'However far we have been separated whatever is lost shall be found.'
This assertion, which felt like a promise, on the end paper of The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson, a retelling of The Winter's Tale for the Hogarth Shakespeare project, came as a welcome reminder that not all Shakespeare's plays end in tragedy. Some of the later plays 'depend on forgiveness' too suggests Jeanette Winterson in her afterword...
'Forgiveness. There are only three possible endings to a story - if you put aside And They All Lived Happily Ever After, which isn't an ending, but a coda.
The three possible endings are:
Revenge. Tragedy. Forgiveness.
Shakespeare knew all about revenge and tragedy.
Towards the end of his working life he became interested in forgiveness - or rather he became interested again in forgiveness...'
I had wondered how this reading process might work..
Would an absence of knowledge about the plot of The Winter's Tale somehow be detrimental to my reading of the book...
Should I brush up on the play before I started the book...
Hence the lengthy search for the Complete Works of Shakespeare...and then when I found it, well it was all too daunting.
The setting the fantasy island of Sicilia...
The love triangle that is King Leontes and his pregnant wife Hermione, and the King of Bohemia, Polixenes.
The suspicions and jealousies that abound as Leontes, convinced that the newborn baby Perdita is not his, orders her to be taken across the seas to Bohemia and abandoned there where she is found by a shepherd and his clown son and raised as their own.
Sixteen years later Prince Florizel, son of Polixenes unwittingly meets and falls in love with Perdita and along comes lovable rogue Autolycus to the wedding stealing everyone's money, whilst Others Various make their presence known and the truth will out.
There's some fleeing back to Sicilia where more truths will out, feuding factions will be reconciled and some big dollops of forgiveness will be dished out.
My apologies, that is quite likely to be the most terrible resume of a Shakespeare play that you will ever read, but hopefully it at least sets you up to half-understand the opening chapter of A Gap in Time wherein bar pianist Shep (get it) walking through the American city of New Bohemia late one night, finds an abandoned baby in the local hospital's BabyHatch....
'There's a history to the BabyHatches. Isn't there always a history to the story? You think you're living in the present but the past is right behind you like a shadow.'
Think Foundling Hospital and the babies left with a scrap of fabric, except this one is left with diamonds, a case full of money and scrap of a song entitled Perdita. It transpires that hedge fund manager Leo (watch the names) has orchestrated the abandonment of the baby Perdita as revenge for his wife MiMi's supposed infidelity with Xeno, a designer of computer games.
The computer game in particular, 'The Gap of Time', will eventually offer (I now realise) a clever 21st century means of resolving some of the plays original ambiguities...I think the Bard would have loved the possibilities of sleight of screen.
If it all sounds a little far-fetched, well surely it is no more so than the original might have seemed to the Elizabethans, and to Jeanette Winterson's credit that she pulls it all off with such brilliance. The Gap of Time really worked for me, I was entranced, suspended disbelief when required and was as deeply involved as if I had been watching the play on stage... it's hard to convey what a delight this was to read, or how wonderful and deeply moving the final scene.
There is poetic, there is bawdy, there is frolicking and humour, complexity and confusion, surprises, puns and poignancy; the novel format allowing for the expansion of all those directions in a modern setting, and Jeanette Winterson wastes none of them.
Can you think of a better occupation for the latter-day Autolycus than that of a dodgy used-car dealer running a business called Autos Like Us, and what better car to be trying to sell, in a novel that traverses time, than a Back to the Future DeLorean.
Yes it sounds corny, but I groaned as willingly and as enjoyably as any Elizabethan audience.
Leo is obsessive, possessive and controlling and yet the moment when he senses the infidelity holds all the drama and poignancy of the action on the stage...
'The fall was when the leaves are shed and Leo felt like he was losing his cover. He felt bare and naked. He felt the wind blowing through him.'
Or the Interval, that time when the audience reflects with each other (and goes to get an ice cream) and which Jeanette Winterson uses to reflect for the reader, to direct thoughts both to what has gone before and what is to follow...
'So many stories of lost and found....
We didn't know that stars are like fossils, imprints of the past, sending light like messages, like a dying wish...'
The message about time, and the Gap of Time, made me wonder about those original audiences for the play too, busy investing their own early 1600's experiences, fears and anxieties into the action as they watched to give them relevance in their own lives. And how this series of novels has the potential to bridge that gap of time, bringing the action into the present and allowing 21st century readers to add their own interpretations.
I was also acutely aware, as I read, of what depths lay beneath.
The Winter's Tale, this play of which I knew so little but which surely Jeanette Winterson would have followed very closely. The re-tellings of Macbeth and Hamlet when they come, plays I know reasonably well, will be a very different reading experience to this one but all equally exciting. I now can't wait to look at the original play and indulge in a reading and identifying of the likenesses in reverse, nor can I think of many situations where I am so actively looking forward to reading a novel again so soon.
In her afterword Jeanette Winterson reflects on the redemption and forgiveness embraced in the original play and in her re-telling of it. How the play first performed in 1611, some 300 years before psychoanalysis..
'began to understand how the past mortgages the future, or that the past can be redeemed ..how the past lies in wait as an ambush'
and clearly still has plenty to say today.
I have been light on the details about the plot of The Gap of Time, trust me there is much more to it than I have revealed...
'And the story fell out stone by stone, shining and held, the way time is held in a diamond. the way light is held in each stone.'
Weren't Shakespeare's original plays often able to safely explore the issues of the day by embedding them in stories from centuries earlier?
And if so what a wonderful opportunity the Hogarth Shakespeare project will offer for the chosen authors to do likewise.
Clever old Shakespeare, and in my book congratulations to Jeanette Winterson. It can't have been easy to be the first writer off the press but I sense she has launched this project into a stellar orbit, I'm definitely on board for the journey.