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.

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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)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.