It is perhaps because he finds in Laurence Sterne a kindred spirit that Martin Rowson spares the author of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman the irreverence with which he treats most other subjects, in apparently indiscriminate fashion. Listening to Rowson guiding you through the first frames of his latest publication, an adaptation to graphic novel of Sterne’s most famous work, it would be easy to assume that Sterne and his novel are the focus of the parody. “With a flash of inspiration,” Rowson says, “I realised that we started the book inside Tristram’s father’s scrotum”.
So far, so typical Rowson. Or is it?
Actually, it isn’t; for Rowson’s avowed intention is to “honour” the irreverent Reverend Sterne, not lampoon him, making this latest offering something of a departure. The adroit parody for which the cartoonist’s prolific reputation is in large part responsible remains, but the original novel functions as the vehicle, rather than the subject, of ridicule. He harnesses the existing parodic impetus of Tristram Shandy for his own satiric ends, with remarkable aplomb.
A book, then, produced in a spirit of homage. The parody remains, but is extroverted; quite unlike his previous graphic novel The Waste Land; a pastiche written, he says now, “specifically in order to take the piss out of [T.S. Eliot’s poem]; to turn this shibboleth into something as pathetic and banal as a comic book”. In person, Rowson is as delightfully irreverent about Eliot in this book, in which modernist poetry is melded with graphics inspired by Raymond Chandler and Film Noir. “Were they ever photographed together?” he jokes of Chandler and Eliot; “Could they have been the same person?” “Probably not,” he concludes laughingly, but his attitude emphasises the precision with which the satire of this earlier text is targeted; at the original poem itself, which Rowson now says “reads like the lyrics on one of Led Zeppelin’s later albums”.
By contrast, his project with Tristram Shandy is not to undermine but to celebrate and utilise, and as such Laurence Sterne’s work is treated with an esteem that borders on deference. The choice of this novel specifically isn’t arbitrary; the original conforms to, continues and facilitates seamlessly a project which seems almost to have shaped Rowson’s career – the ridicule of anyone or anything perceived as taking itself too seriously.
Laurence Sterne, says Rowson with relish, possessed a particular gift for “taking deadly serious things and laughing at them”. Evidently conscious of the many misfortunes which befall the eponymous hero throughout the first volume alone, he believes that in the hands of any other author, the novel could easily have become a “misery memoir”. Using Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall to illustrate his point, Rowson argues that realism has become synonymous with melancholy and tragedy; of Mantel’s acclaimed novel he says admiringly, “That’s not realism…realism is miserable, realism is depressing.”
His primary aesthetic project in this latest graphic novel therefore seems to be the reinvigoration of realism; Martin Rowson is trying, almost single handedly, to re-inject humour into British depictions of reality. And the irreverent Rowson seems to have found a hobby-horse; a topic about which he can feel truly, seriously, impassioned. “British culture is underpinned, not undermined, by our wonderful sense of smut,” he says earnestly. He accuses Locke and Hobbes of having “stolen our reality from us, which makes us laugh”, and booms expansively, “Where is the laughter?”
The answer, of course, is that the laughter is to be found in Rowson’s novels. But he is not only trying to sell his books, but also pedalling a novel perspective. “You can laugh at reality. You have to laugh at reality. We laugh because we are actually hard-wired into laughing. It’s what liberates us,” he insists emphatically. What Rowson is fundamentally saying, using Sterne as a spring-board, is that mood is all about perspective. If, as probably happens to Tristram, you are accidentally circumcised by a sash window, you can either bewail your misfortune, or you could turn your hand to comic narration and extricate the tremendous comedic potential from reality.
There are some unsavoury preconceptions bandied about concerning the graphic novel, and I must admit that it isn’t a genre I envisaged embracing so wholeheartedly. But I truly urge you to give Rowson a whirl. His graphic novels aren’t comic-book-geek fodder, but merely the deft conceptions of an anarchic comic mind, portrayed via a pictorial medium. Oh, and his Tristram Shandy is perhaps best digested at times when you’re feeling particularly resentful of the harsh realities of critical academia because (surprise, surprise) these are ridiculed too. There truly is something for everyone; just keep an eye out for the pesky French deconstructionists who’ll sneak in and attempt to dismantle your page. Rowson’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman: a “Where’s Wally?” for the postmodern era. OXSTU