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.

Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Arts and Entertainment
'Eminem's recovery from substance abuse has made him a more potent performer, with physical charisma and energy he never had before'
musicReview: Wembley Stadium ***
Arts and Entertainment
‘Dawn of Planet of the Apes’ also looks set for success in the Chinese market

film
News
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight

tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
    Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

    Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

    The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
    Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

    Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

    The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

    Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

    Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

    Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

    The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
    The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

    The Open 2014

    Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?