The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman – Martin Rowson


Anyone who has read or even attempted to read Laurence Sterne’s anti-novel begun in 1759 will know how bizarre and groundbreaking were its experimental contents. Often described as a precursor to the likes of Monty Python and as the blueprint for much post-modern fiction, its not an easy read to say the least. Whilst purporting to be the life of the eponymous hero, it is in reality a long circumlocutory ramble through a number of anecdotes and set pieces concerning the newly born Tristram’s family, most notably Uncle Toby. I read it and enjoyed it years ago, and was delighted whilst on a visit to Shandy Hall – home of Sterne, to see an exhibition of many of the original drawings for this – Martin Rowson‘s re-imagining.
I first came across Rowson’s work in a freebie Muso mag – “Making Music” where his characters careered through the music biz in a scatalogical coruscating narrative in a highly original way. I was delighted therefore to learn he had applied his wit and imagination to this other original work of Sterne’s.
So how do you approach the inexplicable? A bit like Michael Winterbottom with his attempt to film Shandy, Rowson takes the story and adds extra layers of meaning with cross referencing and intertextuality making the text even richer and more entertaining. Ever wondered how Oliver Stone would takle Shandy? Its in here! Some of my favourite sections however are when Rowson quotes or adapts from other illustrators to great effect. Look at the bottom of this page where he adapts the conventions of Herriman’s Krazy Kat.
or here where he adapt an image from Joseph Wright of Derby and a scientific experiment capturing Wright’s use of chiaroscuro perfectly, whilst maintaining his own style.
Here is a detail from a highly complex double-page spread, where Hogarth is adapted – and finally a version (again Hogarth) of the anatomy lesson ( and thats Rowson himself slurping up the intestines along with Pete the Dog!).
Along the way we also get adaptations / pastiches of Durer, Beardsley and Grosz, along with appearances in the text by James Joyce, T S Eliot and Martin Amis.
Its a miracle that in spite of all these interjections, Sterne’s tale still rings through, and the device of a journey by the illustrator with Pete the Dog works perfectly in this re-imagining of the great man’s original. Out of print unfortunately, it can still be picked up second-hand on the net (like most things), and is well worth getting hold of. The amount of work on even the average page is awesome and so packed with detail that it will continue to offer up its secrets even when you think you have discovered everything to be found within.

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