The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson
Updated: Nov 11, 2020
I can’t remember the last time I read a book with such gusto and without skimming over a single word. Some of Jeanette Winterson’s books, especially her magical-realist, semi-abstract works are a bit of an imposition, but this is a cracker of a story. It owes a little to Shakespeare, of course. The book is subtitled ‘The Winter’s Tale Retold’. So quite an auspicious literary heritage to draw upon. But, there is quite a lot of retelling, and it’s been done brilliantly. Winterson has created a version in novel form that remains faithful to the lyric, dramatic, narrative ethos of the play.
Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale Retold
From the blurb, we read that “A black man finds a white baby abandoned in the night” – but this is not a story about colour or race, or cultural difference. It’s about Time. And change, and distance. Time as a player. And forgiveness and reconciliation. It’s about relationships. Love, sex, jealousy, family values, secrets, happiness, sadness and hate. Connections, break-ups and reconnections. Lots of conflicting and opposing elements. And how all of the events and developments are enabled, prevented, or otherwise affected by Time. Shakespeare really had a lot of things on his mind when he wrote his play. What I like most is the concept of the second chance.
Winterson has a particular fixation with the notion that the past depends on the present, just as the present depends on the past. That takes a little working out. She also delights in the mantra that “whatever is lost shall be found”. This is perhaps a shade over-confident.
The Winter’s Tale is one of Shakespeare’s problem plays. It does not fit in to one of the main categories of tragedy, comedy, or history, though it has elements of each. There are various sub-genres which almost apply; tragi-comic-romance-with-a-touch-of-fantasy seems to come closest. In its simplest sense, this is a problem play because the characters have difficulties that are not easily resolved. We might expect revenge and tragedy, but this is not what Shakespeare seems to want here.
Mind the Gap
Jeanette Winterson focuses on time, but what exactly is the ‘gap’ of time? The concept of a gap suggests that something is missing. History, or back story, perhaps. A gap also emphasises the importance of the start and end points, but a lot happens in between. Gaps are rarely, if ever, empty. We are interested in the contents and the journey. The easiest answer is that The Gap of Time is the title of a computer game invented by Xeno, the modern incarnation of Polixenes, but this game is rather a distraction.
Fun and Allusion
Perhaps the best bit of fun in Shakespeare’s play is the stage direction “exit, pursued by bear”, where Antigonus comes to a grizzly end. The bear is nowhere to be seen in Winterson’s retelling, but Tony, the modern day counterpart, still suffers his own brutal demise.
A postcard from Stratford-upon-Avon
There is also a plethora of wider cultural references. Winterson alludes to some of the great stories and myths, notably Romeo and Juliet and Oedipus Rex. More playfully she mentions King Kong, Rapunzel and Little Red Riding Hood. Superman flies in repeatedly, and is fittingly called upon to turn back time and to stop Lois Lane from being killed in that car crash. In Back to the Future, thirty one years ago, Marty McFly and Doctor Emmett Brown travelled back to 1985 in a nuclear-powered DeLorean car. We see this very same time machine turn up as a birthday present for Shep. And since we’re talking about films, there are several Sliding Doors scenarios. Referring to Shep and his original crime, Winterson reflects, “Suppose he had made a different choice that night”.
The DeLorean time machine in Back to the Future
In-keeping with Shakespearean romantic drama, there are several complicated and precarious love stories within the contemporary scenario. There is a beautiful and timeless moment between Perdita and Zel (Florizel), where we note that “Sometimes it doesn’t matter there was any time before this time”. But what does matter is the subsequent suspicion that the person you are in love with might actually be your brother or your sister. How do you deal with that? There is also plenty of jealousy and heartbreak too, with echoes of Othello in the way that Leo (Leontes) destroys everything for not just his immediate family but everyone else around him. In commentary, later on, Winterson claims that “Shakespeare was not an enthusiast of family life”, on stage at least.
John Nettles (Leontes) and Samantha Bond (Hermione) in The Winter's Tale at the Barbican in 1993. Photo (c) Zuleika Henry
Winterson also refers to “The constant anxiety of being human”. This is not easy to dispel. Xeno (Polixenes) wants to make things “unhappen”. Is this an option? We are told “That which is lost is found”. But at what cost? And can things ever be the same again? And how have the wrongs been righted, if they have at all? Winterson suggests that Mimi (Hermione) is central here, in doing “Nothing”. The author / commentator goes further: “Nothing is the key word of the play”. I’m not sure I agree, unless we accept that the passage of time is merely an agent of change and does not actively do anything to people. I reckon that Time cannot be let off so lightly.
Built-in literary criticism
Winterson comes in at the end with a passage of literary criticism. This stems the flow of the narrative and I would much rather she had kept this separate from the main text of the story. I had been counting on having 5 more pages of narrative to enjoy, and my aesthetic experience was rather rudely curtailed. We are told that Shakespeare can be contemporised - if there’s still even an argument about that – and that it can be done in novel form. But surely what we’ve just read has already proved her point. And yes, there is some remaining element of mystery, but it goes deeper than Shakespeare’s exploration of the theme of forgiveness.
The link between Shakespeare’s story and Winterson’s own life story, included at the very end of the commentary section, is poignant and powerful. Mid-page, Winterson explains why she feels so personally connected to The Winter’s Tale, and why she wrote this cover version. The author refers to herself as having been an unwanted baby, and as someone who suspected she was an orphan. Quite simply, “It’s a play about a foundling, and I am…” And so, we have a beginning, an ending, and everything in the gap between.
© Eddie Hewitt 2016
For more on Jeanette Winterson, see my feature here: Novel Experiences
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The author's comments on The Gap of Time