Still Time

Until John Wilson met the warm, wise woman who became his fourth wife, the object of his most intense devotion has always been the work of William Shakespeare. From his unlikely infatuation with The Merchant of Venice as a kid, through his feat of memorizing Romeo and Juliet and half a dozen other plays as a college undergraduate and his evangelical zeal as a professor, to his desperate effort near the end of his career to defend Shakespeare and the values of humanism against the onslaught of Theory, John’s faith in the plays has shaped his life. But now his mental powers have been diminished by dementia and his wife has reluctantly had to move him to a residential care facility. Even there, as he struggles to understand what’s going on around him and to use his broken memories to try to take stock of his life, his knowledge of Shakespeare’s plays continues to enrich and inform his experience.

But when his only child, Miranda, with whom he has not spoken since a dreadful misunderstanding a decade earlier, comes to visit, John begins to question some of his deepest convictions about Shakespeare’s work.

While John strains to reevaluate the plays and continues to search his decaying memory for the patterns he hopes will help him to make sense of his life, Miranda struggles to decide whether the frustrating and uncertain work of trying to forge a meaningful relationship with a man whose memory is dissolving is worth the pain and effort it is costing her. After having lost her late teens and early twenties to the fallout of her father’s rejection, Miranda is now laboring to set a new course for herself. She has recently become fascinated by computer games and is beginning to entertain dreams of becoming a game designer, a profession that is a far cry from anything her father might approve of—despite the fact that computer games are a type of narrative as new, exciting, and edgy as theater was for the Elizabethans.

As the story of an imperfect father and a wounded daughter’s efforts to achieve an authentic connection despite his diminishing mental capacity and the misunderstanding that drove them apart, Still Time celebrates reunion, redemption, and the gift of second chances.

As a chronicle of an aging Shakespearean scholar’s final encounters with Shakespeare’s plays, Still Time explores some of humanity’s most enduring questions about forgiveness, reconciliation, and our capacity for growth and change.

As a powerful and poetic look at what the inner life of an intelligent man suffering from Alzheimer’s might be like, Still Time brims with unexpected moments of happiness, humor, and hope.

As the story of a scholar’s fervent commitment to his work, Still Time examines the ways in which a passion can enrich and also sometimes constrain a person who devotes his life to it.

As a story told via a collage of personal memories and moments as well as ideas about and phrases from the plays, Still Time invites questions about narrative, identity, interpretation, collaboration, and textuality—without imposing those ideas on the plot.

Readers who know Shakespeare well will find much to discover, delight in, and think about as this story weaves the characters, plots, and language of the plays into the fabric John’s thoughts and experience, while readers whose knowledge of Shakespeare is limited or nonexistent will be moved and fascinated by how this story makes John, Miranda—and Shakespeare’s plays—come alive.

Reviews

A man extols the virtues of Shakespeare to uplift humanity, yet he is estranged from his three ex-wives and daughter. John Hubbard Wilson, PhD, should not be a likable character, but his compelling inner monologue as he battles dementia does elicit sympathy. He willingly enters a nursing home to please his stressed, beloved fourth wife, Sally, but later does not remember what he is doing in, as he calls it, his cell. As he watches the green world out his window, he mentally continues his scholarship on Shakespeare’s last plays, the romances, with fantastical happy endings where everything is forgiven and forgotten. He has never quite forgiven his daughter, Miranda, for a rebellious teenage indiscretion, although he can no longer remember the details. Sally convinces Miranda to try for reconciliation before it’s too late. As his disease progresses, and some of the walls of the ivory tower he has built begin to crumble, his memory comes in bits and snatches of tender storytelling with the child Miranda. The subject will engender comparison with Lisa Genova’s Still Alice (2007), but this book is for anyone who appreciates a beautifully written, character-driven story or anyone who has ever enjoyed Shakespeare. Heartbreaking in the best possible way.

—Booklist

An absolutely riveting read from beginning to end, “Still Time” clearly documents author Jean Hegland as a superb novelist whose deftly crafted characters and thoroughly absorbing story make this one of those all to rare novels that will linger in the mind and memory long after the book itself has been finished and set back upon the shelf. “Still Time” is very highly recommended for both community and academic library Literary Fiction collections. For personal reading lists it should be noted that “Still Time” is also available in a Kindle edition.

—Midwest Book Review


Jean Hegland, the author of several books including Into the Forest, a personal favorite of mine, has put forth a new novel expected out in just a few days. I jumped at the opportunity for an advance look at Still Time, a contemporary novel of an academic struggling through Alzheimer’s Disease and his deteriorating memories of the Shakespeare he loves so much.

Still Time begins as John Wilson’s fourth wife has no choice but to put him in a nursing home. She’s exhausted and it has come to the point where she can’t even leave him at home by himself. Confronting him with tears in her eyes, he is moved by her visible pain but doesn’t truly comprehend the problem. Knowing that she’s upset he seeks to comfort her the only way he knows how, with Shakespearean prose — mixed and matched to fit the occasion.

John has a daughter, Miranda, from his second wife and it’s been ten years since they last saw each other. When she was seventeen, she had accompanied John and his third wife to London where John was ready to give the speech of his life, presenting his views on Shakespeare to his academic contemporaries. Miranda vanished the night before which left John as a sleep-deprived, emotionally distraught vessel of a man, and he blew his speech. When she turned up, he promptly sent her home and the rift between them grew wider with time.

In the nursing home, John has a difficult time as his memories cascade from one point in time to another. He believes he has important work to tend to and he can’t understand how to get home. He reflects on his life, his four wives, the disappointing turn of events with his daughter and his ruined speech in London, and most of all Shakespeare and how he came to be obsessed with the man and his work.

His daughter Miranda comes to visit, seeing her father for the first time in many years. Then she comes back several more times. It is as frustrating for John as it is for Miranda. He can’t remember her and when he does, he spouts angry passages from Shakespeare at her. Miranda never grew to love Shakespeare the way he did, and she doesn’t understand. Still, she has matured from her teen years and so, she tries to mend the rift between them.

Just as Into the Forest, Jean Hegland haunts yet again in Still Time. The depiction of an incredibly intelligent man struggling with the loss of his memories and his inability to understand the world around him is a fate that many will indeed find haunting because of its terrifying possibility — this could be me someday. His desire to leave the facility, the desire for his work, the need for someone to help him — he can’t be satiated.

While John reminisces about everything from childhood to his last wife, he brings in thoughts and passages from Shakespeare, incorporating them into his emotions to describe certain events. From the way he disappointed his father to the way he let his daughter down. Toward the end, memorized passages trigger feelings that he can’t understand, yet it helps him.

Still Time is a highly evocative read, managing to strike with pinpoint accuracy at several raw emotions. It’s also a wonderfully intelligent read and Jean deftly weaves in characters and prose from Shakespeare’s greatest, expertly creating connections between these references and John’s deteriorating thoughts. It gives the reader the chance to revisit brief sections of Shakespeare and experience them through the mind of a lifelong Shakespearean academic.

Absolutely recommended.

—Rebecca Skane, Portsmouth Review

As we were beginning our time with King Lear last month (and I was mentioning that the play seemed to be playing like a confluence of a number of thoughts and emotions in my life currently: the loss of my father, the health problems my wife’s mother was going through, and the fear/reality that Alzheimer’s runs in my wife’s family), it was brought to my attention that there was recent novel that dealt with those same themes.

And thus, I found Still Time by Jean Hegland in my hands and on my Kindle.

The Amazon page for the 2015 book has a blurb by David Crystal, author of The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language and Shakespeare’s Words:

Anyone who knows only fragments of Shakespeare will be fascinated and deeply moved by this insightful story of a Shakespeare scholar experiencing dementia. Fellow Shakespeareans will delight in the way the myriad allusions to the plays are intertwined with beautifully crafted elegiac descriptions of the old man’s life in a home and his dissolving family memories. Still Time is a novel Shakespeare would be proud of.
If you’ve followed this blog, you know in what high regard I hold Crystal (and his son Ben)… but, those are some bold words. Could the book live up to them?

Yes.

The book concerns John Wilson, a Shakespeare scholar and professor, as he descends into Alzheimer’s. The book is told from two different vantage points, John’s and that of his estranged daughter Miranda (Tempest alert!). The latter tells a rather straightforward narrative, but John’s–since it is from the mind of one who is succumbing to dementia–is a more tangled yarn. That yarn–that story–is spun from many different yarns, different varieties of threads or styles; and as his old ways of remembering and communicating slip from him, more of the of diction and syntax pulls from what he’s life has revolved around: Shakespeare. Stylistically, the novel is wonderfully crafted.

Thematically, the book speaks to a number of my fears, losing my own personal memories only to metaphorically drown in what’s left (the scholarly memories of Shakespeare), losing my wife to a similar fate, just losing her, me or either of our two sons.

Because it speaks so specifically to those fears, maybe that’s why I was so affected by it. Or perhaps that’s merely the reason I gave the book the chance to work its magic on me. But magical it is. And beautiful.

I’m not sure if it’s heartbreakingly beautiful or beautifully heartbreaking.

Regardless, by the time I was done, I felt like the book’s protagonist as he finishes a late-life re-reading of King Lear:

Then, nothing.

Nothing but the stillness of his green room and the I am of his still-beating heart. Nothing but the small stir of his next breath and the monotonous leaking of his scalding tears—such a meager trickle compared to that torrential waste and loss and woe.

Nothing. As from Lear. That “I am of his still-beating heart” … it’s the iamb of the rhythm of the language of the heart, blank verse. And those tears I felt on my own cheeks.

While I’m sure that those with a love of Shakespeare or a fear of dementia will be particularly caught by the story and its telling (and if you’re reading this blog, you probably are in one of those two groups), I believe that a general audience will be touched by this novel as well.

I recommend it very highly.

—Bill Walthall, The Bill Shakespeare Project

Characterised by its stillness amidst profound pain, Still Time is a poignant story about loss. Within brokenness we find a counterintuitive sense of unity. This is a novel built around seemingly disparate stories yet united together in powerful ways as Hegland conveys to us, through the eyes of John, the distressing, isolating, and confusing experience of dementia. Like John, we struggle to pin together the pieces of the narrative until the peroration which sees a union as powerful as that we wish for, for Lear and Cordelia, and the union we are offered at the close of The Tempest, The Winter’s Tale, and even Pericles. Like the late plays, a powerful sea-change also occurs in this novel.

John’s daughter, Miranda is a character who ultimately shows herself to be at least as powerful in ensuring unity as her Shakespearean character namesake. (Even if the odds are rarely stacked in her favour). But you might be wondering why this novel is appearing on a Shakespeare site at all. That’s the really clever part of the novel. This consideration of the human capacity to remember is woven into the story of John Wilson, a retired Shakespeare scholar.

Falling in love with Romeo and Juliet as a student, John began to memorise lines and whole plays by Shakespeare. Shakespeare dominated his working life, as he devoted himself to the study and exposition of Shakespeare’s plays to students and fellow scholars alike. But as his memory fades, Shakespeare remains: first the memories of scholarly criticism, later the stories, and finally merely ‘words, words, words’. Shakespeare’s words speak when John cannot:

“He marvels yet again how perfectly the lines William Shakespeare wrote four centuries earlier […] fit what John is feeling now, as a man of seventy, half a world and four centuries distant…”

We see this early on in the novel as John tries to fathom his feelings, his confusion and his concern for his loved ones. In this novel there are many layers of story as past and present merge and the layering of memories at one grows and disintegrates. Shakespeare remains ever present.

Words from Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets are peppered throughout the novel. While Shakespeare’s words have been cut and pasted in, this is in sharp juxtaposition to the increasing difficulty John finds in pasting together the strands of his life. His memory cannot ultimately be pasted back together; nevertheless it is the glue of love and family refracted through Shakespeare’s words that brings about some peace and relief.

The quiet stillness and peace of Still Time is in contrast to the increasing fragmentation which the narrative mimetically reminds us of. But there is a bigger contrast: while you might expect a still, calm, and peaceful novel to be a slow – dare I say it, boring – read, the reverse is true of this book. I found myself gripped to John’s story. The peace of the narrative masks the pain below, and the stillness is constantly rocked by the crumbling consciousness of John Wilson.

This is a novel which will resonate for Shakespeare enthusiasts, academics, and those with only a school knowledge of Shakespeare for above all it is a story of a journey of memory – of what remains when all is lost. Read it and experience the power of words once more, as love and Shakespeare bind audience and characters together in perfect harmony. Like Christmas films which end with family reconciliation, Still Time is a heart-warming novel and yet the slippage in memory and words gives the tale of John all the more power amidst the poignancy.

Miranda urges her father, as a child not to remember, as that suggests forgetfulness but to ‘member’ and, as we follow John’s journey we member the power of words and memory to damage and destroy, but also to renew and reconcile when all is seemingly lost. By articulating the story of John Wilson, Hegland offers us a vivid depiction of the experience of dementia. She also closely captures the story of the academic journey from student to professor, as we see the student become the master, and ultimately a reversal to student fascination with mere words at the novel’s close. The limitations of academic study are shown by the re-visioning of John’s astute-though-confused eyes as he reforms and refashions Shakespeare’s words again as if for the first time. Though memory shatters, Shakespeare’s words still remain.

Like Shakespeare’s sonnets where time is transcended, so too in Still Time are the memories of John memorialised. And the chocked cry of each reader as Still Time ends will be ‘Goodbye, Goodbye’, as John wordlessly urges us to “’member me”.

—Sarah Waters, The Shakespeare Standard

Praise

“The wonderful Jean Hegland returns with a moving, beautiful story about what persists and what doesn’t, about what can be repaired and what can’t. This is a tale focused and personal, but also large and philosophical; and all of it infused with and guided by the great Shakespeare. Men are men; the best sometimes forget.”

—Karen Joy Fowler, author of
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

“Anyone who knows only fragments of Shakespeare will be fascinated and deeply moved by this insightful story of a Shakespeare scholar experiencing dementia. Fellow Shakespeareans will delight in the way the myriad allusions to the plays are intertwined with beautifully crafted elegiac descriptions of the old man’s life in a home and his dissolving family memories. Still Time is a novel Shakespeare would be proud of.”

—David Crystal, author of
The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language and Shakespeare’s Words

“The tone of Still Time is deceptively quiet. Why then did I read it with heart-pounding excitement? Because it is, from start to finish, a high-wire act of literary daring. Only a master could bring off this feat. Jean Hegland brings it off.”

—Rebecca Goldstein, author of Plato at the Googleplex

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