Ahh, Ian McEwan. Let me make one thing clear: I really liked his early work. I’ll paste my old review of On Chesil Beach below as well,
And the Little Stushie That Could just won’t die – The Bookseller has an in-depth report, which throws up a few interesting moments. Just for the record, while browsing through the Scottish Arts Council’s published grants, it transpired that an extra £10,000 of public money was put into Publishing Scotland at the end of last year, to do – what they say they do anyway. Crivvens!
Anyway, I was the only UK reviewer who didn’t like On Chesil Beach, but thankfully the wonderful Michiko Kakutani on the other side of the Atlantic agreed. I was also the only reviewer not to dredge up the most famous Philip Larkin quote. This was my take:
‘The past,” as LP Hartley famously wrote “is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” Although it is a quintessentially ‘English’ novel, these words could easily be an epigraph for Ian McEwan’s new book, On Chesil Beach.
Set mostly on a summer’s day in 1962, although ranging backwards and forwards in time, it is a slender affair about the momentous repercussions of a singularly banal mishap.
Edward and Florence are newly-weds, honeymooning in a hotel near the eponymous shore. He grew up in a village in the Chilterns, with a stoical father and a mother left permanently brain-damaged by an accident. Edward went on to study history at University College, London, where, at the time, “there were rumours that in the English department… men and women in tight black jeans and black polo-neck sweaters had constant easy sex, without having to meet each others’ parents”.
Florence, whose mother is a formidable Oxford academic and whose father is a rich businessman, was studying at the Royal College of Music at the same time. They failed to meet in London, finally falling in love due to a chance encounter at an Oxford CND meeting. In a rather too neat parallelism, she is culture to his nature, Mozart to his Chuck Berry, reserve to his eagerness, inherited privilege to his hard-won opportunity. She is hoping to play full-time with her string quartet, and he has graciously accepted a job in her father’s company, without wholly shelving his interest in minor figures in human history.
Except, there’s the small problem of the wedding night to be overcome first. From the opening sentence of this novella, McEwan signals the climactic stumbling-block: “they lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible”. Edward and Florence are both virgins, and, although he would like to rectify this situation as swiftly as might be consistent with good manners, she finds the whole prospect mortifying.
Her fears have, if anything, been made worse by a “forward-looking handbook” for brides. “Was she obliged on the night to transform herself for Edward into a kind of portal or drawing room through which he might process?” she muses.
AS MIGHT BE expected, the night itself is an unmitigated disaster. The finest passages in On Chesil Beach are the tremulous vacillations experienced by the couple, a sad mixture of stage-fright, clumsy slapstick and tender awkwardness. In the bleak aftermath, the emotional pendulum swings between pity and fury, embarrassment and apology, with each partner’s self-doubts and aggrieved resentments interlocking and interchanging.
It might, in a way, have been a rather good short story. On Chesil Beach, however, manages to feel too thin and too long simultaneously. At the beginning, McEwan peppers the prose with ungainly reminders that this is, in fact, the past. Phrases like “this was not a good moment in the history of English cuisine”, “he was born too late in the century… to believe that he was abusing his body” and “the term teenager had not long been invented” serve to hammer home the point that values and customs were somewhat different.
Along similar lines, there are “time-dropped” references to Suez, Macmillan, Beyond the Fringe, Encounter magazine and rockers. It is rather too dramatic a background against which to set the sorry story of Edward and Florence. I half expected a line like: “This was 10 years, of course, before Dr Alex Comfort’s The Joy Of Sex.”
McEwan’s earlier works have often counterpointed the lives of characters with the political events of the time – the fall of the Berlin Wall in Black Dogs, the lingering resonances of the Second World War in Atonement. Even Saturday, despite its mawkish redemption through mid-Victorian poetry scene, was a serious attempt to braid the events of September 11, the Iraq conflict and popular protest against the war into a fictional form. Moreover, since his earliest collection, First Love, Last Rites, the psychopathology of human sexuality has been a predominant concern of McEwan’s, most effectively anatomised in the macabre transgressions of The Cement Garden; and memorably turned into gothic thriller in Enduring Love.
Reading On Chesil Beach, it is hard to remember that the author was once nicknamed ‘Ian Macabre’. The description of the bedspread on the opening page is almost inadvertently a wonderful microcosm of the prose style: “stretched startlingly smooth, as though by no human hand”. Even when Florence is reacting with the utmost disgust, the prose retains a lapidary languor rather than any frantic realisation.
The concentration on the consequences of their unfortunate first night seems bizarrely disproportionate, a feeling exacerbated by McEwan’s sometimes slapdash plotting elsewhere. In one instance, this approaches authorial abnegation: when Florence first meets Edward’s family, all the pieces were in place for a memorable scene. Rather than any actual denouement and development, all the reader gets are “snatches of memories” and “a penumbra of oblivion”. It’s as if McEwan couldn’t be bothered to write the section.
Conversely, when Edward is reminiscing about Florence’s family, the novel descends into a series of notes more appropriately found in the acknowledgements. Edward marvels that Iris Murdoch is a personal friend (another writer concerned with moral difference and sexual desire in different periods), that they have a new Nabokov novel (a nod to the old master of literary sexual dysfunction) and work by Angus Wilson (author of Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, and former tutor of Ian McEwan).
What seems ironic is that this kind of novel could well have been written, if not in 1962, then certainly by 1972. In its sepia sentimentality and hyperbolic prurience, McEwan’s book manages not to reflect a bygone era, but to belong to one entirely. On Chesil Beach leaves the reader, like its two confused, disgusted and recriminating characters, utterly unfulfilled.