In the Critics this week

Adam Kirsch on stalking, Richard Mabey on urban nature, David Herman on TV nostalgia and much more.

In the Critics section of this week’s New Statesman, writer and former television producer David Herman takes aim at the cosy nostalgia of British TV drama. “British television is on a huge nostalgia binge,” Herman writes. Taking as his examples two enormous ratings successes, Call the Midwife and Downton Abbey, Herman bemoans the “smoothing out” of history that occurs in most of the dramas that make it on to our screens. What we get is “simpler world with the complexities of real history removed”. Series such as these compare unfavourably with the finest fruits of American and Scandinavian TV drama. “A central issue of many of these series,” Herman observes, “is the border between good and evil and the constant worry that the border will not hold.”

Our lead book reviewer this week is the American critic and poet Adam Kirsch, who writes about James Lasdun’s memoir of being stalked, Give Me Everything You Have. Lasdun’s stalker, a former creative writing student of his, traffics in the worst kind of anti-Semitic abuse. “Give Me Everything You Have,” Kirsch argues, “joins a short list of insightful books about Jewish experience and anxiety in the post-9/11 world, along with Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question and Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America.”

Also in Books: Richard Mabey reviews Field Notes from a Hidden City, an “urban nature diary” by Esther Woolfson (“Woolfson … isn’t of the school of ‘edgeland’ writers who view urban wildness as insurrectionary … Field Notes from a Hidden City … is genial, readable, warm-hearted and on nature’s side”); David Cesarani reviews Helga’s Diary: a Young Girl’s Account of Life in a Concentration Camp by Helga Weiss (“Helga’s diary resounds with a ferocious will to endure conditions of astonishing cruelty”); Bryan Appleyard reviews The God Argument: the Case Against Religion and for Humanism by A C Grayling (“Grayling, like the other [new atheist] horsemen, goes too far. He narrowly defines religion as a system of physical beliefs and then says such a system has nothing to offer the world”); Anita Sethi reviews Lucy Ellmann’s novel Mimi (“Ellmann’s work is characterised by a delightfully playful style”). PLUS: “The Revenant”, a poem by Fiona Sampson.

In the Books Interview, Jonathan Derbyshire talks to the historian Paul Kennedy about his book Engineers of Victory: the Problem Solvers Who Turned the Tide in the Second World War. “I’m tilting against a very popular strand of literature that says, ‘The decisive battle, the decisive intelligence breakthrough’,” Kennedy tells Derbyshire. “I’m saying that history is much more complicated than that.”

Elsewhere in the Critics: Rachel Cooke reviews two BBC2 documentaries about the railways; Ryan Gilbey reviews Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder and the screen adaptation of David Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas; Matt Trueman considers the popularity of banker bashing on the London stage; Kate Mossman reviews new albums by John Grant and Steve Earle; and Antonia Quirke’s listens to various radio programmes from her sick bed.

PLUS: Will Self’s Madness of Crowds.

Members of the cast of Downton Abbey (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