Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Wednesday, July 22, 2015: Maximum Shelf: The Gap of Time

Hogarth: The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson

Hogarth: The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson

Hogarth: The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson

Hogarth: The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson

The Gap of Time

by Jeanette Winterson

The Hogarth Shakespeare project undertakes to reinvent the Bard's classic works in novel form; the first installment is The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson (Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit; Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?), a "cover version" of The Winter's Tale. In Shakespeare's original, the kings of Sicilia and Bohemia are great friends until one accuses the other of sleeping with his wife. The jealous Leontes plots to murder his friend Polixenes, but misses his chance and instead takes out his rage on his pregnant wife, the queen Hermione. By the time his suspicions are proved false, he has lost both his son and his wife, and the baby girl Hermione gives birth to has disappeared. Leontes ordered the baby taken into the wilderness and abandoned, but the man he assigned this task died in the process, so the baby's fate is unknown. Sixteen years later, a romance between Polixenes's son and a beautiful, mysterious shepherd's daughter may offer redemption and even a second chance.

The Gap of Time is set dually in modern London, just following the 2008 economic crisis, and the fictional American city of New Bohemia. Londoners Leo and Xeno were childhood friends and, for a time, lovers; as adults, despite very different values, the bohemian Xeno and the materialistic Leo have become business partners in Sicilia, a high-tech gaming company. Leo's wife, MiMi, son, Milo, and his uber-capable assistant, Pauline, round out a highly functional, loving family of sorts, until Leo becomes obsessed with the idea that MiMi and Xeno are sleeping together. Leo reacts violently, and loses his son and wife. When he tries to ship MiMi's baby daughter overseas to Xeno, whom he wrongly believes to be her father, the little girl goes missing.

In New Bohemia, Shep and his son, Clo, who run a piano bar, come across a carjacking too late to save its victim, after which Shep is able to pull a baby out of the nearby hospital's BabyHatch, a high-tech receptacle for abandoned infants. He is convinced this child is a gift meant for him, to help him heal after his wife's death, and raises the girl as his own. Her name, according to papers found with her, is Perdita. He could never conceal from her that she is adopted: Perdita is white, while Shep and Clo are black; but she grows up in a home filled with love and music, never doubting that she is wanted. As in the original, 16 years will pass before Perdita encounters a romantic interest who, though equally ignorant of their connected past, will lead to her learning about her origins.

A very brief recap of The Winter's Tale at the beginning of the book informs the reader, so that no knowledge of the original is necessary to follow or enjoy this retelling. Indeed, The Gap of Time will please readers who have never given Shakespeare a second glance, as well as his committed fans. Winterson has fashioned the ideal remake: paying respect to the original and faithfully following many plot points, as well as the general spirit, she simultaneously builds upon it, not only making Shakespeare's work accessible to modern minds but providing a freshly felt and relevant emotional experience.

Shakespeare's sympathetic and intriguing plot involving several twists and changes of heart plays well with Winterson's nuanced tone, while her characters are more multi-faceted than the originals. Leo is a deeply flawed man who nonetheless attracts the reader; Xeno is magnetic, beautiful and sensual; and MiMi is a woman of more complex feelings than the dignity Shakespeare gives Hermione. The next generation, Perdita and Zel, Xeno's son, are appealing, with passions and interests of their own. It is Shep and Clo, though, Shakespeare's nameless Shepherd and Clown, who get the most reworking, and to great advantage.

Most of The Gap of Time takes place in London and New Bohemia, but also visits Paris, the Seine and, of course, the bookshop Shakespeare and Company. As realistic as these settings are, it is the gaming world invented by Leo and Xeno that is most imaginative and vibrant. Leo is obsessed with the scene in Superman: The Movie where Superman zips round the world and turns back time to save Lois Lane. Their game is creative, vividly rendered and evocative of Xeno's disappointment in what his life has become, as well as Leo's preoccupation with the idea of time's malleability. It is a game filled with angels of death, and it is called The Gap of Time.

As the title indicates, Winterson's version of The Winter's Tale plays with the concept of time even more than the original did, asking questions about what is changeable about our pasts and our futures. Leo wishes he could take back his madness and its consequences; Xeno wishes he'd handled it differently. This is a stirring tale filled with waste, simple mistakes and regrets. But as in the original, it also offers hope, young love and the possibility of new beginnings. In an unusual twist, Winterson herself steps forward in the final pages to speak in the first person about what she hopes for from this story--and then she steps back to allow her characters to finish it. --Julia Jenkins

Hogarth Shakespeare, $25, hardcover, 9780804141352, October 6, 2015

Hogarth Shakespeare Coming Soon

Jeanette Winterson: Having Shakespeare in Your Life

Jeanette Winterson was born in Manchester, U.K., and adopted by Pentecostal parents who raised her to be a missionary, which experience she wrote about in her first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. She has since written a number of successful novels, children's books, nonfiction works and screenplays, and she writes regularly for the Guardian. Her awards include England's Whitbread Prize, the American Academy's E.M. Forster Award and the Prix d'argent at the Cannes Film Festival. She was made an officer of Order of the British Empire in 2006. She lives in London and the Cotswolds.

Here, she muses on questions relating to her new novel, The Gap of Time, and her longstanding personal history with The Winter's Tale; how this project came about and what the process looked like; and honoring the original.

None of us knows why certain texts--or images, or ideas, or pieces of music--become the material we will work with all of our lives. We know that we can have great enthusiasms that are right for the moment but don't carry forward--anyone who is interested in life will have plenty of passing enthusiasms. And then there are those things we always share with a new lover or a new friend, or our children as they grow up, because those things mean so much to us, and we understand ourselves through them. And then there are those things that can't be shared directly--they are too private and too personal to explain. They have been absorbed by us at the deepest level. We share them obliquely, through their influence on us.

In that sense a cover version is the right way to offer that material to others. By working with the text I can reveal some of what I believe is concealed in it, and I can offer clues about its significance to me. But the creative process is discovery, not imposition. Working with this text is like laying tracing paper over it and drawing something new on the tracing paper while letting the original show through.

It was important to me to honour the text. I was working with it, not against it, and crucially, not instead of it. The play is here.

I inverted the story sequence at the beginning because I wanted to start with the abandoned baby, with the storm, and with the characters who are only comic characters in the play: the Shepherd and his son Clown. I decided to bring forward Shep and Clo, and give us their story. The strange thing--one of the many, many strange things about the play--is that there are no backstories. Everything happens in a neon-lit present. Even when Hermione reappears after 16 years, we are given no hint of what she might have been doing with herself. In fact all the backstories are bundled together at the end of the play when Leontes urges everyone away to tell, one by one, what exactly has been happening in "this wide gap of time."

My title, The Gap of Time, was chosen because I am telling all those backstories. Novels are great at backstories--stage drama less so, because the stage itself is an illuminated present tense. Drama has to be dramatic--that means action, immersion, the now of the now. The novel can play time differently. Shakespeare was obsessed with time--in The Winter's Tale, Time as a character arrives on stage to tell us that 16 years will pass. That allows us to move directly to another present tense.

This play has an abandoned baby. I was a baby given up for adoption. It is a simple connection but a profound one. I needed stories where things eventually, somehow, come right. In this case it is a reconciliation, though how that will actually work beyond the last act of the play, is a big question. Shakespearean endings are not really endings--simply they regroup everyone--almost as though another play could now begin. Either people are dead, or married, or brought to justice, or escaped, or freed from certain enchantments (A Midsummer Night's Dream), only to be propelled into others--because love is always an enchantment.

So it didn't matter to me, doesn't matter to me, that the endings are really beginnings. What matters to me is that things aren't stuck. The worst situation is one where no one can change. Where nothing can change. Actually, the world feels like that at present--after the 2008 global crisis the world needed to re-think capitalism--that didn't happen, and now we are stoking up a much worse crisis for ourselves.

I didn't like being adopted. I didn't have Shep and Clo to look after me. I liked reading about good adoptions, though--and it occurred to me that even if you are in a bad adoption, what's to say that things wouldn't have been worse--worked out worse--if you hadn't been adopted? When I was writing my memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, I realised that I had, in fact, been lobbed into a place where I could (had to) make my own world.

Perdita gets rescued by a prince in The Winter's Tale. Bang in the middle of the derangement, death and jealousy is a sweet love story where two young people want to be together. Shakespeare always hopes that the next generation will do better--or at least manage another chance--provided that the previous generation doesn't try and stop them (Romeo and Juliet, King Lear, The Tempest, etc.). I wanted to make Perdita more interesting, and I wanted to explore the troubled relationship between Florizel (Zel) and Polixenes (Xeno). This is a boy who is ready to get married without telling his father, and a father who is trailing his son round the island like a personal private detective. What's going on?

And then there's Autolycus--Shakespeare's crazy rogue who is central to the coming right of the story. I had to give him a starring role--and it entertained me that he could run a dodgy car dealership called Autos Like Us.

I was on a train coming up from Spain in the summer of 2014 and I suddenly knew that I had to start with the baby: "I saw the strangest sight tonight." And I knew the characters and how it would shape itself. Then I had to settle down and write it. The first 25k words came out in a rush. The next 25k were slower and more difficult. But it had an inevitability to it, which is what I look for as a writer.

I read the play again many times. I read round the play--Ted Hughes, Harold Bloom. I am aware of the play's history and where it sits in historical time. I know a lot about it. I like to know about what I know about.

And I guess I know a lot of Shakespeare--his themes, obsessions, the places where he returns. Having Shakespeare in your life is part of life, as far as I am concerned.

I am not sure how well people know this play. It is not one of the much-loved plays. It is seen as a problem play and not entirely successful, after the explosion of the first act. Shakespeare wasn't nervous about magic--a lot of directors are, and so they handle the statue scene at the end badly. We are supposed to believe that Hermione is coming back to life. This is a resurrection from the dead. The feeling is the feeling of someone who is absolutely gone, absolutely returning.

Time doesn't move in the play until Perdita returns. The court of Leontes is frozen in time--Leontes has destroyed time as surely as he destroyed love. Now love returns and time returns in the springtime of Perdita and Florizel. We begin again.

In my cover version I have made time not pass--the reader will get that when they read it. And then in a great rush we're off again. Life can only be dammed up for so long. The force is too great.

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