On Chesil Beach — Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach has a June United States publication date, but Amazon.co.uk sent a British copy of this thin novel—novella would be more accurate if less marketable—which manages to be both understated and vibrant. It has an abstract, ethereal feel about a practical, seldom-discussed subject explored without euphemism or pretension, sort of like a fable for hard-eyed adults. Concrete problems of the real world and the ideas underlying those problems come together in prose that, like all of the McEwan I’ve read so far, perfectly walks the wavering line between simplicity and complexity; his sentences always feel as easily understood as they can be and not forced one bit more.

The story follows two young people, who had just been through their marriage ceremony as the first chapter starts, but whose preceding courtship is told in subsequent chapters and interspersed with their present day. “Courting” describes the relationship—they are on the verge of the cultural revolution of the 60’s that would make “dating” more appropriate, and they reflect their elders’ ideals propriety in a way that, say, Kingsley Amis does not. The juxtaposition of this novel and the recently flurry of pieces on Martin and Kingsley is quite interesting, as the novel chronicles the 50’s culture that Kingsley killed and Martin, as far as I could tell, never really had to fight. It’s a world almost as alien to me as that of the Victorians, as prim and proper as a stately matron out of Jane Austen.

Yet Edward and Florence do not share my perception of their zeitgeist, and identify themselves with the spirit of change. Dramatic irony fills the novel, as the reader understands the young marrieds: they do not generate the winds of change so much as they are blown by them. The irony is particularly thick when Edward and Florence mock the staid old people listening to the telly downstairs from their room, even though the values of those old people bind the younger people far tighter than either will verbally or intellectually acknowledge. The names Edward and Florence have an old-fashioned ring to my ears (though perhaps not to British ones), and I can think of only one person, a distant acquaintance, my age named Edward (though he goes by Eddie) and no one named Florence. The pair are as mired in the Nineteenth Century as the burghers they mock and the word “burghers” itself.

I feel sympathy for the two, as well as some empathy I wish I didn’t feel, because one point On Chesil Beach makes is that things change, but maybe not so much as we’d like to imagine, and at some point nearly everyone is in a situation as awkward as that of Edward and Florence, whether it comes earlier or later in life. Today most, but not all, remedy it earlier, and as a result may scorn Edward and Florence. But we cannot judge the past purely by today’s standards; The Scarlet Letter only looks old-fashioned today because it helped changed the climate it describes, as do all forms of cultural production.

The sexual factor can also be read as a metaphor for other feelings of confinement or torpor: “[Edward] was simply impatient for his life, the real story, to start[...]” Yet we are reading his story, and while Edward waits for his “real story” to begin, it is evident to us if not to him that it already has. His failure to recognize the way his story is happening all the time is his own fault, and it is not clear that the epiphany I hoped and expected he would have actually occurs: that “real” life is happening wherever you are and whatever you are doing, and that it is your reality whether you accept it or not. The same is true of Florence, who seems to be waiting to do what her parents tell her to. Yet once the two creatures of their time come together, their expectations are a wide chasm apart and their ability to communicate those expectations stunted.

Their ability to communication is stunted because they have none of the light and heat they need to grow. On Chesil Beach demonstrates the dueling realities and sensibilities of Edward and Florence, although with slightly more sympathy for Edward. His vision is myopic, however, and he confuses the story of his sexual life with the story of the rest of his life; though the former is certainly an important part of the latter, it is not necessarily the most important part, and the strength of its importance seems more important before it begins than afterward. The anticipation makes the beginning of the latter harder to confront: “[Edward] felt trapped between the pressure of his excitement and the burden of his ignorance.” We only learn about it through the narrator, and Edward cannot or will not say it to Florence, who cannot speak of her own fear and dread to Edward. They are caught, and caught by themselves.

The idea of the trap is always there, as is the laughable idea of them as a modern couple. Take this description of Florence’s reality: “As [Florence] understood it, there were no words to name what had happened, there existed no shared language language in which two sane adults could describe such events to each other.” In other words, she is still mired in an ignorance as profound if not moreso than those telly watchers she and Edward looked down on. Nor is she better than Edward, and combined they represent the product of a society valuing propriety above all else—and they buy into that society. Florence cannot discuss the events the unnamed narrator describes with a mixture of medical precision and human compassion, neither of which the main characters can summon, and the appropriateness of a distant voice of knowledge becomes apparent when it slips into the characters’ thoughts with more dexterity than novelist of the Nineteenth Century.

The comparisons to the Nineteenth Century are deserved, as the larger swirls of how history develop are a macrocosm of the way those swirls affect people’s lives. McEwan has long been concerned with how past implicates present. On Chesil Beach shares the concerns with the past and one’s relationship to time that haunt McEwan’s Atonement, a meaty novel I discussed briefly in conjunction with John Banville’s The Sea. The Great Gatsby also examines the way we construct the past and the way it remains with us; for On Chesil Beach’s Edward, the past was a time of ignorance he could not fully overcome, while Jay Gatsby idealizes the past and hopes to bring himself back to the golden age with Daisy Buchanan. Despite the divergence of views of Gatsby and Edward, that lost early time drives them. Something about these retrospective books lends themselves to awesomely lyrical writing at the end; though I won’t reveal the last page of On Chesil Beach, the last two paragraphs of Gatsby are worth rereading:

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning—
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

On Chesil Beach does not have the hint of wistful, rueful optimism present in the penultimate paragraph of Gatsby, but I could hear Nick Carraway in Edward’s reminisces about the blurring of memory over time. The scope of On Chesil Beach widens at the end, and as it does so it also shows the way Edward’s early feelings of shame deaden as time lengthens. The same technique is used, and is slightly disorienting and equally appropriate, in Atonement, and the brief sensation of disorientation, like the changing perspective that happens in a fast glass elevator, gives way to enhanced understanding and the realization that life, regardless of the petty indignities of the moment, goes on.

The power of On Chesil Beach comes McEwan’s aesthetic command in telling a story of misunderstanding as old as time but infrequently chronicled, at least as far and as wide as my reading goes. His narrative technique employs a clever variation on the omniscient viewpoint in a way similar to but different from the way he wrote Atonement, and it conveys the uncertainty of the characters while informing and clarifying for the reader. We are left with a central scene from a life, but not a still life, for the motion of the characters’ minds and the aftermath of their encounter reverberates through time. Their encounter is symbolic of the inchoate changes in the larger society and Western world. The time and place stultifies Edward and Florence, but like Edward, society is on the brink of change, and as the narrative viewpoint undergoes a reverse telescope, we see Edward moving toward a reality bigger in some ways but still very small in others. On the scales of time, how heavily does an awkward night made so by circumstance weigh? To Edward, it would appear the answer is “not too heavily,” unlike Gatsby. Too bad Edward and Florence could not even form or consider the thoughts behind my question. If they could, perhaps they could move toward understanding.

This post is intentionally written in a style that should recall On Chesil Beach while still being more opaque than the book because I don’t want to describe exactly what happens: the unfolding of the story should be the privilege of the author. I describe some aspects of On Chesil Beach, but I do not want to be so clear as to give a synopsis. The framework underlying the story is partially described here but should not detract from the finished product of the story. Call this a commentary on the commentary.


The Amis Inheritance

The New York Times Magazine from yesterday ran a long article on “the curious writerly firm of Amis & Amis, founded by Kingsley, who died in 1995, and now run by his son Martin.” It deals with an obvious question in the lives of both writers, but one that hasn’t often been seriously examined because Martin is equally often hostile and dismissive of those who ask one-off questions about how Kingsley affected his writing. Take this response from January titled Martin Amis: You Ask The Questions; The novelist writes in answer to ‘Independent’ readers about misogyny, Islamism, Iran’s nuclear threat and Kirk Douglas’s naked body:

How do you think you might have ended up spending your working life if your father hadn’t been a famous writer? JOHN GORDON, Eastleigh

Well, John, that would depend on what my father had chosen to do instead. If he had been a postman, then I would have been a postman. If he had been a travel agent, then I would have been a travel agent. Do you get the idea?

That echoes dialog between John Self and a character named Martin Amis in Martin’s novel, Money:

‘Hey,’ I said, ‘Your dad’s a writer too, isn’t he? Bet that made it easier.’
‘Oh sure. It’s just like taking over the family pub[,]‘ [Martin said.]

Money also tempts an autobiographical reading into aspects of the protagonist, John Self, as he also has an overbearing, promiscuous father and other similarities to Martin. To be sure, I doubt even people inclined towards biographical readings would argue that the Self’s excesses reflect Martin’s lifestyle, but there are certainly parallel elements.

The father figure issue is a subject Martin must get far too many questions about—perhaps his equivalent of “where do you get your ideas?” or like John Banville being asked about Benjamin Black. As a result, the article from The New York Times provides as good a summary as one’s likely to find about them in particular and literary progeny (in a literal sense) in general.

This Amis mania—the links above are just a smattering of recent press coverage—probably comes in part from Martin’s new novel, House of Meetings, and from Zachary Leader’s new biography, The Life of Kingsley Amis. Christopher Hitchens reviewed it favorably in The Atlantic. “Favorably” probably isn’t a strong enough word, as Hitchens says: “In this astonishingly fine and serious book, which by no means skips the elements of scandal and salacity, Zachary Leader has struck a near-ideal balance between the life and the work, and has traced the filiations between the two without any strain or pretension.” The rest of the article discusses little about the book but much about Hitchens’ recollection of Kingsley, as Hitchens knew the father and knows the son, and so complements the larger work.

Like Hitchens, I loved Lucky Jim when I read it, but I didn’t care for Girl, 20 the first time through. I recently gave it another shot, though, and changed my opinion, making posting the previous link a tad embarrassing to post. Regardless, “The Amis Inheritance” is worth reading, as are the books of Amis & Amis.

An update: The New Yorker also has a piece on The Life of Kingsley Amis available online.

Update # 2: Terry Teachout writes more on Kingsley in Commentary magazine.

More on Banville and noir fiction

Critical Mass, the National Book Critics Circle board of directors blog (whew), has a post about noir fiction, respect, and evil. They agree that we lack adequate language for describing evil, although I am not convinced this is true. Language is inherently metaphorical, so perhaps we just haven’t developed sufficient metaphors for evil, or we cannot fully conceive of it and thus describe it, or perhaps evil people tend not to write books. The post says:

Banville read a section of “The Book of Evidence” to illustrate “the poverty of language when it comes to describing badness.” He then went on to point out that much of our fiction portrays us in a much kinder light than we deserve. “It would be a much better world if the priests and the politicians and the novelists just dropped this facade,” he said. “Even the best of us are monsters, horribly selfish people. Noir simply admits this.” Which, he continued, explains the sense of relief, of glee almost, we have in reading it. Gray agreed: “noir fiction release us of the baggage of morality,” he said.

I’m reminded of the cliche holding that criticism says more about the critic than the work, and I think the view of what people inherently are says more about the person making the statement than about humanity as a whole. I haven’t yet read The Book of Evidence, though my copy was signed along with Christine Falls, so I cannot say whether I agree with Banville’s point about language.

As far as people are concerned, I am convinced that circumstances play a greater role in who we regard as good or evil than most suppose. These situational factors affect whether we consider someone “evil,”, as Philip Zimbardo argues in The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil (he’s also interviewed by The New York Times, though this may be behind their walled garden). If so, that makes a view of people as inherently good or evil less interesting than pondering the circumstances under which good people do bad things, which appears to be the bulk of Zimbardo’s book. The only thing I really see people being is self-interested, and whether good or evil springs from that has more to do with circumstances. How’s that for combining a bit of psychology, philosophy, economics, and literature?

Going back to Critical Mass, I also note that it says the panelists respect genre fiction, something I especially appreciate given what my earlier description:

The sense of mischief might have come out when Banville showed a curious disrespect to, or at least distance from, the noir genre, calling Christine Falls “playing at fiction.” But he also said he created a new identity to show that Christine Falls isn’t a joke or literary lark.

Good fiction comes in many guises, and I want to know about that good fiction regardless which bookstore section it resides in.

Rate your students

I recently sent a post to Rate Your Students, a blog chronicling the tribulations of modern college professors. Has much changed since Lucky Jim, or even Straight Man? I would guess not, or not so much as many professors on that site seem to think, save perhaps that their students are somewhat less literate than they once were and that the quality of student has declined as the quantity of student has gone up.

John Banville in Seattle

John Banville appeared as himself and as “Benjamin Black” in Seattle on March 22 to promote his new book, Christine Falls. The novel primarily follows Quirke Griffin, a Dublin haunted, naturally enough, by the woman he loved but who chose his brother over him, and secondarily follows a blue collar Boston drunk Catholic (enough modifiers there?) named Andy Stafford. Quirke dominates the novel, which is fortunate because Banville writes melancholy Irish intellectual much better than angry American loser.

Then again, Banville is a character-driven author, and Quirke carries the novel more than Stafford or the murder mystery. I paraphrased Robertson Davies, who in an interview, paraphrased Edmund Wilson saying that he didn’t care who killed who but why, in a question to Banville, and he essentially agreed with the sentiment and compared bad murder mysteries to crossword puzzles. He also told me Wilson said it first, a fact I hadn’t realized since I’d just finished Conversations with Robertson Davies. This explains why some of the characters’ motives are implausible at best, and several comments don’t pass the sniff test, like one villain who passes a usual bromide for excusing villainy: “‘I’ve done some wicked things in my time’—a chuckle, another rattle—’even made people take falls, but I’ve done a lot of good, as well.'”

Mystery is much more mysterious than the explanation, or at least Banville said so, and that may help explain the let down of the resolution of Christine Falls. Expect a different understanding of it eventually, because Banville said he has at least one more Benjamin Black novel in him, and its ending will make one have to reevaluate Christine Falls. An astute questioner asked if Banville routinely gave away the end of his unpublished books, and he laughed with the audience and said that we’ll forget his comment before then. Maybe that would have been true in the days before people like me posted about readings on the Internet.

In spite of minor problems, Banville did a fair job of making me care more about Quirke than about how the woman he nominally investigates died. As often happens in mysteries—or at least as I understand them—the real journey is into the heart and life of the hero, not about the victim, much as so many people grieving over a loved one’s illness wonder more about how it will affect their own lives than out of true empathy. If that happens, I see the genre novel as equally powerful to the literary novel even if Banville apparently does not.

The audience didn’t seem much interested in discussing Christine Falls, which I found overwritten in the Banville style, but it is also elegantly ornate in way that called attention to itself without being ostentatious as The Sea was. Banville’s naming scheme commanded much more attention. Some name questions were more worthy than others, like the one eliciting the the origin of his non de plume. In some earlier books, a character named Benjamin White appeared, although relatively few know of him because Banville says those books are mostly forgotten (and he doesn’t seem upset or unhappy). As “White” indicates, the character was more of the good guy, but Benjamin Black—well, he’s got a bit more of a sense of mischief. The relationship between White and Black might be somewhat like the relationship between Banville and Black, though Banville didn’t explicitly say so.

The sense of mischief might have come out when Banville showed a curious disrespect to, or at least distance from, the noir genre, calling Christine Falls “playing at fiction.” But he also said he created a new identity to show that Christine Falls isn’t a joke or literary lark. The difference between writing literary and genre fiction comes from what Banville sees as being a craftsman, while draftsmanship is only part of a literary novel. I don’t see the difference, at least in the end product, in a fine literary or fine genre novel, and his comments smack of the unfortunate distaste for the popular. The drawing of literary lines also came up in his distinction between novels that describe “life as actually lived” and noir novels, though I think this view ignores the power of the the latter as a kind of metaphor. No one has seen Middle Earth, but I feel like I’ve already walked there, and to say that it isn’t life is to ignore the fictional dream that sustains readers.

Still, that lead led to some comments about eternal question of the relationship of the novel to real life, as when he said novelists are “complete frauds,” with a wink and that “we make it all up.” Then he gets a bit more serious and says that the great thing about fiction is that it is all made up, but that it seems more real than the life we’re living. That sounds very much like someone else I’ve been reading (see the third paragraph), and it’s a sentiment I can agree with, especially when he says that some characters in books seem more real than some people he’s met.

Characters in “The Dead” qualify, and I wanted to ask Banville about the many connections to Joyce’s “The Dead,” since Christine Falls fairly drips with allusion to it. From the stymied male characters to the pervasive sense of failure mingled with the scent of eternity to the repeated use of the two words “the dead,” which, used by an author no doubt steeped in the lore of Joyce—Banville referenced him once in his talk—you cannot get away from the story echoing through Christine Falls. The time expired before I could ask, so I went away with the question remaining.

A few other random points are worth noting, though they don’t really fit in a coherent essay. Banville also said that fiction when he started publishing wasn’t “sexy,” especially in the 1970’s, but that since things have improved. Wait, what? Fiction has somehow become sexy? If so, that’s certainly news to me.One more random Banville fact: he loves the art of painting. That explains why so many of his metaphors involve pictures of some kind, like this one: “The scene within had the unreally dramatic composition of a painting, a genre scene of a deathbed with attendant mourners.” There are enough deaths in the novel that this won’t give away a plot point.

If you want to read more see L.A. reading highlights from The Elegant Variation. Another interview appears in The Guardian.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,322 other followers

%d bloggers like this: