Hamlet’s baby

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Ian McEwan’s latest novel is a retelling, a rethinking, of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. If you already know the characters of Claudius and Gertrude, then this is your opportunity to revisit them in the contemporary world and to picture their torrid lives from another angle. But don’t feel short-changed – nothing is ever original.

Hamlet is Shakespeare’s perfect play – the best example of fiction in English literature. Shakespeare’s version, like all stories, good and bad, is borrowed from folklore, from tradition and the writings of others such the tale of Amleth, written hundreds of years before. Where Shakespeare picked up these legends we can only guess, we have to imagine how he wrote; in 1601 or thereabouts, he scribbles a first draft, it is reworked by the cast, improvised, additions are added by the director, corrections are made, audience reactions accommodated, Shakespeare pens a re-write and then the publishers bring out their various, inconsistent editions, so that by 1623 there are many versions, like Danish Princes, competing for the honour of posterity.

McEwan’s reworking of the story is a magical slow dance, its style familiar from his earliest books; the prose is mannered, gothically poetic, thoughtful, reflective, with delicate lyrical similes and flourishes, conjuring still air. It is full, full, full of adjectives which bubble through every page like salmon leaping streams. McEwan is romantic, musing and playful, he gazes on the “unweeded garden of their marriage” as if it were a wild meadow parched after the withering heat of summer sun. It’s a book to be read in a deckchair, under a blanket, amongst dying hemlock, knapweed, cowslip, ribwort, ox-eye daisy, beneath the eye of flat-voiced rooks and jackdaws, scurrying gathering squirrels and fractious, billowing, silver-tongued clouds.

McEwan’s sheer variety and volume are impressive: The Cement Garden anticipated Fred West and the gruesome events in Gloucester; The Children Act, The Innocent, Sweet Tooth, Saturday and then Atonement, perhaps his most famous novel of all. Now 70, he follows on from writers like Greene, Powell, Amis and Bradbury – intellectual, subtle, contemporary and intense.

And now he has turned to Hamlet – an update, not Claudios but Claude, not Gertrude but Trudy, a setting more confined than Denmark, a gestating monologue. An afternoon in an autumn garden, a filial love beyond the mercurial or practical, born deep in the soul because his father knows by heart a thousand poems. Perhaps that’s the only inheritance we should ever care about: the threat of misery or joy that lies in wait and that expression of that pain which begot our consciousness.