Show Hide image

It helps when you've got a lot of bottle

Don't judge a book by its cover, but maybe judge a champagne by its bottle.

Let us open a good bottle and for once consider not the contents but the container. It’s human nature to presume that the outside – of books, of people – tells us something about the inside, although it’s no longer fashionable to admit it. Physiognomy, the study of faces in the belief that the inner self is writ large upon them, was a hit at almost exactly the time that some enterprising fellow decided to double the size of the standard bottle (based on the average capacity of a glass-blower’s lungs) and see what happened.

Johann Kaspar Lavater’s 1778 book on physiognomy was so influential that 50 years later, the Beagle’s captain, Robert FitzRoy, nearly refused to let Charles Darwin accompany him after deciding his nose indicated a sluggard. Meanwhile, the first recorded use of “magnum” to mean “giant bottle, often of champagne, frequently employed by rich City types to demonstrate their good fortune and, quite possibly, stand in for a key appendage which may not be quite double the standard size” (I paraphrase), was in 1788.

You can judge a magnum by its carapace: you are only human, after all, and where would architecture be, or painting, or for that matter the propagation of the species, if we weren’t all a little inclined to give weight to appearances? But the magnum has hidden depths. It is, says Mathieu Kauffmann, chef du cave at Bollinger, the ideal format in which to age champagne. This is to do with the higher ratio of wine to air. Oxygen levels are vitally important in winemaking: too much and the wine will be faulty; too little and you will be drinking grape juice. With champagne, secondary fermentation takes place in the bottle, which is how it ends up fizzy. So a magnum conceals more energy than you might anticipate.

Recently, I found myself in a Miami nightclub with carefully fashioned exteriors, some of which communicated beautifully with me, although they were not the human ones. The owner of a stock-car racing team had invited me to see how the other half party. Below our balcony, the plebs roiled; our eyrie was too crowded to dance in, but no matter – the music was terrible. Very young, attractive women, there as team cheerleaders (and no, I have no idea if that’s a euphemism), undulated in the tiny space but attempts at conversation with one of them proved unsatisfactory: if I were uncharitable, I’d use the analogy of an empty bottle. So I turned to the drink.

Coming up rosé

Magnums of Grey Goose and Krug arrived with the regularity of surf. When watering one’s thirsty entourage, bigger is better, which is why Grey Goose – premium vodka that has never knowingly contained a bubble – also comes in magnum. Both tasted good but there was no getting round the physiognomics: the girls and the drink were encouraging me to judge by appearances, and these glitzy externals, cars included, made up the husk by which Mr Stock-Car Man wanted to be assessed.

Weeks later, at the annual Bollinger lunch, I was served La Grande Année Rosé 1995 in magnum. It was gorgeous – liquid rose petals, the scent of dried summer. It had aged in the best receptacle to ensure its inner beauty; by now, they could have decanted it into Tupperware and it would still have been lovely, although not quite as lovely as it was. We are a shallow species, if a capable one.

So let’s raise a glass – to Lavater, to Darwin, and to that blowhard who invented the magnum and named it the Latin for “big” – just in case we failed to see what was right in front of our eyes.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Israel: the future

Show Hide image

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