Let's get medieval

<strong>All Shall Be Well; And All Shall Be Well; And All Manner of Things Shall Be Well</strong>

The protagonist of Tod Wodicka's outstanding debut novel has a nose of Cyrano de Bergerac proportions. Much like another famous literary nose, the one inherited by Saleem Sinai in Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, it is an essential component in his personal history. But unlike Saleem, whose snout is clearly traceable to his grandfather, Burt Hecker is cut off from his origins. His mother was raped, "quite possibly [by] her father" - hence, perhaps, the deformity - and Burt was abandoned in an orphanage. He responds in adulthood by throwing himself into an imagined history: a mania for medieval re- enactment. He wears a tunic, quotes Richard of Devizes and refuses to consume food that is OOP (out of period). His nose fits in nicely with his garb: when he is apprehended by the police after a spot of drink driving, an officer asks him to remove it.

Driving, of course, is OOP, and thus out of character; but Burt has been struck by tragedy. His wife has just died, his children despise him, and his addiction to mead is out of control. Needing a break, Burt instructs his lawyer to sell the family stead - a guest house in upstate New York - and embarks on a re-enactment holiday in Germany with the Confraternity of Lost Times Regained. His ticket, however, is one way. Burt has a vague desire to track down his son in eastern Europe, and little sense of what the future has in store for him.

Heading towards Prague, he pieces together the past of the dysfunctional family Hecker. His wife was the daughter of Lemko immigrants ("basically a kind of eastern European hillbilly"), a race blighted first by the Germans, then the Russians. The marriage was odd, but it seemed to work: luckily for Burt, Kitty saw absurdity in "everything and everyone". Relations with his ancient mother-in-law are rather more fraught. Like Burt, Anna Bibko clings to the past, dressing in traditional Lemko costume, but the two re-enactors do not get on: "Our histories clashed." Tristan, Burt's musician son, is caught between the two. He used to play the lute and hurdy-gurdy to please his father, but has since switched to the trembita and flojara of Lemko folk. June, Burt's daughter, has sought more distance. Her youthful obsession was the mock future of Star Trek, her adult passion is the deep past of geology, and she has moved to California. She's even lost the nose Burt bequeathed her via the plastic surgeon's scalpel.

Burt gets drunk and rings June: they argue. He tracks down Tristan: they fall out. It is clear Father Hecker has done something very bad. And having run through a potted history of his loved ones, he finally gets around to contemplating his own life (a suspension that works well on the reader). For all his humour and gentle warmth, Burt is a child. He is obsessive, intrusively eccentric and deeply selfish. As Kitty lay dying, he fell to pieces; but it was the children who suffered most as a result. Burt claims to be trapped in his medievalism, a displacement as real for him as that of a pre-op transsexual. He cannot take responsibility for his actions - "By all accounts," he tells us, "June had had an unhappy childhood" - and his main instinct is denial. But for all the damage he has wreaked, he remains damaged goods himself (the nose is only the start). In a final family showdown, he has the chance to find redemption, while his detractors must begin to look at their own motives and role in the repetition of history; their own methods of displacement.

All Shall Be Well; And All Shall Be Well; And All Manner of Things Shall Be Well (the title was a favourite saying of Julian of Norwich, a medieval mystic) is a vibrant, original, at times hilarious novel. Burt is a memorable character, prone to witty observations (breakfasts, in Germany, are "terrifyingly premeditated"), embroiling himself in slapstick situations, with a keen eye for the ludicrous in life. But Wodicka's novel is more than a lively farce. It is a worthy addition to the school of studies in American dysfunction - in heritage, rebellion, the bonds and resentments of family love - reminiscent of Roth or Franzen (or The Royal Tenenbaums, for that matter).

"English history is all about men liking their fathers, and American history is all about men hating their fathers," wrote Malcolm Bradbury. Wodicka has produced another guilty dad; but culpability is rarely so simple. Looking around the room, Burt begins to notice the resemblances between Anna, Tristan, June and himself. It is, he realises, "that most indelible, improbable and terrifying thing: a family". Wodicka examines domestic life as one great disorientating re-enactment. "Families are historical things . . . They have precedent, they repeat themselves, they have a million points of view and they never stay the same, even after they happen." Burt is merely an extreme example of the urge to use the past as a shield. Even June admits that she wants to raise her son "in my own history". Wodicka shows us the necessities of learning how to put the shield down.

Toby Lichtig is an assistant editor at the TLS

This article first appeared in the 30 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Brown v Cameron. Game over?

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide