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Tristram Shandy: The Comic Book

Graphic novelist Martin Rowson on how he adapted Sterne’s unadaptable masterpiece.

Scan from Tristam Shandy: The Comic Book.

Martin Rowson

Tristram Shandy has been adapted into other media a surprising number of times for a novel that would appear to be unadaptable. The composer Michael Nyman has released excerpts from an opera based on the novel, begun in 1981 and still apparently “in progress.” Michael Winterbottom’s 2005 film version starred Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon and featured music by Nyman, none of which was from the opera. And the British political cartoonist Martin Rowson published a graphic novel version in 1996.

An adaptation of Tristram Shandy could hardly be straightforward. Rowson’s version includes parodies of illustrators like Durer, Hogarth, Beardsley, and Grosz, as well as queer theory, film noir, and magical realism. The cartoonist himself appears to discuss the project and is swallowed by a giant whale representing the body of Shandy criticism. There are also large chunks of Sterne’s own dialogue and dramatizations of some of the book’s most familiar setpieces. Slate spoke to Rowson by email about his take on Tristram.

When did you first read Tristram Shandy? What does the book mean to you?

I first read parts of it when I was at school, and it struck me as mesmerizingly weird. I then read the whole thing when I was at university, slowly but inexorably falling out of love and into loathing with the Cambridge English tripos [the English literature syllabus at Cambridge University]. I remember writing an essay saying you could read the book with as much profit backward and forward, which was the only thing I ever wrote which that particular supervisor liked.

What I didn’t recognize at the time was that Tristram Shandy was actually the first blast of the trumpet in laughing at the kind of reverence for “the Novel” which was then the basis of much of the English tripos. The fact that Shandy was taught merely as a milestone in the progress of the “development of the novel” is a terrible libel against the book; it should be seen, instead, as a joyously human mockery highlighting the Impossibility of the novel.

What made you want to adapt it into comics?

Antony Farrell of the Lilliput Press in Dublin. After I’d turned The Waste Land into a graphic novel in 1990 I vowed I’d never do another comic book, until Farrell lured me over to Dublin in 1992 on the basis of my work and the fact he was publishing my mother-in-law, who was an Irish historian. In the pub he suggested I adapt Tristram Shandy and I told him was mad. Then I thought about it a bit more and thought, “This is a challenge! Let’s go!”

What was your goal in making changes to the story? What did you want to preserve?

It took me 3½ years to draw the comic book, and I did the last 60 pages in six months, which nearly killed me. I was so late with delivering the thing, I realized I needed to take some shortcuts—which Tristram Shandy, almost alone among novels, makes possible, with Sterne’s posthumous blessing. Kenneth Monkman, founder of the Laurence Sterne Trust and to all intents and purposes Sterne’s representative on Earth, told me Sterne would have approved of my version. That was all the blessing I needed.

Scan from Tristam Shandy: The Comic Book 2.

Martin Rowson

You added references to lots of 20th-century works—things from long after Tristram Shandy was written. Why did that stuff find a place in an adaptation of a novel from the 18th century?

Because Tristram Shandy is a non-linear narrative. If Tristram is a novel about the impossibility of writing a novel, which it is, then my version is a comic book about the impossibility of adapting into a comic book a novel about the impossibility of writing a novel. Restrictions of time and space don’t matter any more than me appearing in the book, dipping in and out of the “narrative” with my talking dog Pete.

Tristram Shandy is, in part, a story about storytelling—it’s a novel about the novel. Is your adaptation “about” the graphic novel form in some way?

It’s exactly that. My Waste Land adaptation had been partly about dragging High Culture into the demotic gutter, but my Tristram Shandy was not only on Sterne’s side, but, I hope, complementing and complimenting his text with a parallel one pointing out the same truths: that reality is far, far weirder and more un-pin-downable and funnier than is accounted for in your critical theory, thank you very much. (Not yours, obviously—theirs.)