Wednesday, March 19, 2008
Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach
ON CHESIL BEACH
by Ian McEwan
(Jonathan Cape, 166pp, Hardback)
“They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible. But it is never easy.”
So Ian McEwan begins his latest novel, a short but highly charged work of only 166 pages. The year is 1962 and the newlyweds are Edward and Florence, names that reek of an old world the ‘60s will soon transform.
When the book opens they are being served dinner in their hotel room on the Dorset coast of England by two trussed-up local lads who seem as awkward with the occasion as they are. In the distance the waves of Chesil Beach can be heard breaking, a sound of “gentle thunder, then sudden hissing against the pebbles”.
Initially McEwan’s writing is restrained and formal, a quintessentially British tone befitting the time in which it set. One thinks of old BBC radio plays, and ‘hears’ the story being told. It would be easy to mistake this as tame fare indeed, but for a sly humour and confidence percolating beneath McEwan’s voice:
“This was not a good moment in the history of English cuisine, but no one much minded at the time except visitors from abroad. The formal meal began, as so many did then, with a slice of melon decorated by a glazed cherry… It would not have crossed Edward’s mind to have ordered a red.”
McEwan’s intent, however, is not drawing room comedy. Ominous descriptive traces like the “hissing against the pebbles” and far rawer feelings are pulsing within a few pages. The internal mechanics of the book quickly reveal themselves as we discover who Edward and Florence are (he an aspiring historian, she a young violinist), diving into their thought patterns and family memories, reliving the romance between them, and returning to the events of the wedding night as seen through each of their eyes.
Virtually everything that happens in On Chesil Beach occurs during this one evening, and the tidal intensity, the back and forth between Edward and Florence, is palpable as it leads us down, finally, to the beach itself and the book’s climactic scene.
McEwan exposes the rationalizations and self deceptions we all succumb too, the shifts in perception that show what changeable and unpredictable beings we can be to ourselves, let alone one another, in situations of great emotional uncertainty. In doing so the book takes us deeper and deeper into two people’s lives, counter-pointing the tensions of the present with the great backwash of their past and the surging of a future neither can fully see.
As the extent of Florence’s fear of sex becomes clear – “her whole being was in revolt against the prospect of entanglement and flesh… Sex with Edward could not be the summation of her joy, but the price she must pay for it” – we are clued into Edward’s long-standing awareness of her repressive personality. Florence’s genuinely loving affection, along with her passion for playing the violin, has allowed him, however, to deceive himself of what must be “her richly sexual nature” and what he mistakes for simple shyness. Florence, of course, is at pains to make it seem this way. Edward, not entirely insensitive to these tensions and resistances, tries to be understanding, to take their wedding night slowly. By the time she is moaning in disgust at his touch he is interpreting it as the sound of ecstasy.
It’s hard to tell you more than this without giving away the plot to this slender book. Suffice to say the emotions and ideas are profound in what might seem like the narrowest of circumstances. And though the focus remains overwhelmingly intimate – newlyweds in a hotel bedroom, mutual concerns about when will they fuck and how it will it go - McEwan summons up the Cold War atmosphere with textures like the wireless playing downstairs, from where Edward hears the word “Berlin” and to where Florence wishes she could flee, “to pass the time in quiet conversation with the matrons on their floral-patterned sofas while their men leaned seriously into the news, into the gale of history.”
McEwan, of course, has always been a political writer, as demonstrated in works as varied as his film script for The Ploughman’s Lunch (1985), a critique of life in Thatcher’s Britain, or his last brilliant novel, Saturday (2005), an attempt to grapple with the nature of violence and human connectedness in a post September 11 world. His reflections in The Guardian on the events of September 11 still stand out among the best things written at the time. Whether penning an elegy for a deceased author like Saul Bellow or speaking with deep ambivalence about the Iraq War, he remains committed to the engaged notion of a public intellectual rather than ivory tower accomplishments alone.
And yet there’s a provocative, almost mathematical coolness to his writing that undercuts the comforting status of a literary good guy. His debut collection of short stories, First Love, Last Rites (1975), opened with the tale of a boy telling you, in a bemused tone, how he raped his sister. McEwan’s ability to evoke the psychotic pull of a murderer in The Comfort of Strangers (1981) or a stalker’s obsession in Enduring Love (1997) similarly displayed his taste for evil and violence in ways that appeared irresistible, almost mystical.
This interest in the sexually aberrant, the bizarre and the psychologically unsettling led to McEwan being nicknamed ‘Ian Macabre’ early on in his career. Over time McEwan’s books have become less overtly strange (one of his most acclaimed short stories, ‘Solid Geometry’ deals with a man who discovers how to fold his wife up like a piece of paper and make her disappear) and more everyday or common in their intensities. And yet the same neo-Gothic traits of lives lived in secret and looming darkness infects all his works with elements of threat and fear.
When Ian McEwan won the Booker Prize in 1998 for Amsterdam it was criticized as a lightweight work in a darker and more confronting career, little more than a tightly plotted entertainment satirizing the self-interest of the times. Though done with the intention to amuse, the schematic tightness that can sometimes undermine a McEwan novel – the feeling of being introduced to a character via a resume of attributes and background information, the sleek convenience of circumstance and chance in his narrative engines – was so on display it left many readers empty by the time of Amsterdam’s somewhat vaudeville conclusion.
The general feeling was that McEwan had won the Booker for Amsterdam as compensation for missing out the previous year with what is still widely regarded as his masterpiece, Enduring Love (1997). Amsterdam remains a slight, if witheringly humorous work when compared to the larger novels he has written since then like Saturday, where the same schematic attributes are used and then usurped to create momentum and suspense.
This particular attribute of tension and surprise in McEwan’s work should be noted, as anyone who has read the home invasion scene in Saturday, or his justly celebrated portrayal of a ballooning accident in Enduring Love will attest. On Chesil Beach similarly depends upon this to sustain your agonised involvement to the end, to keep you taking part in what might be described as a terrible closeness.
Like Amsterdam, On Chesil Beach has arrived as an extremely short work in the wake of a set of major novels, in this case Saturday and Atonement (2001). In its depth and resonance, however, On Chesil Beach is far more serious than its thinness might suggest, harking back to the compressed nature of his early and most haunting short stories, as well as McEwan’s long running interest in the random and banal ways ordinary lives can be shattered by so-called ordinary troubles. Proof that no life is completely private or shut off from the world: that we can be victims of ourselves and if we’re unlucky, our historical moment too.
- Mark Mordue
* An edited version of thsi reviews was first published in Sydney Morning Herald Spectrum Books on April 6th 2007