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Friday, February 19, 2016
Hogarth Shakespeare (From the New York Times)
A year and a half ago, the novelist Jeanette Winterson got an irresistible offer from a publisher. The assignment: Choose any Shakespeare play she wanted, and adapt it into a novel. “I said, ‘That would be great, put me down for “The Winter’s Tale,” ’ and they looked at me like I was insane,” Ms. Winterson recalled. “They said, ‘Do you really want to do that?’ And I said, ‘That’s the play, no question.’ ” Ms. Winterson was one of the first writers to sign on for a project conceived by the publisher, Hogarth, which asked contemporary writers to reimagine Shakespeare’s plays. She more or less had her pick of the canon and could have chosen “Hamlet,” “Macbeth,” “King Lear” or “Othello,” juicy dramas that were later snapped up by the novelists Gillian Flynn, Jo Nesbo, Edward St. Aubyn and Tracy Chevalier. Instead, she surprised her publisher and picked “The Winter’s Tale,” one of Shakespeare’s most baffling, jarring and uneven plays. The opening acts build up to a tragic climax that leaves the king, Leontes, mourning the loss of his wife, son and infant daughter, who is abandoned in the wilderness on his orders. Then, after a memorable stage direction – “Exit, pursued by a bear” – and a 16-year gap, the play morphs into a wacky pastoral romp, with a statue that comes to life and one of the most awkward family reunions in all of literature. In her adaptation, “The Gap of Time,” which comes out on Tuesday, Ms. Winterson manages to preserve the play’s weirdness and uncomfortable blend of tragedy and humor. “It is an odd play,” said Ms. Winterson, 56. “It’s almost as if Shakespeare couldn’t be bothered to finish it.” “The Gap of Time” takes the play’s themes of love, jealousy and estrangement and spins them into a taut contemporary tale about an insecure London banker who accuses his wife of cheating on him, and destroys his marriage and a friendship in the process. It’s a promising start to an ambitious new series from Hogarth, which has assembled an all-star roster of stylistically diverse writers to translate Shakespeare’s timeless plays into prose. So far, eight novelists have joined the series, which arrives in time for the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death next year. Ms. Chevalier, author of “Girl With a Pearl Earring,” is tackling “Othello.” Margaret Atwood is reimagining Shakespeare’s wild fantasy tale “The Tempest,” set in a prison. Ms. Flynn, author of the best-selling novel “Gone Girl,” is adapting the tragedy “Hamlet” into a novel about murder, betrayal, revenge and madness. Mr. St. Aubyn, who has written about his profoundly dysfunctional family in his best-selling Patrick Melrose series, is recasting the dark, tangled family drama of “King Lear.” The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Anne Tyler took on “The Taming of the Shrew” and set the tale in contemporary Baltimore, where a young preschool teacher, Kate, is pressured to marry her father’s awkward lab assistant, who faces deportation. All Hogarth had to do to recruit award-winning authors for the series was drop the name Shakespeare, which apparently is the literary equivalent of catnip. “It seemed to be a very visceral thing for most of these writers,” said Becky Hardie, the deputy publishing director of Chatto & Windus/Hogarth in Britain, where the books are being published simultaneously. “If you put the greatest storyteller of all time together with some of our greatest storytellers of now, you get this alchemy.” William Shakespeare wrote nearly 40 plays, and there have been countless adaptations of his dramas over the centuries. Jane Smiley used the plot architecture and character archetypes from “King Lear” in her novel “A Thousand Acres,” and Tom Stoppard took two side characters from “Hamlet” and made them the stars of his existentialist comedy “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.” Shakespeare himself was a notorious mooch who borrowed liberally from other people’s plots, raiding Greek tragedies and British history as well as works by his rivals. “Shakespeare was unbelievably clever at figuring out what stories have long lives,” said Stephen Greenblatt, author of “Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare.” “He was a great recycler of stories, and there’s no reason why his stories shouldn’t be recycled.” Most of the writers Hogarth approached were game, and immediately had a play in mind. “I said, ‘If I can have “Macbeth,” then I’m in,’ ” said Mr. Nesbo, the best-selling Norwegian crime writer. Mr. Nesbo was drawn to the moral ambiguities in “Macbeth,” Shakespeare’s tragedy about a Scottish nobleman whose hunger for power drives him to murder the king, Duncan, at the behest of three witches. In Mr. Nesbo’s version, due out in 2017, Macbeth is the leader of a SWAT team in a gloomy, coastal European city, where crime and corruption are rampant. The three witches are making illegal drugs rather than a witches’ brew, and promise Macbeth that he will ascend through police ranks – but only if he kills Duncan. “Those classic plays, they read like crime stories,” Mr. Nesbo said. Not all the writers got their first choice. Howard Jacobson, whose work often grapples with Jewish identity, said he somewhat grudgingly took on “The Merchant of Venice,” one of Shakespeare’s most controversial plays, after his first few suggestions were rejected. “I was hesitant, because I’d never liked that play,” said Mr. Jacobson, the Man Booker Prize-winning British novelist. When he first read the play as a teenager, Mr. Jacobson said, he was troubled by the depiction of Shylock, a Jewish merchant who seeks “a pound of flesh” from a gentile who owes him money. But when he reread it more recently, he saw Shylock as a more subtle and sympathetic figure rather than a crass Jewish caricature. In “Shylock Is My Name,” due out in February, Mr. Jacobson imports Shylock into a wealthy enclave south of Manchester, England. Shylock becomes an unlikely friend to a grieving father whose daughter has taken up with a gentile, a soccer player. While Mr. Jacobson modernizes the story, he made sure to preserve the problematic aspects of the play, he said. “I would never dream of cleaning up Shakespeare,” he said. A similar sort of fraught emotional chemistry infused Ms. Winterson’s version of “The Winter’s Tale.” Ms. Winterson, author of “Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit,” chose the play partly because she related to the abandoned baby at the center of the story. Ms. Winterson was taken in by well meaning strangers after her mother gave her up for adoption, an experience she recounts in her memoir, “Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?” “As someone who was given away and is a foundling, I’ve always worked with the idea of the lost child,” she says. “It’s like starting a book with some of the pages missing. You know you missed something, but that sense of exile can also become a place of creativity, because you have to be self-invented.”