Monday, September 6, 2010

Franzen and Shakespeare

Amid all the hubbub about Jonathan Franzen's novel Freedom, what has not, as far as I know, been noticed so far is that the epigraph from The Winter's Tale is very significant not only for the plot but for the overall formal and thematic sense of the book. The passage in question is Paulina's speech in Act V, after the miraculous resurrection of Hermione and her restoration to her repentant husband, Leontes, a resurrection which Paulina has either stage-managed or presided over:

Go together,
You precious winners all; your exultation
Partake to every one. I, an old turtle,
Will wing me to some wither'd bough and there
My mate, that's never to be found again,
Lament till I am lost.

Franzen takes advantage of a semantic migration that often occurs to people reading this passage, that we speak of "winners", as in the sense of"winners and losers, more colloquially than did those in Shakespeare's day, and that moreover the rise both of capitalism and of ideology has given the entire idea of winning a sense both of competition and of polemics that, though undoubtedly there in Shakespeare's day, was not as accented. (indeed, Franzen's novel somewhat argues that it was even in modernity not as accented until the 1980s, and that is part of the book's weft of implication).  In a book all about status and the ideological means to status, this verbal gap is very pertinent,. But also of note is that, like Shakespeare's play, Freedom is a story of multiple generations, where the younger generation seeks to atone for, correct, or walk back the mistakes of the elder. Without giving away the story--I finished the book yesterday, but many have still to read it--I can say that. although Freedom is hardly a pastiche or rewrite of The Winter's Tale, and--though I enjoyed the book--not remotely in Shakespeare's league-- there are fascinating echoes, which only serve to enrich both the book itself and our response to it.

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