The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, by Martin Rowson
Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, directed by Michael Winterbottom
I wish I had minded what I was about when I encountered, on two different occasions last week, two different modern adaptations of Mr. Laurence Sterne's classic eighteenth-century parody Tristram Shandy:—had I considered that not merely a few evenings' pleasant diversion but the production of a rational Blog Entry was concern'd in it, this review should have made quite a different figure in the world from that in which the reader is likely to see it.
I'd been looking foward to one of those adaptations for some time. Martin Rowson's graphic novel treatment of T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, which converts the classic poem of modernist angst into a hard-boiled detective story starring a Robert Mitchum lookalike, is one of the wittiest comics ever written. His version of Tristram Shandy does not disappoint; like the earlier Waste Land (which receives a quick nod or two), it captures the most important qualities of the original while tossing out deadly accurate send-ups of other works of art, literature, and popular culture. But the bar has been raised somewhat higher. In The Waste Land, the mere act of quotation served as a clever formal analogue to and parody of Eliot's densely allusive poem; in that sense no reference could ever seem out of place. Tristram Shandy, however, adapts a much earlier and less frantically allusive work--in the wrong hands the extranarrative quotations might seem anachronistic, even desperate. Somehow, though, they never come to that; lacking the formalistic excuse of his Eliot adaptation, Rowson's manic references instead replicate the freewheeling spirit and the endlessly self-devouring self-awareness of Sterne's tale.
The quotations aren't just anachronistic, they're completely anarchic. Narrator Tristram Shandy leads us through his conception, birth, christening, and accidental circumcision by windowpane while taking countless digressions into matters geneaological, historical, theological, metatextual, and scatological. With this as his source material, Rowson can blend his inventions almost seamlessly into Sterne's style no matter how jarring the change in cultural register: thus the faux George Harriman page or the Oliver Stone film version. (Think Born on the Fourth of July for the latter, not JFK--it's surprisingly apt, given uncle Toby's condition, but then most of Rowson's jokes are.)
Nevertheless, the contemporary references become a little overbearing by the novel's end, where Rowson glosses over the last five volumes with a barrage of jokes about Martin Amis, Raymond Chandler, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Andrew Davies under the wafer-thin pretext that Tristram Shandy has been downloaded (or uploaded?) into cyberspace. Those later volumes are a good place to cut material--although Rowson doesn't do justice to the Widow Wadman story--but the modern satires briefly eclipse the source material.
Fortunately, these japes are more than balanced by plenty of period-appropriate references, including some of the work's most impressive parodies: A set of diagrams of seventeenth-century siege emplacements metamorphose into a wonderfully coarse sexual joke. Ominous carceral landscapes from Piranesi represent the interior of a certain much-priz'd part of the male anatomy. The digression-within-a-digression tale of Slawkenbergius is told through an art catalogue (a trick used to equally striking if less satiric effect in Tobias Tycho Schalken's Balthazar). Best of all, though, are Rowson's many spot-on parodies of Hogarth's engravings. The Hogarthian print is perfectly suited both to Rowson's antic, chicken fat-laden compositions and his fine-lined pen and ink style. All of the Hogarth references are illustrated in suitably ludicrous detail; one even comes with mock Sean Shesgreen-style annotations.
If the pastiche does occasionally stray too far from the text of Tristram Shandy, it always remains true to the style. Unlike Rowson's Waste Land, which seizes every opportunity to mock Eliot's poem for its deliberate inscrutability, his Tristram Shandy bears a genuine affection for its source and a winning desire to match or beat it at its own game. (The bile is reserved for any academic or literary critic who presumes to analyze it.) As Rowson tells his canine companion Pete, these self-conscious artistic digressions are perhaps the only way to adapt an arch, self-reflexive novel that's about the impossibility of writing a novel in the first place.
Before I'd finished the comic I stumbled across Michael Winterbottom's recent film adaptation Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, which played in Nashville last week. Winterbottom takes a similar approach to Rowson--much lighter on the allusions (everybody is lighter on the allusions than Martin Rowson) but just as self-conscious about the making of the movie as Rowson is about the composition of his comic, as Sterne is about the writing of the novel. The movie stresses the impossibility of turning Tristram Shandy into a movie, especially in an industry that's established rigid and dreary formulas for the period piece. A Cock and Bull Story hits on all of them, right down to the obligatory/gratuitous casting of the American actress (ably filled by Gillian Anderson, who doesn't even have the decency to be American).
The movie is funniest when the shooting of the Tristram Shandy movie-within-the-movie stops, and we follow lead Steve Coogan's attempts to quash a scandal, visit the mother of his child, hit on a sexy production assistant who's far too into German cinema, fund the movie, pretend he's read Tristram Shandy, and fend off a power play by very funny second lead Rob Brydon. The industry critique isn't particularly cutting edge but the movie never pretends it's throwing bombs at the Man, always directing the mockery first and foremost at itself. (Contrast with Swimming with Sharks, and pretty much every other "biting" Hollywood satire made in Hollywood.)
The Shandy adaptations, unfortunately, are less successful than the behind-the-scenes material. The screenplay discards Sterne's language for a contemporary narration that manages to be more blunt and yet less direct than the vigorous if verbose eighteenth-century prose. (Rowson keeps the original language, cutting out reams of it and saving the very best.) The difference between our clumsy, modern euphemisms for penises and Sterne's flippant Georgian ones is profound; he seems less embarrassed by sex than we are, even with all those rows of *********************.
The movie's many digressions, self-reflexive jokes, and flights of fancy are more true to the novel, whether they operate through literal adaptations like the film equivalent of Sterne's famous black page (allow me to quote:
or inventions like the giant womb Coogan gets shoved into. The truest Shandian humor, though, comes in the parts least tied to the novel.
Ultimately, both adaptations succeed because they're faithful to the spirit of Sterne's work. But Rowson, working with a larger canvas, fewer time constraints, and no incentives to dumb down the material, manages to be faithful to the letter as well.