Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Book Note: The Gap of Time

Winterson, Jeanette. The Gap of Time: The Winter's Tale Retold. London: Hogarth Shakespeare, 2015.

As long-time readers (and, really, even first-time readers) can imagine, I was extremely interested to hear of the new Hogarth Shakespeare series that started last year. Well-known authors are signing up to write novels that retell Shakespeare's plays.

Apparently, Jeanette Winterson was tapped to try her hand at it, and she chose to retell The Winter's Tale in her novel The Gap of Time. The title is drawn from Leontes' final speech in the play, which concludes with these lines:
                                              Good Paulina,
Lead us from hence, where we may leisurely
Each one demand an answer to his part
Perform'd in this wide gap of time since first
We were dissever'd: hastily lead away. (V.iii.151-55)
Settling down to read the novel—called "The Cover Version"(7) by its author—over Christmas break, I was thrilled by the first chapter—and then pretty deeply disappointed by the rest of the novel. To give you a sense of the opening, I'm excerpting the first part of the first chapter. It starts just after Shakespeare's "Exit pursued by a bear" (IV.iii.58.s.d.). Note: I've done a little "explicative deleted" (or "Nixonizing") to the excerpt below. 





I find that to be very satisfying and very interesting. And the same can be said of a number of plot devices in The Gap of Time.  The oracle is replaced by a DNA test for paternity.  Autolycus is a used car dealer—and his dealership is called "AUTOS LIKE US." And the author even works in a clever reference to herself in a Wikipedia entry about one of the characters in the novel—"MiMi made her acting debut in 2002 onstage at Théâtre National de Chaillot in Deborah Warner's adaption of The PowerBook—a novel by the British writer Jeanette Winterson" (49).  

But with all that going for it, I'm not sure the novel as a whole works very well. The main part of that is the extreme stress Winterson puts on any of the homoeroticism in the play. Her Leontes and Polixenes analogues had a homosexual fling in their youth, and Polixenes still self-identifies as gay. This explains why he can be in the Hermione analogue's bedroom while she's changing in and out of various outfits (while Leontes watches on secretly-installed survellience camera and works himself into a fever pitch of obscene jealousy). But Polixenes needs a son to meet up with Leontes' daughter eventually, so he has had a heterosexual fling in order to have a son. Much of the novel doesn't seem contrived, but that element does. And even though Leontes' jealousy is irrational, if Polixenes is gay, it makes it a bit less believable (which is not a great then, since it already totters on the unbelievable).

I'm eager to see what else the Hogarth Shakespeare series will give us; this one had a great deal of promise, but, for me, ultimately fell flat.

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Unless otherwise indicated, quotations from Shakespeare's works are from the following edition:
Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. 2nd ed. Gen. ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
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