Jeanette Winterson’s latest novel, The Gap of Time, is the first “cover version” in Hogarth Shakespeare’s series where writers including Margaret Atwood, Howard Jacobson and Anne Tyler re-tell Shakespeare’s plays to mark, in 2016, the 400th anniversary of his death. Winterson has The Winter’s Tale and, given its focus on abandonment, adoption and forgiveness, it’s an appropriate story for her to re-imagine.
Shakespeare’s original opens on Sicilia with King Leontes reaching a frenzy of sexual jealousy by reading too much into the friendship between his pregnant wife, Hermione, and his childhood friend, Polixenes, King of Bohemia. In fast-moving scenes, Leontes commands that the baby girl, Perdita, is taken overseas to be abandoned in Bohemia where she is, however, adopted by a shepherd. Meanwhile, Leontes imprisons his wife; she and her son die; 16 years pass, after which Perdita and Polixenes’ son, each unaware of the full story, fall in love. By the end of the play, Hermione is brought back to life, everyone still alive is reconciled, and the future lies with the young lovers in “the gap of time”.
In Winterson’s version, instead of kings and shepherds, we have Leo, an investment banker; Xeno, a gay video game developer who is designing a game called the Gap of Time; and a black bar room piano player called Shep. There are other notable updates – for example, whereas Leontes consults the Oracle at Delphi on the paternity question, Leo sends off for a DNA test.
And there are many clever cultural references, from Miss La Trobe from Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts, to Tracy Emin, Deborah Warner and George Whitman, the former proprietor of the Parisian bookshop, Shakespeare and Company, where Winterson took refuge during a difficult time in her life.
As well as employing these knowing allusions, Winterson makes the story her own by backfilling many of the original gaps. While Shakespeare explores some psychological factors which drive his characters’ behaviour, Winterson provides further details which make the story much more plausible. Leontes and Polixenes are childhood friends in The Winter’s Tale; Winterson stretches the young men’s friendship into a sexual relationship and plays with this tension throughout – Xeno is gay but desires MiMi; Leo is straight but still attracted to his old friend, Xeno. So Leo’s jealousy, when he suspects Xeno is having an affair with his wife, is complex. And there is an ambiguity to the reconciliation at the end when,
Leo stood up, went into the aisle. From somewhere in the theatre Xeno came and stood beside him. He put his arm round Leo. Leo was crying now, long tears of rain.
That which is lost is found.
Perhaps because the plot is a given, Winterson is free to play with the structure so she starts with baby Perdita’s abandonment and then fills in with flashbacks. And near the end of the novel, she interjects with reflections on Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale and its themes:
I wrote this cover version because the play has been a private text for me for more than thirty years….
It’s a play about a foundling. And I am. It’s a play about forgiveness and a world of possible futures – and how forgiveness and the future are tied together in both directions. Time is reversible.
Inevitably, the best lines belong to Shakespeare, from The Gap of Time itself and chapter titles such as “Goads Thorns Nettles Tails of Wasps”, to Leontes’ crazed speech addressing his wife’s imagined adultery which ends:
….Is this nothing?
Why then the world and all that’s in’t is nothing,
The covering sky is nothing. Bohemia nothing,
My wife is nothing, nor nothing have these nothings
If this be nothing.
Winterson has created a cover version which is at once entertaining and intelligent. It’s a good read without any prior knowledge of Shakespeare’s play. Yet, it’s such a clever and fun cover version that there’s much more to be gained if you know The Winter’s Tale beyond the summary provided. This is a novel which has the capacity to encourage and enable many readers to cross the gap back to the original. There can be no better tribute.