In the Critics this Week

In the Critics section of this week's NS, Laurie Penny interviews Neil Gaiman, Jude Rogers plugs in to Lorde and Ian Sansom is fascinated by Georges Simenon's Maigret.

This week’s critic at large is Laurie Penny, who interviews the ever-popular Neil Gaiman. Gaiman says that the real problem with such a degree of popularity is the inability to write it produces: he cannot find time to be a “writer”, rather he is a “traveler, a signer, a promoter, a talker, a lecturer.” Nevertheless, he has found the time to write not only one but two books: Fortunately, the Milk… a children’s book about the wild tales a father tells to his children to explain why he is late from the shops and The Ocean at the End of the Lane, an adult horror story about a bookish, lonely child who meets ancient monsters at the bottom of the neighbour’s garden.

Ultimately, Penny seeks to discover why Gaiman appeals so much to the lost and alone. She concludes: “More than anything else, Gaiman’s work is about escapism and he appeals to those who long to leave their lives. Which, at some point or another, is almost everyone.” Gaiman recognises this escapism in his work but for him “there’s nothing wrong with escape”.

This is a fascinating interview that, among other things, touches upon the self-reflexive nature of Gaiman’s work, his “personal brand” image that is now being emulated by younger authors - his past with the Church of Scientology and being in a punk band.

Jude Rogers reviews the debut album Pure Heroine by teen sensation Lorde. Her number one single “Royals” was used to herald the arrival of Bill de Blasio, New York City’s new mayor, onto the victory platform on 5 November. Rogers is aware that:

Politicians plumping for youthful aural support is nothing new. Gordon Brown said he “loved” the Arctic Monkeys (his slice of Lester Bangs criticism: “They are very loud”). But with Lorde comes a self-awareness that shimmers in every part of her presentation.

It is this self-awareness that has Roger’s hooked. Lorde sings about the rich-poor divide, she satirises the pop-star world and is “acutely aware of the way in which young people are caricatured.” All in all, Lorde is a refreshingly new voice: a clever female pop star aware of how she can “access and shape the world.”

Never heard of Georges Simenon? Well, you probably will soon, because over the course of the next seven years, Penguin are going to be releasing a new translation of each of his 75 – yes, 75 – Inspector Maigret novels every month. The first one – Pietr the Latvian – has been translated by David Bellos, and author Ian Sansom is a fan. He appreciates the novel for its paradoxical, liminal tone, most particularly that of its “beautiful-ugly”, “exceptional unexceptional”, “delightfully dull” detective protagonist. However, more so than the novel itself, it seems Sansom is fascinated by its author. “If Simenon were the analysand,” he writes, “then Maigret would undoubtedly be the therapist.” Over half the review, in fact, deals with how hedonistic and prolific Simenon was – “a writer with a quantitative career, as well as qualitative achievements”.


Also this week, Adrian Smith lauds the new C J Sansom: Dominion - a 650-page counterfactual historical novel which posits a rather big What If. What if, instead of Churchill, Lord Halifax had succeeded Chamberlain as Prime Minister, and France's surrender in 1940 led to Britain signing a peace treaty with Hitler? Smith and Sansom both hold PhDs in history, and Smith's qualms with the novel's comprehensive research are relatively minor (“Etonians play football not rugby”). The rest of Sansom's alternate timeline is praised as realistic while remaining compelling reading: the Gestapo operate out of the University of London library, Senate House (a building Hitler famously coveted), and blackshirted Fascist Oswald Mosley has become home secretary. Most extreme of all, Hitler assists Enoch Powell fight to retain India for the Empire instead of allowing it independence. However, Smith does note the contentious choice Sansom has made in his speculative portrayal of the Scottish National Party, whose nationalism leads them to collaborate with the Nazis. In the year before Scottish independence goes to the polls, apparently even things that never happened can cause controversy.

This week’s Critics section also features:

  • The Goldsmiths Prize
  • Ryan Gilbey's film critique of The Counselor and Don Jon
  • Downton Abbey and Poiriot according to Rachel Cooke
  • Antonia Quirke on BBC radio 3's Discovering Music
  • An analysis of Rahul Sagar's book Secrets and Leaks: the Dilemnas of State Secrets by Katrina Forrester
  • Neel Mukherjee's review of Penelope Fitzgerald: a Life by Hermione Lee
  • Frances Wilson assessment of John Sutherland's A Little History of Literature and John Freeman's How to Read a Novelist
  • Olivia Laing's examination of White Girls by Hilton Als 
Lorde performs at the VEVO Halloween party in London on 31 October, 2013. Photograph: Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images.

Book talk from the New Statesman culture desk.

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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