: On the far left, we see the artist, materialized as a short, slightly craggy horizontal line to describe the mouth; a nose formed by a downward arrow; two faint half-circular eyes. His five oval fingers hold a pen, just a straight line at an obtuse angle from the long horizontal line that will bisect the following seven pages. Steinberg is announcing himself as the author of an epic. Our eye runs along this line, whose meaning changes drastically every few inches. First, it’s an x-axis against a y-axis, some accompanying shapes suggesting that it may be an illustration for a geometric formula, or a plan for a building. (Steinberg had trained as an architect.) Then it is the ground upon which an alligator stands — Steinberg loved alligators, as well as cats, and caricatures of Don Quixote — staring back at the geometric shapes and Steinberg himself. A detached shadow of the alligator’s body falls across the line, and the line keeps running onto …

Saul Steinberg, “The Labyrinth,” p. 1. Image courtesy of New York Review Books.

Page 2: Now it is the ground for a pyramid with another detached shadow, presumably on Egyptian sand. But then it’s the ground for a medieval knight, and then a camel with a rider carrying an umbrella, and then a friendly Sphinx. Our eye keeps running into an Italianate building, and the reflections across the line are no longer detached shadows, but reflections on the water. We’re in Venice! Our eye drops below the bottom of the page, where Steinberg’s hand has also jumped, and there are the various depictions of life at sea, as well as some Venetian gondolas, all of it rewriting our idea of what is concrete and what is supposedly a faint suggestion of the concrete, while the steady line above eventually arrives at …

Saul Steinberg, “The Labyrinth,” p. 2. Image courtesy of New York Review Books.

Page 3. Here it becomes the ground for another Venetian building and then the dividing line between the sidewalk and an American drugstore, seen from the rooftop. In this high-angle shot, a man looks up at us. Before we grow too full of ourselves, the line becomes a clothesline, but not for long because it’s running off the page to …

Saul Steinberg, “The Labyrinth,” p. 3. Image courtesy of New York Review Books.

There are four more pages of this, all of it work that originally appeared on a children’s mural at the Triennial in Milan in 1954. On the horizontal pages of The Labyrinth — whose dimensions are 10.8 by 11.7 inches to the page, 10.8 by 23.4 to each two-page spread — the reader’s eye absorbs each image individually, but is always aware of the movement of a thin line of ink spilling from the artist’s pen we saw on page one. From this ink emerge abstract shapes and bodies and children’s scribbles. Can we really call this writing? Like Steinberg, I read Nabokov on Gogol. Forgive me for the length of the quote:

The peripheral characters of [Dead Souls] are engendered by the subordinate clauses of its various metaphors, comparisons and lyrical outbursts. We are faced by the remarkable phenomenon of mere forms of speech directly giving rise to live creatures. This is perhaps the most typical example of how this happens.

“Even the weather had obligingly accommodated itself to the setting: the day was neither bright nor gloomy but of a kind of bluey-grey tint such as is found only upon the worn-out uniforms of garrison soldiers, for the rest a peaceful class of warriors except for their being somewhat inebriate on Sundays.”

It is not easy to render the curves of this life-generating syntax in English so as to bridge the logical, or rather biological, hiatus between a dim landscape under a dull sky and a groggy old soldier accosting the reader with a rich hiccup on the festive outskirts of the very same sentence. Gogol’s trick consists in using as a link the word “vprochem” (“for the rest,” “otherwise,” “d’ailleurs”) which is a connection only in the grammatical sense but mimics a logical link, the word “soldiers” alone affording a faint pretext for the juxtaposition of “peaceful”; and as soon as this false bridge of “vprochem” has accomplished its magical work these mild warriors cross over, staggering and singing themselves into that peripheral existence with which we are already familiar.

I don’t know if this quality is unique to Gogol, or Nabokov is describing something we can find in almost every Romantic poet or on every page of Finnegans Wake. But Nabokov’s account of Gogol’s prose does illuminate The Labyrinth’s own constant engagement with the idea of metamorphosis, the transformation from one object to the next, the inorganic to the organic to the inorganic and the organic again. In this process, Steinberg’s book offers no means for any one object to return to its previous form. It pushes us forward. We may remember page one’s depiction of the line as an x-axis when we see it become a clothesline at the end of page three. That line will never be an x-axis again.

There are 244 pages after these first seven. As with a comic book, one experiences The Labyrinth as one two-page spread at a time. The eye first absorbs the entirety of the spread, dancing up and down the pages in zigzags but always drawn, eventually, from left to the right. Every page turn offers at least two, if not more, complementary images.

The animated qualities aren’t always so obvious, but they are there. On page 166, a Don Quixote, stout and robot-like, points his lance in a straight horizontal directly at the silhouette of a bull whose hairs stick out of his sides as sharp as knives. On page 167, to the right, is a crayon drawing of a shoeshine man and his bourgeois customer in an outdoor café in a European city, probably Paris, city dwellers obscured by shadows in the background. On one hand, we step back and think of the two pages as sharing the same compositional frame and, more vaguely, the same theme. The spear of Don Quixote cuts through the middle of the page, just as the top of the café table seems to bisect its page. The heavily blackened bull, a visual pun on the people in the background on the facing page, submits to Don Quixote as the shoeshine man submits to his customer. Thinking through the images as a narrative, we understand that the two pages not only complement one another, but that the right page has emerged from the left. Don Quixote has become that prim customer. His face is just as fixed, but he’s been transformed from a figure poised for violence into an upper-class man consumed with contempt for something we don’t know about. The bull has split apart, become both the shoeshine man and the street dwellers. A child’s idea of a myth from global literature has become an idea of city life in postwar Europe. The violence of the first image has not so much disappeared as been transmuted into something more subtle.

Saul Steinberg, “The Labyrinth,” p. 2. Image courtesy of New York Review Books.

Saul Steinberg, “The Labyrinth,” p. 167. Image courtesy of New York Review Books.

The two drawings were made one year apart. Neither of them had been published before. But placed together they tell a story.

Steinberg’s landscapes and cityscapes form my favorite moments of The Labyrinth. Page 112: Boxes of violent short scribbles articulates Midwestern farmland, while in between these scratches we make out what look to be words: “USFD CARE,” or is it a misspelled “Used Cars”? On the opposite page, Steinberg draws a more conventional sketch of a commercial district in a Midwestern town, employing linear perspective. There are store windows, but we don’t see what’s inside them. The drawing shows three cars on the street and six people in total. It’s heavily cross-hatched, but most of the space is empty. The second drawing comes from his mural The Americans, which had been presented in Brussels. The first had, until then, been unpublished. Taken together they illustrate the foreign traveler’s sense of middle America, in which kilometers and kilometers of farm space take on an abstract quality, interrupted every few hours by a modest town trapped forever at the turn of the late 19th or early 20th century.

Taken together, the book’s images subvert style in favor of voice. Those hard-cut lines describing the Midwestern landscape pun on a series of drawings which rethink our idea of cartoon language. Look on page 22 at a group of partygoers accompanied by lines suggesting smoke from their cigarettes, and speech bubbles made up of lines written in a language that may or may not be comprehensible to the characters. We sense the sound of this language, the accent, even if we can’t describe the language in words. Then on page 112, we see that those scribbles describing cartoon speech have become landscape. The Labyrinth is a celebration of synesthesia. By the time we get to the concept art at the end of the book, in which Steinberg plays games with actual English words, we don’t know if those word-images still retain their original meaning or whether he has endowed them with new definitions.

Nabokov discussed how Gogol makes our eyes gogolized. Although “Steinbergian” made its way into Larousse in the early 1980s, I’m not so sure if our eyes ever become truly Steinberg-ized. His mixture of cartoon and high-art styles, his sudden, dizzying transformations of technique, force a constant radical transformation of our vision, but never settle on a particular idea. Instability — the constant death of images and worldviews that we experience with every turn of the page — is in fact the point.

I’m not the first to place Steinberg in the tradition of animation. His influence on the medium goes back to the 1940s, when artists at UPA used Steinberg’s caricatures as the basis for the design of their modernist shorts. The most Steinbergian film does not come from the United States, however, but from Nedeljko Dragić, whose Diary (1974) chronicles the Yugoslav animator’s travels in America. Dragić’s film is not readily available online, but can be found in the now-ancient 2000 DVD collection The Best of Zagreb Film. As in The Labyrinth, bodies from one art school morph into another, highways become farmland, and grotesque caricatures — of upper-class partygoers, of anthropomorphized animals themselves parodying American cartoons — complement one another, demanding work on the viewer’s part to determine why they appear together in the same frame. In contrast to UPA’s jump-cut-heavy, limited animation of the 1950s, Dragić’s animation is seamless and full. He fills in the gaps between his drawings with considerable detailing, doing by hand the work that the reader/viewer of The Labyrinth does with their imagination.

Dragić, who first encountered the Romanian-American Steinberg’s work in a Polish magazine, spoke of the influence of Steinberg on his animation, attributing Steinberg's sensibility to his East European background. Maybe. Both Diary and The Labyrinth tell the story of a Balkanite’s journey in the United States. Both express an adult foreigner’s instinct to experience the great power from a child’s perspective. But the former work suggests the alienation of the foreign traveler and the latter the alienation of the immigrant. In The Labyrinth, the memory of Old Europe constantly impinges on America, a country nowhere near as young as it believes itself to be.

The Labyrinth, moreover, does something neither the traditional animated film nor the traditional graphic novel can. It is an elliptical book. It demands to be read, but you can never finish reading it. You can never resist the urge to turn a few pages back to jog your memories. You watch it, but you never finish doing so. You are always forced to hit the rewind button, sometimes all the way to the beginning. And you close the book. And you stare again at the image on the front cover. A man in a suit and tie. A rabbit inside his head, peaking through an eyehole. You know it’s hilarious, but you don’t know why. What the hell is that rabbit looking at? What are you looking at? What did you just watch? Okay. Hit the play button again. Fast forward. Pause. Rewind a few seconds. Pause and read a line or two. After a while, it’s just exhausting. Put the book down on the coffee table.

It is here, in his book’s form rather than its content, that Steinberg arguably best captures the life of an immigrant, struggling to learn, to feel a new language.


Paul Morton recently received his PhD from the Department of Comparative Literature, Cinema and Media at the University of Washington, where he wrote a dissertation on the Zagreb School of animation.

LARB Contributor

Paul Morton is a writer based in Seattle, where he obtained a PhD in cinema studies from the University of Washington. His work, which focuses on comics and animation, can be found in Literary Hub, Full Stop, and The Millions. His email is [email protected].


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