In the Critics this week

Julia Copus on illness and creativity, John Gray on Jared Diamond, Kate Mossman on Nick Cave and Johnny Marr and Sheila Heti interviewed.

In the Critics section of this week’s New Statesman, poet Julia Copus writes about the link between physical illness and the creative life. Copus was diagnosed with endometriosis at the age of 26. “Hilary Mantel, a fellow endometriosis sufferer, believes the disease was at least partly responsible for her choice to become a writer,” she notes. “In some ancient cultures there is a deity for illness, which strikes me as refreshingly clear. If such a god existed for us today, I would be glad of the chance to offer up a prayer of thanks for the rich crop of art he has nurtured into being.”

In Books, the NS’s lead reviewer John Gray writes about The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies by American polymath Jared Diamond. “If we’d retained some of the constructive paranoia of traditional cultures,” Gray writes, “we might still not have able to prevent the neoliberal experiment; but we would have been better prepared for the fiasco that has ensued.”

Also in Books: Simon Heffer reviews Sorry!, Henry Hitchings’s books about the English and their manners (“Hitchings comes to the unhelpful conclusion that although everybody seems to think manners are getting worse, actually they are not. How does he know?”); Alexandra Coghlan on Alan Rusbridger’s memoir Play It Again (“Rusbridger follows the well-trodden path back to the instrument of his youth”); Heather Brooke reviews two books about Britain’s secret state, Cruel Britannia by Ian Cobain and Classified by Christopher Moran (“Cruel Britannia makes for deeply depressing reading. But to ignore its findings would be to grant impunity to actions that reveal the worst of human behaviour”); Sarah Churchwell on Alone in America, a study of the representation of loneliness in American literature by Robert A Ferguson (“Are Americans really more susceptible to estrangement than others?”); novelist Linda Grant reviews Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death, by the Holocaust survivor and historian Otto Dov Kulka (“Nothing else I have read comes close to this profound examination of what the Holocaust means”).

In the Books interview, Jonathan Derbyshire talks to Canadian writer Sheila Heti about her novel How Should a Person Be? “I think of it as a novel – but only because I can’t think of a better word … I love fiction … but when I was writing this I was asking myself: ‘Why am I doing this?’”

Elsewhere in the Critics: Ryan Gilbey is impressed by Zero Dark Thirty’s ambivalence about torture; Rachel Cooke is underwhelmed by a new BBC comedy, Bob Servant Independent; Antonia Quirke sings the praises of a Radio 4 Extra adaptation of Philip K Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?; Matt Trueman visits the London International Mime Festival; and Kate Mossman reviews new albums by veterans Nick Cave and Johnny Marr.

PLUS: Will Self’s Madness of Crowds.

Guitar hero: Johnny Marr performing with Modest Mouse in 2008 (Photo: Getty Images)
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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