Sunday, September 02, 2007

On Chesil Beach

Another Booker review as part of the Mela. Bill (yes, Bill. See what all some "well intentioned laziness" on my part can do!) on Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach:

The billboards in London are announcing the film version of Atonement. As a person who really liked that book, I am very skeptical of a film version starring Keira Knightley, and by the director of last year's Pride and Prejudice, no less. What I would have no problems with, however, is with them adapting On Chesil Beach to the screen. It might even improve on the book, since it's hard to see how they could make it worse (famous last words).

Two days ago, I wouldn't have thought I would say this of a McEwan book. Even the books that are admittedly not his best, like The Innocent, for instance, are books I admire for his precise descriptions of mood, of characters. He can create an atmosphere that you know is fictional but are engrossed in nonetheless. With those expectations, this book comes across as even more of a disappointment than it would have been otherwise.

The story is about the honeymoon night of a young English couple, in the year 1962. Florence and Edward are trapped hopelessly in an old-fashioned conventionality, unaware of the approaching sexual revolution (nineteen-sixty-three, as Larkin tells us. I don't know much more, but this guy surely does). This is the first time either of them are going to have sex, and both carry a heavy baggage of anxieties and preoccupations. A lot of repressed emotions, things left unsaid, and endless fumbling later, the night will end in tragedy.

The plot of course is nothing to write home about, but McEwan can transform even the thinnest of plots and make it engrossing. This time he doesn't actually succeed, partly because the characters are extremely unconvincing caricatures. Florence comes from an upper class family, with an Oxford philosophy professor for her mother and a successful businessman for her father. She herself plays violin in a classical music quintet. (what else!) And Edward is from solid middle-class background, with all his friends gone to trade schools. He is busy trying to hide his country background at University by pretending not to know the names of trees. Not satisfied with this rich girl poor boy dynamic, we then get chaste girl horny boy also. Florence has once before run away screaming when Edward placed her hand on his groin. Edward cannot stop longing for sex, in the "long lazy afternoons, before going to sleep, after waking up" before his wedding.

McEwan seems to set out to explore the consequences of repression and decorum, in a polite English world. The mood is set by the very first sentence: 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. That sentence pretty much sums up the book. My problem with the book is that he never delivers on the promise of the sentence that follows: But it is never easy. Embarrassment is not unknown during a first-time encounter with sex even in our enlightened times, and surprising though it may seem, people actually did have sex before the sexual revolution (in industrial quantities too!). Exploring that era needs something more than a "Oh, they couldn't talk about it".


Space Bar said...

I've actually given up on Ian McEwan now. I thought Atonement was his last good book but it's all been downhill sinc ehe became this voice for the upper middle class.

I miss the edginess of First Love Last Rites, and the creepiness of The Comfort of Strangers.

Sigh. Anotehr mediocre book on the longlist, hanh?

Veena said...

I don't know SB, I like Saturday though it was all this upper middle class voice you speak of. But other than that, agree. (Though to be fair, McEwan was always a little lost on me, so I shouldn't be saying much)

Space Bar said...

I liked Saturday too, for as long as I was reading it. Afterwards, it just struck me as not only improbable but also sentimental. It says much for McEwan's writing that he can still hold you with such a thin story, but it just does not compare to, say, Cement Garden and the other two I mentioned.

Even a book as flawed as The Innocent has that amazing dark bit after the guy's girlfriend dies.

Veena said...

Well, I think all of the McEwan stories I have read are very thin but McEwan is never really abt the story. Atonement didn't strike you as improbable or sentimental?? Really?

Yeah, The Innocent has that amazingly gory chapter involving a dead guy but whose girlfriend dies? Am I thinking of the wrong book?

Space Bar said...

no no, girlfriend doesn't die; her husband does. but not knowing if you'd read it i didn't want to say more!

no, i didn't think atonement was improbable or sentimantal at all. he was so clearly using the sections to talk about the way atories are written, the way writers consciously choose a style. i mean, if i had to think of adjectives to describe the book, it would not be improbable or sentimental. and the dunkirk section was such a masterly piece of writing.

Falstaff said...

space bar: Oh, come on, if Atonement wasn't sentimental and wildly improbable I don't know what is. I agree that it may have well been the best thing he's ever written, but that doesn't change the facts. Frankly, I don't think McEwan has written a novel that doesn't have a ridiculous plot as its central premise (Comfort of Strangers is totally a case in point). At his best, his writing is just good enough so you manage to overlook the silliness of the plot, as long as you don't make the mistake of thinking about it afterwards - I would say that was as true of Atonement as it was of Saturday. At his worst the man's very, very mediocre (I, for instance, have never understood the point of Amsterdam).

Veena: I'm not sure what you mean by "this guy surely does". Are you saying I know more about the sexual revolution of the 60's? Or more about the plot of the novel? Or more about the frustration of being a virgin trapped in old-fashioned conventionality? For the record, I dispute all three.

Veena said...

Falsie: First of all, I didn't say that. Bill did. But if I were to take a guess, I think he meant none of the three - just that you would know Larkin. Which I am sure you won't dispute.

SB: There, Falsie is back. Now you can fight with him about McEwan. I wouldn't have said those exact words (as its slightly a little more extreme that what I think of McEwan) but its not that far off either!

I like McEwan and all but this whole comedy that these people in this country do with proclaiming that he is one of the best writers in the world today and compare him to people like Roth puts me off so much. Its so silly.

Space Bar said...

Veena, agree about the last part.

But Falstaff, full scale views will have to be exchanged once I'm back from Bombay. I couldn't concentrate if I were lime cordial just now!

Anonymous said...

I agree on the sentimental bits. But it makes me feel much better (look! me! intellectual! reading Booker Prize Shortlisted Author!) to read sentimental bits in a McEwan book than say, a Danielle Steele book (sorry, my knowledge of trashy romances begins and ends with DS. I apologize to readers of this genre).

I do like The Innocent though. All that blood and gore. Lovely. And it was kind of like a manual (SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT!!) on how to cut up a dead body. Which, if you think of it, makes it a sort of useful reference book.


Veena said...

n!: I so agree on that chapter being a manual - thats exactly what I thought when I read it. It sort of made me feel like a doctor without going through nineteen years of med school!