Books: On the trail with Salman, Tristram and Pete

Lachlan Mackinnon relishes an 18th century classic in post-modernist guise; The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Martin Rowson, Picador, pounds 15.99
This is Martin Rowson's second graphic work based on a preceding literary text. His first, The Waste Land (1990), turned T.S. Eliot's poem into a film noir strip cartoon with dialogue in the style of Raymond Chandler. The last picture within the text shows a bust of Eliot on a scrapheap of cultural detritus: on the spine of a book are the letters "Piranes", and it is in a Piranesian cellar that we find ourselves at the start of Rowson's Tristram Shandy, as though released from the hard exteriors of a poem he dislikes into the inner space of a novel he adores.

That sense of inner space proves to be misleading, though. The arches and vaults are in fact the inside of Walter Shandy's testicles, and he is about the business of begetting Tristram. Tristram leads his companions, including James Joyce, out of his mother's vagina as the act concludes.

Laurence Sterne's 18th-century novel parodies the association of ideas which John Locke had seen as structuring consciousness. Walter Shandy and his wife have sex monthly, on the night he winds the family clock. In Rowson's version, Mrs Shandy has a gleeful thought of the clock opening its case like a flasher to reveal weights and pendulum metamorphosed into male genitals. One of Rowson's triumphs is to remind us how relentlessly physical the novel is.

More extraordinary, though, is the way in which Rowson's pictorial imagination takes off from Sterne's seemingly artless style. Sterne punctuates largely with dashes, suggesting the flickering feel of his narrator's mind. The novel digresses, offers self-exculpatory diagrams of its progress, has one black and one marbled page, and contains seemingly endless parodic documents. In one sense, it is easy to see it as the prototypical anti- novel, and much in Rowson's treatment supports that view.

Tristram and his companions march on relentlessly through Rowson's version, seemingly oblivious of the several accidents they undergo. But Tristram's is not the only band of travellers across the work's surface. The cartoonist himself and his talking dog Pete make the same journey, commenting on what they see and at times appearing in the same frame as the hero. This new level of narration adds a contemporary angle, as do the portrayals of living people. The servant Obadiah, for instance, is modelled on Ben Pimlott: someone remarkably like Salman Rushdie drops the hot chestnut which falls into the lap of Phutatorius, seemingly the Books Editor of this paper.

From the moment Tristram leads his troupe out of a lovingly detailed bedroom onto a blank space, though, to end up riding on the back of Locke who is himself riding a hobby-horse, we are aware that this book's primary achievement is pictorial. A gallery of old masters, ranging from Rowlandson and Constable to George Grosz, is echoed. Where Sterne shifts between kinds of literary voice, Rowson shifts between pictorial eyes. This book becomes a magnificent tribute to its original, perhaps the most extraordinary work in the history of illustrations to Sterne and a work in its own right.

But Sterne's novel was also a work of deep feeling which Rowson does less to convey. The amours of Uncle Toby and the Widow Wadman are at one level the subject of smut, as Rowson shows, but at another they are profoundly touching, which is not evident here. In the end, we leave Rowson's imaginative space to reopen the covers which contain a larger one.