The Gap of Time

Gap of TimeAlthough 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.

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26 Responses to The Gap of Time

  1. I’m really happy to see this review; like you, I’m intrigued by this project and already pre-ordered the Anne Tyler book when it comes out in late spring/early summer 2016. I haven’t read any Jeanette Winterson but I certainly would agree that any adaptation of Winter’s Tale would have to leave plausibility at the door. Who would I like to see adapt certain novels? What about Stephen King for Macbeth? With a character like Annie Wilkes under his belt, he should be ready for Lady Macbeth. Amy Tan for Romeo and Juliet (she would put more emphasis on Juliet’s relationship with her mother and nurse), Junot Diaz for Merchant of Venice (where he would almost certainly change the locale but not the cultural clash)…oh, I could think of so many interesting combinations.

    • Teresa says:

      I’d never read any Winterson before this either, but she’s been on my list for ages. I’m skeptical about Anne Tyler’s Shrew, but I’ve only read her latest novel, so there might be some spark to her work that I haven’t seen.

      I love the idea of Stephen King for Macbeth! But since Nesbo has that claimed, perhaps he could do Titus Andronicus! Nothing supernatural there, but such darkness.

      • I’m a big Anne Tyler fan, but I understand those who thought A Spool of Blue Thread too diffuse for their tastes. She’s best with loopy yet complicated/confusing emotional ties, which certainly characterize the relationship between Petruchio and Kate. Could be vintage Tyler; for some that would be nails on a blackboard, but great for me. One of the very few contemporary writers I fairly consistently read.

  2. Thank you for this review. I did not know anything about this project but find it very interesting. Your clever review makes it even more attractive. Like you, I think it was a good choice to begin with Janet Winterson: she sheds a fine light over the future. I shall not propose any combination as I am not sufficiently aware of the contemporary English speaking writers (I am more a “classics” person) but Zadie Smith coul make somthing interesting. Anne Tyler for The Taming of the Shrew? Is’t she too “domesticated” for this?
    Thank you for this review.

    • Teresa says:

      That’s my feeling about Tyler, but it’s based on just one book, so I could be wrong. But I’d have liked to see someone with a really brittle and angry style take it on.

  3. lailaarch says:

    I didn’t know this project existed either, and I find it really interesting. I do like Tracy Chevalier’s novels (aside from the last one, which didn’t do it for me) but I agree, I wonder how she’ll do with Othello, which is my favorite Shakespeare play. Seems like an odd choice. I adore Margaret Atwood and Anne Tyler so I will definitely be checking those out. I feel as though I should perhaps brush up on my Shakespeare, though – I’ve not read any since college. Thanks for this post!

    • Teresa says:

      I feel lucky that volunteering at the Shakespeare Theatre in DC has enabled me to see most of these plays within the last few years (or next year, in the case of Othello). This book did have a nice summary at the beginning of the original, and I imagine the others will, too.

  4. realthog says:

    I’d heard nothing about this project but it sounds very interesting . . . and oddly familiar. I had the idea of turning the Shakespeare plays into novels many years ago — the ’80s or early ’90s, at a guess — and my agent at the time floated it around a few publishers, only to be told it was a bloody awful idea. Clearly I was ahead of my time!

    • Teresa says:

      So much is a matter of timing, isn’t it? Or getting the right idea to the right person. I wonder if the success of the Canongate Myths made this appealing–and then there are those Austen updates, which seem to be doing well but mostly look terrible.

  5. Deb says:

    Doesn’t the whole series seem like a bit of a stunt–and, frankly, somewhat patronizing, as in a Jewish writer has to write the adaptation of the play with a Jewish character, a writer who has written about dysfunctional families has to write an adaptation of King Lear, etc.? I’ll be interested in how some of the other books turn out, but it doesn’t bode well for the series that trendy/topical/Anglo writers are being chosen more for their perceived affinity with the subject matter than for their talent (no matter how much they may have).

    • realthog says:

      Yep. Thanks for expressing a concern that was nagging at me.

    • Teresa says:

      It doesn’t really seem any more gimmicky than the Canongate Myths, but a lot will depend on the execution. You make a good point about author selection (although I don’t think a non-Jewish writer would touch Merchant), and I think they would do well to choose some more daring writers. (I’d love to see Oyeyemi in this.) Shakespeare is such a mix of high and low culture that the author slate should reflect that, and that makes me glad to see writers like Flynn in the mix, but leaning too hard on the popular authors of the moment could keep the series from reaching its potential. The fact that they started with Winterson, I hope, bodes well. Starting with Flynn would be more obviously stunty.

      • But that’s why I suggested someone like Junot Diaz for Merchant; he could make Shylock a Haitian and the rest of the characters DR people opposed to assimilation (it’s in this week’s news). Strip Shylock of his specific “otherness” and he becomes like any outsider, judged, misjudged, and condemned, in part a victim of his own “closet.” I think the work could be reinterpreted in a really fresh way with less on-the-nose metaphors and work very well.

      • Teresa says:

        The more I think about the Diaz idea the more I like it. And although I haven’t read Diaz’s work, I get the impression that he’s someone who could handle the comic material and the more serious themes. Sherman Alexie would be another interesting choice, for the same reasons. But I think it could end up leading to accusations of erasure of Shylock’s Jewish identity.

  6. Alex says:

    I have been very sceptical about this project. I don’t really like books that try and breathe new life into old texts and this has always seemed to me to be more about profiting from the 2016 celebrations of the four hundredth anniversary than about any concern with literary merit. I think the fact that Gillian Flynn is scheduled for ‘Hamlet’ is evidence of this. I happen to know that Howard Jacobson wanted to do ‘Hamlet’ and I would have thought he was an author who would do it far more justice. He is not, however, as commercially viable, unless you get him to do ‘The Merchant of Venice’, when you can play the Jewish angle. This is one Shakespearian byway I am unlikely to explore.

    • Teresa says:

      I was hoping you’d weigh in, Alex, because I knew you’d have some strong opinions! I do think Flynn is an odd choice for Hamlet, although I still like the idea of having some commercial writers like her in the project. I’d rather see her work on a less well-known play that has less of a built-in audience already. I could imagine her doing interesting things with Coriolanus, for example.

      As far as the project as a whole, I’m going to take it book by book.

  7. I’m not sure I will read any of the entries in this project, but there have been some good films which adapted Shakespeare in this way. The best I’ve seen is Basil Dearden’s 1962 All Night Long an adaptation of Othello set in a contemporary jazz milieu with some terrific performances, acting from Patrick Mc Goohan and Paul Harris, and musically from Charles Mingus, Dave Brubeck, and others.

    • Teresa says:

      Some of my favorite productions (on film or stage) were set in different places and times, although most did keep Shakespeare’s language. I did love Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, a Japanese version of Macbeth. And I’ve attended a fascinating interactive version of Macbeth called Sleep No More that was set in the 1930s. Shakespeare is rich for reimagining.

  8. Denise says:

    Wow, this does sound like an amazing idea. I also agree that I find Chevalier bland (overrated??) I love the concepts in The Winter’s Tale, although being such a conceptual rather than realistic play (even for Shakespeare) it’s a brave person who would take it on.

    • Teresa says:

      Winterson wrote a bit about why she wanted to adapt this play, and I enjoyed reading her thoughts on it. She was certainly a good choice to do it, as it worked really well.

  9. Hm. I’m interested in this idea, less interested in the specific authors they’ve chosen. Gillian Flynn is a fundamentally interesting author, but yeah, some of your ideas for non-white authors are way more intriguing to me. Particularly Helen Oyeyemi! I would read anything she wrote, but I’d extra read her take on a Shakespeare play.

    Also, confession: I’ve never cared for Jeanette Winterson. I want to. But I just don’t.

    • Teresa says:

      Yes, that’s about how I feel about the series. I read this book mostly because I was curious to try something by Winterson. (I’d never read her before!) But none of the forthcoming selections really excite me. They could be great, but I’d be so much more excited for someone like Oyeyemi to be participating. She could make magic out of so many of these stories.

  10. Stefanie says:

    When I first heard these books were happening I was a little worried but I am glad to hear it is off to a good start!

  11. JaneGS says:

    I hadn’t heard of this project and not sure how I feel about it. While I like all sorts of adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays (i.e., non-traditional settings), I prefer it when they stick to the language. The stories are usually pretty stock but the words are what make them work. But I try to keep an open mind.

    For the record, I didn’t like any of the books in the Austen project, though I pretty much liked most of the writers who contributed, just not what they produced for the project.

    • Teresa says:

      True–it’s the language that has kept a lot of these stories around. But I still think a good remix of the stories are possible. West Side Story, after all, is among my favorite musicals, but it can stand apart from Romeo and Juliet as its own thing. (And as much as I loved this, I don’t know that it would stand well on its own.)

      It’s funny that the Austen project put me off in a way that this didn’t when I first heard about it. I think maybe the marketing made it sound more like they were doing updates rather than fresh spins. Austen and Shakespeare don’t need updating, but fresh spins can be good!

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