Tricky Books 1: Tristram Shandy
I’m a pretty well-read guy. An author, after all, has to be familiar with the tools of the trade. I don’t sell the kind of figures that get me invited to the Hay Literary Festival, and I don’t think I’m dim – Jeez, even Jerry Hall got invited, and don’t tell me she’s a rocket scientist – but parts of my classical education are deficient. Nowhere more so, than on the subject of ‘Tristram Shandy’. It’s not as if I haven’t tried to read ‘the funniest book in the world’ because I have, but the sheer density of allusions to life 250 years ago dries any chuckles that might be building in my throat.
So when ace political cartoonist Martin Rowson republished his version in a stunning new edition, I bought it hoping to find that he had successfully separated the humour from the verbosity. What he has done, however, is layer the world’s first anti-novel up in another level of allusion, namely an artistic one. Panels are drawn with reference to different paintings, engravings and artists, a Hogarth here, a Cruikshank there, while filleting the original prose, and the detailing is so extraordinary that no matter how good your eyes are, you’ll need a magnifying glass to study many of the pictures.
Which makes me wonder if this is the perfect book to read on an iPad. You could zoom in and study every part of the page in great detail, not having to worry about the tiny lettering that vanishes into the gutter. Much has been made of the iPad’s inability to make reading an entire book pleasurable, but few of us read a book in a single sitting. We pick it up, chuck it down, roam back and forth across the pages until we’re done – and perhaps this is what the device is best for.
Rowson’s accomplishment is an extraordinary labour of love. Meanwhile, my original prose copy of ‘Tristram Shandy’ sits on the shelf creased back at page 17, its remaining pages unread and unloved – for now.