Although I tend to grumble about any effort to “breathe new life” into classic texts that still have plenty of life in them, I’ve adored many such retellings, from West Side Story to Clueless. So I’ve been both excited and wary about the Hogarth Shakespeare project in which numerous popular and acclaimed authors will reimagine Shakespeare’s plays as novels. The series launched this month with Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time, which she dubs a “cover version” of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale.
Winterson wisely gets the big moment out of the way early. The novel opens with Anthony Gonzales leaving an infant girl in a New Bohemia (New Orleans) hospital’s Babyhatch and then driving away, pursued by gangsters and getting rear-ended under a bridge we later learn is called Bear Bridge. So now we all know how she’ll take care of that most famous bit of stage direction. No need to wonder about it anymore.
The baby is immediately found by a man named Shep and his son Clo. Shep then makes the only decision that feels right:
We look at each other, her unsteady blue eyes finding my dark gaze. She lifts up one tiny hand, small as a flower, and touches the rough stubble of my face.
The cars come and the cars go between me and my crossing the street. The anonymous always-in-motion world. The baby and I stand still, and it’s as if she knows that a choice has to be made.
Or does it? The important things happen by chance. Only the rest gets planned.
The book then moves back to London where a former bank executive named Leo is convinced that his wife MiMi is having an affair with his best friend Xeno. If you know the play, you know where this is going. And even if you don’t, you can probably guess. It starts with a Webcam and ends with assault and kidnapping. This part of the book is stressful and unpleasant. Leo’s anger is oppressive, and even (especially) those characters who love him have to walk on eggshells. But they don’t take his anger seriously, noting that “Leo is like a cartoon of somebody who’s unstable.” After the final, devastating outburst, they have no choice but to take him seriously. But soon, Leo and MiMi’s baby is gone, and any chance they had at making things right is gone.
Here, the story returns to New Bohemia, with Shep and Clo and the now grown-up Perdita. Their happiness, despite what some might consider sketchy surroundings, is a breath of fresh air. This is a world worth spending time in because it is so infused with love and affection. And the eventual joining of Shep’s world with Cleo’s kept me smiling until the end of the book. It’s very much like my reaction to seeing the original.
The plot itself is ridiculous, but to try to impose anything like realism on The Winter’s Tale would be silly. Instead, Winterson goes for an emotional realism in which the characters are locked in bad patterns or past mistakes and obsessions and must find a way out. And if the path out feels like a fairy tale, remember that this novel is based on a play in which a statue comes to life. Some plot elements seem odd, particularly the use of a video game Xeno developed, but the game is so crucial to the final payoff that I really didn’t mind.
Hogarth did well to launch this series with Winterson. One hesitation I have with the series is in the fact that so much of the pleasure of Shakespeare rests in his language. Straightforward prose would not be enough. But Winterson gives us her characters internal musings as well as bits of third-person narration that could just about stand alone:
And the world goes on regardless of joy or despair or one woman’s fortune or one man’s loss. And we can’t know the lives of others. And we can’t know our own lives beyond the details we can manage. And the things that change us forever happen without us knowing they would happen. And the moment that looks like the rest is the one where hearts are broken or healed. And time that runs so steady and sure runs wild outside of the clocks. It takes so little time to change a lifetime and a lifetime to understand the change.
It’s not Shakespeare, but it feels Shakespearean. I loved it. I can only hope the others live up to it, but I’m not entirely convinced about some of the other planned retellings:
- Margaret Atwood: The Tempest (perhaps)
- Tracy Chevalier: Othello (I find Chevalier bland. I’d like someone more bloody and ruthless to take this on.)
- Gillian Flynn: Hamlet (Interesting. She could make it dark and edgy, but will her prose be good enough?)
- Howard Jacobson: The Merchant of Venice (I’ve never read Jacobson, but he’s a Jewish author, and probably only a Jewish author should take this on.)
- Jo Nesbo: Macbeth (I’ve never read Nesbo, but a crime novelist could be right. I’d rather see someone who could play with the supernatural elements.)
- Edward St Aubyn: King Lear (Never read St. Aubyn. No strong opinion.)
- Anne Tyler: The Taming of the Shrew (Yawn. This one could have been great for Atwood, but she seems more interested in speculative fiction these days. I like speculative fiction, but I like Atwood’s realistic fiction better.)
I’d like to see some non-white authors included. What about Helen Oyeyemi? (Imagining her Macbeth gives me shivers, but Midsummer Night’s Dream and Cymbeline have potential.) Or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie? Or Zadie Smith? They might make interesting work of the histories. Or Kazuo Ishiguro? I can imagine him doing Measure for Measure. But Sarah Waters could put a clever spin on that play as well. (Maybe too obvious a spin.)
Who would you choose to adapt Shakespeare?
I received an e-galley of The Gap of Time for review consideration via Edelweiss.