I find myself as ashamed to buy a book by Ian McEwan as I would be to buy pornography or hip-hop over the counter (all curious inhibitions, I’m sure) – but luckily, there is my father’s house, where I sometimes go – usually around festive occasions – and where I can often find on the shelves contemporary novels, which I sneak down when no one is looking and then read furtively in my bedroom when everyone else is asleep. (My father asked me directly one morning, what it was I had been staying up reading – for it was noticed my light was on – and I found I had to lie, and claim I’d been reading Too Big To Fail, Inside The Battle To Save Wall Street – which I am reading, but wasn’t at the time in question).
This is, of course, quite strange, since Ian McEwan is well-respected as our greatest living novelist (our, meaning England in all its littleness) – and perhaps he is; I certainly can’t think of anyone else. Unlike the other authors I’ve tried in this series, he’s perfectly readable (although one wonders, if Frantzen’s book had been only 167 pages, I might have found it as simple to finish). But at no point reading On Chesil Beach was I feeling I’d be happier to put the book down (happier to read something else, perhaps).
On Chesil Beach is the typical Ian McEwan novel (he writes the same thing over and over), the typical contemporary novel altogether, if you will: an event happens, which has repercussions. McEwan varies the point at which the events happens, and thus the narrative structure: in Enduring Love, for instance, it is at the beginning; here, it is towards the end; but in the end, it’s all basically the same. (I also, over the festive period, watched the film version of Atonement, in which, naturally, an event happens, which has repercussions).
But of course, it strikes me that this could be a description of a lot of fiction – not merely McEwan, not merely the English novel since 1950; although it seems to me true that, in better novels, the repercussions might involve other events, perhaps as interesting as the first, which in turn have further repercussions and events. (This “sequence” of events used to be quite common, and was called a “plot”).
What marks out contemporary English fiction, however, is the background to these events – what might be seen as the vision of humanity, or society. For life, it seems, is irretrievably dull, and the “event” is an irruption of interest into this world of dullness. After the event, the dullness continues almost as if that moment of interest never happened, and yet the world has been subtly change by the “event”; it has had its repercussions on the characters of those involved as the continue to go about their everyday routines in their former grey manner. (In Atonement, even the Second World War appears as mere background dullness, which the characters naturally find less disturbing that some previous “event” – though they can perhaps see parallels – and if they can’t, we certainly can, because they’re written in crayon and big letters).
Something, I’m sure, was made of sexual awakening in On Chesil Beach – a parallel between the sexual awakening, or not, of the main characters, and the sexual awakening that did, or did not, take place sometime around 1962 more generally. This shoehorning of accepted historical truths as a counterpoint to the narrative is another clever device of the finest of contemporary literature, though one I didn’t think really worked in On Chesil Beach, largely because McEwan both wants, as a clever novelist, to point up these parallels between his characters and history – and, as an appreciator of the human species, realises we’re all individuals, and therefore don’t really fit in this idea of history at all; – so that the ideas seem somewhat awkward side by side.
As often, McEwan has done too much research and wants to inform us of it (did you know, Chaucer’s great-(great?)-grand-daughter was buried at Ewelme? – no? – well, it has no relevance to the plot). On the other hand, at one point, a character is waiting at Henley station for the train to take him/her to London, and the Oxford train arrives, so s/he gets on that train instead. But of course, Henley’s on a branch line, off the main Oxford-London route, so this could never happen. If you’re going to write a factually accurate historical novel, don’t choose an area where I grew up.
Oh yes, the plot? – A man and a woman have their marriage annulled. (If you want to read a better version of this, which is basically the same story except they aren’t married, have some good sex and one of them dies before the end of the narrative, try Javier Marias’ Tomorrow In The Battle Think On Me).