The Books Interview: Marina Warner

You describe yourself as being "irresistibly attracted to myths". Has that always been the case?
It started when I was a child. I was brought up a Catholic and I was quite fervent, because I was sent to a convent school. I don't experience myths as supernatural now in the way that I did when I was a believer - I don't consent to these imaginings but I think the imagination has its own life that one lives in and enjoys.

What drew you to writing about the Arabian Nights specifically?
If you want to learn about a culture, you look at what buildings the people lived in but you also want to know about their cosmos. We orient ourselves by imaginary co-ordinates, as well. I wanted to look at the magical world of enchantment of the Arabian Nights, which seems so absurd and preposterous, and try to posit that it holds one's attention because it reproduces values and the ways that we orient ourselves.

You say storytelling is "the fullest metaphor for love against death". What do you mean?
There's a profound message in the Arabian Nights: when someone is in a rage, a murderous rage [as the sultan is], if you expand his mind by showing him different aspects of human psychology and stretch his experience through stories, you can, in the end, calm him down. That's what the stories were told for and there are many others like them. I've just bought a book called The Last Storytellers: Tales from the Heart of Morocco and these are stories told in the marketplace in Marrakech until recently. This supply is inexhaustible and it has its social aim - to broaden and deepen people's minds.

You say that the tales lack interiority. How?
Fairy tales are very different from Henry James or Virginia Woolf or Proust - they don't have specificity. This literature of enchantment presents the possibility that people are not consistent within themselves and that all kinds of unpredictable events will take place in someone's life that will make them behave out of character. A person who has done a lot with this is Philip Pullman. He shows that the metamorphic animal, the soul, goes through all these shapes and shifts and materialises in the world the vagaries of the person. Since I started work on this theme, philosophers have increasingly been coming round to this view of the discontinuities of personality. Derek Parfit's last book, On What Matters, has been greatly acclaimed and Galen Strawson takes it to such an extreme point that it almost undermines the concepts of responsibility and the law altogether. He seems to say, "You, when you were five years old, were not you as you are now and therefore what you did when you were five can't be factored into our understanding of you now." I don't subscribe to that. I think that it's a symptom of the difficulties in our virtual world, where our power over ourselves is diminished and economic systems are making us feel bewildered.

The Arab world has changed dramatically. Will that change the way we read the stories?
The Arab spring has a cultural component. One of the frustrations that people were feeling in countries under dictatorships was that their culture was being attenuated. There's been a lot of film-making, poetry and music in Egypt and Tunisia. Even in Saudi Arabia, people have been trying to express a more imaginative side that has flourished in Islamic culture for centuries. You'll find out that some of the figureheads are singers or poets. If these revolutions succeed, we'll see a terrific sign of what Islamic culture is.

You write about Edward Said. How do you think he would respond to current events?
I think he'd be so excited. It's a tragedy he's not around. He'd be a wonderful figurehead, too: he was so courageous in his stand about Palestine. I'd only just started this book when he died. I was frightened that he wouldn't like me writing about [the Arabian Nights]. I got a phone call - it was the last time I spoke to him - and he said that he loved it. I undertook the book in a spirit of wishing to modify the stark argument of Orientalism. I wanted to think about how our cultures have been interwoven in more positive ways.

What is your next project?
I put aside a book because I thought I'd better finish this one. I shall go back to it -

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 05 December 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The death spiral

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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