Tag Archives: vintage

Cheltenham Literature Festival pt 2


Reimagining Shakespeare: Jeanette Winterson

The second event I attended at this year’s Cheltenham Literature Festival couldn’t have been more different from the intimate chat with Pat Barker.  The session with Jeanette Winterson to showcase her take on Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series, was more of a performance than a talk. She appeared in the vast assembly room at Cheltenham town hall, and the place was packed to the rafters.


She stepped onto the stage to Cher’s If I could turn back time, it didn’t really feel like Winterson’s style if I’m honest, but I went with it.  She started by saying a few words to explain some basics about the The Winter’s Tale. Written late in Shakespeare’s career and life, he had become tired of the violence towards women in his plays. The Winter’s Tale ends with 3 women, very much alive, left standing on the stage.  Shakespeare also dared to feature magic in this play, which had been outlawed by the new King, punishable by death.  Clearly, a new direction for the bard.  Before starting a lengthy reading from The Gap of Time she showed us a glimpse of what drove her to re-imagine Shakespeare and this play in particular.  “We go to things we love for reasons which are embarrassingly obvious. The Winter’s Tale has a foundling at its heart – I am also an orphan”

Winterson read a significant piece from her book, accompanied at times by music, sound effects and film clips.  It was very poetic and lyrical, but I think this has much to do with the lilt of her voice and bold delivery.  There were two memorable quotes from the reading (these may not be entirely accurate – I was writing as fast as I could!).

You think you’re living in the present but the past is right behind you like a shadow

What is memory anyway? Memory is a painful dispute with the past.

I have to say, I think she read a bit too much, I wondered if we were going to get to hear her talk at all.  But then we did and I remembered how much and why I admire her.

Members of the audience fired questions at her and she delivered flawless, full and witty answers without hesitation.  She was eloquent, forthright and confident in her ability and in her delivery.

Asked about how a writer goes about reimagining Shakespeare she said “the thing easily updates itself” as though it were a breeze.  She said later in his career, Shakespeare became interested in the notion of forgiveness and second chances.  She told us about Freud’s thoughts on time where he suggests that everyone should go back to fix things gone wrong in their past.  She quoted Mandela; “You can’t forgive and forget, you can only do one.” Winterson explained that Shakespeare explored these ideas in The Winter’s Tale and she has become fascinated with them as she’s got older.

Asked whether she remembered the first story she every wrote, she admitted to not being archivally minded.  She throws a lot away or chucks it on the fire.  She said her background was oral; words start in the mouth before hitting the page.  She stands up to write, speaks it aloud and then types it up on a typewriter.

She told us about a fascination she’s had with a story she read years ago.  It featured a dream poet Gerard Lebruine had about a vast and majestic angel who fell to earth landing in a tiny Parisian courtyard.  As the angel fell, he folded in his wings.  He was trapped. If he opened his wings to escape, he would destroy the buildings around him, if he remained, he would die.  This imagery presents an age-old dichotomy; if to be free means destroying everything around you, what can you do? Winterson told us she has been obsessed with this image for some time and had to write about it to get it out of her psyche.  She finally managed to get it into this book.

She first read The Winter’s Tale when she was 16 and trying to find answers about herself.  But reading is not static, it is chemical and dynamic, so when she read the play again as an adult it spoke to her differently.  She realised that Shakespeare was a pirate as well as pioneer.  “He went about nicking stuff and bolting it together to create new shapes…Shakespeare is much more fluid and volatile than we all remember.” This gave her the confidence to adapt the play because… “we’re all just trying to tell a story for now.  Creativity is always new; we need newness…if literature is about anything it is about finding a way forward.”

I’ve been fascinated by Winterston since I saw her interviewed on TV.  This latest encounter has only made me admire her more.  We added The Gap of Time to our bookclub TBR list.

Next up – Kate Atkinson

Cheltenham Literature Festival pt 1


The Afterparty – Leo Benedictus

I feel a bit sorry for this book.  It is suffering from its reading position; it was stuck in the second spot of a 4 book double-decker mega sandwich, where the other 3 books were the yummy fillings, savoured at the time and remembered long after digestion, and this book was the limp lettuce, endured because people say it is good for you but you’d have dispensed with it were you not so stubborn.  That, my friends, is a very cheesy analogy, but you know what, it’s about as cheesy as some of the dialogue in The Afterparty.

If you remember back when I told you what my summer reads would be, I worried about this book, having read some reviews describing it as “post modern”, in fact the author (within the novel) describes it as a new type of fiction, not “post-post modern”, not even “metafiction” but “Hyperfiction”.  I’m not sure I even understand what that is, but it’s almost beside the point because it’s just a bit dull, gimmicky and often feels like it’s trying too hard.  I do wonder however whether my opinion may have been different had I not read it after and before some exceptional books of amazing original writing.

*Spoiler alert*  The basic premise (and this may be tough as there are several story threads) is about a writer, William Mendez trying to sell his “novel”, by enticing a publishing agent to represent him and his masterpiece.  The first story thread involves email traffic between Mendez and Valerie, the agent.  Mendez sends Valerie the novel called “Publicity” chapter by chapter and they discuss plot and character development, marketing strategy and other issues related to the book.

The second story thread is the novel Mendez is writing, chapters of which are interspersed with the aforementioned email conversations.  Mendez’ novel is about Michael, an unfashionable, ugly, instantly forgettable  journalist sent to cover the celebrity littered birthday party of an A-list movie star, who, of course, is married to a drug dependant model.  Michael manages to get an invite to the afterparty at the movie star’s house, where he witnesses something which will change the lives of those affected.  The story of “Publicity” is told from the perspective of 4 of its main characters, each character with their own typeface.  Mendez doesn’t turn out to be who he says he is and has his own back story mirroring “Publicity”.  Due to delicate circumstances he is unable to attend meetings with the publishers Valerie has set up to buy “Publicity”, enter stage right, Leo Benedictus, playing himself, agreeing to stand in for Mendez to get the contract signed.  I hope you are all still with me…!

The third element of this book is not a story thread, more to do with how the reader is expected to get involved with the marketing/selling of The Afterparty itself.  Several of the conversations between Mendez and Valerie are about marketing ideas for “Publicity”.  One of which is to encourage readers to review “Publicity” online, those reviews will then be listed in the paperback version when it is eventually published.  This is a subtle message to readers of  The Afterparty to do just that and their reviews will be (and have been) published in the paperback edition.  This is only one gimmick Benedictus introduces, there are several others.  Call it “participation fiction”.

When I read back my description of The Afterparty, part of me thinks it sounds like an interesting structure with experimental form.  What Benedictus has attempted here seems exciting; the participation element, the story within a story, life imitating art and vice versa.  It may have worked better, for me, had my attention been held more by the quality of the writing.  Being a doctor’s surgery reader of trash mags like Heat, I could well believe some of the interplay between the characters, but the dialogue was so cheesy in places, I cringed.  The whole thing was flat and bland, not really very funny (when I think it was supposed to be), and it was a bit predictable if I’m honest.  I will admit however, that I did enjoy parts of it, possibly only the first quarter though.

I get that it’s supposed to be a pastiche of celebrity culture, public relations and publishing, I understand that Benedictus is poking fun at all of these areas of our society, and let’s be fair they are ripe for ribbing.  I just feel if making fun of these things is the over-riding purpose of The Afterparty, it would have worked so much better had the quality of the writing been top-notch and not so-so.  Maybe that is the point of this book though.  “Publicity” isn’t a good book, well written, in “Publicity” we find all the eye-rollingly predictable celebrity nonsense and cheesy dialogue.  It is for “Publicity” that all these gimmicky publicity grabbing techniques are devised, it is the writer of “Publicity” who is hell-bent on being in control of most of the book’s marketing and getting his book read by as many people as possible.   Maybe, in fact, Benedictus is a genius, in that he is making fun of not only celebrity culture, publicity machines and publishing, but he is making a comment on the acceptability of average writing and how publishers and the publicity machines perpetuate this by throwing money at marketing mediocre books.  Maybe he is having the last laugh, after all, his marketing ideas have sold plenty of his books.  But I doubt it.  Certainly, it has made an impression on me, because despite thinking The Afterparty is no better than average, I have given this blog post a great deal of thought and attention.  I guess this is what I love about books and reading – it opens up a debate.

The London Train – Tessa Hadley

A while back I mused on not reading many modern books written by women and challenged myself to read at least 6 books this year by female writers.  This is the first book that falls into that category.  I received it for my birthday as recommended by the lovely booksellers at Waterstones near my husband’s office.

I’ve never read any of Tessa Hadley’s books before and I’m sure this won’t be the last.  In fact, I bought another of her books not long ago.  Her style of writing is a pleasure and easy to read.  The structure of this book is quite interesting.  It is two separate stories, given their own volumes, which are seemingly unrelated.  Then half way through the second story the reader is made aware of a connection between the main characters of each volume and we come to see how their lives are intertwined and experiences similar.  Both characters are only children, have recently lost their mothers, are heading into early middle age and struggling to come to terms with loss, loneliness, dissatisfaction with their lives and disappointments that can’t be rectified.  It is a book of emotions and characters, not plot.  Not much of earth shattering consequence happens, but undoubtedly the sentiments experienced by the characters will not be unfamiliar to some readers and if they are unfamiliar, Tessa Hadley describes their effects so beautifully you begin to understand how it must feel to stand at a crossroads in your life.

Paul’s story is first.  He is looking for his eldest daughter from his first marriage, who has seemingly gone missing after a row with her mother.  The process of searching for her gives him the opportunity of escaping his life for a while and he goes missing in his own way.  Paul is a deeply unpleasant character, I didn’t warm to him or feel sympathy for him, but I was interested in how he resolved the issues he faced.

Cora’s story is second and definitely more absorbing.  She has separated from her husband and moved into her parent’s old house.  She is trying to decide what the rest of her life will look like and reflects on a chance meeting with Paul and how their lives were linked for a time.  She is wrenched from her reverie when her husband disappears and she resolves to find him.

Neither Paul nor Cora particularly endear themselves to the reader, they both have flaws, but equally they don’t do anything so awful as to make it unbelievable.  As Pope said “To err is human” but sometimes we don’t like to be reminded of the choices people make in their lives that hurt others or show a disregard for their responsibilities, they are unpalatable, distasteful to us, antisocial and make us feel uncomfortable.  In The London Train Tessa Hadley’s understated writing makes us witness some of these issues with no emotional stone left unturned and it makes for uncomfortable reading sometimes.  In a way, that is its beauty; the characters are not particularly nice, the things they do make us squirm, but it is written so well that you can almost complete Pope’s quote and become divine enough to forgive them.  Whether any of the minor characters could do, is another matter.