Book review: The Gap of Time

The updating of a scary tale was a dodgy prospect but this re-imagining of a tragic comedy is brought off with skill and bravado, says Mary Leland.

IT COULD be said that as a novel The Gap of Time is an idea whose time has come and gone. The re-telling and re-wording of old stories from folklore and fairytale to the classics of literature in many countries through the centuries has been done already, maybe even over-done.

The fables of Ireland have been victims of revision for many years, modern writers have been indulging their own preferences in versions of ‘Cinderella’ or ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ with deliberate aversion to the originally intended audiences; perfectly finished novels are vicariously continued into a future unintended by their first author.

Some novelists, or their publishers, seem convinced that their handling of a story is at least as good as that of its creator. Although there are exceptions such as Longbourn, Jo Baker’s 2013 account of life below stairs at the home of Elizabeth Bennet, the heroine of Pride and Prejudice, this is a game which has its limitations.

Therefore, the recent scheme from Hogarth Shakespeare inviting notable writers to re-configure a chosen Shakespearean play in modern terms is a risky task but it is not a remarkable innovation. Nor is it an insult to Shakespeare, who was no shy borrower of plots and characters himself.

At least the calibre of the selected writers indicates that, as publishers, Hogarth are taking the project seriously. And, so far, just a little predictably: no awards for guessing that Shylock is My Name is for Howard Jacobson, and it doesn’t take much cunning either to figure out that Anne Tyler’s text Vinegar Girl is a re-working of ‘The Taming of the Shrew’. Jeannette Winterson’s title, however, is more subtle. Time itself, as Chorus, is listed in the Dramatis Personae of The Winter’s Tale.

Time is the commentator and the measure, and it is porous. ‘This wide gap of time’ is the play’s summing up of the 16-year interim which follows the exile of Hermione, accused by her husband King Leontes of adultery with his childhood friend King Polixenes.

In the catalogue drawn up by John Heminge and Henrie Condell as The First Folio in 1623 this difficult and enigmatic play is included among the Comedies, but while Winterson has achieved some fine comic flourishes in her rendering of the story she cannot obliterate the injustice at its core.

The inhibition arises from the fact that the injustice is psychologically implausible: King Leontes reacts violently to a jealousy he has engendered in himself. He wills himself to misinterpret the smallest comments or gestures; his delirium of envy is indulgent, almost cathartic, and nothing like Iago’s manipulation of Othello’s vulnerabilities.

Lost in his self-pity, Leontes imagines himself as ‘a feather for each wind that blows’ and it takes special pleading by her friends for the innocent and heavily pregnant, Hermione to escape the death sentence. Taken into refuge she delivers a daughter who is, in turn, sent away for safety and is reared in a rustic community, unaware of her true identity until, wouldn’t you know it, a prince arrives.

This play has eminent defenders; it is held by WH Auden to include ‘the most beautiful scene in Shakespeare’ — the setting of Act III, Scene iii with the saving of the baby Perdita on the imaginary sea-coast of Bohemia. But it has a darkness which can be interpreted as an example of misogyny, of man’s inhumanity to woman, of the ruthless exercise of power against the weak and powerless.

Despite all the fun flying around while Perdita grows up among shepherds and milkmaids, the enduring impact of The Winter’s Tale is one of sadness: the victimisation of Hermione, the disinheriting of Perdita, even the death of Leontes’ son which, too late, brings about the king’s remorse.

The beautifully designed dust-jacket for what the pages announce as a cover version is that of a quill pen, its scarlet feathers frayed and time-worn. Time, it seems, is what matters most here, and time is the distance Winterson has to reduce between her readers and those of us who might, or might not, read Shakespeare. Can she do it? This is up-dating on a scary scale, but she brings it off with bravado.

Even the ‘cover’ version hints at the exuberant use of modern popular music while the re-naming of people and places (Leon, Zeno, New Bohemia) flows kindly for her transformation of an almost mystical fable into a modern, hedge-fund, transgendering fairytale of New York (or New Orleans?). Unerring in her appreciation of character, Winterson is thematically assisted by the single character who makes some kind of allegorical sense of the whole thing, Paulina. With her impressive sense of sisterhood, Paulina’s role here, as in the play, is that of advocate, the voice of reason, the balancing of grace with power, mercy with magic, memory with forgiveness.

So, now we have a financial fanatic gripped by London’s cash crash and violently reacting to an old friend’s new allegiances. Winterson gives Leontes and Polixenes a history of homoerotic possibilities which might explain Leo’s paranoia; Zeno is a designer of video games, Hermione (Mimi) is a chanteuse, Pauline is sexually ambivalent and the infant Perdita, (no need to change such a pretty modern name) is found in a baby-hatch.

The pace and the space used are crisply contemporary and although Winterson writes with a sometimes lyrical rhythm there is no attempt to mimic the cadenses or phrasing of the early 17th century. The chapters are short, suggestive and linked by dialogue references which act almost like orienteering markers, plotting the reader’s way into a bright contemporary novel in which Shakespeare is himself only a signpost rather than a destination.

The Gap of Time takes nothing away from The Winter’s Tale. If anything it might add to it, or at least to its resonance and mystery. It is an impressive achievement, especially as Winterson manages the contradictions of comedy and tragedy in a way which suits both their modern likelihood and their moral implications.

No-one should be deterred from reading or seeing The Winter’s Tale, but The Gap of Time can be enjoyed without having that text to hand. All writers in English owe some debt to Shakespeare, and Winterson has repaid in full.

The Gap of Time — The Winter’s Tale Retold

Jeanette Winterson

Hogarth Shakespeare, £16.99


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