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Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The Gap of Time

Hogarth Press is doing something very interesting, though some will probably find it a literary blasphemy. They are engaging authors of some renown to rewrite Shakespeare, or at least take a play and put in novel form. The first of these (I'm not sure if they're doing them all; the histories might not play well) is Jeanette Winterson taking a crack at The Winter's Tale with The Gap of Time.

Unlike modernizing a Shakespeare play in a production, putting it in novel form allows for more freedom, and the whole point is to change it, otherwise we would just be reading the annotated text. Winterson sets the story in modern-day London, for the most part. Leo Kaiser (our stand-in for Leontes) is the rich man who becomes insanely jealous of his old friend Xeno (Polixenes) and suspects that he has fathered the newborn of his wife MiMi (Hermione).

Winterson writes, in something of an epilogue, "The three possible endings are: Revenge. Tragedy. Forgiveness. Shakespeare knew all about revenge and tragedy." The Winter's Tale was late in his career, and the man was now writing about reconciliation and forgiveness, as he would in The Tempest. The Winter's Tale was Othello rewritten with a happy ending, and Winterson keeps that, but also seizes upon something else, as the title suggests, time.

One of the repeating themes of the book is the replaying of time--the moment in the film Superman when the Man of Steel resets time by flying around the Earth at high speed is mentioned many times--it's an interesting mixture of high and low culture. Winterson also notes: "The Winter’s Tale is a play where the past depends on the future just as much as the future depends on the past. The past in The Winter’s Tale is not history; it’s tragedy." Also, "The past is a grenade that explodes when thrown."

Though this book is not difficult at all, knowing the play will help get some of the in-jokes, especially the names of the characters. The baby born to MiMi (still named Perdita) is adopted by a man named Shepherd and his son, Clo (in the play they were a shepherd and a clown). Autolycus, the con man and trickster, is turned into a used-car salesman (Auto Like Us, get it?) and Antigonus, now called Tony, who takes the baby away from an enraged Leo, is not killed by a bear, as in the play, but by gunmen after his suitcase full of money.

I've never read Winterson before so I don't know if this is indicative of her prose or whether it's a new creation. It is melancholy, of course--the events of the first half don't allow for much happiness. The modern touches--Xeno is a designer of video games--at times seem whimsical, but the prose sings. "The streets fuzzy with light rain. The plastic peel-off shine of the pavements. The shimmer under the sodium street lamps. Cars queuing at the red light, wipers in rhythm, drivers with the windows down against the heat. Big guy in a van, his right arm resting on the rolled-down window, elbow out, letting the rain run in, scrubbing his forearm in relief across his face." If Shakespeare knew about cars he might have written something like that.

The second half of The Gap of Time, which deals with a grown Perdita and her love of Xeno's son Zel (for Florizel) isn't quite as gripping. Perdita for a moment worries that she's Zel's sister, but figures everything out on her own, and her meeting with Leo, under a ruse, without him knowing who she is, works beautifully. But the reveal rushes by (to be fair, it kind of does in Shakespeare, too). But there are still some great lines, and even a little comedy: "Perdita ran across the road. She’s lovely, thought Leo, watching her, and she has no idea that she is. His current date was a Russian lingerie model who Vaped during sex."

I'm up for reading more of these. The next one is a take on The Merchant of Venice.

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