Books: Stealing Tom's plunder this on two

Martin Rowson recalls his wrangles with the Eliot estate over his version of `The Waste Land'
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"`In the room the women come and go Talking of Michelangelo.' Does that suggest anything to you, sir?"

"Yeah, it suggests to me that the guy didn't know very much about women."

"My sentiments exactly, sir. Nonetheless I admire T S Eliot very much."

"Did you say `nonetheless'?"

This exchange, between the hard-boiled Private Eye Philip Marlowe and the leading dame's black chauffeur in Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye was part of the inspiration for a comic book (although I prefer the term "graphic poem") I produced nine years ago, reissued this week by Picador, retelling T S Eliot's The Waste Land as a kind of Chandleresque film noir whodunnit. Although I think I succeeded in producing the first and only precisely Post Modernist comic book of our times, in the process I nearly went mad, and became far more intimately acquainted with the ways of English copyright law and the vicissitudes of publishing than I had ever expected or wished.

The rather unexpected connection between Chandler and Eliot (they were also both born in the same year) finally set me in the right direction on a vague project I was working on in the late Eighties to satirise The Waste Land and have a kick at this gnarled old totem pole which has blighted so much 20th- century poetry struggling to grow in its shadow. I wasn't getting very far with my original idea for a "Waste Land Colouring Book" ("Colour this rock red. Colour Mr Eliot's mood black"), when I made the detective story connection. After all, the way the bloody thing's taught owes more to forensics than to any kind of aesthetic response: identify the quotations, seek out the allusions, and if you're lucky you might get a motive. Then there are the lowlifes, typists, fortune tellers, Smyrna merchants and drag queens engaging in sterile sex and meaningless conversations amid parched deserts, stinking rivers and squalid bars, not to mention the backstreet abortionists and the corpse buried in the garden. Moreover, the poem involves a quest, a search for the Holy Grail, a stab at redemption in a fallen world by a man in this case Parsifal who is himself not fallen. It's a small leap from the Holy Grail to The Maltese Falcon, from Parsifal to Philip Marlowe...

And I had a wonderful image that perfectly synthesised the film noir, hard- boiled oeuvre of Raymond Chandler and the impenetrable moaning of moody old Tom Eliot. There's a scene in Howard Hawks' film of Chandler's The Big Sleep where the cops dredge a Packard out of the ocean, with Marlowe's clients' dead chauffeur still at the wheel. In many ways this scene is the acme of Chandlerism, with recent rain, the night, cars, cops, a corpse and Marlowe thigh-high in trouble. And its meaning is almost completely opaque. During filming, Humphrey Bogart, playing Marlowe, asked Hawks the significance of the stiffed chauffeur in the car. Hawks didn't know, so he asked the scriptwriters. They didn't know either, so they 'phoned Chandler, who said he'd forgotten. Which is perfect. Making sense doesn't matter: narrative is subsumed in a sense of style, and we all gladly go along for the ride not caring less. Exactly the same can be said of The Waste Land. Anyway, I took this scene and melded it with the opening line of Section IV of Eliot's poem, "Death by Water","Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead..." which I rendered into hard-boiled argot in the caption to the scene: "It was Phlebas the Phoenician... He'd been dead a fortnight..."

The caption, however, had to be changed. Before approaching Penguin, the book's original publisher, my then agent had sent the proposal to Faber, Eliot's old company. They had rather sniffily rejected it on the ground that "Valerie wouldn't like it". Valerie is Mrs Eliot, old Tom's widow, still going strong and still fiercely defending the sacred flame. In time, as we'd expected, Penguin received a letter from solicitors representing the Eliot Estate, observing that Penguin proposed to publish "what would appear to be some form of comic book version of our client's copyrighted work".

Rather naively, I'd worked on in the belief that, although I couldn't expect to quote any of Eliot's own words without permission (which I knew wouldn't be forthcoming: I'm not Andrew Lloyd Webber, after all), I would, at least, be able to quote the quotations quoted by Eliot. As old Tom had plundered the literature of Europe, Asia and three millennia to produce a poem which is almost the sine qua non of the cut-up technique, both in effect and comprehensibility, it seemed only fair that I should be able to do likewise. I hadn't, however, taken account of Compilation copyright. It got worse. We sent a photocopied manuscript of the 60 pages of artwork to the solicitors who, ignorant of poetical things, sent it to Faber. I was told (even though I shouldn't have been) that Valerie came in one day with Seamus Heaney who, seeing the manuscript in an intray, picked it up, read it, then returned it, saying to Valerie as he did so, "It's a hoot, Val!" Her response went unreported. The manuscript was returned with all perceived infringements of the Eliot Estate's copyright marked in pink highlighter pen. Apparently their copyright extended to cover the word "Michelangelo", the sound effect "Throb Throb Throb" as produced by a taxi, and the images of Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis.

For our part, we did our best to appease them. For instance, in the poem the secretary, following her liaison with the young man carbuncular, "smoothes her hair with automatic hand, / And puts a record on the gramophone". The record I had her play was a pastiche of Cole Porter's "Let's Do It". To sweeten the Eliot Estate, I had to remove the second line of the verse "Leicester and Good Queen Bess did it / Tom and Vivienne I guess did it / Let's Do It, Let's Fall in Love!" Meanwhile, letters continued to pass between Penguin's solicitors, Mishcon de Reya, and the Eliot Estate. "We should like to point out that your statement that at page 41 the picture featured is Margate Sands is not correct, the picture is in fact of Pegwell Bay." We even tried a grovelling letter on behalf of myself and Penguin to Valerie from Antony Julius, Mishcon de Reya's in-house Eliot expert, later solicitor to the late Princess of Wales. (She might have had reason to doubt our sincerity, as Julius subsequently wrote an excellent and satisfying book detailing the extent of Eliot's antisemitism.) In the end I changed every single line and every name quoted from the original poem. To satisfy my wounded artistic soul, there was also an American edition which was published untouched by lawyers' hands, thanks to the entirely admirable "parody defence" embodied in American law.

Some of the changes lent the book a satisfyingly surreal edge. I had originally illustrated Eliot's line "Jug jug jug jug jug jug" by having my hero (called Chris Marlowe, obviously) walk past six jugs labelled "jug" on the run from the bad guys in the British Museum. At the insistence of the lawyers, the labels were changed to "Ampora", "vessel", "gugglet", "pitcher", "ewer" and "crock". Likewise, where Eliot quoted the classics, I was obliged, with help, to make up passages from entirely fictitious Latin writers, although I'm not going to say where I did this, as this was part of the fun. Still, scarred but unbowed, the book was finally published, unheralded by writs or injunctions, in November 1990.

There were some nice reviews. My favourite compared it to a "literary Where's Wally?", and mentioned (without listing) six different references or allusions to painting, poetry, film and opera in one single frame. I was aware of only four. Then there were the two PhD theses written about my Waste Land, one of them, unintelligibly for me, in Italian. This seemed entirely appropriate. So did the 1994 opera version, only the third adaptation, after Krazy Kat and Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, of comic or cartoon into this arcane medium. As the composer Stephen McNeff observed, if you're going to turn something as obscure as The Waste Land into a comic book, the only possible next step is to turn it into an opera. It was performed to critical acclaim at the Donmar Warehouse, even though no copies of the book could be sold in the foyer as they'd all long since been pulped.

But although it may have been absent from the bookshops for eight years, my little detective story, in many ways more allusive, elusive and mysterious than either of its parents, has maintained a vigorous half life all its own. I'm frequently asked for copies by lecturers whose own copies have crumbled beyond photocopiability, as a teaching aid to this monstrous shibboleth of Modernism. Personally, I'm still of the opinion that Eliot's Waste Land is obscurantist, mawkish, constipatedly pious, elitist, inconsistent, miserable, overrated nonsense which wouldn't look out of place on the inner sleeve of one of Led Zeppelin's later albums. In light of this, whereas old Tom might have concluded this article with a shower of quotes and some low moaning from the Upanishads, I'll content myself simply by saying, "buy it".

`The Waste Land' by Martin Rowson is published by Picador, pounds 12.99