New Boy, by Tracy Chevalier

Get down from there, n*****!

b-newboyuk

The Hogarth Shakespeare series continues to strike me as an endeavour excellent in theory, but almost invariably doomed in practice. Fundamentally, what you can do and want to do in a play is different from the scope and focus allowed you by a novel. Perhaps more challenging is the balance a contemporary novelist must strike: do they dig deep into the motivations, the emotion and the structure behind one of Shakespeare’s plots—sincerely trying to adapt the story to the present day—or do they hit the high notes, the stuff that an averagely well read person could tell you about the play off the top of their head if you stopped them in the street? Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed has been the most successful adaptation so far, and I think that’s partly because she chooses path A; her novel does hit some of the high notes, but she deliberately makes her book an exploration of revenge, bereavement and redemption, as The Tempest is, as opposed to a story about a magician called Prospero who has a daughter named Miranda. Tracy Chevalier, like most of the other Hogarth Shakespeare novelists, chooses path B, which accounts for many of the problems I have with her adaptation of Othello.

My problem with New Boy (and I’ve said this before, if you follow me on Instagram, but it bears repeating) is quite basic: Chevalier chooses to set it in a school playground, to make her Othello character (Osei, or O) an eleven-year-old, and to make the tension of the work entirely contingent upon O’s skin colour. I think these are all serious miscalculations. Othello as Shakespeare wrote him is a successful military veteran who has worked his way up through skill and graft; he is an older man in a relationship with a much younger woman; he is self-conscious about many things, including his blackness, but also his age and his plain manner of speech. When Brabantio, Iago and others call him “the Moor”, they’re indicating his racial difference, but—I would contend—not necessarily in a fashion more derogatory than if he were called, e.g., “the Italian” or even “the Welshman”. (Consider the Welsh jokes in the history plays. Consider, also, that Shakespeare’s other iconic Other, Shylock, is comparatively much more defined by his Otherness: he is “the Jew” by every line he speaks, every action he takes, no matter the weight you place on the “if you prick us” speech.)

But the thing that people remember about Othello is that it’s a play about a black man, and therefore Chevalier places racial difference and racial prejudice at the centre of her novel. This is possible only if she makes it impossible for any of the people young O encounters to form a positive opinion of him, and so she stacks the deck by setting the course of the action over one day, making O a “new boy”—a Ghanaian diplomat’s son at an all-white school—and giving Mr. Brabant (a stand-in for Brabantio) a personality composed of creepy paternalism and barely-veiled white supremacism. But that is not the power dynamic at play between the Venetian Senate and Othello. Venice owes him. The city is in his debt; he has done them a favour. His blackness is barely relevant, because asking foreign mercenaries to lead the Venetian army was standard practice; it prevented the ruling elite from accruing too much military power and attempting a coup. When Venetian characters complain about “the Moor”, they’re latching onto a palpable difference between themselves and an outsider, but it’s his foreignness—not his blackness, and they are two different things—that makes Venice envious and insecure. Chevalier’s constant emphasis on racial prejudice is almost insultingly simplistic, and it leads her to make bizarre authorial choices: she invents a wholly unnecessary older sister for O who becomes increasingly fascinated by Black Power and Black Is Beautiful; she writes O as an instinctive diplomat, which is both untrue to Shakespeare’s characterisation and makes him feel uncomfortably like a puppet for respectability politics; and she writes the line of dialogue at the top of this post (spoken by the enraged Mr. Brabant at the dénouement), which is such a blatant piece of authorial manipulation (Brabant bad! Racism bad!) that it backfires, or it should.

Then there is Ian, who is the Iago analogue in New Boy. Ian hates O because he can see that the other boy has the potential to dethrone him as king of the playground. It’s fairly convincing as far as it goes—thus, sixth-grade politics—but it makes zero sense in the context of reassessing the play. Iago tells us he doesn’t know why he hates the Moor, but he gives two possible reasons anyway: one, he was passed over for promotion in favour of privileged airhead Cassio, and two, he suspects Othello of cuckolding him. Chevalier gestures at both of these reasons, making Ian a feared bully and loner while Casper/Cassio is golden and popular, and giving Ian a brief flash of paranoia when he sees O making his “girlfriend” Mimi laugh. The latter, though, is usually glossed as just that—paranoia—and it’s the former (jealous rage at not being promoted) that tends to seem most plausible. For this to make any sense at all as a rationale in New Boy, O would have to have held some sort of power over Ian for some period of time before the commencement of the action, and Ian would have to feel that O is indebted to him in some way. (Iago’s hopes of promotion aren’t unreasonable; he’s fought with Othello and for him; they were colleagues, even friends.) Since Chevalier can’t do that without breaking the self-imposed unity of time, she has to settle for making Ian a tyrant who is fiercely protective of his own status. In the play, that status is never Iago’s to begin with. It’s a subtle distinction, but it changes everything about the antagonist’s emotional baggage; it makes the story a very different story, and it’s not clear to me that the change is an improvement, or even intentional.

It also ascribes a level of cunning and villainy to Ian that I am not sure Iago possesses, let alone an eleven-year-old (cunning and villainous though I am willing to admit they can be). The point of Iago is that he is a master of shaping circumstance, but he is not a planner; he’s a hyena, not a lion. He gets incredibly lucky with the business of the handkerchief, and his mind is quick enough to grasp what he can do with it. He makes blind leaps repeatedly: in goading Othello, in joking with Cassio, he is merely hoping for a certain outcome, not ensuring one. He is a chancer. Ian, on the other hand, gets the same luck dropped into his lap (with a pencil case standing in for a handkerchief), and immediately begins long-term strategic planning. (Well, long-term for sixth grade, which is to say, anticipating afternoon recess.) Iago doesn’t do things like that; he never anticipates what his petty revenge plot might lead to. Ian, on the other hand, really wants to break up O and Dee (the Desdemona character) from the beginning; he really wants Mimi (Emilia) under his thumb; he really wants to seriously damage O, and not just socially—we’ve seen him physically bully enough people by this point in the book, and he too exhibits white supremacist behaviour.

Maybe the problem is this: Chevalier tries to stick too closely to the mechanics of Shakespeare’s plot, while also making choices about characterisation and motive that undermine that plot’s power. She gives Ian Iago’s famous non-defense (“I have nothing to say for myself”) more or less verbatim, but she doesn’t make him a convincing contemporary model of a small-minded, jealous, possibly traumatised soldier; instead, he’s an ogre and a child. (She does make him a believable abusive boyfriend.) She gives Dee Italian ancestry—her full name is Daniela Benedetti—presumably in a wink to the original’s Venetian setting, but she doesn’t show us the complex power dynamics at play in her relationship with O, dynamics that encompass so much more than race; Desdemona and Othello are a compelling couple because various imbalances of knowledge, of beauty, of worldly experience, of age, of responsibility, see-saw back and forth between them. For an excellent positioning of Othello in a contemporary setting, I can recommend the National Theatre’s 2013 production with Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear, set on an army base during the Iraq War. (That production’s treatment of women is also excellent.) If you’re a Hogarth Shakespeare completist, or if you just want to decide for yourself, read New Boy—but its flaws mean that I can’t think of it as a successful reimagining of the original.

Advertisements

June Superlatives

June has been about how to live and thrive in limbo, between one state and another. Doing that successfully requires you to be intentional about a whole lot of things, including what you put into your brain. So although there have been many dinners with friends, glasses of wine and chai tea and gin-based cocktails, WhatsApp messages and perfectly chosen postcards and so much love, I’ve also watched my reading die down. And then it bounced back—such that I cleared 18 books this month—which is, at least, something positive. (I thoroughly sucked at reviewing, but that’s life.)

most diverting: The final two books in Mick Herron’s Slough House series, Real Tigers and Spook Street. For about a week at the beginning of the month, reading, sleeping and eating were much harder than I usually find them. Herron’s slick, pacy espionage thrillers (from the point of view of a team of underdogs) were exactly what my brain needed: easily digestible and not too deep. He writes good books anyway, but it’s especially nice to know that they can fill this kind of reading niche.

hardest-hitting: Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson. Stevenson has worked for decades as a death row lawyer in Alabama, defending condemned men and women free of charge through his nonprofit, the Equal Justice Initiative. He’s a deeply thoughtful and compassionate man, and his writing about the flawed ways in which the death penalty is applied is so calmly, measuredly furious that it is nearly impossible to believe so many states (including my home state, Virginia) still use it. This, too, I read during the week that reading was hard, though I’m almost positive that’s due to personal associations that make me feel comfortable and secure when reading books about the law.

playerofgames

best start: My first Iain M. Banks novel, The Player of Games. Jernat Morau Gurgeh is a member of the Culture, a utopian, anti-hierarchical society of plenty. He’s one of the Culture’s best game-players, and he’s dispatched in this book to the far-off Empire of Azad to play the game that gives the empire its name—and everything else; roles at every level of society are determined by how well you play, and the winner becomes the Emperor of Azad himself. As an introduction to Banks’s science-fictional work, The Player of Games works very well; it doesn’t assume too much familiarity (it was only the second Culture novel to be published), but there’s a level of sophistication to the political maneuvering that I enjoyed. I look forward to more of these; perhaps Use of Weapons next.

most ekphrastic: Edward Dusinberre’s memoir-cum-journey through Beethoven’s late string quartets, Beethoven For a Later Age. Dusinberre is the first violinist in the Takács Quartet, and he writes evocatively not only about the music itself (excerpts are printed within the text, which is extremely helpful) but about the process of making music cooperatively but not hierarchically—a very different endeavour from that of a solo artist, or even an orchestra, which has a conductor to follow. A superb insight into professional musicianship.

book that brought my groove back: The Dollmaker, by Harriette Arnow. It follows the tribulations of Gertie Nevels, a Kentucky hill farmer and mother of five who is impelled by World War II to move to Detroit, where her husband Clovis, a mechanic, gets a job in a steel factory. The rest of the book traces the fallout of that choice, and the corrosive effect of industrialised urban living on a creative mind. If anyone you know still has lingering doubts about the disadvantages imposed by poverty, hand them this. (review)

gwyneth-jones-life

most intelligent: Gwyneth Jones’s five-minutes-in-the-future novel, Life, which follows the adolescence and adulthood of molecular biologist Anna Senoz, who discovers a sex chromosome phenomenon called Transferred Y which might mean the end of human sexual difference as we know it. It is a novel about sex, and sexuality and gender, but also about science: the everyday practice of it, the hard work and the research and the satisfaction. Life is utterly unlike anything else I’ve read; like Madeleine Thien, Jones does her thinking on a very high level and lets it play out in her fiction through the depiction of ordinary, everyday lives.

best timing: My uncle sent me a sorry-you-broke-up book, which goes to show a) how well my family knows me, or b) how predictable I am. Or both. It was Leaving Before the Rains Come by Alexandra Fuller—a memoir of her marriage to Charlie Ross, and its dissolution, and further memories of growing up with deeply eccentric parents on a farm in Zambia. Fuller writes beautifully, and she is so good at gesturing at psychological damage without spelling it out for you.

most underrated: Michael Arditti has been writing novels for years and yet he seems to fly under the radar. I read his book Easter this month. Set over the course of a single Holy Week in a Hampstead parish, it deals with AIDS, hypocrisy, loss of faith, the legacy of the Holocaust, and love, and I really, really liked it. Like a modern-day, slightly grittier Trollope, focusing on the contemporary issues that the Anglican church faces.

hands-down favourites: Two, actually. One was George Saunders’s novel Lincoln In the Bardo, which imagines the night that Abraham Lincoln spent in his eleven-year-old son Willie’s mausoleum, from the point of view of the ghosts who haunt the place. It’s hot ice and wondrous strange snow, a truly polyphonic piece of work (it helps to read it as though it’s a play, or to think of it as a written-down audiobook) that manages to be both heart-rending and honest, and surprisingly funny in places.

51spzngtyrl-_sx302_bo1204203200_

The other was Jeff VanderMeer’s new book Borne, which follows scavenger Rachel in a post-apocalyptic landscape ravaged by a five-storey-tall flying bear called Mord, the result of experimentation within the sinister Company. When Rachel finds a piece of biotech in Mord’s fur, she takes it home and names it Borne. From their relationship—semi-parental, semi-best-friendship—comes the book’s emotional core, which is made more poignant by our growing realisation (and Rachel’s resistance to realising) of what Borne is, does, and could be. The dialogue is sweet and goofy and painful, and I dashed through the book in a day. It’s wonderful.

most nearly: After a twenty-year wait for Arundhati Roy’s second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is finally here. While I enjoyed reading it at the time, and was as moved and distressed as Roy presumably wanted me to be by the descriptions of the Indian army’s program of oppression and torture amongst the insurgents of Kashmir, I ultimately felt the novel’s focus was too diffuse; in trying to present us with many different points of view, it failed to provide a strong emotional core. I wrote more about it at Litro (review text here).

most holy-fucking-shit: Gabriel Tallent’s debut novel My Absolute Darling, which is coming out from 4th Estate in August. It’s the story of 14-year-old Turtle Alveston, who can navigate through thirty miles of rough terrain in a day and shoot a playing card out of her daddy’s hand. Her daddy is all she has, and she loves him, but things are changing… It is astonishing on the psychological dynamics of abuse—that love/hate, life/death, symbiotic/parasitic framework—and there is heart-in-throat suspensefulness. A beautiful and beautifully written book about entering adulthood too soon, with all of the implications about survival and protection and decision-making that implies. I hope it’s huge.

second most nearly: My first Allegra Goodman novel, The Chalk Artist. I still really want to read Intuition and The Cookbook Collector, since I love the promise of a novelist whose work fuses an interest in technological advances with a clear dedication to artistic creativity and (at least in this book) the written word. The problem with this was the prose, which was the sort I once heard described as “medium-roast”, and the level of melodrama reached the ridiculous about halfway through and didn’t abate. If I didn’t already know I want to read her early work, this might have put me off permanently.

28388563

party I was late to: The Loney, Andrew Michael Hurley’s Costa-winning novel from last year. It’s a good creepy Gothic, suffused with the awfulness of mid-century middle-class Catholics (the narrator’s mother is obsessed with “curing” her mute, disabled elder son Hanny) and with bleak seashore menace, and with potential satanism. I have to confess it left me a little cold, though; that melodrama, again, was too strong, and the pacing of the dénouement, the revelation of horror, felt rushed and diluted. I did read it very quickly, which probably didn’t help.

warm bath book: An odd category for this, but Nicholas Hytner’s memoir of his time at the National Theatre, Balancing Acts, was immensely soothing. He writes with intelligence and style and deep understanding about the text and subtext of plays, and he’s wonderfully witty on actors and directors too, without making the inevitable name-dropping appear too self-satisfied. (I love the way he introduces Ben Whishaw, whom he first sees as a minor character in the initially disastrous production of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials.) And Hytner on Shakespeare is superb; the book is worth its price for the sections on Othello, Hamlet and Much Ado alone.

most fun to argue with: Tracy Chevalier’s addition to the Hogarth Shakespeare novelisation series, New Boy, her take on Othello. The choices she makes about how to approach and modernise the story seem to me superficial; I don’t believe that she sat down with the play and thought deeply enough about character or motivation, or perhaps she did but wanted something that would hit all the notes a casual reader might remember from doing the play at A-Level thirty years ago. If you ignore the question of whether the book as it’s framed has any merit as a response to Shakespeare’s ideas, it’s a clean and stylish piece of work, but I’m not sure that’s enough. (review)

most apt timing: A new debut novel by Zinzi Clemmons, called What We Lose, of which I got a proof copy from work. It’s written with such urgency and clarity that it feels like a memoir, and it is all about loss – of parents, of lovers, of friendships – and displacement: what does it feel like to be neither South African nor American, neither white nor black? Short, fragmentary and strangely soothing; it’s out in July and I really recommend it.

up next: I’m reading Francesca Segal’s new novel, The Awkward Age, about a blended Anglo-American family whose teenagers seem to hate each other, and so far it’s wonderful: funny, observant, with wonderful casual descriptions of people and places.

Bailey’s Prize Longlist Reading 1: Tremain, Atwood, Omotoso

Being a series of short reviews of the Bailey’s Prize longlisted titles I hadn’t read before the announcement. These are mostly hack-jobs, consisting of extrapolations of my reading notes. Luckily I tend to make notes in full sentences. Minor spoilers ahead.

The Gustav Sonata, by Rose Tremain

9781784700201Gustav Perle lives in Matzlingen, Switzerland, with his beloved Mutti. The second World War has just ended. His father, Erich, is dead – a hero, his Mutti says, but Gustav doesn’t know anything about him, not why he died or what he was like when he was alive. Gustav adores Mutti, but she spends a lot of time ignoring him, or crying. When Anton Zwiebel joins the local kindergarten, Gustav has a friend for the first time in his short life. The rest of Rose Tremain’s poised and beautiful book is dedicated to the story of Anton and Gustav’s friendship, and to the story of the truth of Erich and Emilie Perle’s marriage.

It has been said that The Gustav Sonata is about neutrality, and it is, sort of, but the word I thought of most when I was reading it was “caring”, which is another way of talking about neutrality. The book is intensely focused on care: giving care, receiving care, in the sense of love and attention, is at the heart of Gustav and Anton’s relationship. It is also Gustav’s problem. He is pushed into adulthood early by a lack of care from his mother Emilie (who tells him frequently as a child that he must “master himself”); he is forced into a caregiving role vis-à-vis Anton by Anton’s parents, who are kind to Gustav but surprisingly willing to place the burden of Anton’s emotional well-being on a pre-adolescent’s shoulders. Meanwhile, Gustav’s family history is characterised by a generational withholding of care: Emilie, his mother, was constantly chastised and neglected by her mother, Irma, and the book’s second section, on the Perle marriage, charts the decline of care between two people in a way that illuminates everything about Gustav’s life. Meanwhile, excessive care damages people: Anton is hurt by it – his major adult relationship is passionate, but deeply abusive – and the affair between Erich Perle and his boss’s wife is unhealthy in its obsessiveness.

Tremain plants her thematic seeds carefully and tends them throughout the novel, so that resonances spring up at you as you read. Switzerland’s political neutrality, the destructive neutrality of one human being towards another, and Erich Perle’s rejection of official neutrality in order to save refugees are all tied together. Tremain writes like Kate Atkinson: her prose is accessible and clear without making the treatment of her subject light or superficial. The ending could, I think, be more delicate and also more believable: there is never any sense of sex in Gustav’s life, either before or after the final revelation of Anton’s love, and I think it is a disservice to deny him this. If it’s intentional, it isn’t leaned on enough to make the intention clear. But this is a question of verisimilitude versus thematic coherence – whether something is entirely believable versus whether it reinforces the novel’s general concerns – and so my reservation is pretty minor.

Hag-Seed, by Margaret Atwood

29245653Atwood’s novel is the fourth in the Hogarth Shakespeare series that seeks to “retell” some of the most famous of the plays as novels set in the present day. Some of these have been more successful than others; Atwood’s, I think, is the best so far. The reason it works is because she fully acknowledges the existence of The Tempest inside the world of her novel, which frees her: she doesn’t have to pretend, like Jeanette Winterson and Howard Jacobson, that the uncanny similarities between her characters and the plot of Shakespeare’s play is mere happenstance. She can delve right into those parallels, explore them explicitly, instead of making us wonder why no one in the book has yet noticed how unlikely this all is.

Her Prospero is Felix Phillips, a disgraced and deposed theatre festival director now going by the name Mr. Duke and teaching a theatre course in the local prison. Miranda – brilliantly – is dead (because the late plays are all about dead daughters, losing daughters, coming to terms with grief); she died of meningitis as a three-year-old, a horribly plausible scenario. After twelve years of living in hiding from his former associates, Felix chooses his method of revenge: he will stage his own production of The Tempest at the prison, and take down the men who betrayed him—now high-ranking politicians—along the way.

Whether this revenge fantasy would actually work or not (and I admit it would rely heavily on excellent timing, which usually doesn’t work out in real life), you have to admire the way Atwood takes on the play. Felix walks his convict players through The Tempest with a thorough thoughtfulness that I found genuinely illuminating. It might, I suppose, be considered a little academic, but the tone is always that of an interested and informed person talking to other interested people; Felix neither talks down to nor bamboozles his actors, and by extension, he doesn’t do these things to us. The Tempest is a play uniquely well-suited to prison. Felix and Atwood allow us to watch the dawning awareness, among the convict-actors, of the story’s relevance, and it is a gorgeous, shiver-inducing thing. The only major concern I had was when Atwood ventriloquised the rap songs that the actors invent to make the play more contemporary: would it sound like a White Lady Author “doing” street? Answer: sort of, but mostly, I think, because raps look awful written down. When I did them in my head, they…well, they worked. Though I don’t envy whoever does the audiobook.

The Woman Next Door, by Yewande Omotoso

cover

Hortensia James and Marion Agostino are next-door neighbours in an upmarket area of Cape Town. Hortensia is black, married to a white British husband; Marion is white (and racist, which we’ll learn about later.) They are eighty years old, they have both run successful businesses—Hortensia as a textile designer, Marion as an architect—and they hate each other. The Woman Next Door is an account, if not quite of how they become friends, then of how they come to hate each other a little bit less.

Marion’s racism is breathtaking. She’s a woman of her generation—apartheid was her normal. Her housekeeper, Agnes, is a black South African who is expected to eat from separate containers and use separate (and inferior) toilet paper. Agnes spends no energy in contesting any of this; she simply, quietly, gets on with the business of being a real human with some level of agency. When Marion eventually discovers that Agnes has stopped using the toilet paper bought for her, she is shocked and dismayed, until Agnes reveals that she’s simply paying for her own bogroll. But Marion’s relief is shortlived: it turns out that Agnes has started buying better-quality stuff than Marion allows herself. This scene is the sort of thing Omotoso excels at, the delicate dance of social oneupmanship. She tells a little bit too much more than she shows, though I think that’s a common misstep with social comedy.

The biggest stylistic hiccup with The Woman Next Door is the occasional register clash, or what feels like it. Omotoso uses words like “peeved” and “messed up”, which sound either euphemistic or childish, or both, and represent a linguistic cautiousness I wouldn’t expect from two old women who, we’re told, can “cut the legs off people” with their words. In general, on the sentence level, this book isn’t going to set you aflame. I do think its political content is sly and significant; the kinds of people who will read a book blurbed by Helen Simonson are not necessarily going to respond well to polemic, but Omotoso does slip in commentary. There’s a subplot about reparations in the form of a land claim (which I’d have liked a lot more of) and another about the descendant of a slave who lived on the farm where the neighbourhood now stands. I’m pleased that these points are present; they might find an audience that would otherwise have missed them. It’s also a book about old women, and about friendship, and we don’t get many books about old women; as Naomi said, more please. I like it fine, and will probably recommend it to quite a few bookshop customers. I’m just not sure it’s a shortlister.

The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist is announced on 3 April. For more commentary, see the rest of the Shadow Panel: Naomi, Antonia, Meera and EricThe Gustav Sonata is published by Vintage and is now in paperback; Hag-Seed is published by Hogarth and is available in hardback; The Woman Next Door is also published by Vintage and is also now in paperback.

February Superlatives

It’s been a whole year since I started doing Superlative wrap-ups! Elle Thinks has come a long way since then. Last month it didn’t seem worth doing Superlatives because most of what I’d read was reviewed; this month, I’m getting back into the swing of things. Reading was decent—I spent two whole weeks on two different 900-page books, which resulted in fewer total books read, but it was worth it.

most thoroughly engrossing world: The seventeenth century in Neal Stephenson’s erudite, globe-spanning novels Quicksilver and The Confusion. They cover almost everything—commerce, finance, politics, sex, war, slavery, physics—and everywhere: London, Cambridge, Germany, Constantinople, Versailles, the Barbary coast, India, the Philippines, Mexico. There’s Daniel Waterhouse, fellow of the Royal Society; Jack Shaftoe, soldier, galley slave, King of the Vagabonds, and pirate; and Eliza, who works her way up from slavery in a Turkish harem to major stockbroker for the French crown and a duchess twice over. Other characters include Isaac Newton, William of Orange, Peter the Great, Charles II, Samuel Pepys, Christopher Wren, Gottfried Leibniz, and Sophie, Electress of Hanover. It’s extremely difficult to stop reading them once you’ve started. The third in the trilogy is called The System of the World, and I nearly bought it this weekend, but The Chaos insisted I try reading his ebook copy first. This will be my first (and very reluctant) foray into ereaders. I will report back.

most comprehensively devastating: Without a doubt, Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life. I read some rough stuff this month, especially towards the end, but Lish’s story of an Iraq War veteran and the Chinese Muslim he falls in love with is classically tragic in its inexorable downward slide. It’s also some of the best writing about New York City I’ve ever read.

most obscurely baffling: I didn’t really get on with Shylock Is My Name, Howard Jacobson’s retelling of The Merchant of Venice for Hogarth’s Shakepeare project. Much of the plot felt begrudged, as though Jacobson were primly disgusted by all of these goings-on. The dialogues between Shylock and his contemporary stand-in, Strulovitch, were genuinely interesting, but marred by Strulovitch’s prurient fascination with his daughter’s sex life. That sort of thing tends to give me the shudders, and not in a good way.

all-bodies

most chilled-out read: This wasn’t a hard book, either stylistically or intellectually, but damn if I didn’t have a jolly nice time reading it: Jes Baker’s Things No One Tells Fat Girls. It’s a bible of radical body-positivity. I’m really into this idea: that not all bodies are “pretty”, but that every single body is beautiful, and that, moreover, your body is absolutely no one else’s business, and no one else’s body is your business, unless and until they explicitly invite you to it. Imagine what the world would look like if people didn’t publicly (or even privately) comment on other people’s bodies. Imagine what magazines and TV and the Internet would like. Imagine how health writing and food marketing would change. Imagine how much more we could do with our lives.

book that could have been written for me: Love Like Salt, Helen Stevenson’s memoir of her daughter’s cystic fibrosis, plus her mother’s dementia and their life in France, ticked so many boxes for me. She’s a good amateur pianist who writes lovingly and knowledgeably about music I know and love. She’s a linguist and a reader who uses poems and prose that mean something to me as touchstones for her own thoughts. She’s the  mother of a child with a chronic illness; I was a child with a chronic illness, and am now an adult with one, and I remember what my mother had to do for me when I was younger. In fact, Love Like Salt touched me so personally that I am actually dreading having to finish a review of it; it cuts so close to the bone.

greatest potential: I wasn’t unimpressed by Harry Parker’s debut novel, Anatomy of a Soldier. Quite the contrary; he takes a conceit that could go horribly wrong (a novel about an IED explosion in Afghanistan, narrated by forty-five different inanimate objects) and gives it life. What did surprise me was the stylistic awkwardness that pervaded the writing. I wonder more and more now about editorial practices in large publishing houses: how much work gets done on a manuscript after it’s been bought from an agent? It was a poignant, topical book and it’ll get a ton of publicity, which means it’s likely to sell well, and perhaps that was the rationale, but it just strikes me as odd that no one looked at it and thought, This is pretty good, but we can make it even better.

9781472151834

most nightmare-inducing: I don’t remember my good dreams, just my bad ones. Elizabeth Knox’s new novel, Wake, gave me a nightmare after I’d only read forty pages of it. It’s about a small town in New Zealand that falls into the grip of a mysterious insanity, causing everyone to kill each other. There are only fourteen survivors, and the inexplicable malevolent force that caused the disaster isn’t quite finished… Brilliant literary psychological horror that cleverly keeps its monster offstage for most of the action, while also making sure to actually explain what the hell is going on. (You’d be amazed how many of these sorts of novels never do, which, contrary to the beliefs of their authors, is not clever but infuriating). I won’t forget it for some time. I also think it would make a fantastic mini-series.

what’s next: I’m about to start Ottessa Moshfegh’s debut novel, Eileen. I have heard Patricia Highsmith comparisons and am expecting good things. (Though I am also wondering how to stop myself burning out on dark twistedness next month. Many of my to-review pre-pubs for March seem…rough.)

Shylock Is My Name, by Howard Jacobson

It is justice that makes us human, not forgiveness.

9780804141321

This is a weird book.

In part, this is because it’s a contemporary adaptation of The Merchant of Venice, which is in and of itself a weird play. Along with Measure for Measure, All’s Well That Ends Well, and (sometimes) Troilus and Cressida, it’s been lumped in the category of “problem plays” for about a century. This is a category—now essentially discredited in academia, but still frequently used in popular discourse about Shakespeare—that critics invented for those of Shakespeare’s works that didn’t fit neatly into comedy, tragedy, English history, Roman history, or “romance”. (For more on Shakespearean romance, I direct you to my review of The Gap of Time, an adaptation of The Winter’s Tale.) The problem plays are deeply philosophical: they’re explicitly about ethics and morality, they’re not funny, and if there are any marriages at the end, the romantic or erotic lead-up to those marriages was certainly not the main point of the preceding five acts. When you watch one of Shakespeare’s comedies, you leave the theatre grinning broadly and feeling a little saucy; when you watch the tragedies, feeling drained and pared down. When you watch a problem play, you leave the theatre scratching your head and frowning thoughtfully.

A brief recap of The Merchant of Venice (which, incidentally, Jacobson does not provide): Bassanio is the titular merchant, who needs money that he doesn’t have to woo the noblewoman Portia. He asks a friend, Antonio, for a loan; Antonio doesn’t have hard cash, but he promises to be the guarantor if someone else will loan Bassanio the money. Shylock will; he’s a Jewish moneylender, and he hates Antonio, because Antonio is viciously, outspokenly anti-Semitic. He almost refuses the loan altogether, but eventually, he lays out the following terms: if Bassanio defaults, Shylock can take a pound of Antonio’s flesh as repayment. Unsurprisingly (see “the gun rule”: if a gun appears in act one, it must go off by act three), Bassanio does default–all his ships are lost in a storm at sea–and Shylock demands the flesh. Portia, Bassanio’s lady love, disguises herself as a lawyer and argues that Shylock’s contract gives him only flesh, but says nothing about blood, which he would have to spill in order to get what the contract allows him. Defeated, Shylock is dragged off to be forcibly converted to Christianity and to have his (considerable) estate divided up between Antonio and the Venetian government. Oh, and also, his daughter runs away with a Gentile.

There’s a little bit more to it than that, mostly involving some unconvincing and not particularly sexy or funny prancing about at Portia’s country estate, but that is the crux of the story.

I don’t actually feel competent to review Jacobson’s updating of the play, mostly because it (the novel) is all about Jewish identity, and I am not Jewish. The Duchess (who, long-time readers of this blog will recall, is my best friend from university and former housemate) is, and through her I’ve learned some things about what it’s like to live in a country that forcibly expelled your people in the year 1290, only to grudgingly re-admit them a few hundred years later; a country where large numbers of the mid-century social elite thought that Hitler, though a grubby little man, perhaps had the right idea; a country where casual, institutional anti-Semitism exists under the radar, so that no one believes you when you say you’ve encountered it. But I am not, and so I lose the nuance and weight of many of the conversations that pass between Jacobson’s two main characters–Shylock himself, transported to 21st-century England by some mystical means we are not meant to interrogate, and Simon Strulovitch, a billionaire art collector and benefactor who represents the Shylock character in the modern-day plot.

There are a few things that I can cavil at. One is the alarming nature of Strulovitch’s approach to fatherhood. His daughter, Beatrice, is sexually precocious and beautiful. He spends much of her adolescence driving around Cheshire and London, trying to find her, and dragging her away from parties by her hair (literally). He is bizarrely jealous of any boy she kisses. He is pruriently interested in whose bed she has been in, or will be in. This is waved off as overprotective Jewish fatherhood. Not knowing anything about Jewish fatherhood, I cannot speak to that, but to me it seems psychotic, abusive, and Freudian, and not something that you ought to be pinning on religious conscientiousness.

There is also the problem of everyone else’s attitudes to Beatrice. The crisis of the plot is precipitated by her apparent elopement with a footballer who is ten years her senior. She is sixteen, but evidence suggests that the footballer first slept with her when she was fifteen. She was essentially procured for him by Plury (the Portia character, a wealthy young-ish woman who throws a lot of parties) and D’Anton (the Antonio character, an also-wealthy gay aesthete and social butterfly), who are aware of the footballer’s proclivity for “Jewesses”, and find him one accordingly. It’s not just the gross dehumanisation suggested by the use of the word “Jewesses” (though Plury and D’Anton use it frequently); it’s also that, basically, they’ve pimped a teenager, and none of the resulting brouhaha treats that as a big deal. Strulovitch is more enraged that they pimped a teenager to a goy; Plury and D’Anton, when they realise that they could be in legal trouble, are so ridiculously naive in their shock that I wanted to throw things. Combined with Strulovitch’s original pervy possessiveness, and the many approving references to Philip Roth, it just all made me hideously uncomfortable.

 Possibly, what we should take away from all of this is that it is much easier to update some of Shakespeare’s plays than others. Jeannette Winterson managed it with The Gap of Time in part because the original already had a slightly fairy tale aspect. I wonder whether the plot details of The Merchant of Venice meant that Jacobson bogged slightly; it certainly feels as though he’s much more interested in having Strulovitch and Shylock debate identity than in the movement of the plot, and those conversational sections were the ones I found most engaging. Shylock’s conversations with his dead wife, Leah, were also rather beautiful and moving. Perhaps if the whole novel had been a dialogue, it would have been more powerful; instead, more than half of it was irritating if not downright horrifying. (I suspect–with very little in the way of concrete evidence, I admit, but a lot in the way of gut feeling and experience with entitled old men–that Jacobson is one of those public intellectuals who would jump right on the “freeze peach” bandwagon with regards to misogyny.) So…buy it if you’re into Shakespeare, and buy it if you’re into the philosophical bits (I was both, and enjoyed it for that alone), but be prepared to either wade through the other half, or skip it altogether.

Many thanks (despite the above excoriations) to the kind folks at Hogarth for the review copy. Shylock Is My Name was published in the UK on 4 February.

The Gap of Time, by Jeanette Winterson

Forgiveness is a word like tiger–there’s footage of it and verifiably it exists but few of us have seen it close and wild or known it for what it is.

Pity Shakespeare’s late plays. They’re neither histories nor tragedies, they lack the philosophical knottiness of the “problem plays” and they’ve never been as well beloved as the comedies, which have picturesque plots and wily servants. They contain elements of tragedy—terrible misunderstanding, exile, sundering, even (and repeatedly) hints of incest—but things are always resolved. The resolutions are always last-minute, strange, and occasionally unsatisfying, and they always come about by virtue of that elusive act, forgiveness.

The Winter’s Tale is no different. King Leontes of Sicilia is plagued by irrational and consuming jealousy; he thinks his pregnant wife, Hermione, is having an affair with his best friend, Polixenes of Bohemia. He tries to kill Polixenes (who flees), arrests Hermione (who remains dignified and steadfast under interrogation), and has the baby girl, once it’s born, abandoned on a far-off shore by the husband of one of Hermione’s women, Paulina. Cosmic vengeance is swift: Leontes’ only son, little Mamilius, dies, and Hermione collapses, apparently dead of grief, at the news. In almost a single stroke, the king has lost his love, his heir, his future, and his best friend. Sixteen years later, the baby—called Perdita, rescued by some rural nobodies—is falling in love at a party with a young man named Florizel, who is the catalyst for her discovery of her past…

Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time is the first entry in the new Hogarth Shakespeare series, in which contemporary novelists attempt to rewrite Shakespeare plays. (Others lined up include Anne Tyler to reinterpret The Taming of the Shrew, Howard Jacobson to do The Merchant of Venice, and Gillian Flynn to do Hamlet.) It’s an idea reminiscent of the rewritten Jane Austen novels: Val McDermid’s Northanger Abbey, Joanna Trollope’s Sense and Sensibility, Alexander McCall Smith’s Emma. Curiously, however, I think Shakespeare is better suited to this retelling idea than Austen. Austen is always of her time; her novels are set in a firmly early-C18 social and cultural milieu. Shakespeare bounced all over the place, making things up (plots, characters, locations) as he went. Austen’s stories don’t really work unless they’re in that Regency setting; the customs and mores of the time are precisely what she’s commenting on, and what provoke her characters to act as they do. Shakespeare’s stories do work in a contemporary setting, I would argue, because what he’s writing about isn’t really the effect of a particular culture on the behavior of humans; what he’s writing about is what humans (think that they) want, and how—within various societies—they go about getting (or not getting) that. Macbeth, for instance, isn’t strictly about medieval Scottish monarchical succession; it’s about acquiring power in an environment that values aggression. You could set it in a boardroom easily.

Likewise, the faintly preposterous mid-European kingdoms of The Winter’s Tale aren’t important to the story in the slightest. It’s basically a second-chance version of Othello, minus the racial tension: what happens when the past won’t stay past? How might a man feel when the family he thought he’d destroyed comes back to life? How might a daughter feel when told that the man who raised her isn’t her father, that her father gave her away? You don’t get all of the nuance of this in the stage play; you get the bare bones of a story that ends with redemption and repentance and miraculous, astonishing forgiveness. Where you can get all of that nuance, of course, is in a novel, the form most uniquely suited to inspiring empathetic identification between real-life reader and fictional character. Which is where The Gap of Time enters this review.

Winterson’s updating is solid: Leontes becomes Leo, the mercurial and charismatic head of a hedge fund; Polixenes is Xeno, his best friend (and former lover) from their boarding school days. Hermione becomes MiMi, an internationally renowned chanteuse, and Paulina becomes Pauline, Leo’s competent, no-bullshit personal assistant. The shepherd and the “clown” of Shakespeare’s play, surrogate family to Perdita, become Shep and Clo, an African-American father and son who run a bar in a barely-fictionalized New Orleans. All of this makes sense, both for a novel set in the present day and for an adaptation of the relationships that drive Shakespeare’s original.

Kenneth Branagh as Leontes

Judi Dench as Paulina

The most interesting thing that Winterson does, I think, is to suggest that Leo may not have been entirely wrong in his jealousy. MiMi and Xeno aren’t having an affair—that’s never in question—but we learn that when Leo wanted to propose, he used Xeno as a go-between, and the two of them—Xeno and MiMi—connected then in a way that was more intimate than pure friendship. Pauline asks Leo: would it be so bad, if they loved each other? They also love you. Leo’s history with Xeno is made more explicit than Shakespeare could have made it: they had sex a few times at boarding school, before Leo caused an accident that nearly killed Xeno and which affected their friendship forever after. Xeno as an adult, meanwhile, is sort-of-probably-mostly-but-not-quite-completely gay; his son, Zel (the Florizel character), is the result of a deliberately planned liaison with a woman. The fluidity of the adults’ sexuality is a clever nod to the ever-present titillation of Tudor staging conventions (boys playing women who kiss men playing men, for instance, or boys playing women who pretend to be boys who then kiss men). It’s also a brilliant explanation of motive. The three members of the older generation—the parents—all want each other, all at the same time. It makes more sense, to me at least, than Leo’s jealousy springing out of nowhere, as it does in The Winter’s Tale. It makes a fascinating contrast to the usual story in the comedies, where young love must overcome elderly conservatism; here, it’s the older people who are more adventurous than their offspring (Perdita and Zel are, to all appearances, firmly cis/hetero/vanilla in their sexual preferences).

Parents and their children are a major concern in Shakespeare’s late plays, something out of which critics have mostly made pretty heavy weather. There’s a curious pattern to The TempestPericles and The Winter’s Tale: the mothers are out of the picture (dead or presumed dead); the fathers lose the daughters; the fathers are, in some way, morally dubious or culpable; the daughters return to the fathers, though not before their relationship is almost rendered morally dubious in and of itself. (In Pericles, the eponymous hero finds his long-lost child in a brothel and nearly makes use of her services. In The Winter’s Tale, Leontes fancies Perdita when she turns up at court, before he hears her life story and puts two and two together. In The Tempest, well, it’s not clear what Prospero and Miranda have been doing living in a cave all those years, but…) In all of these plays, too, disasters are brought upon women and children by the actions of men; this is the part where they all look like tragedies. Only the endings redeem, and often those endings seem like they shouldn’t be enough. Winterson gives her characters some good comments on gendered genre trappings:

“I am revising my thesis. It’s the fathers who kill the sons.”

“Who kills the daughters?” said Perdita.

“We all do,” said Xeno. “If the hero doesn’t kill you—call him Hamlet, call him Othello, call him Leontes, Don Giovanni, James Bond—still you’ll be the sacrifice for his soul.”

The inclusion of Leontes in this list is delightfully cheeky; unpacking it, it’s also clear that some of these murderous heroes (Giovanni, Bond) have been chosen because they’re sexually, as well as physically, destructive. And Winterson’s not afraid of pointing out that even fictional women who survive are made to suffer in order to advance the hero’s development: women are collateral damage in the cosmic struggle for a man’s soul.

Putting sixteen years between the beginning of the play (/novel) and its conclusion is the literary equivalent of a montage, only the growth and development doesn’t happen during the intervening time. When we come back to the characters whom we’ve seen at their worst, they haven’t miraculously gotten better; we return to them just as they start to understand that they’ve only been wasting time. Perhaps for this reason, Shakespeare’s late plays are often read through a biographical lens (Prospero’s farewell to magic = Shakespeare’s farewell to the stage, anyone?), and they seem to speak in particular to audiences and actors on the far sides of the age spectrum: both the elderly and newly minted adults can see themselves in this plot.

Looking back on a life is an inherently regretful act. We fuck up so much; we could have done better. Even the best of us have mostly failed. In a way, that’s the comfort: no one comes out of their own life as an angel. (The video game Xeno has spent his adult life designing, incidentally, is all about angels; it’s based on a dream famously dreamt by the French poet Gerard de Nerval.) Xeno, again, is the commentator:

“If I could make it unhappen. And then I remember that the choices I made, I made because there was no me to make any other choices. Free will depends on being stronger than the moment that traps you.”

It depends not only on that, but on your ability to cope with the choices—free or not—that you’ve already made. “The past”, Winterson writes, “is a grenade that explodes when thrown.” This beautiful novel reinvents a story that comes from far, far back in our collective cultural past—from farther back even than Shakespeare. The endpoint is that of the prodigal son. We will be forgiven, every one of us, but only by each other.

I am in blood stepp’d in so far…

I went to see the new film of Macbeth, starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, with Papa Bear last week. It’s not a play that I feel very personally about (although my brilliant little brother has played Macbeth, and has helped me to understand the text better through his performance). So I had few expectations, apart from hoping to be dazzled and provoked. Both of these things happened, and I’m still trying to figure out how and why I felt as I did about the whole film, so I thought I’d expand my remit a bit to talk about it here.

Negatives first: my major issue with this film was that the language seemed basically secondary. The cool thing about Shakespeare is that you can put all sorts of window dressing on it, as long as you don’t add dialogue, so that films of the plays can be visually amazing, with silent scenes and characters that create resonance or suggest motive. The downside of that is that the language can easily become less and less important, as the stuff you’re being shown sidelines the stuff you’re hearing. Fassbender as Macbeth delivered most of his lines in a sort of mumbling Scottish-tinged monotone, which I actually didn’t mind per se, but in a few places he seemed to have trouble with where the emphases should be. Marion Cotillard as Lady Macbeth was quite a lot better; she was inexplicable but definitely human (as opposed to a crazed gender-bending monster), which I’ve always considered a more effective approach to her character. She also got a backstory in the form of a silent prologue that showed her and Macbeth burying their baby, which made her line “I know how tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me” a lot easier to understand. The witches also made the monotone thing work; they all looked like terribly sad, average medieval Scottish women, auguries of the kind of pain and suffering that falls, in a war, disproportionately upon people who have nothing to do with the quarrel.

This version also draws out the play’s implications about children. In an excellent echo of Macduff’s wife and children, the witches appeared with two: a silent little girl and then later a baby. When Banquo is killed and his son Fleance runs (in a scene that isn’t staged in the play), it’s the witches’ silent little girl who appears to him and seems to direct him into thin air, where he vanishes.

Poor Lady M.

Fleance comes back in the last scene (a silent one, so also the film director’s interpolation). He takes Macbeth’s sword from the ground outside the city. It’s intercut with shots of Malcolm, now king, standing in his throne room, then starting to walk purposefully towards the doors. Fleance turns and starts walking away; we flit back to Malcolm, who’s moving faster. The next shot we see of Fleance, he’s sped up in response. They both break into a run. The last shot in the movie is Fleance running away from the camera into a blood-colored smoke: a stocky, freckly eight-year-old clutching a huge sword, the sound of his breathing jogging up and down. It ends the film not on the triumphant(-ish) note of the rightful king being crowned, but with the promise of further bloodshed. Even little boys aren’t exempt; it passes the violence down to the next generation, in precisely the same way that Banquo does when he lets Fleance hold his sword (in another scene that isn’t in the play). You can’t know that your children will live by the sword without also knowing that they may die upon it.

In the light of Shakespeare’s other historical plays, particularly Richard II, it’s also interesting for what it says about kingship. There’s no context or background for how Duncan (a cracking David Thewlis, projecting kindliness and weakness) got his crown. Macbeth takes it from him by murdering him, and there’s a bit at his coronation, the anointing, which made me think of Richard’s lines: “Not all the water in the rough rude sea/Can wash the balm off an anointed king.” (Nor the spot from Lady Macbeth’s hand, evidently.) But obviously that’s not true, because even when the supposed balance of nature is restored (with Malcom’s ascension), there’s Fleance to deal with, and the witches have prophesied that he’ll be king someday. I don’t know whether Scottish history proved them right or wrong, or whether this bit has no historical basis at all (knowing Shakespeare, it could be that). Is there even any point, this plot makes us ask, in trying to determine who the “rightful” king is?

Fassbender gettin’ his crazy on

Maybe Macbeth’s crime is not so much that he slew his sovereign as that he slew a guest. When you hosted someone, you were making a promise, not only to not kill them, but to actively protect them. So Lady Macbeth’s furious speech, “Was the hope drunk wherein you dressed yourself?”, about how he promised her he’d kill Duncan and promise-breakers are the worst, takes on a whole other sort of dramatic irony. In order to keep a private promise to his wife, he’s going to have to break a much more serious, socially binding promise to a man under his protection. It’s for the same reason that the Glencoe Massacre was so infamous: not just that the Campbells killed people, but that they killed people whom they were obligated to protect. They betrayed their trust fully.

For making me think hard about the play and its text and themes, I think the film was worth seeing. It’s curious, though, how much of Shakespeare’s language is simply elided by being able to direct your audience’s attention through a camera shot, or to force a comparison or parallel through colour or lighting. I’ve seen films of Shakespeare that don’t do this so much, and I’ve seen ones that do it a lot; this Macbeth is in the latter camp, and although that doesn’t make it a bad Macbeth, it does make it seem more like a reimagining, and less like an attempt to be faithful to the playtext.