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Love lost in translation

CK Stead finds fault with another modern take on Shakespeare.

Gap Of TimeThe Winter’s Tale is one of Shakespeare’s four late plays that are technically “Romances”. All tell a story that ends roughly 15 years after its beginning – time for children in the first part to become young adults in the second: hence Winterson’s title The Gap of Time for her version. It is the first in a new series by ­Hogarth Press intended to turn well-known Shakespeare plays into modern novels.

The Winter’s Tale tells of two kings, close friends from boyhood, and King Leontes’ irrational and unfounded conviction that King Polixenes is having an affair with his wife, Hermione – indeed that the child born to her, Perdita, is his friend’s and must be burnt or at least banished. Winterson’s task is to put this story into a modern setting. So the kings are now men of power – one a hedge-fund manager in the UK, the other a successful video-game maker in the US. The play has many improbabilities and the effort of translating these into a modern setting in a conventional, essentially realist novel is almost beyond possibility. All the characters have to have backstories. So the men of power, “Leo” and “Xeno”, have been at public school together and are from wealthy (and bad) backgrounds. They have sex together – indeed, Xeno is gay.

Shakespeare’s Shepherd and his son the Clown, who rescue abandoned baby Perdita from the “sea shore” of “Bohemia”, are African-Americans called Shep and Clo. Autolycus, the thief, Shakespeare’s “snapper up of unconsidered trifles”, sells used autos. Paulina, who keeps the believed-to-be-dead queen Hermione hidden until the time is right to reveal she is alive, is Pauline, Leo’s indispensable Jewish assistant.

The ­modernising effect is nowhere more clearly illustrated than in the kind of madness Winterson visits on Leo. He is mad in Shakespeare – his jealousy and blindness to the innocence of his wife and friend are so extreme there’s no other way of characterising them. But in Winterson he is obsessed with explicit sex fantasies and porn sites and the language that goes with them. He sets up surveillance cameras in his wife’s bedroom and imagines he is seeing what is not really happening. As if she recognises the resulting impoverishment of language and thinks the only way to deal with it is to confront it, Winterson has a character say, “The f***ing f***er’s f***ed”, and then reflect “A perfectly good sentence – adjective, noun, verb. Not Shakespeare, certainly, but adequate.”

What is improbable and lyrical in Shakespeare becomes absurd and ugly. Anyone who knows the original will find it hard to swallow such exchanges as, “It was Auto­lycus. ‘Hey, Perdita! I hear you found your dad.”’ Or Leo telling Pauline, “Living is my own life sentence. I don’t want your pity Pauline. I just want you to know.” There’s a constant feeling of shrinkage, of plunging from Shakespearean riches into contemporary banality and modishness. In the end, Winterson has to give up on inventing parallels for Shakespeare’s improbabilities. There is no unveiling of Paulina’s statue of the dead Hermione who “comes to life” in the play; only “Mimi” in lights on a stage, singing a song about Perdita, her lost daughter.

The last few pages cease to be fiction, and become exposition in the first person by Winterson, telling us how much Shakespeare’s play has meant to her, and how it has taken 300 years “before the nascent science of psycho­analysis began to understand how the past can be redeemed”. Does she mean that this distressing transformation she has wrought represents the benefits of psychoanalysis?

THE GAP OF TIME, by Jeanette Winterson (Hogarth, $34).

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