SOURCE: Lesser, Wendy. “The Heart of the Matter.” New Republic 207, no. 21 (16 November 1992): 41-2, 44.
[In the following review, Lesser discusses the two phases of McEwan's career commonly identified by critics, examining such elements as plot, characterization, and style in Black Dogs.]
Ian McEwan's career is sometimes seen by his critics as falling into two distinct clumps. The first, in this view, consists of his first three books: the stories in First Love, Last Rites (1975), the early novel called The Cement Garden (1978), and a second set of stories called In Between the Sheets (1978). The turning point is either just before or just after The Comfort of Strangers (1981), which in any case is seen as the transitional novel. And then, in this saga of the divided author, we have the “mature” McEwan: The Child in Time (1987), The Innocent (1989), and, now, one presumes, Black Dogs. The difference between early and late McEwan is supposed to be that the young writer, though enormously talented, was mainly interested in visceral shocks and thrills, while the older one is interested in ideas; the young man focused on sex, the older ponders love; the young one indulged in spectacularly horrific Grand Guignol effects, the older settles for more muted violence.
I don't subscribe to the myth of the two McEwans. I say this as someone who can barely hear the difference between early and late Henry James, and who cannot for the life of me distinguish a Graham Greene entertainment from a Graham Greene novel, so you may not feel inclined to trust me. But when an author is as obsessed with his themes as McEwan is (or James or Greene was), then petty niceties of subject matter and style do not alter his essential nature. These petty niceties are crucial to our interest in each novel; they are what enable him to go from one novel to the next without writing the same book over and over again, without boringly repeating himself. But they do not break his world in half.
The world of a great novelist—and McEwan is a great novelist—is continuous not only with our daily, lived world, but also with the slightly distorted, hyperreal, eerily patterned but surprisingly free world he has populated with all his fictional characters. When he sits down to write a new novel, he returns again as a traveler to that world, and the novel is the letter he posts out to us. The great novelist (unlike the clever, tricky novelist—I will refrain from naming names among McEwan's British contemporaries) does not construct an entirely new fictional world each time he writes a novel. He cannot choose to do that, as his inferiors can, because the world he visits in his fiction has a reality for him that is not entirely of his own willed making.
From the beginning, McEwan's world has been one in which sexual love holds both great allure and great peril; in which violence is a weapon of intimates; in which the self-enclosure of family life can be both comforting and terrifying; in which childhood, though seductive, must be escaped from; in which innocence is a danger to itself and others; in which one relies on the kindness of sometimes sinister strangers; in which time flows backward and forward, with last things influencing first as well as first last. McEwan's is a world informed by mass historical movements from totalitarianism to Thatcherism, but in his world these abstractions always take a human, immediate, personal form. His is a world where the rational mind struggles...
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with madness, superstition, and faith—a fair struggle, in which we're not sure whose side to back. It is a world where the horrifying, the sad, and the comic intermingle; and it is a world where fear and its henchman, suspense, generally play leading roles. One reviewer described McEwan's last book as the kind of novel that would result “if Stephen King could write like Henry James,” and in a way this is true of all his books. The horror lies precisely in the delicate turn of the screw.
In each novel from The Comfort of Strangers onward, McEwan has been fiddling with the nature of suspense—that is, with the relationship between fear and time. The Comfort of Strangers is pure foreboding. We feel throughout that something awful is going to happen, and in the end it does. (If you have only seen the movie, forget it. Pinter's idiosyncratic screenplay flattens the texture of the novel, making morbid nonsense out of what seems compelling and inevitable in the book.) The Child in Time creates nearly unbearable suspense out of an incident that took place before the novel opened: that is, the abduction of the main character's 3-year-old daughter. In The Innocent, McEwan locates most of the suspense within a historical fait accompli. By giving us a doomed love story set around the discovery of an Anglo-American spy tunnel in Berlin in the 1950s, he makes us fruitlessly hope for an outcome that actual history has already defeated.
And now, in Black Dogs, Ian McEwan pushes the limits of suspense even further. After telling us at the beginning of the novel that its two main characters lived into the late 1980s, he asks us at the novel's end to feel suspense as he unravels something that happened to them in 1946. He asks us, that is, to fear the past. The central debate in Black Dogs is the same one that surrounds McEwan's career: whether we are continuous with our own past or divorced from it. “We” in this case includes not only novelists and readers, but citizens of real life; and “our past” is not just the one we have lived for ourselves, but the one history has lived for us.
Jeremy, the narrator of Black Dogs, is a passive, evasive, only marginally literary fellow who nonetheless bears an oddly explicit resemblance to his author. Both men, Jeremy and Ian, are well-traveled Britons who have reached their mid-40s by the early 1990s; each has four children; Jeremy is married to a Jenny, Ian to a Penny. But Jeremy (no last name given) is no more the “real” McEwan than Marcel (no last name given) is the “real” Proust. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Jeremy is no more his author's stand-in than Colin was in The Comfort of Strangers, or Stephen in The Child in Time, or Leonard in The Innocent. No more, and no less. One of McEwan's insidiously powerful qualities as an author is the way he seeps inside other people—not just his youngish men, but also his women, his aging parents, his madmen, his scientists, his government officials, his small children. He has the gift, or the curse, of unwilled empathy.
The narrator of Black Dogs has it too, as we learn early in the novel when Jeremy goes to visit his dying mother-in-law, June Tremaine, in a Wiltshire nursing home. At the threshold of the visit, he finds himself already falling into someone else's existence:
A shortage of oxygen made me yawn; did I have the energy for the visit? I could as easily have passed the untended reception desk and wandered the corridors until I found an empty room and a bed made up. I would slip between the institutional sheets. Check-in formalities would be concluded later, after I had been woken for my supper, brought on a rubber-wheeled trolley. Afterward, I would take a sedative and doze again. The years would slip by. …
At this, a minor flutter of panic restored me to my purpose.
Panic is the galvanizing emotion for McEwan's characters—often, as in this case, panic brought on by an intense but unintentional act of imagination.
Jeremy's purpose, as he repeatedly reminds us, is to write a memoir about June, or perhaps about June and her husband, Bernard—a memoir of their painful but enduring marriage: their initial shared political idealism, their passionate love, his rationalism, her mysticism, his socialist agenda (first Communist, then Labour), her religious faith, their consequent inability to live together, their equally powerful inability to let each other go. Their son-in-law has been selected, or self-selected, to record their tale. “Ever since I lost mine in a road accident when I was 8,” Jeremy tells us in the first sentence of his preface, “I have had my eye on other people's parents.” Despite the parent-borrowing that began in adolescence, he remained an orphan, essentially familyless, until he met his wife, Jenny, and became part of her family: not only the family they created together (“the simplest way of restoring a lost parent was to become one yourself”), but also the family she was born into, the estranged but still married Bernard and June.
Jeremy is not the only one in the novel to reach beyond his birthright. Black Dogs is filled with things and people and ideas crossing their natural boundaries, taking over territory that does not officially belong to them. On the largest scale this notion pervades the background plot of the Second World War, in the Nazi invasions of France and Poland. Less chillingly, the idea of broken boundaries emerges in the contemporary reference to the Berlin Wall coming down—an event that Jeremy and Bernard excitedly rush to witness. And on the level of detail it appears over and over in the metaphors throughout the book—for instance, in Jeremy's assertion that his older sister “Jean had spread her beautiful limbs—to adapt Kafka's formulation—across my map of the world and obliterated the territory marked ‘sex,’ so that I was obliged to voyage elsewhere,” or in his musing comment about whether it was always raining when he visited June in the Wiltshire nursing home: “Perhaps there was only one such day, and it has blown itself across the others.”
He may have his shortcomings as a meteorologist, but Jeremy is in general a persuasive guide. Just as he immediately and effectively conveyed the essence of nursing-home-induced passivity, so does he elsewhere seize on the one or two or three determining details that define a place, a time, a person. Reporting on the morning the Berlin Wall came down, he says: “We stood in the living room in our dressing gowns with mugs of tea, staring at the set. It did not seem right to sit. East Berliners in nylon anoraks and bleached-out jean jackets, pushing buggies or holding their children's hands, were filing past Checkpoint Charlie, unchecked.” Elsewhere, in a few sentences, he gives us the 1960s in an upper-middle-class London household (the home of two of the parents the adolescent Jeremy has borrowed):
Toby was at my place … while I was at his, comfortable on the chesterfield in front of an open fire, a glass of his father's single malt warming in my hand, under my shoeless feet the lovely Bokhara that Toby claimed was a symbol of cultural rape, listening to Tom Langley's account of a deadly poisonous spider and the death throes of a certain third secretary on the first landing of the British embassy in Caracas, while across the hall, through open doors, we heard Brenda at one of Scott Joplin's lilting, syncopated rags, which at that time were being rediscovered and had not yet been played to death.
There is something lilting and syncopated in Jeremy's prose as well—the off-rhyme of “staring at the set … right to sit”; the little joke in “Checkpoint Charlie, unchecked”; the ironic counterpoint of the third secretary's “death throes” and the Scott Joplin “played to death.” If such precision can be enormously pleasing, it can also risk seeming finicky or precious at times, but this too Jeremy takes account of. In the paragraph that immediately follows the Scott Joplin set piece, he admits that
in describing this period of my life I have unconsciously mimicked not only, here and there, the superior sounding attitudes of my adolescent self, but also the rather formal, distancing, labyrinthine tone in which I used to speak, clumsily derived from my scant reading of Proust, which was supposed to announce me to the world as an intellectual.
Admits it, and thereby gets away with it.
If Proust is evident in the sentences of Black Dogs, Graham Greene is the shadowy eminence who colors the plot, visible not only in the central choices made by the two older characters (June's in favor of spiritual faith, Bernard's of politics), but also in the very notion of a crucial moment of choice. “Turning points are the inventions of storytellers and dramatists,” Jeremy interrupts the plot to tell us, “a necessary mechanism when a life is reduced to, traduced by a plot, when a morality must be distilled from a sequence of actions, when an audience must be sent home with something unforgettable to mark a character's growth.”
Jeremy, as usual, mocks the tactic and then continues to use it. He builds the whole story of June and Bernard's marriage, of June's life, around the moment in 1946 when, walking ahead of her husband in Provence, she meets on the path two vicious black dogs. June decides (or “realizes,” or “imagines”—the nature of the thought process is part of what's in doubt) that these dogs are the incarnation of evil; at the same moment, she has a sudden apprehension of an infinite, invisible, but salvational good. This, in her own view, is the significant turn in her life's plot. And her family, though they fight her mysticism, unavoidably find themselves adopting the metaphor, the explanation, of the black dogs. It becomes family shorthand for incomprehensible evil, and also for a crucial turning point, a moment in history so powerful it can never be reversed. “Black dogs,” mutters Jenny—incomprehensibly to Jeremy, who has only just met her—when they visit the site of a Polish concentration camp.
Only at the end of the novel do we finally get June's encounter with the dogs rendered directly, from her viewpoint (though we know from the context that this is actually Jeremy imagining her viewpoint; nothing in this novel can ever be rendered “directly”). I had thought—erroneously, as it turned out—that for once in McEwan's work the novel would not have a suspenseful ending. After all, Jeremy has by this time told us just about everything we need to know, several times over. It would be churlish of me to give away the few factual details that do remain hidden until the end. They do not, in any case, account for the power of the story. What accounts for the power—what produced the suspense, the fear—is that at the end of all the thirdhand information-gathering and secondhand relaying, we are actually going through the experience with June. We are there, in her world, in the recently liberated Provence of 1946, on a hot, dry path, a couple of hundred yards and a hairpin turn away from her husband, who misses the whole incident because he has crouched down to scrutinize and sketch a train of unusual caterpillars. (Bernard is, and remains, a passionate entomologist.)
If this moment sounds comic rather than horrifying, it is because I have succeeded in conveying only half of McEwan's technique. All the best scenes in his books are both comic and horrifying. Think of the heroine's dead German ex-husband being messily dismembered and stealthily removed by the protagonists of The Innocent; think of the car accident in The Child in Time. In McEwan, as in Hitchcock, the comic makes way for the terrifying, softens us up, gets us to loosen our hold on rationality. If he can get us to snort or giggle, McEwan knows he'll be halfway toward making us gasp or cry out.
We do not, I think, quite feel June's fear of absolute evil, nor do we fully absorb her revelation about absolute good. In that sense, Black Dogs is doomed to fail. But the novel so understands and collaborates in its own doom, so cunningly and intelligently sets itself up for this unachievable moment, that the effect can hardly be called a failure. Black Dogs proves to us what it set out to prove: that we can only by great effort and under special circumstances be made to fear a past that is over and done with; and that we are doomed—as individuals, and as individuals in history—unless we can fear the past. We need to think about history, but we also need to feel it. Neither June's mysticism nor Bernard's rationalism will alone be enough to save us.
And yet this makes the book sound too apocalyptic, as if its whole point lies only in its ending (which is also its beginning, and its center). There is, besides all the politics and philosophy, the texture of daily life. At one point June accuses Bernard of living only in the future, waiting impatiently for the social and economic improvement of mankind's welfare, thereby slighting the present. Bernard, in turn, might accuse her of living too deeply in the past, deriving her present too wholly from a single vanished moment. But Black Dogs itself, while attracted to both those perspectives, does neither. It lives in its own present: in the experience of “companiable lovemaking that is the privilege and compromise of married life”; in the feel of a house that has been empty for months and now has a single inhabitant, preparing for his family's arrival; in the blood-thirsty satisfaction of fist meeting face as a bystander knocks down a brutal child-beater; in the warmth of a summer day in empty, innocent, rural France. Black Dogs calls into question the whole distinction between a novel of ideas and a novel of sensation, for one of its important realizations is that sensation is an idea, and thought a sensation.
Ian McEwan 1948-
(Full name Ian Russell McEwan) English novelist, short story writer, playwright, screenwriter, and children's writer.
The following entry presents an overview of McEwan's career through 2002. See also Ian McEwan Criticism (Volume 13).
One of the most celebrated British writers to come of age during the 1970s, McEwan emerged onto the literary scene at age twenty-seven with the short story collection First Love, Last Rights (1975). Riddled with graphic depictions of rape, incest, and murder—all rendered in detached, forensically precise first-person narration—First Love, Last Rights and its follow-up, In Between the Sheets (1978), earned McEwan both critical acclaim and scorn for his macabre preoccupations. While his later novels, including The Innocent (1990), Enduring Love (1998), and Amsterdam (1999), display considerable growth in the range and depth of his work, McEwan's prose still focuses heavily on gothic predilections and shocking subject material. McEwan has also written several notable screenplays, which include some of his most pointedly political work, as evident in The Ploughman's Lunch (1983). Although his fiction is generally conventional in terms of narrative structure, McEwan's unique prose style, technical skill, unusual characterizations, and satiric wit have earned him acceptance in both traditional and postmodernist literary circles.
McEwan was born on June 21, 1948, in Aldershot, England. His father, David, was a career Army officer, and McEwan spent most of his childhood years in Singapore and Libya. When he was twelve, McEwan's family returned to England, and he attended a boarding school in Suffolk, where he developed a fondness for English Romantic poetry and modern American and English fiction. He worked briefly in London as a garbage collector before enrolling at the University of Sussex in Brighton, receiving his bachelor's degree in English literature with honors. In 1970 McEwan was accepted into the creative writing program at the University of East Anglia, where the teaching faculty included novelists Malcolm Bradbury and Angus Wilson. After completing his master's degree, McEwan toured Afghanistan and soon began publishing stories in literary magazines. In 1975 McEwan published a selection of short stories he had written for his master's degree under the title First Love, Last Rights, which later received a Somerset Maugham Award. McEwan began writing radio scripts and screenplays and soon had two produced—Conversations with a Cupboardman (1975) was produced for British Broadcasting Company (BBC) radio, and Jack Flea's Birthday Celebration (1976) was produced for BBC television. In 1978 he published a second collection of stories, In Between the Sheets, and his first novel, The Cement Garden. Controversy arose, however, when critics noticed plot similarities between The Cement Garden and Our Mother's House, a 1963 novel by Julian Gloag. McEwan denied having read Gloag's work and no formal charges of plagiarism were filed. McEwan was again the subject of scandal in 1980 when BBC television decided at the last minute to cancel the production of Solid Geometry, a teleplay he adapted from his short story of the same title. The story features a protagonist who keeps a chemically preserved penis in a jar on his desk. Throughout the 1980s, McEwan concentrated primarily on writing screenplays for television and motion pictures, including The Imitation Game,The Ploughman's Lunch,The Last Day of Summer (1984), and Soursweet (1988), as well as the stage play, Strangers (1989). During this period, McEwan also wrote two novels, The Comfort of Strangers (1981) and The Child in Time (1987), which was awarded the Whitbread Award. McEwan married Penny Allen in 1982; the couple would later divorce in 1995. McEwan was on the short-list for the Booker Prize for The Comfort of Strangers and Black Dogs (1992), and was awarded the Booker for his novel Amsterdam. McEwan published Atonement in 2001, which was also short-listed for the Booker Prize, and later received the W. H. Smith Award.
In McEwan's first two short story collections—First Love, Last Rights and In Between the Sheets—he establishes several of the recurring motifs that would become hallmarks of his fiction, most notably, the exploration of the effects of power and obsession on the human psyche. The eight stories in First Love, Last Rights are primarily concerned with coming-of-age, though within the collection's grim worldview, maturity is tantamount to corruption. In “Homemade,” the protagonist recounts his first sexual experience—the rape of his younger sister. “Butterflies” also centers on a tale of sexual predation, made even more horrifying by the inclusion of a matter-of-fact murder, while “Disguises” tells of an embittered actress who schools a young nephew in debauchery. In Between the Sheets covers similar subject material, but the collection exhibits a more fabulistic, Kafkaesque tone, indulging heavily in black humor. In “Pornography” two nurses plot to castrate a man who has sexually abused them both, and “Reflections of a Kept Ape” centers on a woman who initiates a sexual relationship with a pet monkey—narrated from the point-of-view of the monkey. McEwan uses these specific episodes of violence and cruelty to investigate how obsession can shape human desires. McEwan continued to examine similar themes in his novels, such as The Cement Garden. The novel follows a group of four children who, after the sudden deaths of their parents, decide to live without adult supervision, presenting a scenario that resembles William Golding's Lord of the Flies. The older children try to master the power necessary to fill the adult roles, but ultimately fail, sending the broken family into chaos. The Comfort of Strangers revolves around a married English couple on an ill-fated vacation in Venice. After a seemingly chance encounter, they become involved with a man who has a psychotic thirst for sexual dominance. In the opening pages of The Child in Time, a man discovers that his young daughter is missing. His daughter is never found, and McEwan traces the man's downward spiral into alcoholic infantilism. By making his protagonist a minor government functionary, McEwan is able to work in themes of political as well as emotional helplessness. In The Innocent, the protagonist is an Englishman working in postwar Germany who, after being recruited by the English intelligence service, discovers that as his power over others increases, so does his desire to exercise it.
McEwan revisited postwar continental Europe in Black Dogs, a dense, multilayered story which explores the effects of power on morality. The novel follows a couple whose marriage begins to crumble after an encounter with a pair of feral dogs. The dogs symbolize not only the evil that humans are capable of, but also the extraordinary acts that people can accomplish when confronting such evil. Enduring Love is a darkly comic tale of two men, Joe Rose and Jed Parry, who meet at the site of a hot-air balloon crash. Jed succumbs to an obsessive love for Joe and begins stalking him. Meanwhile, Joe finds it nearly impossible to convince his wife and friends that Jed is obsessed with him. Amsterdam also centers upon a relationship between two men, a composer and a newspaper editor, who, at the funeral of a mutual friend, initiate an euthanasia pact. The complex and comic plot eventually puts the characters at odds, climaxing in Holland where euthanasia can be easily arranged. Atonement recounts the story of a novelist who, in her youth, gave damning testimony that led to a working-class boy's false conviction for rape. Subsequent sections of the novel follow the boy's post-prison experiences during the British retreat from Dunkirk during World War II, and the novelist's experiences as a nurse during the Battle of Britain. While his dramatic works have received considerably less critical attention than his fiction, The Ploughman's Lunch is often noted as one of McEwan's strongest works. Set during the Falkland Islands War of the 1980s, the tale centers on a cynical journalist who is writing a revisionist history of the Suez crisis of the 1950s—one which defends British attempts to retain control of the canal, and thereby the Middle East. By juxtaposing the two crises, McEwan displays how fictional gamesmanship can have very real—and very dire—consequences.
McEwan's preoccupation with disquieting subject matter has garnered him a great deal of public notoriety in England, but it has also polarized the critical assessment of his work. While some critics have maintained that McEwan is a serious literary writer who addresses challenging issues in his work, others have asserted that he is merely a glorified horror writer who is solely concerned with producing gratuitously shocking prose. Despite these disagreements about the topics of his novels, short stories, and screenplays, McEwan has been consistently praised for his storytelling, characterizations, and adept handling of metaphor and symbol. Several reviewers have noted the publication of The Child in Time as the beginning of a more mature stage in McEwan's writing career. These critics have argued that McEwan's novels published after The Child in Time—including Enduring Love and Atonement—focus much more heavily on elements of psychological depth, moral complexity, and political awareness than his earlier works. While many commentators have suggested that McEwan's Booker-winning novel Amsterdam was not his strongest work, most have agreed that McEwan had been long overdue for serious literary recognition. However, a number of reviewers have found McEwan's schematic moral and philosophical oppositions distracting, particularly in Black Dogs, and have complained that his later plot-driven fiction too easily falls prey to the demands of narrative movement. Additionally, several critics have suggested that McEwan abandoned the subversive and experimental elements of his earlier work—as seen in the stories “Reflections of a Kept Ape” and “To and Fro” from In Between the Sheets—to obtain more mainstream acceptance. Although many postmodern critics have maintained that McEwan's later work has not lived up to the promise of his early short stories, McEwan is still often compared to such avant garde authors as Martin Amis and J. G. Ballard.
SOURCE: Brent, Frances Padorr. “Seeing the ‘Debased Imagination’ That Shapes History.” Chicago Tribune Books (20 December 1992): 3.
[In the following review of Black Dogs, Brent commends McEwan's unsettling depiction of domestic violence, but finds his political commentary lifeless.]
As we approach the year 2000, it is not surprising to find a number of American and European novelists evoking apocalyptic imagery in order to express the conflicting forces of a receding century.
British novelist Ian McEwan has summoned the images of wild dogs [in Black Dogs], with their age-old association to the vengeance of the Lord, to examine the way that history and the imagination are intertwined. The epigraph to the novel comes from the words of the Renaissance Platonist, Marsilio Ficino: “In these times I don't, in a manner of speaking, know what I want; perhaps I don't want what I know and want what I don't know.”
The “black dogs,” emblems for that which is sinister at heart, are only perceived by those few individuals who permit themselves to recognize what they have seen. The novel begins with the specter of those dogs, which for 40 years have haunted McEwan's protagonist, June Tremaine. In the summer of 1987 she is dying of cancer in a Wiltshire nursing home, and her son-in-law Jeremy visits with the intention of writing a memoir of sorts. He commences with the description of a photograph that sits on the chest by her bed. Taken in the spring of 1946, the picture commemorates the day that June and her young husband, Bernard, joined the British Communist Party, only a week before they were to embark on a honeymoon tour of the Northern Europe.
The story comes in fragments as the narration crosses through time and geography, moving from the British countryside to Berlin, the concentration camp in Majdanek and the region of Southern France where June encountered the dogs. In the novel's brief final section, the pieces of the plot are put together.
Late in the summer of 1946, two weeks before they were due back in England, June and Bernard embarked on a walking tour of the rocky tableland facing the French Mediterranean. Along the way they stopped at an ancient burial site, the Dolmen de la Prunarede, and something in the prehistoric stones triggered an anxiety within June that would not go away.
The following day, June's uncertainty redoubled. In an attempt to counteract the strange mood that was settling upon her, she walked ahead of Bernard and he, therefore, never saw how she stabbed one of the “waist high” dogs who sprang at her with foaming black mouths, open sores and a cloud of flies or the “luminous penumbra” that floated over her head. Later the mayor of the village where they spent the night disclosed that the dogs had been trained by Nazis who had lived there during the winter of 1942.
The dogs remain for June a symbol for the evil that exists all around us: “It takes hold in an individual, in private lives, within a family, and then it's children who suffer most. And then, when the conditions are right, in different countries, at different times, a terrible cruelty, a viciousness against life erupts, and everyone is surprised by the depth of hatred within himself.” All the assumptions about past and future that June had previously held were undermined by this experience.
While the premise of McEwan's novel, the “debased imagination” that ultimately shapes history, is quite interesting, Black Dogs is not entirely successful. Sometimes the telling seems held back, and the account of contemporary politics often comes across academically. By far the most compelling incidents in the book have to do with domestic violence, the abuse of children.
In an extended preface to the book, McEwan describes the pain of his own childhood. After he was orphaned at age 8, he lived with his sister, her husband and their small child, Sally. He was witness to their bouts of alcohol and brutality and felt a natural bond to his little niece, who was alternately neglected and abused by her parents.
Likewise, the most startling scene in the novel involves the abuse of another child, a 7- or 8-year-old boy whose parents strike him viciously in the dining room of a hotel. It is in the cruelty of private life that the agony of the dying century seems most authentic here.
Conversations with a Cupboardman (radio play) 1975
First Love, Last Rites (short stories) 1975
Jack Flea's Birthday Celebration (screenplay) 1976
The Cement Garden (novel) 1978
In Between the Sheets (short stories) 1978
The Imitation Game (screenplay) 1980
The Comfort of Strangers (novel) 1981
*The Imitation Game: Three Plays for Television (screenplays) 1981
Or Shall We Die? [music by Michael Berkeley] (oratorio) 1983
The Ploughman's Lunch (screenplay) 1983
The Last Day of Summer (screenplay) 1984
Rose Blanche [illustrations by Roberto Innocenti] (juvenilia) 1985
The Child in Time (novel) 1987
Soursweet (screenplay) 1988
Strangers (play) 1989
The Innocent (novel) 1990
Black Dogs (novel) 1992
The Good Son (screenplay) 1993
The Innocent (screenplay) 1993
The Daydreamer [illustrations by Anthony Brown] (juvenilia) 1994
Enduring Love (novel) 1998
Amsterdam (novel) 1999
Atonement (novel) 2001
*Includes Jack Flea's Birthday Celebration,The Imitation Game, and Solid Geometry.
SOURCE: Swartley, Ariel. “Fissures under the Crust.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (20 December 1992): 3-4.
[In the following review, Swartley presents a plot synopsis of Black Dogs, asserting that the character portraits of Bernard and June Tremaine and the attack on June by a pair of feral dogs both reflect McEwan's penchant for examining humanity.]
The anticipatory chill begins with the title, Black Dogs. Fans of Ian McEwan's fiction know better than to envision cuddly house pets. Hounds of the general size and ferocity of the Baskerville beasts would be more likely. In four previous novels and two short-story collections, the 44-year-old Briton has proven himself to be a master of menace, an excavator of the jagged fissures that lie just under civilization's crust. McEwan's menaces often take the form of actual dismemberment and sexual perversity. The civilization is all in his prose: an eminently British combination of lucid syntax and detached compassion.
Black Dogs, however, begins with disconcerting gentleness. A pleasantly tweedy narrator, who in the superficial details of gender, age, nationality, profession and number of children resembles McEwan, reminisces about his adolescent fascination with other people's parents by way of introducing his main subject: a portrait of his in-laws. In previous novels, The Child in Time and The Innocent, McEwan evoked contemporary genres like “missing-child thriller” or “anti-hero spy novel” before bending them to his own purposes, in Black Dogs, the writing is simple and confessional, the apparent frankness disarming.
Described by their son-in-law, Bernard and June Tremaine are admirable, articulate and infuriating—a kind of Everyparent, elder variety. Their oddity lies in their decades-long marriage, a union at once loving and irreconcilable, fruitful and desolate. Bernard, who became a communist as a young man, is now an Establishment figure, a former Member of Parliament and Labour Party stalwart. He is a rationalist, a secular humanist, a man who collects and mounts insects with scientific precision and still believes in the perfectibility of systems that deliver social welfare.
June, when the novel opens in 1987, is bedridden in a suburban English nursing home, suffering from an obscure form of cancer. In the solitude imposed by uncongenial surroundings, she reads and writes, trades wildflower lore with her doctor and dispenses pointed advice to her children, all with the serene authority of her spiritual mentor, Lao tzu.
In 1946 she had been as eager as Bernard to join the Party, but her faith was shattered by a traumatic experience during their honeymoon tour of France. One effect of the trauma was that she discovered God, and in time it became apparent that not only her politics but her life with Bernard could not survive her religious conversion.
To an activist and intellectual like Bernard June's retreat into spirituality (amid the rustic comforts of a French farmhouse) is evidence of either massive self-indulgence or an elective lobotomy. To June, Bernard's life of sound and fury has resulted in the predictable emptiness: The suffering still suffer. Meanwhile, his plummy elder-statesman manner drives her wild.
No one is less forgiving of another's point of view than someone who hoped to change the world. But no one is more persistent, either. And so despite 35 years apart, their marriage survives—in a fashion. Instead of speaking to each other, they constantly lecture their family and anyone else who will listen on each other's errors of temperament and philosophy.
And the menacing dogs of McEwan's title? They're there from the beginning, slavering at the edges of the narrative pounding through June's consciousness as she drops to sleep each night, the agents of her trauma, symbol of her satori—although, as McEwan's narrator warns, she would disagree: “No, you clot. Not symbolic! … Literal, anecdotal, true. Don't you know I was nearly killed!”
Unlike Henry James, who, abhorring banality, once described a neighbor's pet, also a black dog, as “something dark, something canine,” McEwan finds the bald statement, the literal truth full enough of ambiguity.
Banality in fact fascinates McEwan, in particular the banality of evil, and part of the chill of his books comes from his ability to recount the most grisly events in cool and meticulously observed detail. Yet his is not the scientific detachment that collapses polarities, allowing good to become indistinguishable from evil. Rather he seems anxious to identify the cracked steps, the crucibles of experience that jolt individuals, for better or worse, out of their moral skins.
June's black dogs are one such crucible—a half-starved, feral legacy from the Gestapo whose forces—only two years before the Tremaines' honeymoon in the Languedoc—had terrorized these quiet villages.
“You wait until you come to make sense of your life,” June tells the narrator in their last interview. “You'll either find you're too old and lazy to make the attempt, or you'll do what I've done, single out a certain event, find in something ordinary and explicable a means of expressing what might otherwise be lost to you—a conflict, a change of heart, a new understanding.” Part of McEwan's fascination in Black Dogs is also reserved for people like Bernard who are not changed by circumstances. Even his beating at the hands of an angry Berlin mob is defanged by his protective coating of rationalism and self-esteem. In Berlin to celebrate the opening of the Wall, he springs to the defense of a red-flag-waving youth.
“It wasn't his red flag, you know,” Bernard says the next day. “I don't think they even saw it. You heard what they were shouting? Foreigners out!”
In the novel's preface, McEwan's narrator outlines the reasons for his obsession with his in-laws, calling the elder Tremaines “the extremities, the twin poles along whose slippery axis my own unbelief slithers and never comes to rest.” But his obsession has a more personal cause as well. Orphaned in childhood, he is acutely aware that all children are in a sense a reconciliation of opposites, a synthesis between two points of view that in his case remain unknown. “Nor will it do,” he warns, “to suggest that both … are correct. To believe everything, to make no choices, amounts to much the same thing, to my mind, as believing nothing at all.”
By the book's end one thing is certain to rationalists and mystics alike: June's dogs come between people. Forty years later they're still causing arguments among neighbors in a French village. Was an earlier victim of the dogs—when their German masters were still on the scene—an informer, as some of the villagers suspected, or a pretty woman whose aloofness offended her male neighbors? The arguments, like the schism in a marriage, go way beyond a single incident or a pair of beasts, go beyond intellectual opposites to fundamental polarities including gender. And McEwan's preoccupation with menace is revealed as part of a larger preoccupation with humanity.
SOURCE: Fried, Kerry. “Criminal Elements.” New York Review of Books 40, nos. 1-2 (14 January 1993): 36-7.
[In the following excerpt, Fried examines various aspects of Black Dogs, such as its handling of domestic violence, the importance of Jeremy in comparison to protagonists June and Bernard, its portrayal of the post-World War II period, and the events surrounding the fall of European communism in 1989.]
The narrators in Ian McEwan's earlier books tend to live in rarefied, nightmarish domestic situations rather than in precise locations or times. His explorations of solitary lives and domestic futility, and particularly the ruin of childhood, occasionally can seem conceits, as with a boy who has been literally infantilized for eighteen years. There were also potential moral underpinnings in the horror of his stories, and there were, too, the wit and strangeness of his prose.
But his more recent work is very different, carefully grounded in a particular time, and preoccupied with recent history. Indeed, in Black Dogs two historical periods—the immediate post-World War II period with its illusions about communism, and 1989 during the collapse of European communism—crowd the foreground. The novel's narrator, Jeremy, and his wife hear the news that the Berlin Wall has come down while they are making love: “We were doing our best to keep its full importance at arm's length. … But the spell had been broken. Cheering crowds were surging through the early morning gloom of our bedroom.”
Black Dogs purports to be Jeremy's memoir of his mother-in-law, June Tremaine. In 1946, June and her lover, Bernard, have just been married and quit their wartime jobs in British intelligence. Full of confidence in the future, they have joined the Communist Party. Their illusions of love and politics are dangerously linked. “We'd founded a private utopia, and it was only a matter of time before the nations of the world followed our example,” June wryly tells Jeremy forty years later.
But while she and Bernard, on their honeymoon, are walking in the Languedoc, looking forward to “a new Europe” and their first child. June is set upon and terrorized by two feral dogs: “They moved slowly. They seemed to be working together to some purpose.” She is paralyzed by fear for several minutes, but feels herself suddenly surrounded by an energy, a trust in survival, or God, perhaps, she thinks, and is determined to fight and survive.
The big dog was down, ready for the spring, waiting for one moment's inattention. The muscles in its haunches quivered. A back paw scrabbled for better purchase. She had seconds left, and her hand was around her third rock. … In a delirium of abandonment, she attacked. She had passed through fear to fury that her happiness, the hopes of the past months, and now the revelation of this extraordinary light were about to be destroyed by a pair of abandoned dogs.
While the dogs stalk June, Bernard, an amateur entomologist, has fallen behind and stopped to examine a group of caterpillars. The separateness of the two experiences will pull them apart. Though he is capable of minute observation when it comes to insects, Bernard fails to take in the bite marks and saliva on June's knapsack and never quite believes that June was in danger, let alone that she had a vision. Even though the villagers at St. Maurice verify June's encounter with the dogs, telling the couple that in 1944 the Gestapo had brought them to the village in order to intimidate the inhabitants, and they have been roaming about wild for months.
The attack by the dogs becomes part of family lore, but forty years later Bernard is still denying the experience: “‘Face to face with evil’?” he prods Jeremy, “I'll tell you what she was up against that day—a good lunch and a spot of malicious village gossip!”
The couple drifts apart. June loses her interest in politics, becoming solitary and mystical, as Bernard becomes “a public man,” a Labour politician, and then TV spokesman for the “certainties” of science and left-wing politics. Indeed, the novel can at times read like a symposium between the mystical June and the pragmatic Bernard, with Jeremy as their skeptical acolyte: “Statements and counter-statements chased their tales. … It was a drone that would not be banished.” Two years after June dies, Jeremy finds himself becoming increasingly irritated with Bernard's complacency and aware of its destructiveness:
What struck me then was not simply the injustice of Bernard's remarks, but a wild impatience at the difficulty of communication, and an image of parallel mirrors in place of lovers on a bed, throwing back in infinite regression likenesses paling into untruth.
The book shifts in time back and forth between the late Eighties and 1946, and in place between Wiltshire, Berlin, and the south of France. Although in the very opening of the narrative, when Jeremy goes to visit June, now dying in a nursing home, he hears the familiar story of the black dogs, the event itself is not described until the last section. This scene is paralleled, and in a way confirmed, by an event that takes place forty years later, in Berlin, where Jeremy has taken Bernard just after the Wall has come down. A group of young neo-Nazis sets upon Bernard, but he is rescued when
out of the crowd there sprang a figure who whirled about us, lashing the boys with staccato sentences of piercing rebuke. It was a furious young woman. Her power was of the street. … The force of her disgust was sexual.
Here McEwan invokes June's spirit all too neatly, but the parallel manages to make the menace of the scene seem less gratuitous.
Exploring politics and history in Europe through very isolated and violent moments is, of course, a risk, and the connections between Bernard's encounter with the neo-Nazi youths in 1989 and June's moment of terror in 1946 can seem schematic, the events themselves forced. But each scene is brilliantly lit, and has a characteristically strange fascination as Ian McEwan juxtaposes “huge and tiny currents” to show the ways in which individuals react to history. Jeremy first hears of the black dogs in Poland in 1981, when he and June's daughter Jenny Tremaine are visiting a concentration camp. It is here, too, that their love affair begins, and they spend the next three days in bed together in the shadow of the Majdenek camp. This scene comes dangerously close to being obtrusive, grotesque, but McEwan is so deft a writer that again the violence does not, finally, seem gratuitous.
While June and Bernard are the central characters, the novel subtly revolves around the bleak figure of Jeremy, an outsider, a man of great loneliness and guilt. “Ever since I lost mine in a road accident when I was eight, I have had my eye on other people's parents,” Black Dogs arrestingly begins. Jeremy has grown up living with his older sister and her husband, and, later, their daughter, Sally.
Harper had a gift for violence. … But there were also times when I went into the kitchen and found Jean at the table reading a magazine and smoking while Harper stood at the kitchen sink, naked but for his purple jock strap, with half a dozen bright red weals across his buttocks, humbly washing the dishes.
Unable to distinguish between guilt and love or to overcome his own sense of abandonment, Jeremy seeks out other families. He eventually discovers that “the simplest way of restoring a lost parent was to become one yourself.” He has married happily and has four children—who are virtually absent from the novel. Even his wife, Jenny, though described in physical detail (down to an amputated sixth finger), is only dimly present—Sally's loneliness and misery are far more realized. Jeremy is haunted by leaving his niece behind and by his inability to help her when she repeats her parents' history. And in spite of his assertions about love's power, Jeremy admits, “It is the black dogs I return to most often. They trouble me when I consider what happiness I owe them.”
In the middle of the novel Jeremy witnesses a French couple gratuitously beating their son. In a rage, he challenges the father, wanting, he thinks, to ennoble himself and somehow atone for his having abandoned Sally. Instead he finds himself dangerously exhilarated: “I think I might have kicked and stomped him to death if I had not heard a voice. … Immediately I knew that the elation driving me had nothing to do with revenge and justice.” This revelation does not require the fall of the Berlin Wall for its force. Ambitious as Black Dogs is in its time and setting, it comes to life in such moments of intense domestic violence.
Bethune, Brian. “Look Back in Melancholy.” Maclean's (14 January 2002): 45.
Bethune discusses the ways that Atonement and W. G. Sebald's Austerlitz use the setting of the past and how both authors use events from history to comment on the art of writing.
Breslin, John B. “Lies and War.” America 187, no. 2 (15 July 2002): 22.
Breslin offers an overview of Atonement, extolling McEwan's narrative abilities as well as the novel's overall scope and ironic twists.
Charles, Ron. “Friends Strike Out in Dark Comedy.” Christian Science Monitor (17 December 1998): 21.
Charles evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of Amsterdam.
Dugan, Lawrence. Review of Black Dogs, by Ian McEwan. National Review 45, no. 1 (18 January 1993): 57-8.
Dugan praises the humanizing elements in Black Dogs and McEwan's ability to present “stark dichotomies” at the heart of his story.
Lacayo, Richard. “Twisted Sister.” Time 159, no. 12 (25 March 2002): 70.
Lacayo comments favorably on Atonement, remarking that McEwan is a subtle and skilled writer.
McEwan, Ian, and Jeff Giles. “Luminous Novel from Dark Master.” Newsweek 139, no. 11 (18 March 2002): 62-3.
McEwan discusses his literary reputation, his influences, winning the Booker Prize, and the creation of Atonement.
Mesic, Penelope. “Fountain of Youth.” Book (March-April 2002): 67.
Mesic lauds Atonement, asserting that it contains descriptive prose, intricacy, and a detailed examination of a child's point of view in contrast to an adult world view.
Messud, Claire. “The Beauty of the Conjuring.” Atlantic Monthly 289, no. 3 (March 2002): 106.
Messud focuses on the role of Briony Tallis in Atonement, noting McEwan's evocation of war, his descriptions of the human psyche, and the suspenseful aspects of the novel.
Roberts, Rex. “Quite Write.” Insight on the News 18, no. 19 (27 May 2002): 25.
Roberts comments on the critical reaction to Atonement, noting the unusually positive reception of the work.
Additional coverage of McEwan's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Bestsellers, Vol. 90:4; British Writers Supplement, Vol. 4; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 61-64; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 14, 41, 69, 87; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 13, 66; Contemporary Novelists, Ed. 7; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 14, 194; DISCovering Authors Modules: Novelists; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost, and Gothic Writers; Supernatural Fiction Writers, Vol. 2; and Twayne's English Authors.
SOURCE: Feeney, Joseph J. Review of Black Dogs, by Ian McEwan. America 170, no. 15 (30 April 1994): 22-4.
[In the following excerpt, Feeney offers praise for Black Dogs, lauding its “scope, depth, and unity,” and its treatment of such themes as politics, religion, the quest for family, and European political oppression.]
London booksellers are brave: They display works of quality along with best sellers. Not too long ago, on their laden tables, I found three superb new novels—one British, two Irish—that are now available in American editions and deserve an American audience.
Ian McEwan's Black Dogs is brilliant, with a scope, depth and unity that belie its brevity. Beginning as a quest for family, the novel gradually encompasses England, Berlin, Poland and southern France, brings in politics, rationalism and religion, involves mythic dogs and ancient dolmens, and ends as a symbol of Europe from World War II to the 1989 collapse of Communism. In a similar expansion, the black dogs begin as horrid memories, develop into painfully real beasts of attack and, by the end, symbolize European political oppression on the right and on the left. The novel's movement from realism to symbol is seamless, and McEwan faultlessly balances sensuous detail—the “scent of thyme crushed underfoot”—with the resonance and scope of myth.
A novel of memory, Black Dogs has a disarmingly simple plot. The middle-aged Jeremy, orphaned when he was eight, finds family in his wife's parents—June and Bernard Tremaine—and tries to piece together their life-stories. The novel is a “memoir” of his discoveries: how June was attacked by dogs during her Languedoc honeymoon, how she and Bernard reject English Communism, how their affection outlives their marriage and how June turns to religion and Bernard to rationalism. Jeremy also has his own memories: visiting a Polish concentration camp in 1981, experiencing Berlin in 1989 as the Wall was being pulled down, hiking to the dolmens—the sacred altars—of Languedoc, where June fended off the dogs in 1946. McEwan smoothly weaves all this together—self and family, 1946 and 1989, dogs and dolmens, history and politics, England and Europe—into a resonant myth of politics, rationalism, religion and “the chasm of meaninglessness.” By the end, Jeremy has found a family, yet feels a foreboding: In 1946, the black dogs of fascism—“spirit hounds” of “the savagery beyond”—ran away from June, yet lived on as “black stains in the grey of the dawn, fading as they move into the foothills of the mountains from where they will return to haunt us, somewhere in Europe, in another time.” Gliding so suavely from realism to symbol, Black Dogs is a remarkable feat, an extraordinary performance. With this novel, McEwan becomes a major writer. …
All three novelists, I might note, are experienced and well regarded. Ian McEwan (British, b. 1948) has done T.V. plays, a film script and six novels, including the celebrated The Comfort of Strangers (later filmed), The Child in Time and The Innocent. Patrick McCabe (Irish, b. 1955) has published two novels, a children's story and several short stories. Roddy Doyle (Irish, b. 1958) is known for his fictional trilogy, The Commitments,The Snapper and The Van, two stage plays, and the screenplays for films of The Commitments (1991) and The Snapper (1993).
In these new novels, each writer is at his best, probing memory, self and family, worrying about love and permanence and crafting inventive stories with verbal skill. The booksellers of London were right: The novels are superb, and have all won prizes. Happily, American readers can now enjoy them also.
SOURCE: Slay, Jack, Jr. “Vandalizing Time: Ian McEwan's The Child in Time.” Critique 35, no. 4 (summer 1994): 205-18.
[In the following essay, Slay examines the connections between children and the passage of time in The Child in Time, drawing attention to parallels between the loss of the protagonist's child and the theme of time as the destroyer of youth and, alternately, as a mode of recovery and rejuvenation.]
At first, The Child in Time seems to be a radical departure from the violence and shock of Ian McEwan's earlier work. The novel is certainly a departure from the blood, pus, and semen that inundate his stories and previous novels; gone are the incest of The Cement Garden and the mindless violence of The Comfort of Strangers and such stories as “Butterflies” (in which a man sexually abuses, then murders a young girl) and “Pornography” (in which a man is emasculated by a couple of his girlfriends). The Child in Time is, as some critics would have it, embarrassingly affirmative.1 Whereas The Cement Garden ends in the destruction of the family unit, The Child in Time ends with family unity; whereas The Comfort of Strangers uncovers only death and the destruction of love, The Child in Time discovers life and the resurrection of love. Indeed, McEwan's third novel reads as a magical work, filled with warmth and hope and love. However, McEwan warns that this optimism is not necessarily a brighter view of contemporary society: “Maybe [it is] because I feel more alarmed about the world that I feel a responsibility to locate what is good. … I cling to the idea that people are always better than the systems in which they live” (Muchnick 102).
McEwan's novel concerns a child's sudden and mysterious disappearance and the painful ordeal that the parents must endure to accept their daughter-less, and seemingly hopeless, lives. The Child in Time, however, is much more than a missing-child novel. With the intricate images of children and the complexities of time that recur, McEwan portrays the search for—and the importance of recognizing and accepting—the child that exists in every individual. As Richard Locke says, “The theme is—clearly—the remembrance of things past: recovery, re-creation, redemption or reconciliation to the loss of children, childhood, time itself” (30). The search for the child in time—both Stephen's and Julie's daughter Kate as well as each individual's youthful essence—is an often warm and poignant, a sometimes wild and humorous romp through time itself. McEwan creates a sense of time that is malleable, wondrous, infinitely complex. Time is a vandal: it is the essence that can make one forget the inner child, that innocent and youthful joy of life. Simultaneously, time is also vandalized: characters experience periods that stall in slow motion, that pass in a blur of quickness, that are even altered, with the past coming round to the present. These motifs of the child and of time unify the novel, intricately connecting the various episodes while simultaneously accentuating the delicate relationship between childhood and adulthood and the need for every individual to discover that child within him- or herself.
Images of children and of time dominate the novel. For instance, immediately after the experience of seeing his parents “out of time,” Stephen relives his mother's decision not to abort him, imagining himself as a fetus:
His eyes grew large and round and lidless with desperate, protesting innocence, his knees rose under him and touched his chin, his fingers were scaly flippers, gills beat time, urgent, hopeless strokes through the salty ocean that engulfed the treetops and surged between their roots; and for all the crying, calling sounds he thought were his own, he formed a single thought: he had nowhere to go, no moment that could embody him, he was not expected, no destination or time could be named; for while he moved forward violently, he was immobile, he was hurtling round a fixed point.
Later, when Stephen rescues the driver from a wrecked lorry, the man emerges in a parody of birth (112). Similar to these more complex images are numerous brief references to children and childhood. For example, Julie lives in a house “such as a child might draw” (74); Stephen finds boyish pleasure in railroads (54); Charles Darke is his wife's “difficult child” (42). Through these images of the child, McEwan emphasizes the innocence and purity of childhood, something that is quickly and almost completely forgotten in adulthood. Rarely do adults abandon themselves to childish pleasures, as do Stephen and Julie when they become joyfully captivated in building a sand castle with Kate: “… soon, and without quite realizing it was happening, they became engrossed, filled with the little girl's urgency, working with no awareness of time beyond the imperative of the approaching tide” (121). Unfortunately, the adult must throw off the spell and return to the world of responsibilities and appointments. Stephen later thinks that “if he could do everything with the intensity and abandonment with which he had once helped Kate build her castle, he would be a happy man of extraordinary powers” (122). McEwan, though, suggests that happiness can be achieved in a compromise—but only if the adult is willing to recognize the child within.
Like the image of the child, images of time also serve to unify the novel. McEwan sets the novel in the near future. As with many contemporary novels—Angela Carter's Heroes and Villains (1969), J. G. Ballard's High-Rise (1975), Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker (1980), Kathy Acker's Empire of the Senseless (1988), Martin Amis's London Fields (1989)—a near-future is envisioned in order to demonstrate the results of our own chaotic present; in some instances, the future is so near that, for all practical purposes, it is now. In his vision of the future, McEwan portrays an England controlled by a post-Thatcher conservative extremism. This is a society guided by a government that has offered schools for sale to private investors, that has commissioned a child-care book so that the nation can be “‘regenerated by reformed child-care practice’” (191), that has regulated its beggars, forcing them to wear begging badges and to beg in allotted areas only. Time, though, is more than a structural motif; it also has the tendency to govern each character's individual life. Stephen is constantly slipping into the past of memories through his “structured daydreams.” Throughout the novel, then, there is a continuous shift from the present to the past and back again. Likewise, there are many references to the seeming instability of time and how it often shifts according to perception; Stephen is especially susceptible to the shifting qualities of time. For instance, thinking about his aging parents, he feels “the urgency of constricting time” (50); as he is traveling to visit Julie, his sense of time disappears (55); he feels as if “time had fixed him in his place” (117); when he pursues the girl whom he thinks is Kate, time “had a closed-down, forbidden quality” (166). These constant references to time and childhood help to unify McEwan's novel, complementing both theme and structure.
The images of time and childhood are inexorably linked in Kate, the missing daughter of Stephen and Julie Lewis; through her mysterious evanescence, she becomes just one of the many children in time who populate the novel. Kate's disappearance is a terrifyingly beautiful passage. McEwan poetically captures the sheer terror of a parent's worst nightmare, describing how Stephen's uneasiness quickly becomes blind panic; how the city's anonymity crumbles; and the lost child becomes “everyone's property” (15); how Stephen attempts to distance himself in order to cope with the loss of his daughter. Long after her disappearance, Stephen—in a desperate, pathetic attempt to save Kate, to prevent his daughter from forever vanishing from his life—seeks to alter time. He vainly strives to re-enter the past but discovers only that time “monomanically forbids second chances” (10); he struggles to see through the veil of time, hoping to discover the person who might have stolen her:
[He] tried to move his eyes, lift them against the weight of time, to find that shrouded figure at the periphery of vision, the one who was always to the side and slightly behind, who, filled with a strange desire, was calculating odds, or simply waiting. But time held his sight forever on his mundane errands, and all about him shapes without definition drifted and dissolved, lost to categories.
Unable to penetrate the past, Stephen resists the impulse to surrender, remaining adamant in his battle against time, the ultimate kidnapper of his only child. Perceiving himself as “the father of an invisible child” (2), he vehemently maintains the hope that Kate may indeed exist somewhere; to cope, he allows her to continue growing, to continue aging within his own mind:
There was a biological clock, dispassionate in its unstoppability, which let his daughter go on growing, extended and complicated her simple vocabulary, made her stronger, her movements surer. The clock, sinewy like a heart, kept faith with an unceasing conditional: she would be drawing, she would be starting to read, she would be losing a milk tooth.
This mental child that Stephen nurtures eventually enables him to accept his pain and, through the course of two events, helps him to continue with his own life.
The first incident occurs two and a half years after Kate's disappearance, during the week that she would have turned six years old. Stephen wants to celebrate her birthday but fears that to “buy a toy would undo two years of adjustment, it would be irrational, indulgent, self-destructive; and weak, above all weak” (145). However, he soon justifies his need to celebrate for Kate, saying to himself that this “would be an act of faith in his daughter's continued existence” (146); moreover, he sees the action as an act of joy as well as a plea for Kate's return:
To buy a present would demonstrate that he was not yet beaten, that he could do the surprising, lively thing. He would purchase his gift in joy rather than sorrow, in the spirit of loving extravagance, and in bringing it home and wrapping it up he would be making an offering to fate, or a challenge—Look, I've brought the present, now you bring back the girl.
As he embarks on his shopping spree, Stephen mentally creates through “magical thinking” the image of Kate as a growing, maturing child and buys birthday toys to match her ever-changing needs:
He needed to test her reactions. She was a reticent girl, in company at least, with a straight back and dark bangs. She was a fantasist, a daydreamer, a lover of strange-sounding words, a keeper of secret diaries, a hoarder of inexplicable objects. … She preferred soft toys to dolls, and he dropped into his wire basket a lifelike gray cat. She was a giggler with a taste for practical jokes. He took the cushion and a flower that squirted water. … She liked to dress up. He reached for a witch's hat. … Beyond all question she was a graceful child, but she was hopeless with a ball and it was time she knew how to throw. He took from the shelves a plastic sock of tennis balls.
Kate's birthday eventually brings more dismay than relief; Stephen ends his celebration—at once one of the most touching and absurd scenes in the novel—by singing “Happy Birthday” to his missing daughter through a child's walkie-talkie set. Though momentarily upsetting for Stephen, the event is the beginning of a capitulation; for the first time he realizes that Kate is fading and that he has no control over his lost daughter:
He brought to mind the three-year-old, the springy touch of her, how she fit herself so comfortably round his body, the solemn purity of her voice, the wet red and white of tongue and lips and teeth, the unconditional trust. It was getting harder to recall. She was fading, and all the time his useless love was swelling, encumbering and disfiguring him like a goiter. He thought, I want you. I want you back. I want you brought back now. I don't want anything else. All I want to do is to want you to come back. … It hurts.
Ultimately, with time, Stephen's pain reaches a nadir, triggering the second incident, which directs him toward acceptance and recovery.
Stephen's fanatical search for his daughter eventually ends in finding Kate—however, it is the wrong Kate. Passing a schoolyard filled with children while en route to a lunch meeting with the prime minister, Stephen encounters Kate:
The first girl was closest to him. The thick bangs bobbed against her white forehead, her chin was raised, she had a dreamy appearance. He was looking at his daughter. He shook his head, he opened his mouth without making a sound. She was fifty feet away, unmistakable.
Confronting the girl, he notices that “what was most strikingly new was a brown mole high on her right cheekbone” (172). The child is, then, obviously not Kate, but Stephen refuses to accept this. His unending search for his daughter and the confrontation with the “false” Kate exhibit the degree of his obsession and desperation; Stephen, in order to survive the madness of his situation, realizes that he must keep Kate alive—even if only in his own mind, for if Kate continues to exist, then he can continue to survive. Eventually, Stephen is convinced by the school principal and by himself that this is not Kate; once he admits this to himself, the likeness of Kate fades from the girl: “… the girl crossing the reception area was taller, more angular, especially about the shoulders, and sharper in her features” (177). The false recognition concludes in a purging that, in turn, results in Stephen's release from his obsession, his maniacal search:
He was beginning to face the difficult truth that Kate was no longer a living presence, she was not an invisible girl at his side whom he knew intimately remembering how Ruth Lyle [the false Kate] did and did not resemble his daughter, he understood how there were many paths Kate might have gone down, countless ways in which she might have changed in two and a half years, and that he knew nothing about any of them. He had been made, now he felt purged.
Stephen never completely abandons the hope that Kate may indeed be alive and that she may someday return; however, the two confrontations with “Kate” succeed in helping him comprehend the danger of his obsession. Essentially, Stephen realizes that he must continue his own life without Kate; he must remain whole in order to keep Kate as a part of himself.
The Child in Time, however, is more than Stephen's search for his lost daughter; it also presents the search for the lost child that exists within every adult. The appearance of adulthood necessitates, more often than not, the disappearance of innocence and, consequently, the loss of one's childish pleasure in life itself. Commenting on the adult's denial of the child-self, McEwan says,
It's been a current in my fiction for a long time that we carry about with us our childhood selves. We deny that self at our peril. … It was both inevitable and desirable that my own range or preoccupation should change and that my emotional range should increase. Having children has been a major experience in my life in the last few years. It's extended me emotionally, personally, in ways that could never be guessed at. It's inevitable that that change would be reflected in my writing.
The search for Kate, then, reintroduces Stephen to his own child-self in time; and Kate, as John Bemrose says, becomes a “metaphor for the vanished freshness of youth. The book suggests that only by getting back some of the glorious vitality of childhood can people live to the fullest” (52).
Charles Darke, one of the few characters in the novel who willingly seeks out the child within himself, tells Stephen that “childhood is timeless” (32). Attempting to persuade Stephen to market his novel Lemonade as a children's book, Charles says that the book has “spoken directly to children. … you've communicated with them across the abyss that separates the child from the adult and you've given them a first, ghostly intimation of their mortality. … This is a book for children through the eyes of an adult” (33). As Charles explains, the best of the “so-called children's books” are “those that spoke to both children and adults, to the incipient adult within the child, to the forgotten child within the adult” (30). Stephen reluctantly agrees to this marketing scheme and, then, inadvertently, becomes “famous among schoolchildren” (25). Not only does Stephen succeed in communicating with children—including his own inner child, but he also becomes metaphorically a child, another of the novel's many children in time. Throughout the novel, Stephen is portrayed as a child or in childlike terms; both Charles and the assistant secretary to the prime minister speak to him “as though to a child” (30, 154); he is mothered by Thelma when he goes into a catatonic state shortly after Kate vanishes; at the thought of nuclear war he is “suddenly, childishly, afraid” (193); on his final visit to Julie's, he fulfills a “boyhood dream” by riding in the cab of a train (247). While on the trail of the false Kate, Stephen reverts to a childlike state when he enters a classroom and finds himself participating in an art class: when the teacher instructs the children to draw a picture of a medieval village, Stephen earnestly, obediently jumps to the task, “imparting to his row of huts a degree of perspective they had never had in previous attempts” (169); years after leaving grade school, he is still eager to impress the teacher. Through the novel, Stephen is unashamed, even willing, to express his child-self, succumbing to the youthful innocence, the harmless naiveté that dwells within him. By doing so, McEwan suggests, the adult-self is better able to survive the turmoil and chaos of adult society. Accepting the child within himself helps him to bear the loss of his daughter; in essence, the child within him is an embodiment of Kate, allowing her to live and grow always beside her father.
Although the acceptance of the inner child is more often life-affirming, McEwan warns that complete submersion into this child-self can be anything but a positive, healthy experience. Charles Darke, for example, is yet another of the novel's many children in time. Several of McEwan's characters—Tom in The Cement Garden and David in the television film Jack Flea's Birthday Celebration—regress into childhood in order to temporarily escape the difficulties of their lives. Charles, however, seeks to escape the confusion and chaos of his world by regressing wholly into the serenity and security of childhood. Because of this regression, his wife Thelma is forced into the role of surrogate mother. Thelma, however, finds this role of motherhood comfortable, even natural, accepting the regression of her husband as “‘quite ordinary’” (240), happily complying with her new role as mother.
Stephen, however, finds Charles's regression disturbing. When he first encounters Charles in his new state, Stephen thinks that he is, indeed, a little boy: “… this was just the kind of boy who used to fascinate and terrify him at school” (122). Stephen is shocked that Charles has so totally transformed himself into a “successful prepubescent” (125); nonetheless, he feigns acceptance and follows the forty-nine-year-old child into his world of innocence and treehouses. The climb to Charles's treehouse accentuates the chasm between their states: Stephen is, momentarily, the terrified adult, the frightened realist, clinging with desperation to the tree; Charles is the carefree, innocent child, scampering from limb to limb, heedless of the danger. Charles's metamorphosis into a child is total. He has built a treehouse, made his own lemonade, and stuffed his pockets with all the paraphernalia of childhood. Stephen views Charles's regression as a calculated move. Examining the contents of Charles's pockets, he is “impressed by what appeared to be very thorough research. It was as if his friend had combed libraries, diligently consulted the appropriate authorities to discover just what it was a certain kind of boy was likely to have in his pockets” (130). Later, cryptically explaining himself, Charles tells Stephen that “it's a matter of letting go. …” (132). His regression, then, is an escape, a freedom from the pressures of politics, a freedom from the chaos of contemporary society.
Thelma, however, explains her husband's regression differently; she tells Stephen, “He's completely mad” (140). As a result, the consequences of Charles's fantasy are dire indeed, eventually leading to his death. Torn between his need “‘to be famous, and have people tell him that one day he would be prime minister …’” and his desire “‘to be a little boy without a care in the world, with no responsibility, no knowledge of the world outside’” (238), Charles eventually surrenders, giving up on the world and his life simultaneously. However, even in the end, his child-self dominates; like a little boy he commits suicide in a “‘petulant and childish’” way, immaturely lashing out at Thelma, his wife/mother, by putting himself out in the snow, stripping off most of his clothing, and dying of hypothermia. After his death, Thelma attempts to explain her husband's torment, explaining that his regression “was an overwhelming fantasy that dominated all his private moments” (238). For Charles, childhood was not only timeless, but was also a “mystical state” (238); as Thelma explains, he “‘wanted the security of childhood, the powerlessness, the obedience, and also the freedom that goes with it, freedom from money, decisions, plans, demands’” (238). However, the regression becomes more and more difficult to maintain; soon Charles “‘was sitting up all night agonizing [over his adult responsibilities], and he was still out in the woods during the day, trying to maintain his innocence. … He was in his treehouse in his short trousers wondering whether he should style himself Lord Eaton and whether anyone else had taken the name’” (240-41). His agony of indecision eventually leads to another breakdown that, in turn, leads to his death. Through Charles's regression into childhood, McEwan suggests that although it is important, even crucial, for the adult to accept the child that resides within him- or herself, it is dangerous, even suicidal, to become wholly that child-self or to surrender entirely to that desire. Acceptance and acknowledgement of the child-self can lead to a greater joy of life; submersion in that child can lead to a breakdown of the adult spirit.
Like so many of the characters and elements in The Child in Time, science (especially in its associations with the entity of time), too, is seen metaphorically as a child. Thelma envisions this particular child as “on the point of growing up and learning to claim less for itself” (45). The science of time is also one of the keys to discovering the child that dwells within each adult; as Roberta Smoodin writes, this lost childhood remains in the mature adult “not only in memory but in a kind of time that spirals in upon itself, seems to be recapturable in some plausible intermingling of Einstein and Proust, quantum physics and magical realism” (19). Time, then, plays a major role in Stephen's rejuvenation; through his course of recovery, he experiences several episodes in which time seems to slow, to elongate, or to warp completely out of context.
For example, while journeying to visit Charles and Thelma, Stephen narrowly escapes a serious automobile accident. When a lorry overturns in front of his car—forcing him to veer dangerously between the wreck and a road sign—Stephen experiences a “slowing of time” (106), one in which time itself seems to stall momentarily, allowing him to record events with unnatural clarity. Dodging the lorry but coming so close to the road sign that it shears away his door handle and side mirror, Stephen is at first elated by the near miss and then stunned by the fact that the entire incident had “lasted no longer than five seconds” (108). Later, after being rescued by Stephen, the lorry driver also expressed having experienced a similar slowing of time; asking “‘How long was I in there? Two hours? Three?’” He finds it incredible when Stephen replies, “‘Ten minutes. Or less’” (114). Time, inexplicably, is apparently malleable, a concept that Stephen has difficulty in understanding; nonetheless, it is an idea—like the mysterious child within himself—that he accepts as an ordinary aspect of an extraordinary world.
An even more astonishing distortion of time occurs when Stephen encounters a flaw in time. In an episode of magical realism, Stephen steps into the past and meets his parents. Walking through the countryside, in a place he has never before been, Stephen experiences an overwhelming familiarity, an eerie sense of déjà vu. Coming across an old tavern, he senses that “the day he now inhabited was not the day he had woken into. … He was in another time …” (63). Seeing a young couple through the tavern window, he experiences “not recognition so much as its shadow, not its familiar sound but a brief resonance …” (64). When the young woman looks out and stares intently at Stephen, he suddenly, inexplicably, realizes that she is, “beyond question,” his mother (65).
Stephen is baffled by this incident, uncertain about how to accept seeing his parents in a time before he existed. Not until his mother relives the event, through the “timelessness of memory” (195), does Stephen begin to understand the repercussions of his experience with time.2 Claire tells her son of the courtship between her and his father,3 and the dilemma that they faced when she became pregnant. It was at the small tavern—where Stephen experienced his contortion of time—that Douglas had indirectly suggested an abortion. Before answering her husband-to-be, before considering the implications of marriage or abortion, Claire looked out the tavern window and experienced her own distortion of time:
I can see it now as clearly as I can see you. There was a face at the window, the face of a child, sort of floating there. It was staring into the pub. It had a kind of pleading look, and it was so white, white as an aspirin. It was looking right at me. Thinking about it over the years, I realize it was probably the landlord's boy, or some kid off one of the local farms. But as far as I was concerned then, I was convinced, I just knew that I was looking at my own child. If you like, I was looking at you.
From that point in time, she says, the baby “was suddenly flesh” (207); it was not “an abstraction. … It was … a complete self, begging her for its existence, and it was inside her, unfolding intricately, living off the pulse of her own blood” (207). Thus, Stephen himself becomes a child in time, magically appearing forty-four years later as the face his mother sees just weeks after his conception. In a sense, then, Stephen confirms his own existence. However, the full significance of his experience is not revealed until the end of the novel; when he has his interlude with the past, Stephen is just hours away from creating his own child in time.
Stephen continually ponders his seemingly preternatural experiences with time as well as the mysterious nature of time itself. Thelma, a theoretical physicist, offers scientific explanations, speaking to him as she would a classroom full of scientists, revealing that “there's a whole supermarket of theories these days” (135). For example, she lectures, one possibility “‘has the world dividing every infinitesimal fraction of a second into an infinite number of possible versions, constantly branching and proliferating, with consciousness neatly picking its way through to create the illusion of a stable reality’” (135). Another theory states that “‘time is variable. We know it from Einstein, who is still our bedrock here. In relativity theory, time is dependent on the speed of the observer’” (136). Yet another theory suggests that time is a separate entity in and of itself: “‘In the big-bang theory, time is thought to have been created in the same moment as matter, it's inseparable from it’” (136). The only certainty about time, Thelma says, is its uncertainty: “‘… whatever time is, the common-sense, everyday version of it as linear, regular, absolute, marching from left to right, from the past through the present to the future, is either nonsense or a tiny fraction of the truth’” (135-36). The Child in Time exemplifies how time is not a certainty, not a reality of the world; rather, as in Stephen's experience, time is a magical essence of life, an inexplicable entity that allows Kate to grow and exist within her father, that allows the ephemeral childhood of each person to continue existing throughout life, that enables Stephen to encounter his mother's decision to let him live. Time, then, is as ambiguous and as difficult as life itself.
Uniting the complex images of time and childhood, the problems of contemporary society, the complicated issues of love and heartache is the relationship between Stephen and Julie. Before Kate vanishes, Stephen and Julie share a powerful love: “… she loved him fiercely and liked to tell him. He had built his life round their intimacy and come to depend on it” (18). However, their daughter's disappearance brutally disrupts their relationship. In the aftermath of their tragedy, Stephen “anesthetize[s] himself with activity,” searching desperately for Kate, while Julie collapses into a numbness of inactivity, spending day after day in a listless daze. They become embittered toward one another, their opposing reactions opening a rift in their marriage. Their sorrow increases, pain multiplies, forcing them further and further apart. Ultimately, even their love falters and, like Kate, disappears: “If there was a love it was buried beyond their reach” (58). To save themselves, the two separate, with Julie fleeing to a retreat and Stephen immersing himself in the meaningless, everyday life of television and committee meetings. Surprisingly, it is this separation that saves their marriage and preserves their love for one another. As is the case in so many of McEwan's portraits of relationships, it is the female who provides the strength that sustains the alliance. By leaving—but not abandoning—the marriage, Julie is able to preserve (although at first unwittingly) the love that allows them to reunite; her time alone is a healing process that enables her to accept Kate's disappearance and to recognize her need and love for Stephen. When Julie leaves, Stephen recognizes, in turn, what he believes to be the essential difference between men and women: their “attitudes to change” (59). Most men, he concludes, after a certain age “froze into place” (59); women, on the other hand, forced to live several lives at once (motherhood and a “professional life on men's terms,” for example), are more agile in the face of change and, therefore, more complete. Julie's ability to change through time and her insistence upon a change keep her spirit whole and her love intact.
The love that Stephen and Julie once shared and, for much of the novel, believe to be buried beyond recovery is, nevertheless, always between them, ready to resurface at the slightest coaxing. When Stephen visits Julie at her retreat, they find it easy to fall momentarily in love again; reunited, they become “their old, wise selves” (71). As they make love, Stephen connects this immediate experience to the incident in which he broke through time to see his parents: to him there is no “doubt that what was happening now, and what would happen as a consequence of now, was not separate from what he had experienced earlier that day” (70). Not until nine months later does he discover the full fruition of his premonition; his brief tryst with Julie results in a pregnancy that in turn reignites their spirit of love. However, their reunion in the present is short-lived as Kate comes irrevocably, inevitably between them. Stephen and Julie realize that each as an individual must learn to accept Kate's disappearance before they can accept that perpetual emptiness in their lives as a couple, a whole.
Shortly after Charles's death, Thelma tells Stephen that the solution to all of his problems has been in front of him all along: “‘… think back over the last year and all your unhappiness, all the floundering about, the catatonia, when right in front of you was … Julie. … Julie was in front of you” (242-43). Journeying to rejoin his wife, Stephen imagines that the ghosts of his parents accompany him, for just as they were trodding this same path forty-four years before, on the verge of crossing the threshold into marriage and family, Stephen, too, is about to be reinitiated into the rites of marriage and love with the news that Julie is pregnant. Likewise, he discovers that all his sorrow, all his wasted and empty days have actually been “enclosed within meaningful time, within the richest unfolding conceivable” (251). During their second reunion, Julie explains to her husband that she “‘came out here to face up to losing Kate. It was my task, my work, if you like, more important to me than our marriage, or my music. It was more important than the new baby. If I didn't face it, I thought I could go under. … I had to go on loving her, but I had to stop desiring her’” (254-55). With the knowledge that they will survive, that their love and need for each other are as strong as ever, they unite in their grief for the first time, mourning “the lost, irreplaceable child who would not grow older for them, whose characteristic look and movement could never be dispelled by time” (256). In their “wild expressiveness” of sorrow
they undertook to heal everyone and everything, the government, the country, the planet, but they would start with themselves; and while they could never redeem the loss of their daughter, they would love her through their new child, and never close their minds to the possibility of her return.
Their release of inner grief frees them and cleanses them; once again, they are a couple, a marriage, a unified whole.
Through the life that they have created, Stephen and Julie are given a second chance; essentially, they, too, are reborn with this child. Speaking of the seeming inevitableness of the conception, Julie says, “‘… it did seem extraordinary, the ease with which it happened. … There had to be a deeper patterning to time, its wrong and right moments can't be that limited’” (254). As the baby is born, there is a “shock, a jarring, a slowing down as [Stephen] entered dream time” (261); again, time closes upon Stephen, but this time it slows in joy and wonderment. As the baby—the final child in time of the novel—emerges, it seems to say, “Had you forgotten me? Did you not realize it was me all along? I am here” (261). Helping the baby into the world, Stephen is suddenly struck with the simpleness of life: “This is really all we have got, this increase, this matter of life loving itself; everything we have has to come from this” (261). Life itself, he realizes, is the answer to the questions of life. As this family of three huddles together between the sheets revelling in the joy of love, outside their window can be seen the planet Mars, the lone “reminder of a harsh world” (263); for the moment, though, this harsh world is held at bay. The novel closes as Julie slips her hand beneath the covers to determine the sex of the baby. McEwan, however, does not reveal the sex because at this moment for this reborn family, it is not important—for this instant in time, there is only unqualified love, life, family.
In comparison with McEwan's earlier works, The Child in Time appears incredibly sentimental; McEwan has certainly abandoned the dirt, scum, and murder that proliferate in his earlier stories and novels. One must be careful, though, in this assessment, for underlying much of the brutality, violence, and chaos of McEwan's canon is a subtle yet prevailing optimism. In the story “In Between the Sheets,” a father's paternal love and concern conquer his sexual longings for his daughter; in “First Love, Last Rites,” a young couple remain united and hopeful despite the filth and chaos of an encroaching city; in The Cement Garden, Jack and Julie are drawn into their incestuous union through their need for comfort, for love. For the first time, however, with The Child in Time, McEwan allows this sentimentality to dominate. With the birth of the new child and the rejuvenation of Stephen's and Julie's relationships, McEwan allows sentimentality aptly to prevail.
Commenting on the optimism prevalent in McEwan's conclusion, Roberta Smoodin says,
The ending … amazes one with its rightness, but more than this, allows McEwan to transcend the bounds of his style and to leap with abandon, into new territory. This territory is the possibility of happiness, the continuation of fragile, tenuous life, and even more improbable: love. The gloriousness of this ending, in all its faces … is masterful, even more so because it is so deeply felt, so perfectly crafted.
McEwan has certainly moved beyond the shock and solipsism of his earlier fiction, but this “leap into new territory”—although it is a guarded optimism—is as well a culmination of his previous work, a coming together of his major themes and concerns. Throughout his canon, McEwan presents the endless struggle of men and women attempting to establish relationships that will sustain, nourish, and strengthen them in the chaotic world of contemporary society. In large part, these adult alliances are strengthened by the acknowledgment of the inner child, by an acceptance of the innocent joy of life and love that dwells within each individual; thus, in The Child in Time, the ever elusive fulfilling relationship is joyfully discovered and disclosed as to be quite permanent. Without doubt, The Child in Time is a fully grown novel.
McEwan, however, is far from alone among his British contemporaries in this kinder, gentler literature. Compare, for instance, Martin Amis's Einstein's Monsters, Fay Weldon's The Life and Loves of a She-Devil, or J. G. Ballard's Empire of the Sun to their earlier works.
As Claire recounts her story, the narration slips into the past, with the narrator telling the story as it happened forty-four years ago; however, Claire's intrusions upon the story bring us back to the immediate present. Interestingly, then, there are two simultaneous presents: the present of Claire and Douglas and their courtship, and the present of Claire relating the story to her son. In essence, time has warped yet again in the novel.
Even the courtship is filled with amusing references to time; for instance, Claire works in the clock section of a department store, and Stephen's father, Douglas, meets his future wife when he returns a broken clock.
Bemrose, John. “A Welcome Literary Invasion.” Maclean's 25 April 1988: 51-52.
Locke, Richard. “Shades of Dickens and Woolf.” The Wall Street Journal 15 Sept. 1987: 30.
McEwan, Ian. The Child in Time. 1987. New York: Penguin, 1988.
Muchnick, Laurie. “You Must Dismember This.” The Village Voice 28 Aug. 1990: 102.
Smoodin, Roberta. “The Theft of a Child and the Gift of Time.” The Los Angeles Times Book Review 20 Sept. 1987: 19.
SOURCE: Baker, Phil. “Studies in Solipsism.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4774 (30 September 1994): 25.
[In the following review, Baker offers praise for The Daydreamer, lauding the characterizations, wit, and attention to detail in the work.]
The Daydreamer is a children's book, containing seven stories about the adventures of young Peter Fortune. Peter is a “difficult” child, not because he is badly behaved but because he is so quiet and dreamy. Throughout these stories, he slips in and out of reality, crossing the threshold with a just perceptible shift.
Alone with his sister's dolls, he feels their uncanny little eyes watching him. Then one doll—a particularly ugly one called the Bad Doll, which is missing an arm and a leg and has only a single hank of hair left in its scalp holes—begins to question him. “Its tone was very polite, but there were titters in the crowd, and Peter knew he was being set up.” Before long, the dolls move in on him, twisting his leg off for a spare part, “and instead of blood there was a little torn spring poking out through his torn trousers”. Just as the mere presence of another person protects him from nightmares, so this awful transformation evaporates when his sister arrives. Peter's imagination is solitary enough for another's presence to break the spell, and yet it is through imagination that he empathizes with others and even shapes them. After overhearing some older children talk about solipsism, he proceeds to undream the school bully, Barry Tamerlane, dispelling the consensus of fear and reducing Tamerlane to a ridiculous plump boy with glasses.
Other metamorphoses include making his family vanish with vanishing cream, exchanging bodies with his cat, and changing into his baby cousin. Being a baby fills him with wonder; he enters a world of Mount Rushmore faces, booming orchestral voices and hands that lift him fifty feet in the air. Orange juice has an “itchy tangy noisy taste”, and when mashed banana starts arriving in his mouth: “This food was so good he was proud to wear it in his hair, and on his hands and face and chest.” He comes back to his own body with a new enthusiasm for his puling little cousin. Being a temporary adult extends his emotional range even further, giving him a taste of romance. Peter is a doubly liminal being, on the borders of adolescence as well as of reality, and the stories follow him from ten to twelve. “He'd been just a kid then”, he realizes:
Nine! What could he have known? If only his ten-year-old self could go back and tell that innocent fool what was what. When you got to ten, you began to see the whole picture, how things connected, how things worked, an overview.
Written with great understated intelligence and wit, the book is rich in captured perceptions like this. But it is here that the psychology stops; perhaps happily so. Given McEwan's reputation for perversity, guignol and gothic, the temptation on first reading is to be too alert for sinister detours into the Vienna Woods or the Bloody Chamber—“ever since he could remember, Peter had shared a bedroom with Kate”, for example, or (playing with the cat) “Perhaps, Peter thought, I'll see his heart beating. … Peter wanted to part the skin to peep inside.”
But instead, this is a very good-tempered and charming book, entirely trustworthy and safe; even the expletives of the Bad Doll have a kind of charm (“Filthy custard”). The Daydreamer is a benevolent celebration of childhood as adults see it; it is, in other words, entirely suitable for children.
SOURCE: Edwards, Paul. “Time, Romanticism, Modernism and Moderation in Ian McEwan's The Child in Time.” English 44, no. 178 (spring 1995): 41-55.
[In the following essay, Edwards considers McEwan's evocation of Romantic and Modernist conceptions of time, experience, and natural order in The Child in Time, especially as such motifs underscore the novel's literary critique of British social and political reality.]
Ian McEwan's The Child in Time tells the story of a couple whose lives (and marriage, it would seem) have been blighted by the abduction of their child, and depicts an England which has been blighted by a government even more ‘Thatcherite’ than that which was in power at the time of the novel's first publication.1 The blights are not unconnected, and the governmental attitude towards children, child-rearing and education continually emerge into the foreground of the novel. Each chapter is prefaced by an epigraph supposedly taken from the government-issued Authorised Childcare Handbook, and Stephen, a children's author and the father of the abducted child, serves on a Government Commission that is enquiring into such issues. But the connections are established also by more subtle means. At the opening of the book, Stephen, always on the look-out for his five-year-old daughter Kate, abducted two years ago, is accosted by a ‘licensed beggar’, a foul-mouthed little girl with a ‘standard-issue’ begging bowl (8-9). This victim of government social policy is slightly too old to be the lost child, but she is emblematic of a possible future for her. Placed at the opening of the book she is also emblematic of the novel's own procedure. It, too, represents an imagined, but not distant, future; what England would be if, at crucial forking points in time, it went in one direction rather than another. Stephen sees the girl again, after he has realised that such unpredictable forks in time have now taken his own daughter irrevocably away. He sees her one frozen morning seated among a group of badged beggars at a railway station, and gives her his coat, only to find that she is dead; the moment of futile charity represents also that moment where he is released from the obsession of his lost daughter.
The fate of specific children, then, enforces the novel's critique of a certain set of social and political values, and this critique is extended by a more general opposition between the phenomenology of childhood and that of a rather chilly variety of adulthood. The opposition is a familiar one, and the implicit moral of the novel—that we need to integrate both the qualities of childhood and the unregarded aspects of feminine experience into our notion (and practice) of adulthood—is perhaps trite when torn from the narrative that constructs it. The chief exemplar of a failure to integrate in this way is Charles Darke, Stephen's publisher. He embodies the opposition in his own character. Responding to the representation of childhood in Stephen's novel Lemonade, he insists that it is a book for children, and he later gives up a brilliant but haphazard career to return to the countryside and live out a second childhood. An amusing but nightmarish chapter has him, in Just William fashion, urging Stephen up a perilous climb to a tree-house, from which he can command the surrounding area with his catapult and refresh himself with swigs of cloudy lemonade. In terms of the traditional contrast between adulthood and childhood, Charles's valuation of Stephen's Lemonade should put us on our guard, however:
… Lemonade is a message from you to a previous self which will never cease to exist. And the message is bitter. … You've spoken directly to children. Whether you wanted to or not, you've communicated with them across the abyss that separates the child from the adult and you've given them a first, ghostly intimation of their mortality. …
Whatever the qualities of Stephen's book, this negative emphasis contrasts starkly with the message of hope drawn from even the most threatening moments of childhood experience by Wordsworth in the poem Charles's phrase alludes to:
Blank misgivings of a Creature Moving about in worlds not realized, High instincts, before which our mortal Nature Did tremble like a guilty Thing surprised …
Our mortal nature might tremble, but Wordsworth takes such moments as intimations not of mortality but immortality. Charles sees only mortality (“… it can't last, that sooner or later they're finished, done for, that their childhood is not for ever …”), but there is reason to suppose that his perception of Stephen's book is skewed by his own pessimism. His judgement is a self-fulfilling prophecy of the end of his own attempt to live as a child, and is recalled by his widow (“… Your book … was a warning of mortality …” ) when she explains his suicide to Stephen near the end of the novel.
The character of Charles Darke is radically divided; his ‘child’ self is truly separated by an ‘abyss’ from the adult self that flourishes erratically but successfully in the public world. Before dropping out he has been an up-and-coming government minister, a protégé of that Prime Minister whose policies are shown as inimical to those human qualities that childhood represents. Indeed he is not merely a protégé, but diligently contributes to her (?—the novel coyly obscures the Prime Minister's sex) policies, and is revealed to be the author of the back-to-basics Authorised Childcare Handbook from which the novel's epigraphs are drawn. Darke writes this in a spirit directly contradictory to that sense of the mystery of childhood expressed in his subsequent attempted regression:
Make it clear to him that the clock cannot be argued with and that when it is time to leave for school, for Daddy to go to work, for Mummy to attend to her duties, then these changes are as incontestable as the tides.
The fatalistic subservience of ‘him’ (the child) and his parents to mechanical time (the clock) and to their gender-roles is surreptitiously smuggled into the order of nature by the final simile. But again we can turn to Wordsworth's Immortality Ode to see that imagery of the ocean need not lead in such a discouraging direction, that it can hint at eternity rather than servitude to a mechanism:
Hence, in a season of calm weather, Though inland far we be, Our souls have sight of that immortal sea Which brought us hither, Can in a moment travel thither, And see the children sport upon the shore, And hear the mighty waters rolling evermore.
Charles has a conception of childhood (‘timelessness … a mystical state’ ) that is close to Wordsworth's, but his attempt to live this state is simply an imitation of Richmal Crompton books. This character, then, functions as the carrier of a false or unsatisfactory version of the novel's value-system. Therefore, like the surrogate-daughter, he must die before Stephen can recognise that value-system manifested through his own experience. His morbid obsession with childhood is a version of the morbidity (at least adequately motivated in Stephen's case) that blights Stephen's life and marriage after Kate's abduction. Hence Stephen's cry, when weighed down by the corpse of Charles (which he has carried in from the tree which held his tree-house), ‘For God's sake get him off me!’ (199). The value-system of the novel is, then, roughly based on a conviction of the sustenance that we may derive from ‘childhood’ (properly understood) when we are adults.
For Wordsworth, as later for Yeats, this sustenance could be explained in terms of the Platonic myth of a form of ‘existence’ before birth in eternity; the clouds of glory that we trail in childhood are traces of this state. In the Kantian terms that were familiar to his friend Coleridge, childhood would be seen as an at least partial penetration through the ideal categories of space and time—especially time—to the ‘thing-in-itself’. And since Wordsworth's time, the perceptual manifold of space and time has often been seen as the complement of the Newtonian mechanics that have created the industrial societies governed by inhuman clock-time rather than ‘organic’ time, and of the psychology that represents us as units behaving according to predictable patterns.2 One strand of what we call ‘Modernism’ is predicated on the superiority of types of experience and forms of representation that subvert the Newtonian-Kantian manifold of our common-sense world. Except to lofty mythologers like Yeats, the Platonic system is no longer an adequate vehicle for such subversion. Besides, science itself now seems to be escaping from the Newtonian straitjacket that also confined our human nature. And this transformation of science is an explicit (perhaps too explicit) topic in The Child in Time.
Charles Darke's wife Thelma is a physicist who has worked on the theory of time and is now attempting a theoretical synthesis that will explain the consequences of such scientific revolutions as quantum mechanics. In a light-hearted, but serious enough, ‘Two Cultures’ style, she execrates Stephen (and other writers) for their ignorance of modern science. This, she claims, is becoming more feminine and is ‘growing up’ and overcoming the ‘frenetic, childish’ egotism of its ‘Just William’ obsession with commanding viewpoints, catapults and control. It accommodates such anti-Newtonian concepts as ‘backward flowing time’ and shows that our common experiences of time, space and matter are ‘intricate illusions’. The conclusion of her harangue is ignorant but effective: ‘As far as I can make out, you think that some local, passing fashion like modernism—modernism!—is the intellectual achievement of our time. Pathetic!’ (43-45). It is, in fact, a leading characteristic of Modernism that it seeks to accommodate and realise the metaphysics implicit in modern scientific revolutions. The Child in Time itself is based on a metaphor of alternative universes that develop from the choices not taken in this one, and within the novel the attempts of that arch-Modernist miniaturist, Borges, to accommodate physical theories of time are unmistakably alluded to: ‘Their hesitation was brief, delicious before the forking paths’ (63; cf. ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’). Thelma's vision, also, of a grand theory referring to an ‘order of reality, a higher ground, the ground of all that is, an undivided whole of which matter, space, time, even consciousness itself, would be complicatedly related embodiments, intrusions which make up the reality we understood’ (119) has been anticipated in metaphysical systems such as that of Alfred North Whitehead, expounded in the twenties and thirties, and thence found its way into such intransigently Modernist and experimental works as Charles Olson's The Maximus Poems in the fifties and sixties. Yet in relation to such works, which implicitly raise the question of the possibility of connecting ‘the ground of all that is’ to the world of common sense through language, the refusal of McEwan in this work to violate the form of the realist novel (while allowing it to encompass apparently non-realist content which I shall discuss) reminds us of the continuous relegation to eccentricity by British culture of any writer who wholeheartedly practises formal innovation in a Modernist tradition. The only major Modernist that McEwan invokes is the T. S. Eliot of Four Quartets (118)—a poem that eschews the more radical formal invention and disruption of Eliot's most ‘Modernist’ work. And many of the experiences of ‘time’ incorporated into McEwan's novel can be accounted for within the terms of the philosophy of Henri Bergson, which was so popular and influential before the First World War. The subjective experience of a few seconds (of clock-time) in which Stephen manages skilfully to avoid a lorry which is crashing in front of his car is characterised as ‘duration shap[ing] itself round the event’, for example. Bergson's philosophy, as expressed in Time and Free Will, distinguished between intensive, psychological duration (durée), which is unique and creative, and extensive clock-time as homogeneous and repeatable.3 Where Bergson's philosophy inspired the early Modernists to radical formal innovation, however, McEwan remains faithful to a moderate English eschewal of extremism—though fortunately exhibiting its strengths rather than its weaknesses.
But there is a politics that accompanies these questions of form, which is ultimately related to the more explicit political characterisation of England that occurs in McEwan's book. Its terms were set out towards the close of the increasingly desperate period of post-war ‘consensus’ by Donald Davie, in his book Thomas Hardy and British Poetry.4 Davie was writing before ‘extremism’ and Englishness could be thought of as a possible hegemonic combination; before Thatcherism, in other words, Davie's artistic (and cultural) predilections are to artistic extremism, (even, and far more than any other respectable critic, to the extremism of Charles Olson), but ultimately, on political grounds, it is to ‘moderation’ that he gives his support, even in the arts. This constitutes a conscious lowering of sights on Davie's part, and is consonant with Britain's role as a second-class power and (inglorious) welfare state. McEwan's moderation in the face of Thatcherism is a quite different thing from Davie's exasperated and wounded moderation in the face of Heath-Wilson, but Davie's book retains its relevance, not least, to McEwan's novel.5
The central, redemptive experience of ‘time’ in the novel (actually of a process that violates clock-time), initiating a hidden development unrevealed until the novel's closing pages, occurs in Chapter Three. Stephen visits his virtually estranged wife Julie in her cottage in a Sussex village. Before seeing her he has a strange disorientating déjà vu experience of seeing his parents through a pub window. But the scene he witnesses evidently occurred before his own birth, and his young mother gives no sign of recognition when he meets her gaze. In a state of shock, he appears to lose consciousness, and wakes to find himself in his wife's cottage, in their old marital bed, clasping a tepid hot-water-bottle. Almost as a matter of course, he and Julie make love, but their lost child again reminds them of their unhappiness, and the fresh start the moment could have led to seems aborted. Stephen returns to London. In a later chapter he recounts the experience to Thelma (omitting mention of the love-making, which ‘was not Thelma's business’ ) and asks for a scientific explanation. Her response is humorously derisive: ‘You come cap in hand to the oracle you quietly despise. Why don't you go and ask a modernist?’ (117). Perhaps the event could be accounted for in general terms by analogy with the ‘backward flowing’ of time that Thelma has already mentioned, for it turns out to have had an apparent influence upon the past. But, it seems to me, Thelma's mock advice, though misleading, suggests the correct affiliations for this experience; it needs to be understood in a literary context. Not a Modernist context, primarily, but one derived from the subject of Donald Davie's literary criticism.6
Several aspects of the chapter will need examination in order to bring out this context, and this will be easier if I explain what I take to be the significance of the incident in the value-scheme of the novel. It has two ‘results’, one in the past, and one in the future. Stephen later learns from his mother that his conception had been unplanned, and that his father (for whose sake she had lost her job selling clocks), had been in favour of aborting the foetus. Discussing this in the Sussex pub (in just such a scene as Stephen witnessed), his mother was swayed by the apparently pleading face of a child at the window to carry the pregnancy through to fruition. For Stephen himself, the quasi-noumenal experience is the crucial determinant in his choosing to make love with his wife rather than turn his back on her. The fruit of this is not revealed until the close of the novel, when he is suddenly summoned again to her cottage, and assists her in giving birth to their second child. The nine months interval had for Stephen been apparently no more than a halting but pointless reconciliation to loss. Approaching the village again, he suddenly realises why he has been sent for, and a pattern becomes clear to him:
It was then that he understood that his experience there had not only been reciprocal with his parents', it had been a continuation, a kind of repetition. He had a premonition followed instantly by certainty … that all the sorrow, all the empty waiting had been enclosed within meaningful time, within the richest unfolding conceivable.
This ‘meaningful time’ had been initiated as a result of Stephen's acknowledgement of, and guidance by, qualities he genders as feminine—‘a faith in endless mutability, in remaking yourself as you came to understand more’ (54). Men, on the other hand, take a line and stick to it. When Stephen makes love with his wife, however, he does so despite having so far taken the line that their relationship is now finished.
Had he not seen two ghosts already that day and brushed against … the times and places in which they occurred, then he would not have been able to choose, as he did now, without deliberation and with an immediacy which felt both wise and abandoned.
Reality itself, in this novel, follows the ‘feminine’ patterns of cyclical time, time in which alternative ghostly events may seem causative, or time which may reverse itself. It may, through childhood, overcome the seemingly inevitable progression of determined, (masculine) clock time.
In its schematised form, this value system sounds petty trite, perhaps, but that is the fault of my summary rather than McEwan's writing, which is vivid yet tactful, and deploys narrative suspense in such a way that the values are revealed through Stephen's own appealingly childish surprise at the end of the novel. Looking abstractly for the moment, though, we seem to have here an attempt to naturalise a set of values, and to ground them in biology and (to a more debatable extent) in physics. The extent of the naturalism is debatable because the precise status of Stephen's experience of temporal regression is left undetermined by the narrator. It in fact borders on the metaphysical. The narrator, in telling us that the noumenal experience is prior to, and determined, the love-making (‘Had he not seen … he would not have …’) grounds those ‘biological’ natural values on this ambiguously natural (real? hallucinatory? physical? metaphysical?) experience.7 As well as seeming schematic, the values may be criticised for their consonance with gender-roles that are ideological and oppressive rather than natural (‘There's no such thing as nature’); and, in the context of a supposed critique of Thatcherite tendencies in society, unduly quietistic and apolitical. The first charge can, at least provisionally, be fairly simply answered. The novel, after all, appears to argue for an integration of the various gendered characteristics, not for irreconcilable differences or social roles determined by difference. But it is, in broad terms, the political that I wish to address, and for this a closer commentary on Chapter Three is necessary.
It begins with a railway journey. Railways are themselves, the novel slyly reminds us at one point, the stuff of politics: ‘The Prime Minister … was known to despise railways’ (186). In terms of the opposition between Thatcherite politics and the values of childhood, this has a significance that is playfully indicated in the narrative when Stephen makes his way down to Sussex after the pregnant Julie's urgent summons. Arriving too late for the final train (he has no car, again in opposition to the ‘great car economy’—Baroness Thatcher's phrase—that is shown as choking the city in the novel), he persuades a train driver to give him a lift in the cab of the engine. The line, with its cathedral-like tunnels, will shortly be closed and replaced by a motorway. We already know that Stephen still nourishes a boyhood ambition to ride in a railway engine cab (191). The journey thus becomes emblematic of the fortuitous (but how else can it occur?) integration of the boy within the man, and thus forms a contrast with Charles Darke's willed and artificial second childhood. Within Chapter Three itself a brief passage of recollection has already made the association between childhood and trains, as well as linking both to a sense of wonder that subtly prepares for the ghostly experience at the pub. As a child, standing on the footbridge over the railway, Stephen had asked his father why the lines grew together as they got further away. His father had explained that this was because
the trains got smaller and smaller as they moved away, and that to accommodate them the rails did the same. Otherwise there would be derailments. Shortly after that an express shook the bridge as it shot beneath their feet. Stephen marvelled then at the intricate relation of things, the deep symmetry which conspired to narrow the rail's gauge precisely in keeping with the train's diminishment; no matter how fast it rushed, the rails were always ready.
His father's explanation is a fiction, of course, a story to be told to a child, but it is a fiction which expresses truth and reveals it to the child. It thus forms a miniature apologia for the form of the novel itself.
But railway trains and train journeys also have a particular place in the English poetic tradition, where they serve to define a certain sense of the nation, from Edward Thomas's ‘Adlestrop’, Auden's ‘Night Mail’ to Philip Larkin's ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ and ‘Here’.8 The Larkin poems are both central exhibits in Donald Davie's discussion of the ‘lowered sights’ of post-war British poetry in Thomas Hardy and British Poetry. Both of these poems also seem to me to lie behind Chapter Three of The Child in Time. Davie makes what is now a common point about the English landscape that appears in Larkin's poems; that its heterogeneous confusion of the industrial, suburban, post-industrial and pre-industrial reflects for the first time in English poetry both the bare fact of that landscape and the manner in which we take its degradation for granted. McEwan's description of the landscape is clearly in the tradition that Larkin initiated. Mildly infected with a Larkinesque misanthropy, Stephen shuts himself away from the other ‘customers’ in a first-class compartment:
They ran along the rear gardens of Victorian terraces whose back additions offered glimpses through open doors into kitchens, past Edwardian and pre-war semis, and then they were threading through suburbs, southwards then eastwards, past encampments of minute, new houses with dirty, well-thumbed scraps of country in between. The train slowed over a tangle of junctions and shuddered to a halt. In the abrupt, expectant silence exuded by railway lines he realised how impatient he was to arrive. They had stopped by a new housing estate of raw, undersized semi-detached houses, starter homes for first time buyers. The front gardens were still rutted earth; out the back, fluttering white nappies proclaimed from diagrammatic, metal trees a surrender to a new life. Two infants, hand in hand, staggered beneath the washing and waved at the train.
Shortly before his stop it began to rain.
The passage (and I have quoted only a part of it) is a beautiful set of variations on ‘The Whitsun Weddings’: ‘We ran Behind the backs of houses … the next town, new and nondescript, Approached with acres of dismantled cars … now fields were building plots … And as the tightened brakes took hold, there swelled A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.’ Larkin's poem is not simply about landscape, of course. It is about weddings, and the mixed values and emotions that marriages (and by implication, parenthood) imply. Its conclusion, like many of the better moments in Larkin's poetry, represents a triumph over the small-minded misanthropy shown in the descriptions of the wedding parties themselves. And that triumph (in absolute terms not much more than an acceptance of the reality of other people's emotional lives, whose field will be the continuation of the species) is expressed largely in terms of transformed pastoral. The syntactic complementarity in ‘Now fields were buildings plots’ (carrying its ghostly equivalent: now building plots were fields) is realised in the famous and still startling lines:
I thought of London spread out in the sun, Its postal districts packed like squares of wheat …
Davie's comment deserves quoting:
… The collision between the organicism of wheat and the rigidity of ‘postal districts’ is calculated. It is the human pathos of the many weddings he has seen from the train which spills over to sanctify, for the poet, the postal districts of London, the train's destination; the human value suffuses the abstractly schematized with the grace of an organic fertility.9
The same might be said of the image of rain, which, as well as evoking the dreariness of a wet day indoors with bored children, plays its part in the natural cycle which culminates in the grown wheat. Like Larkin, McEwan assimilates the natural to the human in the passage quoted above, in his image of the metal trees bearing white nappies. This assimilation is a process that, in its accurate replication of the condition of post-war England (the reduction of a sense of the landscape as something other than merely human) Davie protests against, understandably, I think. Davie does not really address the question of how far it is actually possible to avoid some form of anthropomorphism in any representation of nature, and is presumably aware that the matter is one of degree: Larkin in some poems, and the English in their land, have tamed and humanised nature too much. McEwan's metal trees, representing (proclaiming, indeed) a surrender to the exigencies of the fertility of the species, are themselves a sardonic emblem of what Davie is objecting to. The ‘natural’ image, and nature itself, become ‘abstractly schematized’ to fit the schematization of our human lives; and we and nature both suffer diminishment on that account.
Davie recognises that this is a result of a historical process, while objecting that to think of people as merely the victims of such a process (rather than its perpetrators) adds to the diminishment. But Davie was writing his discussion as long ago as 1963,10 and McEwan's novel is suffused with a sense that the processes Davie describes have progressed almost beyond what could have been imagined at that time. The countryside of his alternative present, through which Stephen walks after leaving the train, is dotted with hypermarkets, car parks and motorways. ‘Real, open country’ is a concrete track traversing symmetrical conifer plantations. The closest thing to an animal (a counterpart to the metal trees), a ‘grey beast languidly lifting its blunt, heavy head with a steady purr’, is a nodding donkey engine pumping at a small oil-well (51). From a perspective derived from Davie's discussion, what might be most depressing about this is Stephen's apparent acquiescence in the substitution of this landscape for the less schematized land that preceded it. Stephen feels ‘light-hearted’ now he is in open country. I take it that it is the double diminishment that Davie is concerned about. Human, not solely environmental, diminishment distresses him. This, also, is McEwan's subject, it seems to me. Stephen is in danger of losing a more nourishing sense of wonder than what a tidied and industrialised environment can provide: the ‘flashing parallax as one row [of the geometrically arrayed conifers] cede to the next, a pleasing effect …’ We can connect this with Stephen's rather indifferent and at times cynical acquiescence in the political fraud of the child-care commission on which he serves. Despite his beliefs, he is capable of simply shrugging his shoulders at the whole business, so impoverished are his political expectations in this England.
What Davie objects to is that such a diminished sense of both nature and human nature—the last refuge of liberal humanism—should be considered and adequate basis for a worthwhile life. Larkin, in his poetry, appears to think it is; but Davie has a Modernist revulsion from such a surrender.11 McEwan, also, in apparently grounding his values naturalistically on human fertility itself (admittedly with all the concomitant values that inhere in the more tender forms of sexual intercourse) might be held to be vulnerable to Davie's criticism. But I have already suggested that the value-system of The Child in Time is not simplistically naturalistic, and might be said to be grounded on the borderline between nature and metaphysics. This can also best be approached through a Larkin ‘railway’ poem: ‘Here’, which Davie severely criticises for its apparent disparagement of the natural (on account of the way the ‘otherness’ of nature is defined solely as a negation of the human, rather than as a value in itself). The Child in Time's ‘housing estate of raw, undersized semi-detached houses’ is surely one of the ‘raw estates’ of Larkin's poem, and its ‘halt for commuters’ (50) is Larkin's, ‘harsh-named halt’. It may be that my reaction to ‘Here’ has been affected by what I take to be the use made of the poem by McEwan, but it seems to me that Davie does less than justice to the poem's final verse. This continues the sweep of the railway journey (though we are now past the terminus) out beyond Hull, over the countryside until it arrives before what it cannot reach, the sea:
… Here silence stands Like wheat. Here leaves unnoticed thicken, Hidden weeds flower, neglected waters quicken, Luminously-peopled air ascends; And past the poppies bluish neutral distance Ends the land suddenly beyond a beach Of shapes and shingle. Here is unfenced existence: Facing the sun, untalkative, out of reach.
It seems to me that Davie is determined not to hear the (faint enough) note of wonder before the unbounded and out of reach ocean in these lines. He might well, after all, welcome the negation of the merely human, as much as bemoan the fact that it is the human that provides the positive term from which the negation is effected. The same note of wonder before the unbounded is struck when Stephen, on his walk to his wife's cottage, emerges from the pine plantation:
The pine forest gave way abruptly to an unbounded prairie of wheat. Stephen rested against an aluminium five-barred gate. The only indication that the yellow field, which resembled a desert, was finite was a line on the horizon where the plantation resumed. Perhaps it was a mirage … He set off, and within minutes found satisfaction in this new landscape. He was marching across a void. All sense of progress, and therefore all sense of time, disappeared. The trees on the far side did not come closer … The lack of hurry, the disappearance of any real sense of a destination suited him.
Wheat is the most human of plants—a result of man's ‘improvement’ of nature—and the boundless prairie has been created by agri-business for ease of mechanical harvesting. The landscape Stephen walks through can be found already in parts of East Anglia; it is the product of the economic and political forces (which I have called in shorthand Thatcherism, though more than that limited ideology is at stake here) that are responsible for the social disintegration depicted in the novel. Yet it is not, surely, a sign of Stephen's limitations that he responds positively to the experience of traversing this vast wheatfield. In a sense the infinite wheat is cognate with the ocean (as it is to some extent in ‘Here’), the closest phenomenon in nature to the unbounded and eternal experience of the noumenal itself, as in Wordsworth's Ode. Both time and space are abolished in Stephen's experience; he crosses a ‘void’ and time disappears. I shall argue that, as also in Wordsworth's poem, this noumenon is associated with origins and (mediated through childhood) with sustaining value. In terms of the environmental politics of Davie's discussion, what the novel is asserting is that even in a landscape apparently violated and schematised beyond recognition, we may still have sight of that immortal sea which brought us hither, so that our humanity need not be as diminished as our politics. And if our humanity is not diminished, (the novel implies) it remains open to us to invent a politics that does justice to our values.
Again the summary betrays a complex literary creation. I can only briefly indicate how the links are made, and the values established. The strange, noumenal experience on the prairie removes Stephen from space and time. This results in his finding himself in the village (which, with its bicycles, pub, and ‘magnificent trees’ , is the ‘timeless’ England of Georgian poetry recently evoked in a tepid speech by England's current Prime Minister), where he witnesses his parents discussing whether he should be born. Immediately afterwards he undergoes a regression through birth and beyond, back to the nothingness of pre-existence. Oceanic images are evoked (ontogeny here recapitulating phylogeny and substituting a scientific perspective for Wordsworth's Platonism). He is ‘hurled through … muscular sluices’;
his knees rose under him and touched his chin, his fingers were scaly flippers, gills beat time, urgent, hopeless strokes through the salty ocean … he formed a single thought: he had nowhere to go, no moment which could embody him, he was not expected, no destination or time could be named …
The lack of destination and time link this passage (already linked by narrative sequence) to the experience of crossing the prairie. It is not by any means a benign experience, but is fraught with the terrifying sense of the contingency of one's own existence (sensed more through parenthood in this novel than through childhood), just as Wordsworth's sense of the noumenal is fraught with the ‘Blank misgivings of a Creature Moving about in worlds not realized’. Stephen is brought to the borders of what is out of reach of language, so far beyond the identity that is contingent on the perceptual manifold of time and space and the sign systems with which we label it that ‘Nothing was his own, not his strokes or his movement, not the calling sounds, not even the sadness, nothing was nothing's own’ (60). I have suggested that this takes us beyond naturalism to the metaphysical. Yet of course the novel cannot argue across that boundary. And the logical generation of all our categories out of the simple given, ‘Being’, is, compared with those experiences that novels explore, a barren-seeming procedure. In the human terms of novels, the boundary is conception itself—terrifying when seen, as Stephen sees it, from the perspective of the foetus regressing into nothingness, but from another perspective the origin of a faith that life is fundamentally benign. Stephen makes love with his wife:
Not governments, or publicity firms or research departments, but biology, existence, matter itself had dreamed this up for its own pleasure and perpetuity, and this was exactly what you were meant to do, it wanted you to like it … Surely then, he thought, as he fell backwards into the exquisite, dizzy emptiness and accelerated down the irresponsibly steep slope, surely at heart the place is benevolent, it likes us, it wants us to like it, likes itself.
The novel by no means claims that these values are in themselves a victory over the unhumanity and unnaturalness of the political system that prevails in the England of The Child in Time; children do die or are abducted, ‘Authorised Childcare Handbooks’ are written. But it suggests that only through a sense of these values can any political opposition become possible. My aim here, however, is literary-critical, not political. It seems to me that The Child in Time reveals its deepest meaning when viewed in the literary and cultural perspectives that I have attempted to outline in this essay.
Ian McEwan, The Child in Time, (1987) rpt. (London: Picador, 1988).
For a fuller discussion of this topic, and some of the modern attempts to avoid these consequences of this side of Kantianism, see the editorial ‘Afterword’ in Wyndham Lewis, Time and Western Man, ed. P. Edwards (Santa Rosa: Black Sparrow Press, 1993), pp. 466-74.
Henri Bergson, Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness, tr. F. L. Pogson, (London: G. Allen and Unwin, 1910).
Donald Davie, Thomas Hardy and British Poetry, (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973).
A discussion following the session on ‘Englishness and English Art’ at the 19th Annual Conference of the Association of Art Historians (The Tate Gallery, April 1993) found itself addressing the same issues as those raised twenty years ago in Davie's book, though the parallel was probably unknown to most participants.
This does not mean that there are no connections with Modernism. The allusion to Borges already mentioned occurs in this chapter. It is also just possible that the ‘time hallucination’ that Stephen enters was in part suggested by the time hallucination of old England into which the ghosts, Pullman and Satterthwaite, stray in Wyndham Lewis's representation of the afterworld (The Childermass: Section I [London: Chatto and Windus, 1928], pp. 83-103). Also, after Stephen's hallucination, in the period of semi-consciousness, it is just possible that his sensation of being like a fish with flippers and gills recalls the ‘strange fishes withouten heads’ in Joyce's Ulysses (ed. J. Johnson, [Oxford: OUP, 1993], p. 370) mentioned at that point to point up the parallel between the development of English and the development of the foetus. But both parallels are doubtful, and reveal the distance, rather than any closeness, of The Child in Time from high Modernism.
By definition the noumenal must logically precede natural phenomena, of course. But Stephen's experience is not directly classified in the novel as quasi-noumenal or noumenal; that description is mine.
The tradition can be said to begin with Wordsworth's opposition to the encroachment of the railway on the Lake District; a reminder of the shifting significance of this (it now seems) most human of industrial forms of transport in the poetic sense of the country and its landscape.
Davie, op. cit., p. 66.
See ibid., p. 73.
The Modernist point of view is expressed by Wyndham Lewis in a way that brings out the dilemma (but squares the circle), in a passage discussing the liberal-humanist attitudes to meat-eating and capital punishment, written around 1925: ‘At the root of both of these questions it is advisable to place the not necessarily inhuman proposition that life is in itself not important. Our values make it so: but they are mostly, the important ones, non-human values, although the intenser they are the more they imply a supreme, vital connotation’. The Art of Being Ruled (1926), rpt., ed. R. W. Dasenbrock (Santa Rosa: Black Sparrow Press, 1989), p. 59.
‘The Whitsun Weddings’ is also still present in the writing at this point: ‘all sense of being in a hurry gone’; and, of course, wheat is a central image in that poem as it is in ‘Here’.
SOURCE: Byrnes, Christina. “Ian McEwan—Pornographer or Prophet?” Contemporary Review 266, no. 1553 (June 1995): 320-23.
[In the following essay, Byrnes provides an overview of McEwan's artistic and thematic development through the publication of The Daydreamer, drawing attention to his explorations of sexual obsession and psychic integration.]
Considering that Ian McEwan won the Somerset Maugham award for his first book, a collection of short stories entitled First Love, Last Rites, there is surprisingly little written about him. In the eighteen years that he has been writing, he has often been misunderstood and plagued by controversy. The BBC first commissioned a play by him and then in March 1979, four days before he was due to record it, the management called a halt. McEwan was told the play was ‘untransmittable’ and the BBC put out a press notice that announced the ban and referred to ‘grotesque and bizarre sexual elements of the play’. In fact, Solid Geometry, published in play form in The Imitation Game (1982) and as a short story in First Love, Last Rites (1991) is the least bizarrely sexual of McEwan's early work and he was hugely disappointed that it was not given a fair trial (see the introduction to The Imitation Game). Several people in the BBC strongly supported McEwan and were subsequently sacked for objecting to the ban. McEwan was labelled as ‘dirty’ and it is this reputation that many people still recall when his name is mentioned. However, there are also those who consider McEwan a great writer and see him as one of the most significant post-war authors.
McEwan is careful to research his subject matter very thoroughly as can be seen from the gruelling descriptions of dissection in The Innocent (1990) for which he acknowledges the help of Dr. M. Dunhill, University Lecturer in Pathology, Merton College, Oxford. It comes as some relief to the reader of his early works, which deal with the subject of sexual deviation and emotional immaturity, that he does not write from personal experience—despite a most convincing use of first person narrative. McEwan describes sex in explicit detail from the perfectly individual experience of the narrator and manages to create startled surprise but never incredulity in the reader. He gives an experience of horror and perversion beyond ordinary fantasy that is so skilfully integrated with the character's life situations that we reluctantly identify with them. We are forced to face, in ourselves, those aspects of the unconscious which we might have preferred to remain unaware of, but which must, in the last analysis, be part of our human heritage. McEwan himself describes this process in his preface to A Move Abroad:
There it is this man again, a version of yourself … someone you might have become if your luck had been really atrocious.
The shock of his work is in the recognition that he manages to communicate what you would otherwise consider impossible to talk about.
McEwan makes the connection between how situations look and how they feel. He changes the reader's perspective from being on the outside (objective) to one of being on the inside (subjective), unable to react rationally to events. His identification is so compelling that he leads us gradually further and further into the depth of a character and thus enables us to get ‘in touch’ with the feelings that would lead to the ‘grotesque and bizarre sexual’ acts committed by the characters in his short stories. Themes such as incest, cross-dressing, sado-masochism and death are captured in tiny but perfect fragments and McEwan explores each idea in an utterly convincing way.
These themes are revisited in his shorter novels: The Cement Garden (1980) and The Comfort of Strangers (1982). Here they are set in a background of ongoing, long-term relationships so that we can more fully appreciate the conditions which facilitate these perversions. We have much more detail about the physical environment in which the characters live and move. The complex sequence of events and actions reveal the underlying and implicit motives. In The Cement Garden for example, the metaphor contained in the title, a garden stifled by cement, expresses the condition of the children in the book. They are first repressed by their rigid father and then bound by their dead mother's wishes. They are prevented from ‘growing’, like the flowers in the garden and are forced ‘underground’ by the distorting limitations of the script they feel obliged to live out. We fully understand the characters, as we did in previous works but we are now able to step back from them. We still experience their feelings first hand but at the same time we can distance ourselves into a position of sympathetic judgement. We are able to observe as well as experience the action. In this way, McEwan is able to become even more disturbing. In The Comfort of Strangers, realization dawns on Mary and the reader that she and Colin are in serious danger but neither she, nor the reader are prepared for the obscene horror of what actually takes place.
Following the incredible creativity of his early works, there is a gap of six years in McEwan's novels between 1981 and 1987. Despairing temporarily of his ability to reconcile ‘the specific’ that makes novels so powerful with ‘hard ideas, social theories, axes to grind, persuasive intentions or the determination to be right’ (Preface to A Move Abroad), he began to experiment with other media. He achieved his goal by giving open, straight forward expression to his beliefs in the words of an Oratorio. The Oratorio ends with questions that should, according to McEwan, preoccupy us all:
Shall there be womanly times or shall we die? Are there men unafraid of gentleness? Can we have strength without aggression, without disgust, strength to bring feeling to the intellect? Shall we change or shall we die?
(Or Shall We Die?)
The film The Ploughman's Lunch (produced by Simon Relph and Anne Scott for Greenpoint Films Ltd., 1983, shown on Channel 4), continues to portray these preoccupations and adds the danger of distorting history in the interests of politics by giving an ‘official version of events’. These two works: the Oratorio Or Shall We Die? and the film A Ploughman's Lunch are published as A Move Abroad; the title serves as a metaphor for McEwan's departure into drama. He also wrote three plays: Jack Flea's Birthday Celebration,Solid Geometry and The Imitation Game.
There is a marked change in breadth between his earlier and later works. There is an expansion in scope to include McEwan's preoccupations with the Cold War, the nuclear threat, the women's movement, environmental pollution etc., and reflect his interest in the work of psychologist Carl Jung. The gap between the highly personal experience of the narrators in the early stories and complex sophistication of the later novels is bridged by the plays, which gives McEwan an opportunity to have many characters speaking for themselves as well as telling a story. He adapts this scheme in his later fiction by skilfully introducing both narratives and narrators. Characters begin to speak for themselves instead of being observed only through an unreliable narrator.
In the later novels, the protagonists or principal narrators are adults. They live in a complex, contemporary world, are set in precise time and geographical space and it is easy to identify them if not identify with them. We recognise them as ‘normal’, mature and reasonably well adjusted people. The unconscious, so transparent in the narrators of the early stories, now seems to have moved into the background of politics, global events and changes in the philosophy of science. This shift does not cause McEwan to stray from the theme of sexuality, since he uses this very vehicle to develop the idea of the division or splitting of the wholeness of the human psyche into the opposites of male and female. The characters could imaginably lead ordinary, successful and conventional lives, were it not for the events of external reality which shatter the reasonable life plans they made for themselves. Stephen, for example, the main narrator in The Child in Time is set to have a perfectly enjoyable life with his wife until somebody steals their three-year-old daughter at a supermarket. This loss deals an inevitable blow to their lives and their relationship which they only barely learn to accept with time.
Leonard Marnham, the main character in The Innocent is well educated and socially upwardly mobile. His world is the masculine world of power, competition and technology. Ambiguous loyalties, secret machinations and betrayal figure large here and he is enmeshed in high level politics but maintains the role of a trusting innocent until he can no longer sustain these unrealistic fictions. The secrecy and spying, first touched on in The Imitation Game, together with the symbolic equivalents between underground tunnels (where Otto's body eventually ends up), the unconscious and the sea (from which Buster Crabbe's headless body is recovered by fishermen) serve McEwan to bury the shadow aspects of human evil.
The hallmark of the later characters is their competence in coping with the full complexity of life. The developmental phases progress through the mid-life crisis to a gradual involution in old age and a preparation for death. There is, in later life, a shift of emphasis from the striving for erotic experience to emotional relationship and adjustment to one partner, who becomes ‘the other half’ of one's self. Gradually, both sides of the sexual polarity are experienced within the self and a stage of psychic wholeness is reached, which does not preclude love but rather makes a deeper love possible. The other person's wholeness and difference is valued. During mid-life crisis, as in adolescence, there can be temporary instability and a reassessment and restructuring of the value systems and life scripts. McEwan's preoccupation with the topics of sex and sexuality reflects the contemporary obsession with eroticism and the dilemma created by the failure to integrate masculine and feminine consciousness. His efforts to clarify these issues most surely rank as a major contribution to late twentieth century literature.
McEwan's latest novel Daydreamer marks his debut into children's fiction and represents another change in direction for him. The book, intended for children, has as much, if not more, relevance for the adult reader. McEwan has turned his attention to the child, the symbol of the unification of opposites. But that, of course, is another story …
SOURCE: Brookner, Anita. “Desire and Pursuit.” Spectator 279, no. 8822 (30 August 1997): 28-9.
[In the following review, Brookner praises Enduring Love for its effective use of “psychological terrorism,” McEwan's patient building of conflict and suspense, and the book's ultimate portrait of disintegration.]
De Clérambault's syndrome, named after the French psychiatrist who first isolated and identified it in 1942, describes that state of would-be possession which is now tamely known as stalking. De Clérambault's most famous patient was in love with King George V, and was convinced that the curtains of the upper windows of Buckingham Palace delivered messages of regard, concern, or warning which only she could perceive. There are a lot of single-issue fanatics out there, lonely lobbyists for some hopeless personal cause who perceive persecution as legitimate in the crazed circumstances which they have devised and who conceive of love as a form of assault. Some of them, regrettably, discern God's hand guiding them in their quest. Their victims, employing every form of common sense in their resistance to this obsession, will be shaken by it, progressively convinced that they are in some way responsible, and finally terrified, their own lives neglected and atomised by the need to keep the madness at bay. Some of them may never recover.
In Ian McEwan's clever, even brilliant novel [Enduring Love] victim meets executioner in highly unusual circumstances: both are witnesses to an incident in which a hot-air balloon is driven off course by a high wind and drifts into the distance, or would do, if rescuers were not valiantly clinging to the ropes. One by one they drop away; a body, that of the most persistent, falls to the ground, shattered by the impact. Joe Rose, our hero, races to see if he can help. He is joined by Jed Parry, another of the rescuers, who pleasantly suggests that they get down on their knees and pray. Joe, just as pleasantly, or so he thinks, refuses. That is his mistake. It is obvious to Parry that Joe needs persuading, that God's love is also Parry's love. This may, indeed will, necessitate certain crucial changes in Joe's life, but instructions will come from Parry in the form of constant telephone calls, letters, attendance outside Joe's flat in Maida Vale, and loving assurances of attention at all times. The police can do nothing because in their book Parry has not committed an offence.
If the hairs are already rising on the back of the reader's neck this is entirely in order. Ian McEwan, in solemn, sober prose, is a past master at psychological terrorism, overlaid with courtesy and a genuine curiosity. The Comfort of Strangers is still a worrying book, demonstrating the dangers of instant friendship and offers of hospitality. Enduring Love is in the same vein, but far outdoes the earlier novel, which is brief, lapidary, and devoid of judgment. Enduring Love is, in fact, even more alarming, as Joe's behaviour, his love affair, and his way of life collapse under the weight of Parry's insistence. Joe is a likeable fellow; he is a scientist, a rationalist, and a journalist, three callings which should provide proof that he is not easy to frighten, not susceptible, not in the last analysis mad himself. The ardent Parry, no less than the woman who watched the curtains at Buckingham Palace, is as unrelenting as the love of God, with whose purposes he claims to be familiar and whose radiance he believes he shares.
No outline of the plot will be given here; the narrative must be read word by sinister word. What impresses in this novel is not only the author's care but his extreme patience with a story targeted at disintegration. His protagonist, Joe, is a freelance scientific populariser, whose unstructured days give him plenty of opportunity for observation, so that he is usually aware of the figure on the opposite pavement, is available to note telephone calls, even when he has switched off his answering machine. This is clearly an affair between men; it is erotomania disguised as concern, religion without morality, loving kindness designed as endless pursuit, and in the final analysis a will to extinction. It is almost a miracle that the novel holds up under the strain.
But hold up it does, and the author's control is impressive. The direction of the novel is only a little marred by three diversions, almost but not quite believable, accepted only later, when the book has been closed. In these episodes McEwan's direction seems to have been adapted from one of his more extraneous character's dicta: Always win, always cheat. But these are minor quibbles, objected to only when they diverge from the main theme. In Parry, the hunger artist, the man first glimpsed in a field in the Chilterns clinging on to the rope of an escaping balloon, McEwan has created his most terrifying archetype, the inimical lover whose desire and pursuit of the whole outdistance the amorous behaviour of any normally constituted person.
In Joe he has given us a patient, scrupulous, likeable character whose world reveals itself to be as fragile as a drifting balloon. In Enduring Love McEwan has contrived a marvellous fiction on the basis of fact (references are given), yet it remains an imaginative reconstruction of a superior kind. This is the writer as stalker, agent and patient in a delusional system that bestows anxiety to the very last page.
SOURCE: Craig, Amanda. “Out of the Balloon.” New Statesman 126, no. 4350 (5 September 1997): 43.
[In the following review of Enduring Love, Craig criticizes the novel's schematic opposition of science and religion.]
Is love the subject or object? Is it love that endures or love that must be endured which preoccupies the protagonist of Ian McEwan's latest novel [Enduring Love]?
It gets off to a splendid start. Joe and Clarissa are having a picnic in the Chilterns. Suddenly they notice a balloon with a child in it floating off despite the desperate attempts of the child's grandfather to hang on. The child seems certain to be electrocuted on the nearby pylons. The narrator, and several others, race towards the balloon and try to anchor it. Only one, however, has the courage to keep trying; as the balloon soars upwards, he falls to his death.
The child is safe, but the narrator finds he has attracted the affections of a mad-man, Jed. The latter obtains his telephone number and address with ease, and is soon making telephone calls, stalking, and sending letters which combine protestations of passion with religious argument. Joe is driven to the brink of his own sanity. He can get neither the police nor his own wife (who leaves him) to take Jed seriously, even when two hit men shoot a man similar to himself at a neighbouring table in a restaurant.
Jed, as Joe comes to realise, has “de Clerambault's syndrome”, an erotomaniac state in which the subject has the intense delusional belief that the object of their passion is in love with them. Tragic for both sufferer and victim, the syndrome mimics real love although the victim has usually never met the sufferer, or done so only briefly. This is a novel idea, and one which gives rise to many trains of thought on love—was Dante, for instance, a sufferer?—few of which are taken up. What McEwan seems intent on doing is showing how deranged Jed is, and by extension, Christianity. Joe is a successful science writer; his mind is a cornucopia of rationalist arguments, including one (unacknowledged by the author) lifted straight from Harold Bloom on the authorship of the Old Testament. Presented with the outpourings of a born-again nut, “generally aligned to the culture of personal growth and fulfilment” he reacts as many feel like doing: he reaches for a gun.
From Middlemarch to Brazzaville Beach, novelists have mined science for metaphor and, perhaps, intellectual respectability. The trouble is, most of us have now read the same books, and we are not overly excited by having rationalist arguments repeated at third-hand in a work of fiction.
The clash between Joe's scientific rationalism and Jed's Christianity is merely symbolic, as between the sane and the mad; the novel would have been deeper and stronger for being more impartial, less schematic. Ever since his first collection of short stories, McEwan has displayed a fascination with the scientific and the supernatural—an interest which scaled peaks of absurdity in Black Dogs. You cannot fight a cast of mind, yet it is frustrating when one greatly admires a writer to see a kind of silliness creep into their work—even if this particular book is a rejection of credulity. The observations remain telling. Joe's description of how certain women of his generation have all the same mouths from “a lifetime of putting out, as they saw it, and getting nothing back … a Cupid's bow of loss” has an undeniable authenticity; but it is not followed through into a rounded characterisation.
In outline, McEwan has written a good psychological thriller, without the squamous sex‘n’violence that characterises his earlier work. He is the maestro at creating suspense: the particular, sickening, see-sawing kind that demands a kind of physical courage from the reader to continue reading. McEwan will rise higher, though, if he lets go of the half-baked ideas.
SOURCE: Reynolds, Oliver. “A Master of Accidents.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4928 (12 September 1997): 12.
[In the following review, Reynolds proposes that each of McEwan's novels follows a template of three parts revolving around a male-female relationship, an external threat to that relationship, and a definite focus on language. However, Reynolds faults Enduring Love for its asides on scientific theory and the vagaries of love, and its use of multiple narrative points of view.]
Early in his second novel, The Comfort of Strangers (1981), Ian McEwan calls up Mozart to usher in the theme which virtually dominates all his work. Colin, who is on holiday with Mary, hears a man singing in the shower: “tra-la-ing the forgotten words, bellowing out the orchestral parts, ‘Mann und Weib, Und Weib und Mann, together make a godly span.’” If one were to produce a template for the McEwan novel, its three essential features would be a relationship between a man and a woman, an external threat which clarifies the nature of that relationship, and a prose style equal to that of any writer in English today. The template would not fit McEwan's one book for children, The Daydreamer (1994), but it would serve for all his novels, from the first, The Cement Garden (1978)—the couple there is an incestuous brother and sister—to his latest. Its title, Enduring Love, explicitly announces McEwan's perennial romantic theme, but the effortful pun—love that lasts may also have to be suffered—reminds us that, although some of his couples may live to enjoy “a godly span”, all of them go through hell.
Joe and Clarissa are a happy couple. He is a science journalist and she is an academic. McEwan's first two novels seemed to issue direct from an imagination complete in itself, diamond-hard, exact and exacting. His third, The Child in Time (1987), mentions three non-fiction books on its acknowledgements page; storytelling has broadened out into an engagement with political and cultural forces. Enduring Love acknowledges ten books and also includes a list of twenty medical papers. One has a sense of fiction threatened by background reading, of the novelist's bookcase toppling on top of him. As if to counteract the danger of the book's being hobbled by its themes, there are thriller-like injections of action: a high-speed drive, two shootings, a hostage. These follow on from the book's central triangle; Joe and Clarissa may be in love, but someone else is obsessed with Joe. He has a stalker or, as his researches tell him, he is being pursued by someone with “de Clérambault's syndrome”.
A significant moment in The Comfort of Strangers has a woman asking Mary about her relationship with Colin: “Are you in love?” It seems an innocuous question, until the woman reveals what it means to her: “If you are in love with someone, you would even be prepared to let them kill you, if necessary.” Jed Parry, the man obsessed with Joe, is another example of an extreme manifestation of love, and one which is meant to throw light on what it means for people like Joe and Clarissa to be in love, but not pathologically so. There is something rather predetermined in McEwan's use of de Clérambault's syndrome as a kind of rabid stalking-horse, behind which he can approach more ordinary forms of love. Jed's continual presence under Joe's window and his repeated phone calls and letters lead to a breakdown of trust between Joe and Clarissa. For the science journalist, reconciliation is a matter of checking references and collating information. The way to regain his lover is to understand Jed: “For there to be a pathology there had to be a lurking concept of health. … Sickness and health. In other words, what could I learn about Parry that would restore me to Clarissa?” The novel has two appendices. The second is another letter from Jed, unrepentant and ecstatic to the end; the first rounds up the medical background, finishing with a quotation from the British Journal of Psychiatry: “the pathological extensions of love not only touch upon but overlap with normal experience, and it is not always easy to accept that one of our most valued experiences may merge into psychopathology.”
Joe and Jed are brought together by chance when they are caught up in a ballooning accident, the superb scene with which the novel begins. McEwan is a master of accidents and the procedures of mayhem, the stretching of time that occurs as brain and body are doused in shock (the car crash in The Child in Time or the killing of a man and his dismemberment—partly for love—in The Innocent). He specializes in graphic stillness, in a charged attention to the immediate detail which prefigures a larger emotional or psychological truth. In The Cement Garden there is a moment when the brother and sister “looked at each other knowingly, knowing nothing”, and this is emblematic of the disturbing ambivalences of McEwan's style, of its ability to be both scrupulously neutral and pulsing with psychological energy. In Enduring Love, the balloon accident causes a man's death, and when Joe visits the man's widow, an academic living in North Oxford, she is created for the reader by a description of her home:
No colours but brown and cream. No design or style, no comfort, and in winter, very little warmth. Even the light was brownish, at one with the smells of damp, coal dust and soap. … There was lino, and grimy electrical piping on the walls, and from the kitchen, the sour scent of gas, and a glimpse of laminated shelves on metal brackets supporting bottles of brown and red sauce. This was the austerity once thought appropriate to the intellectual life, unsensually aligned to the soul of English pragmatism, unfussy, honed to the essential, to the collegiate world beyond the shops. In its time it might have appeared to strike a blow at the Edwardian encumbrances of a older generation. Now it seemed a perfect setting for sorrow.
Is it significant that one of the best passages in the book should be devoted to a secondary character?
Enduring Love is narrated by Joe, who describes himself as “a large, clumsy, balding fellow”. Extending this clumsiness to some of the novel's methods may be a gain in verisimilitude (name three great novels by science journalists), but the book suffers too much as a result. Joe is determined to understand things—the accident, his relationship with Clarissa, Jed's obsession with him—and, as a result, the narrative is constantly diverted by his need to analyse. The opening sentence is one of a number that proclaims a self-aware narrative, a story as experiment, one where the telling will distance us from what is told: “The beginning is simple to mark.” More disabling, though, than this verbal tic (“I see us from three hundred feet up … I'm holding back the information … let me freeze the frame. …”) is the way Jed and Clarissa are not really granted their own inner lives. Rather awkwardly, Chapter Nine is told from Clarissa's point of view, because, as Joe tells us, “It would make more sense.” Soon, however, he is back to seeing her from outside and at risk of reducing her to little more than a mood and an eye-colour: “She drew her breath sharply and shot me a beam of angry green.”
Jed's obsession with Joe is intensified by religious mania. The instructions on his answering machine give some measure of the man: “Please leave your message after the tone. And may the Lord be with you.” There is a fractured comedy in his first approaches to Joe and in Joe's baffled response, the funnier for the absence of any cues to suggest that the scene is meant to be funny. (Conversely, when Joe buys a gun from some hippies, McEwan's busy signalling of the scene's hilarity—one hippy has a comic moustache which gives Joe the giggles—is rather desperate.) We learn most about Jed from his letters to Joe. However, the epistolary mode is rarely as engaging as dialogue or soliloquy, and Jed can seem as much a function of the novel's thriller-like conventions (the Threat) as a fully realized character. McEwan may have set out to invoke certain genres by having two chapters end with threatening phone calls or by naming a virtuous character Bonny Deedes, but Enduring Love lacks the singleness of narrative vision required by these sorts of model. The divagations into scientific theory and the mysteries of love, although they have an intellectual reach fitting for the literary novel, occur too obtrusively for theme and story to have a complementary wholeness (as in The Child in Time). Ian McEwan's career is testament to his readiness to extend his immense gifts by dealing with an ever-larger range of subjects. Enduring Love opens with an over-buoyant balloon carried off by the wind; the novel's problems are of an opposite kind: too much ballast.
SOURCE: Johnson, Brian D. “Of Human Bonding.” Maclean's (17 November 1997): 106, 108.
[In the following review, Johnson extols the descriptive opening portions of Enduring Love, praising McEwan's ability to delineate events with precision.]
As a storyteller, British author Ian McEwan is something of a pathologist. His narratives tend to circle around a single terrifying event, a moment of panic that casts a long and malignant shadow over a character's life. Using spare, ruthless prose, McEwan magnifies the event and dissects it with clinical precision, slowing motion and stopping time to let strange and inappropriate thoughts float to the surface.
In his Whitbread Award-winning novel, The Child in Time (1987), the event is the abduction of a writer's three-year-old daughter in a supermarket, a loss that leaves the man's marriage devastated and sends him reeling back through his own childhood. In the Booker-nominated Black Dogs (1992), it is the ordeal of a woman who is cornered by two vicious mastiffs in the French countryside while, out of earshot down the path, her husband examines some caterpillars. And in Enduring Love, McEwan's seventh novel, the event is a bizarre ballooning accident in which a man falls to his death while trying to rescue a child. The tragedy sets the stage for an obsessive relationship—and a rivetting showdown between faith and logic. Enduring Love, a novel as profound and playful as the double entendre of its title, is one of the most original, compelling works of McEwan's career.
The story begins with a meticulous reconstruction of the ballooning accident. The novel's first-person narrator, Joe Rose, is sitting down to a picnic in a field with his wife, Clarissa, a happy reunion after spending six weeks apart. Then, he hears a shout, and suddenly he is running across the field to a balloon the size of a house that is about to blow away with a child trapped in the basket. Pulling on ropes, he and several other bystanders frantically try to bring the balloon back to earth. During the rescue attempt, Joe encounters a man named Jed Parry, who becomes convinced that a cosmic bond has passed between them. Jed develops an obsessive love for Joe, a kind of religious passion. And in the weeks that follow, he stalks him incessantly, threatening to ruin his marriage and his life.
As Joe becomes increasingly aggravated, his wife, a scholar investigating the love life of poet John Keats, refuses to take his situation seriously. Clarissa cannot see the evidence of Jed's harassment firsthand, and assumes her husband is overreacting. Gradually, from a “fine crack of estrangement,” a rift opens up in their marriage, which McEwan describes with startling lucidity: “We were lying face-to-face in bed, as though nothing was wrong,” recounts Joe. “The silence appeared to have a visual quality, a sparkle or hard gloss, and a thickness too, like fresh paint. … We were hardly at war, but everything between us was stalled. We were like armies facing each other across a maze of trenches. We were immobilized. The only movement was that of silent accusations rippling over our heads like standards.”
Joe is a scientist who fears he is losing his grip on the truth. Having abandoned serious research for a career as a magazine journalist popularizing science, he worries that he has become “parasitic and marginal.” Now, tenaciously, he clings to scientific rationality in the face of his demented stalker. He conducts exhaustive research into erotomania, concluding that Jed suffers from a religious version of de Clérambault's syndrome. (The novel offers a bibliography of 20 psychiatric texts.) But Joe's attempt to shake off his stalker becomes an obsession in its own right. And his rationality becomes so precarious that the reader, like his wife, begins to wonder if his observations can be trusted.
In fact, for a first-person narrative, the novel has a peculiar omniscience—Joe's voice is laminated with layers of inquiry and innuendo. In one chapter, for the sake of balance, he narrates an episode from Clarissa's point of view. He offers up letters from Jed. And in the opening chapter, as he reconstructs the balloon accident in magnified detail, he views himself with uncanny detachment: “Like a self in a dream, I was both first and third persons. I acted, and saw myself act. I had my thoughts, and I saw them drift across a screen. As in a dream, my emotional responses were non-existent or inappropriate.”
It is hard for the rest of the novel to live up to the drama of the balloon accident. Focusing on the “pinprick” instant when he first heard a man shouting across the field, Joe unfurls the event like a vast map of time, noting that “whole books, whole research departments, are dedicated to the first half minute in the history of the universe.” It is a brilliant scene. As it gathers momentum, the suspense is unbearable. And although it falls right at the beginning of the story, it is in some sense the climax—the epicentre—and its shock waves radiate through the rest of the narrative.
Late in the novel, as the conflict reaches a violent resolution, Joe explains his numbed state: “The narrative compression of storytelling, especially in the movies, beguiles us with happy endings into forgetting that sustained stress is corrosive of feeling. It's the great deadener.” McEwan, instead of compressing the event, just keeps expanding it. In the spirit of fearless post-mortem, he turns it over in his mind, backwards and forwards, finding illumination for the soul in the darkest places.
SOURCE: Eder, Richard. “Twitching Curtains.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (25 January 1998): 2.
[In the following review, Eder finds major flaws in the uneven narrative energy and invented case study in Enduring Love.]
It begins [in Enduring Love] with dazzling cinematic bravura. Joe and Clarissa, his live-in lover, are having a spring picnic in Britain's Chiltern Hills. About to uncork the wine, they hear a man shout.
“We turned to look across the field and saw the danger. Next thing I was running towards it,” Joe relates. Then for an instant, like a bright lure seized by a bottom fish and dragged under, the dazzle yields to leaden hindsight. “What idiocy, to be racing into this story and its labyrinths, sprinting away from our happiness among the fresh spring grasses by the oak.”
Narrator's hindsight and reader's foreboding: Ian McEwan weights them on before surfacing back into the immediacy of what is taking place. “There was the shout again, and a child's cry, enfeebled by the wind that roared in the tall trees along the hedgerows. I ran faster. And there, suddenly, from different points around the field, four other men were converging on the scene, running like me.”
McEwan, author of The Cement Garden and The Child in Time, shapes this dramatic opening with breathtaking dexterity. Alternating between Joe's dazed, camera-like perceptions and his subsequent settled narration, we get the transformation of picnic idyll into disaster.
A balloon carrying a child and piloted by his uncle had landed in the field without incident. Getting out of the basket, the uncle tangled his legs in the lines, and a sudden gust began dragging the balloon, the child and the uncle to the edge of a promontory falling steeply to the Oxfordshire plain hundreds of feet below.
Joe and the four other men who spot the danger manage to grab the lines. They work at confused cross-purposes, though, and a violent updraft begins lifting them into the air. Had they all held on they might have maneuvered the balloon down, but one panics and lets go. Feeling themselves jolted upward and afraid of being carried off, Joe and two others release their hold, falling a dozen feet.
Only one, a doctor named Logan, holds on, counting on the others until it is too late. At 300 feet, his grip loosens, and he plummets to his death. (The balloon eventually drifts down, and the child in the basket is unharmed.)
McEwan, one of Britain's finest writers, renders it all with a characteristic skill: peacefulness changing in a flash to panicked horror and then to shock's slow, disabling tide. It is bound together by a grim moral reflection on how panicked animal reflexes instantly obliterate social cooperation. “Someone said ‘me’ and then there was nothing to be gained by saying ‘us,’” Joe says.
It is a wild racehorse of a start. Immediately, though, McEwan hitches it to a dray cart. Joe's initial words about “sprinting away from our happiness” do not refer to the tragedy and its consequences for him and Clarissa—consequences on whose exploration we seemed to be launched in such fire and style. It refers to an entirely tangential development.
One of Joe's fellow would-be rescuers is a weird young man, Jed Parry. A solitary, possessed of a certain amount of money, he is convinced that he has a vaguely Christian religious mission. His deep, wasting mental disorder, though, is the conviction that Joe has fallen in love with him and that it is their destiny to be together.
Most of the rest of Enduring Love tells of Parry's obsessive pursuit and—as if the sick mind spreads contagion—of Joe's near undoing, both in himself and in his relationship with Clarissa. It is a creepy story and told with skill, but its mismatch with the beginning is disconcerting. This is true not just because it wanders narratively but because of its decidedly inferior level of fictional energy and expansiveness.
Parry phones repeatedly, stations himself in front of Joe's front door, pursues him down the street weeping. If he were simply proclaiming his love, it would be bad enough, the true horror lies in his insistence that Joe loves him, has incited him and simply feigns indifference in order to exercise power. Parry leaves as many as 33 messages in the course of a single day. He writes long letters to Joe, picturing their life together and urging that they sitdown with Clarissa to work out a fair arrangement.
Nothing could be worse, of course, than to be conscripted into the mind of a solipsist, particularly one with a deranged obsession. It is like being pursued by an enormous molasses jar, lid flapping hungrily. For Joe, who has his own insecurities—a sense of failure at throwing away a career in science to become a best-selling popularizer—the siege is disabling. Particularly it disables his relations with Clarissa, and McEwan writes a masterly scene in which their two sets of jitters go into a fibrilation that comes close to being lethal.
Parry's pursuit goes from entreaty to threat, and there is a series of melodramatic scenes of near-lethal violence before the police are persuaded to take action. At one point, Joe visits a household of former hippie drug dealers to buy a pistol; the scene has its piquancy, but it seems quite detached in style or effect from everything else.
McEwan is unable to be dull, and his detail is invariably sharp and well-managed. But Enduring Love is seriously flawed. The author has researched a psychological disorder known as De Clerambault's Syndrome, named after the author of a study of a French-woman who haunted the sidewalk in front of Buckingham Palace, convinced that King George V was sending her love signals. One signal, she claimed, was a periodic twitching of the upstairs curtains. Twitching curtains, in fact, are part of Parry's delusion.
The author, in effect, has written a fictionalized version of a case history, which he appends at the end in the form of a study printed in a psychiatric journal. The study is itself made up, although the reader may not realize it, as I did not until a perceptive editor checked up.
This is confusing, to say the least; furthermore, why invent a case history to bolster a story of manic obsession unless the author is unsure of making it convincing? Until the melodramatic ending, in fact, Parry's obsessive pursuit is credible, however grisly.
Confusion apart, to turn Enduring Love into a tale of a sick mind and the contagion it spreads is to narrow sharply the beginning's expansive promise of a fictional and moral exploration with an open road in front of it.
Instead, the reader is shunted indoors to something much less: a storified lecture, graphic and well-illustrated.
SOURCE: Taylor, Jonathan. Review of Enduring Love, by Ian McEwan. Artforum 36, no. 7 (March 1998): S20.
[In the following review, Taylor offers an unfavorable assessment of Enduring Love, asserting that McEwan's style and structure in the novel is overbearing and repetitive.]
“The pathological extensions of love not only touch upon but overlap with normal experience,” goes the neatly summarizing thesis of Enduring Love (quoted, apparently, from an actual British Journal of Psychiatry article), a statement that evokes the irritatingly schematic quality Ian McEwan's books sometimes have. It's fair to say that he intends, as the cover of First Love, Last Rites nicely synopsized, to “compel us to confront our secret kinship with the horrifying.” Yet in execution this mission has often seemed overdetermined, making the rounds of the taboo: incest (The Cement Garden), sexual murder and sadism (“Pornography,” The Comfort of Strangers).
Enduring Love replaces the specter of taboo sexual practice with a menace whose creepiness is not titillatingly transgressive. It's just crazy, or, more to the point, delusional; it even has an interesting medical literature. Less predisposed to the superficially risque, the novel taps a deeper undercurrent where love and insanity do flow together. Joe, the narrator, and his girlfriend, Clarissa, are, respectively, a science journalist and a Keats specialist. Love's pathological extension takes the form of Jed, a loner Jesus-freak who begins stalking Joe. The overlap, these characters' abundantly fertile common ground, is “how dishonestly,” as Joe learns, “we can hold things together for ourselves.”
A freak ballooning accident in the countryside brings Joe and Jed together in an effort to rescue a child, an attempt in which another man falls to his death. In the dazed aftermath, Jed locks onto Joe instantly, almost randomly, it seems. His particular insanity, Joe later finds, is known as de Clerambault's syndrome, which features a belief that the object of obsession has initiated a love affair and is cruelly toying with the subject by sending secret signals of encouragement while overtly denying the shared passion. Jed's fervor is especially disturbing because, in a '90s kind of way (Jed speaks with the young American habit of intoning statements as questions), it is so unconvincing either as religion or sexual attraction. His Christianity is vague; asked what he really wishes to do with Joe, he squeaks, “I want to see you?” In fact, his letters and phone calls, which turn rapidly from jubilant gratitude to mocking threats, bear no connection to any actual quality pertaining to Joe, who notes, “If I had written him a letter declaring passionate love, it would have made no difference.”
Meanwhile, Clarissa, who has her own worries to deal with, believes that Joe is inventing the whole thing. Joe, stunned by this, diagnoses her “self-persuasion,” a handy bit of evolutionary psychology from his files. And as if immediately catching it, he ransacks the letters in her study for an ulterior motive—“some hot little bearded fuck-goat of a post-graduate,” perhaps—while acting out the lame pretext, even though he's alone in the house, of locating his stapler.
It's all downhill from there. McEwan's grasp of how strange people will always be to each other, in “love's prison of self-reference,” seems to undermine the postulate that Joe and Clarissa's relationship had been, before Jed's intrusion, “without a trace of complication.” The stalemate of two intimate but still alien mentalities becomes the meticulously observed drama, as facilitated by McEwan's talents in the narration of consciousness: a clinical ability to evoke “the usual flotsam” of thought, to supply the banal details of contemporary living in just the way one's eye ridiculously falls on them in moments of crisis.
“Our love,” Joe and Jed both repeat throughout, like a mantra, for their divergent, desperate purposes. This meaningless repetition gradually corrodes the tender noun; by the end, it seems little more than a proxy for wishful thinking. And it is Jed, safely ensconced forever in his prison of self-reference, who uses the word last: “Thank you for loving me, thank you for accepting me, thank you for recognizing what I am doing for our love.”
SOURCE: Dinnage, Rosemary. “So Alert with Love.” New York Review of Books 45, no. 6 (9 April 1998): 32-3.
[In the following review, Dinnage argues that Enduring Love is an efficient, gripping examination of such themes as “guilt and love and fear.”]
After six previous novels and two books of short stories, Ian McEwan's reputation as a writer of small, impeccably written fictions is secure. His gift for the cold and scary is well established, too: among the critical praise that festoons his book jackets, the word “macabre” crops up more than once. But his books are more than tales of suspense and shock: they raise issues of guilt and love and fear, essentially of what happens when the civilized and ordered splinters against chaos. There can be something of Greek myth in his narratives—man casually overthrown by the indifferent Fates. At the same time he is the quietest and most lucid of stylists, with never a word wasted or fumbled. It is a pity his surname is resistant to adjective (as in “Kafkan”): it would have a quite recognizable meaning by now.
Enduring Love is as satisfying in the menace and tension departments as any of the previous books, and less unforgiving than, some—his best, perhaps, since The Child in Time. The plot is simplicity itself: a loving and well-matched couple, Joe and Clarissa, are split apart by a deranged stalker who believes that instant mutual love has struck himself and Joe. One kind of enduring love meets another and (to Jed, the stalker, just as real), and the result is disaster. So what is love, anyway: what real, what illusory, what benign, what destructive?
The opening of the story is a Verdi overture: sweet tunes are played, ominous notes struck, and the curtain rises on a baritone voice. Clarissa and Joe are having a celebratory picnic after a six-week separation during which Clarissa has been researching letters of Keats to Fanny Brawne (obsessive love!). The baritone voice comes from the pilot of a helium balloon heading for a smash in the field below.
McEwan excels in presenting the single moment frozen in time. Clarissa has handed Joe the wine bottle, his palm has just touched the neck, and the frightened shout comes from across the grass.
We were running toward a catastrophe, which itself was a kind of furnace in whose heat identities and fates would buckle into new shapes. At the base of the balloon was a basket in which there was a boy, and by the basket, clinging to a rope, was a man in need of help.
There is a horrible accident: a man dies gruesomely. It is not certain whether it could have been prevented, whether someone let it happen (did Joe?). Everyone who saw the event is affected; together, and with friends, Joe and Clarissa talk it out and try to exorcise it. At the moment of the accident, in a marvelously described state of manic shock, Joe has thrown a wildly cheerful glance at one of the other bystanders. And so it begins.
Jed Parry is youngish, ponytailed, in denims and red-laced trainers. No sooner has the glance found him than he is coming up to Joe, falling to his knees, and asking Joe to pray with him. “You shouldn't, you know, think of this as some kind of duty. It's like, your own needs are being answered? It's got nothing to do with me, really. I'm just the messenger. It's a gift.” With distaste Joe disentangles himself, goes home with Clarissa for mutual comfort, forgets Jed. After midnight, the phone rings with a message of love from him. It will go on ringing: a relentless pursuit has begun.
McEwan's cunning as a narrator is in the hint of a suggestion as the story develops, that Jed may not be as mad as he seems. The two names, Jed and Joe, even suggest alter egos. Joe is, after all, disgusted with his job as popular science writer, recycling current materialisms into whatever shape pleases the public. (“Might there be a genetic basis to religious belief, or was it merely refreshing to think so? … What if it bestowed strength in adversity, the power of consolation, the chance of surviving the disaster that might crush a godless man?”) Perhaps for him prayer could be a gift; the reader is tantalized. And McEwan has Jed write rather beautiful love letters:
I'm sitting at a small wooden table on a covered balcony that extends from the study and looks out over the inner courtyard. The rain is falling on two flowering cherry trees. The branch of one grows through the railings, so that I am close enough to see how the water, forms into oval beads tinged by the flowers pale pink. Love has given me new eyes, I see with such clarity, in such detail. The grain of the old wooden posts, every separate blade of grass on the wet lawn below, the little tickly black legs of the lady bird walking across my hand a minute ago. Everything I see I want to touch and stroke. At last I'm awake. I feel so alive, so alert with love.
If the letters were mad and silly, we would have just a run-of-the-mill suspense story.
Ambiguity is carried further when it becomes clear that nice Clarissa really hardly believes Joe's story of persecution, or at least finds it hard to sympathize. The handwriting on the love letters is not unlike his own! For the first time, a rift is growing in their own well-established love, so good and true up until now. (McEwan has the rather rare gift of convincingly describing homely felicity.) She shows signs of catching the paranoia virus from the stalker. The police offer little help. Under Jed's relentless gaze, Joe is more and more alone. “It was as if I had fallen through a crack in my own existence, down into another life, another set of sexual preferences, another past history and future.” From one minute to the next, evil transformation spreads and strengthens.
Meanwhile the hunter is inside his own bubble of aloneness:
He crouched in a cell of his own devising, teasing out meanings, imbuing nonexistent exchanges with their drama of hope or disappointment, always scrutinizing the physical world, its random placements and chaotic noise and colors, for the correlatives of his current emotional state—and always finding satisfaction. He illuminated the world with his feelings, and the world confirmed him at every turn his feelings took.
To his prey, the hunt seems to be getting closer. At one moment Jed's bubble—religion? fantasy? love, even?—is clearly pathological: at another, his critique of Joe's godless writings seems to be hitting home: “Never deny my reality, because in the end you'll deny yourself,” he writes to him.
Then while Clarissa and Joe, out to lunch with friends are in the middle of a discussion of imagination and destructiveness (Wordsworth snubbing the young Keats), physical attack comes very close. Joe becomes terrified, acquires an illicit gun, and in no time at all is using it to save Clarissa from a dangerous Jed. Jed's “love,” and his despair, have exploded into violence at last.
Tension is so important a part of McEwan's method that it would be criminal of the reviewer to give away every last turn in the narrative. Does Clarissa repent her unjust doubts of Joe, thank him for his swift action, fall into his arms? Has their enduring love, in sum, been destroyed by Jed's? Reader, you must find out for yourself. To do this, the so-called “Appendix I” at the end of the book must not on any account be skipped. This purports to be—perhaps is—a paper from The British Review of Psychiatry entitled “A homoerotic obsession, with religious overtones: a clinical variant of de Clerambault's syndrome.” In 1942, it reports, de Clerambault first distinguished his syndrome from other psychoses passionelles. The patient, usually a woman,
has the intense delusional belief that a man, “the object,” often of higher social standing, is in love with her. The patient may have had little or no contact with the object of her delusion. The fact that the object is already married is likely to be regarded by the patient as irrelevant. His protestations of indifference or even hatred are seen as paradoxical or contradictory; her conviction that he “really” loves her remains fixed. Other derived themes include beliefs that the object will never find true happiness without her, and also that the relationship is universally acknowledged and approved.
By creating a full intrapsychic world, such erotomania may act as a defense against loneliness, the authorities suggest. The case of the middle-aged Frenchwoman who was unshakably convinced that King George V was in love with her is quoted; and then—of course—that of the religiously obsessed young man who happened to be at the scene of an accident involving a helium balloon … For this young man, appropriate medication and psychotherapy were prescribed, but in vain; and in view of his occasional violence, indefinite incarceration in a secure unit was the only solution.
This is the last of repeated confrontations between scientific and imaginative explanations throughout the book. The composition of water, the search for DNA, future space colonization are topics that legitimately weave in and out of the narrative through Joe's work as a scientific journalist. The very helium in the unleashed balloon is “that elemental gas forged from hydrogen in the nuclear furnace of the stars, first step along the way in the generation of multiplicity and variety of matter in the universe, including our selves and all our thoughts.”
Opponents of this view of a ruthlessly materialist universe have been, in their different ways, both Jed and Clarissa. Why reduce a baby's smile to neo-Darwinism or evolutionary psychology? she queried. “It's the new fundamentalism. … Twenty years ago you and your friends were all socialists and you blamed the environment for everyone's hard luck. Now you've got us trapped in our genes, and there's a reason for everything!” Jed's approach has come from another angle. “Life has been very good to you. … It probably never crosses your mind to give thanks for what you have. It all happened by blind chance? You made it all yourself? I worry for you, Joe. I worry for what your arrogance could bring down on you.”
Letters from Jed do not stop. “Appendix II” is from the case file of J. Parry at the end of his third year after admittance.
… It was a cloudless day and what rose up above the treetops ten minutes later was nothing less than the resplendence of God's glory and love. Our love! First bathing me, then warming me through the pane. I stood there, shoulders back, my arms hanging loosely at my sides, taking deep breaths. The old tears streaming. But the joy! The thousandth day, my thousandth letter, and you telling me that what I'm doing is right!
The patient writes daily, the case notes record. His letters are collected by staff but not forwarded, in order to protect the addressee from further distress.
SOURCE: Sayers, Valerie. “Up, Up and Away.” Commonweal 125, no. 9 (8 May 1998): 24-6.
[In the following review, Sayers offers a positive assessment of Enduring Love, but notes that the novel's philosophical ideas and thematic tensions ultimately give way to the demands of narrative movement.]
Ian McEwan's elegant, unsettling novels seek out the dangers that lurk, waiting to disrupt everyday lives: child snatchers, accidents, vicious animals, stalkers. These threatening motifs are connected, often implicitly, to questions of political and philosophical belief. In Enduring Love this connection is explicit: from the opening scene onward, it is clear that McEwan means to balance his usual Gothic elements with complex explorations of the ideas they represent. The novel opens in a field in the Chilterns, where five men see a balloon descend and race to help the inept pilot anchor it. Inside the passenger basket crouches a terrified young boy who may be swept away at any moment. The men grab ropes and are themselves carried off, dangling from the balloon, by a violent gust. In the agonizing seconds that follow, they must decide whether to hold on together or to save themselves by dropping, singly, to the ground. The narrator and protagonist of the novel, Joe Rose, explores the accident's connection to notions of selfless love, community, and self-preservation. The balance between dramatic scene and philosophical narrative, between exterior reality and interior struggle, is beautifully achieved; this is as stunning and promising a novel opening as I have read.
Joe is one of the men who chooses to drop to the ground, and so must face his own ordinary cowardice, but that is only the beginning of his dilemma. As the plot progresses, it appears that so, too, will the tensions between the rational and the irrational. Joe is a science writer who has abandoned the academic world for the life of the free-lance popularizer. His belief in the rational is absolute. His wife Clarissa, a Keats scholar, is more interested in the intuitive and the emotional. (“You're so rational sometimes,” she tells him, “you're like a child.”) This standard assigning of sex roles might be irritating were it not for the casting of Keats's long romantic shadow in the novel—and were it not for a third principal character, Jed Parry, who disrupts all notions of assigned sex roles. Parry is another of the men who drops to the ground with Joe Rose in the failed rescue attempt. At the scene of the accident, he falls instantly and pathologically in love with Joe and begins to disrupt his life: phoning, writing, stalking, and finally attacking him.
Part of Jed Parry's disturbance is religious belief, and one of the novel's early promises is the possibility that Joe's rationalism will be seriously challenged by religious faith. But Jed's religion, as Joe points out, is “dreamily vague on the specifics of doctrine. … a self-made affair, generally aligned to the culture of personal growth and fulfillment.” It is also the belief of a madman, and as such Parry's challenges are hardly taken seriously, either by Joe or by the novel. Parry's affliction is identified as de Clerambault's syndrome, in which the sufferers believe that the objects of their desire return the love and send secret signals of reciprocation. Parry's religious belief, as hopelessly deluded as his erotic fixation, is a variant of the syndrome.
It's an interesting notion, this coupling of erotic and religious delusion, but because the religious aspect is expressed only in Jed Parry's melodramatic pronouncements, it can't be explored physically (or for that matter philosophically) in the same way that the idea of human love can be. One of the principal tensions of the novel, then, is eased out early, and it becomes clear that rationalism will not be tested by religious faith but by faith in human love, the possibility of “enduring love” that Joe Rose believes he and Clarissa can achieve.
Clarissa, though, is seriously disturbed by Joe's response to Parry. At first she believes Parry's only a pathetic character; later she wonders whether Joe is in fact inventing his obsessive presence. The novel moves from another interesting tension (why can't the sensitive, intelligent Clarissa understand that Joe's terror is in fact a completely rational response?) to a more predictable movement of plot (will she believe him in time to save them from Parry's violence?). Clarissa's role in the novel, though key, is not explored in nearly as much depth as Joe's or Parry's. She is sketched, believably, as Keats scholar and as a maternal figure who cannot bear children (the motif of children—especially as objects of selfless love—is one of the most successful), but her lack of faith in Joe is not entirely convincing. It seems more plot-driven than it does character-driven: it is necessary for the story to progress, therefore it exists.
The same complaint might be made of the last scenes of the novel, thrilling, amusing, and unsettling though they are. Joe buys a gun in a funny and depressing scene that seems to come out of another (naturalistic) novel, then sets out to rescue Clarissa. The story has begun, of course, with a bungled rescue, and one of the novel's concerns is the strange movement of narrative itself: narrative in science, narratives of grief, narratives of the imagination. It is fitting, then, that narrative might loop back on itself this way, but the story floats away as quickly as the balloon which set Joe Rose's ordeal in motion, and the current carrying it is plot. The ideas trying to anchor that plot drop one by one to the ground. Some of its most disturbing suggestions (this is not the first time McEwan has used homosexual desire as his central threat) are never fully explored. The story ends with the notion of forgiveness, but it's a partial resolution, for poor Jed Parry is locked away with his delusions, and neither narrator nor narrative is concerned with what forgiveness or peace might be offered him.
This is not to say that Enduring Love is not engaging throughout—it is more than engaging, it is clever and compelling—but rather that it is considerably lightened at the end of its journey, that its balance tips, finally, toward the pleasures of unburdened plot.
SOURCE: Baker, Phil. “Comfy Conspiracies.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4979 (4 September 1998): 9.
[In the following review, Baker judges Amsterdam to be an entertaining examination of such favorite McEwan themes as “grotesque private behaviour, the violation of privacy, and a couple threatened by circumstances.”]
Hailing a cab outside the Dorchester one day, the gorgeous restaurant critic and photographer, Molly Lane, feels a tingling in her arm. It is the beginning of events that neither she nor anyone else could have foreseen. First comes the appallingly rapid progress of a disease that reduces her to an abject state before it kills her. And then comes a far more extraordinary chain of events following her death, which forms the substance of Ian McEwan's implausibly elegant black comedy [Amsterdam].
Four of Molly's lovers are present at her funeral. There is the rich old publisher, George, her final partner. There is the Foreign Secretary, Julian Garmony, who is a likely future Prime Minister. And there are two old friends, Vernon Halliday, the broadsheet newspaper editor, and the famous modern composer, Clive Linley, who is working on a “Millennial Symphony” to crown his career. Something of a hypochondriac, Clive is so shocked by the speed with which Molly's condition shelved into a state where she was incapable even of killing herself, that he asks a favour of Vernon: if anything similar should happen to him, he would like Vernon to arrange euthanasia. (There are, they both know, people in Holland who will take care of these things.) Vernon agrees, if Clive will do the same for him.
George, meanwhile, is now in possession of some extraordinary photographs of Julian, and shows them to Vernon. Initially undescribed, they are “Incredible”, and Vernon feels “waves of distinct responses: astonishment first, followed by a wild inward hilarity”. At first, McEwan lets the reader imagine them (like the unknown contents of the mysteriously shocking box in Buñuel's Belle de Jour), although later in the book they are revealed. Since Garmony is rather right-wing, Vernon feels entirely justified in publishing them, and the newspaper brushes up Garmony's obituary in case he should kill himself.
It is the beginning of the end for the friendship between Clive and Vernon. Clive is so disgusted that he sends Vernon a card telling him he deserves to be sacked. Arriving after Vernon actually has been sacked, it now reads as gloating instead of outraged: “You deserve to be sacked” has become “You deserve to be sacked”—a neat slippage that typifies the clockwork neatness of the book. Their annoyance with each other escalates, until Clive invites Vernon to Amsterdam with a murderous plan in mind. Of course, plans often go wrong. Clive has a glass of champagne in each hand: “Vernon's in the right, his own in the left. Important to remember that.” Should we be alerted to an impending disaster, or is it a red herring? Perhaps the salient line is instead: “he saw Vernon coming towards him with a big smile … he had two full glasses of his own.”
Clive, although preferable to Vernon, is the book's chief comic butt. Egregiously middle-class, he is solidly sent up by McEwan whenever we are made party to his sentimental, self-deluded, preeningly fatuous thoughts. He finds the police to be splendid fellows: “To think he had once called them pigs and argued, during a three month flirtation with anarchism in 1967, that they were the cause of crime. … They seemed to like him, these policemen, and Clive wondered if there were not certain qualities he never knew he possessed—a level manner, quiet charm, authority perhaps.” He also finds the Dutch to be truly civilized, although not everybody comes in for his approval; people who don't share his love of the Lake District, for example: “Surely they could not claim to be fully alive.”
It is while Clive is up creating music among the Lakes that he sees a woman hiker having trouble with a man. Unknown to Clive, the man happens to be the notorious Lakeland Rapist, but he doesn't get involved because he doesn't want it to interfere with his musical inspiration: “this was his business, and it wasn't easy, and he wasn't asking for anyone's help.” Later, he looks back on the responsibilities which his gift has imposed on him, and realizes he was entirely justified in being prepared “to sacrifice an anonymous rambler” for his music.
McEwan has plenty of fun at the expense of Clive's romantic belief in his genius, and he treats the reader to a good deal of material about musical composition. This mockery of artistic ambition complements the relatively slight nature of the book, which is unashamedly a five-finger exercise in comparison to the aspirations of some of McEwan's earlier work, such as The Child in Time. There is something rather comfortable about it, which extends to the satire. “It's time we ran more regular columns”, says a newspaper editor:
they're cheap, and everyone else is doing them. You know, we hire someone of low to medium intelligence, possibly female, to write about, well, nothing much. … Goes to a party and can't remember someone's name. Twelve hundred words.
McEwan's earlier interests are still here: grotesque private behaviour, the violation of privacy, and a couple threatened by circumstances (Garmony's survival is largely due to his formidable trouper of a Tory wife). The interest in privacy extends to the deceit shown by almost every character in the book, where rottenness is universal; even a music critic with a walk-on part turns out to be a paedophile, and the saintly Mrs Garmony describes Molly as “a friend of the family” who took the photos “rather in a spirit of celebration”, while being privately glad that the woman who indulged Julian's “grotesque cravings” is dead. The one character whose mind we are hardly shown inside is the supremely manipulative George. If there is sometimes a sense that Vernon and Clive are being indicted as representatives of a caste or generation, George remains his own evil agent.
Amsterdam is a consummately well-orchestrated performance, and the feel of a major artist operating at something less than full blast gives it a smoothness and a sense of capacity in reserve. If, like Graham Greene, McEwan divided his books into “novels” and “entertainments”, then there is no doubt into which category this one would fall.
SOURCE: Burrows, Stuart. “Lost Promise.” New Statesman 127, no. 4402 (11 September 1998): 47-8.
[In the following review, Burrows provides an unfavorable assessment of Amsterdam, deriding McEwan's tendency toward melodrama and forced symbolism in his novels.]
Ian McEwan lays claim to a world of terrifying violence and desire uncharted by the polite talking shop of the postwar British novel. “Angus Wilson, Iris Murdoch, Kingsley Amis … they all seemed to come from a world and a social milieu that I had nothing to do with,” he has said. “I guess the stories I was writing were a lunge at another territory.”
McEwan's new work, Amsterdam, unfortunately signals yet another retreat from this new aesthetic territory, offering in its place the world of gossip columnists, newspaper editors and cabinet ministers tediously familiar to readers of contemporary British fiction. Bestseller lists notwithstanding, his most interesting work now seems far behind him.
For at least a decade, McEwan has preferred the easy consolations of narrative suspense to the hard work of aesthetic experimentation. His early stories posed the moral dilemmas at the heart of all his fiction at the level of form rather than content, exploring language's complicity in the appalling crimes of his stunted protagonists through a fidelity to the interior monologue reminiscent of Beckett. But his most recent work, such as the widely praised Enduring Love, substitutes narrative pace for the moral complexities raised by its dazzling opening chapter. Ethical dilemmas, specifically the question of the relationship between art and morality, are also at the heart of Amsterdam, but any interest they might hold is brutally swept away by McEwan's weakness for melodrama.
Other McEwan failings surface repeatedly in his new work: events are recorded in the manner of a historical textbook; crude biographical summaries pass themselves off as characterisation. And Amsterdam offers several new stylistic lapses, including a cumbersome narrative intervention in the manner of Vanity Fair. McEwan is left with only his fine eye for detail and the familiar staccato style that holds the attention but fails to move. Amsterdam is certainly readable, but readability may be precisely McEwan's great failing.
His recent work, like that of Martin Amis, forsakes literature for the adolescent pleasures of the thriller or detective novel. Language is the victim. The thrills of the murder plot in Amsterdam, or the descent into madness of Jed Parry, the gay stalker in Enduring Love, disappoint when set against the exploitation of language in McEwan's first work, the short story collection First Love, Last Rites (1975). What is so remarkable about the unnamed narrator of the opening story, “Homemade,” is less his sexual desire for his sister than his relationship to language itself: “[I] listened to who and how the dustmen fucked, how the Co-op milkmen fitted it in, what the coalmen could hump, what the carpet-fitter could lay, what the builders could erect, what the meter man could inspect, what the bread man could deliver, the gas man sniff out, the plumber plumb, the electrician connect, the doctor inject, the lawyer solicit, the furniture man install.”
Here seemingly innocuous verbs are transformed into synonyms for the narrator's incestuous longings. Innocence—its loss and the possibility of regaining it—has long been McEwan's subject. His early stories feature a series of first-person narrators whom we choose to label innocents, animals, adolescents, the mad, the old. To be innocent, in his world, is to lack self-consciousness, yet we see these bewildered characters struggling towards consciousness even as they deliberately choose the term innocent for themselves. The narrator of “Homemade,” for example, rejoices “in innocent bliss worthy of the Prelude” as he roasts a budgerigar over an open flame; the phrase is disturbing not so much for its grotesquely amusing distance from the act of burning alive a pet, as for the knowing reference to Wordsworth.
The idea of spoiled innocence resurfaces in Black Dogs, where the narrator, Jeremy, declares that “it is photography itself that creates the illusion of innocence”. Yet the idea is left unexplored, lost amid the novel's clumsy symbolism and deadening dichotomies.
The success of First Love, Last Rites led to McEwan retaining the short simple sentences and adolescent first-person narrator in his first novel, The Cement Garden (1978). But the experiment was not a success; the book has the feel of a project undertaken for a creative writing seminar, as language succumbs to melodrama, whose festering body lies beneath the surface of all McEwan's work.
The decline was immediately arrested with the publication that same year of a second (and sadly final) collection of stories, In Between the Sheets. “Reflections of a Kept Ape” is particularly fine, recording the anguished confessions of the eponymous hero, the former lover but now merely pet of a famous writer, Sally Klee. Like Sterne's Uncle Toby, the ape whistles “Lilliburlero” at times of stress; and with his owner suffering a severe case of writer's block, opportunities for whistling are very much on the increase. McEwan incorporates passages from Sally Klee's one successful novel into the ape's narrative, a novel she is busy retyping as a substitute for her inability to write something new.
The story never completely escapes misogyny—a woman becoming a writer seems as likely here as a pet becoming a lover—but the suggestion that all novels merely ape former ones, in this case Tristram Shandy, is compelling.
The lesson, however, seems to have been lost on McEwan himself, whose next three novels were all attempts to escape the interiority of his earlier work. Only one, The Child in Time (1987), can be deemed a success. The Comfort of Strangers, short-listed for the 1981 Booker Prize, and The Innocent (1989) quickly succumb to the demands of plot, offering sensational murders and lumbering symbolism in place of character development and metaphorical elaboration. The Child in Time succeeds despite a melodrama of its own—a rather foolish political entanglement—because McEwan offers the reader his one completely successful character study, a missing child called Kate. She is snatched from a supermarket at the beginning of the novel. The episode, a model for the balloon sequence in Enduring Love, is beautifully controlled, allowing McEwan to display the same techniques that made his short stories so successful; he may indeed ultimately be a short story writer rather than a novelist, in that his understanding of the circular structure of consciousness can, in the shorter form, compensate for an absence of metaphor.
We believe in Kate as we do not believe in Clive Linley and Vernon Halliday, the dual protagonists of Amsterdam—because she is a creation of her father Stephen's memory, both outside time and time's victim. Stephen struggles to hold on to an innocence that is necessarily absent: what he fears yet knows he is powerless to prevent is his daughter's fall into another narrative altogether, that of a life completely separate from her real parents. Writing, even though it is described at one point as “nothing less than a banishment from the Garden”, is the one thing we depend on to offer us faith in the existence of Eden. The novel survives even McEwan's need to burden his work with long and wearying scientific explanations, integrating its moral paradoxes within the narrative through the simple device of making Stephen a writer of children's books, the most famous of which, Lemonade, teaches its 10-year-old readers that “they are finite as children”.
All this is a long way from Amsterdam, which is itself mercifully finite at 178 pages. The characters are all too present here; one, the foreign secretary, appears to be a dead ringer for Michael Portillo. And McEwan's interest in innocence is now purely a legal or moral matter, not a function of language. Amsterdam offers us a world without metaphor, necessitating the triumph of melodrama. Sally Klee's ape would be disappointed.
SOURCE: Brookner, Anita. “All Good Pals and Jolly Bad Company.” Spectator 281, no. 8875 (12 September 1998): 39.
[In the following review, Brookner criticizes Amsterdam, faulting the plot for being underdeveloped, lacking female characters, and weak characterizations.]
When three old friends—well, two friends and one intimate enemy—meet at a former lover's funeral and offer their glum condolences [in the novel Amsterdam] to the deceased's uninteresting husband, George, they set in train a revenge tragedy which is ludic, heartless, and oddly lightweight. The friends are Clive Linley, a composer who is working on a symphony for the Millennium, Vernon Halliday, editor of a newspaper entitled The Judge, and Julian Garmony, a politician expected to challenge the Prime Minister for the leadership. All are shaken by Molly's last illness, which began, sinisterly, with a tingling in the left arm before developing rapidly into full-blown helplessness.
In the days following the funeral both Clive and Vernon experience distressing, but possibly illusory, symptoms: a numbness in the arm in one case, on the right side of the head in the other. Braced by his all-purpose composure, Garmony seems most likely to ride out the storm. All are united by their indifference towards the widower, with his ‘pleading’ eyes. He happens to have an interest in Halliday's newspaper, but this does not seem important enough to win him any sort of respect. The friends disperse thankfully, each to his own concerns. Clive and Vernon trust each other well enough to beg a service of the other: rather than descend into Molly's condition they will see to it that a better end is ensured when the ultimate moment is perceived. Garmony has no such qualms. He is, he thinks, invulnerable.
The end, or what is to be the end in this oddly twilit narrative, can probably be intuited here, and is indeed indicated by the title. In Holland respectable doctors can be persuaded to administer the fatal dose. In Amsterdam Clive's symphony is due for rehearsal. So far, so equable. Then matters deteriorate with increasing momentum. The action is punctuated by intemperate phone calls, and the one moment of tension in the book comes as Clive, within reach of his final variation and coda, is interrupted by calls from Vernon who is on to a story. Did Clive, on a walking tour in the Lake District, hear the voice of a woman in distress and fail to come to her assistance? Is this suspicious? (It may be.) But of greater significance are the repeated telephone calls. For the elusive theme continues to be just within reach, and there are only a few days to the rehearsal. A change of heart weakens Clive's resolve, or perhaps it is a genuine aberration: the symphony is doomed to remain unfinished, and with it Clive's crowning achievement. His revenge is to break with his friend, by means of an unforgivable postcard accusing him of moral turpitude as a journalist. Some photographs have been found, and of course they are compromising. Molly is the photographer; George has them in his possession. Vernon will publish them and Clive will never speak to him again.
But all is not well with Clive. He may be slipping into madness. Certainly his light-hearted way with policemen and orchestral conductors does not inspire confidence. His downfall is well within the reader's sights, as is Vernon's dismissal from his post. What brings the two former friends to Amsterdam is anybody's guess. We know about the rehearsal: that accounts for Clive's presence. But Vernon's? This denouement seemed to me singularly weak. But then the whole text is surprising from a writer like McEwan, drab where it should have been authentically nasty. Amsterdam reads as if it were something to be got out of the way before another important novel in the making. It is about blackmail, into which former allies can enter with surprising self-justification. But blackmail here is not based on bad faith and envy, as it usually is, but on a sudden whim, on the crudest of assessments.
For readers in search of a happy ending, and mindful of George's pleading eyes, there is a resolution of sorts. But—perhaps because of the book's odd length—much material is wasted. Characters are not properly defined, there are few landscapes apart from that of the Lake District, which is meticulously itemised; more important (though this fact should not be important), there are few women. Amsterdam reads like a barely outlined plot summary, the sort that can be elaborated in a single session. Only that inconvenient telephone bell conveys an authentic note of horror, as a grand conception is jeopardised by the insistent ringing. These competing sounds might have created something more compelling than that part of the narrative which races towards its conclusion. McEwan is a master of even-paced nightmare. Amsterdam is little more than a brief bad dream.
SOURCE: Bien, Peter. Review of Enduring Love, by Ian McEwan. World Literature Today 72, no. 4 (autumn 1998): 830-31.
[In the following review of Enduring Love, Bien commends McEwan's literary skill, but finds the novel weakened by its dependence on plot for its impetus.]
One does not appreciate how cynical Ian McEwan's novel Enduring Love is before reaching “Appendix I,” purportedly a scientific paper on de Clerambault's syndrome (a homoerotic obsession with religious overtones), where one reads, “A review of the literature … suggests that this is indeed a most lasting form of love, often terminated only by the death of the patient.” Only then does the “enduring love” of the title leap out as, alas, that of the madman Jed Parry, whose protestations of attachment to the hapless Joe Rose never waver, whereas all the “normal” people in the novel suffer ups and downs, suspicions, and anguish in their relationships. A secondary theme, equally cynical, is the impossibility of objective knowledge. Joe Rose is a journalist who researches everything carefully and who prides himself on “scientific” accuracy, yet he—like everyone else except the monomaniac who acts out de Clerambault's syndrome—misunderstands most of what is happening.
These themes need to be emphasized, since, on the surface, the novel seems mostly a whodunit that captures our attention by making us yearn to know who is going to kill whom, and why. More deeply, however, McEwan examines so-called normalcy versus abnormalcy, so-called rationality versus lunacy. Everything is set in motion by a freak accident that brings Parry and Rose together; everything begins to be “resolved,” strangely, by an attempt to murder the wrong victim. Yet until Parry's obsession leads to violence, his insane form of “enduring love” is considered inoffensive not only by the police but also by its victim's partner, a woman ironically fascinated by the “abnormal behavior” of Keats and Wordsworth! Clearly, the categories by which we think we understand human phenomena are arbitrary and ineffective.
Enduring Love is Ian McEwan's seventh novel. Both The Comfort of Strangers and Black Dogs were short-listed for the Booker Prize, whereas The Child in Time won the Whitbread Novel of the Year Award. It is hardly surprising that skill at narration, description, dialogue, characterization, and especially suspense is evident throughout Enduring Love, making it hard to put down. But is this a novel that one will want to reread? Probably not, since too much hinges on the plot. Once the story's outcome is known, not enough remains to be compelling in its own right.
For an American reader, perhaps the trouble is the novel's failure to be distinctively British. Yes, certain very British elements are present, such as the difficulty of securing a handgun. But generally the characters, situations, and environment could just as easily be those of educated, urban America, and the writing just as easily the pleasing blend of the intellectual and the colloquial that we know from our own novelists. Has the Americanization of Britain gone so far as to eliminate even class as an element in fictionalized British life?
SOURCE: Seaboyer, Judith. “Sadism Demands a Story: Ian McEwan's The Comfort of Strangers.” Modern Fiction Studies 45, no. 4 (winter 1999): 957-86.
[In the following essay, Seaboyer examines the significance of psychic trauma, violence, and the cultural landscape of Venice in The Comfort of Strangers.]
Ian McEwan's The Comfort of Strangers operates on two levels. It is an unheimlich tale of gothic horror that turns on sadomasochism and ritualized murder, but at the same time—and I will focus on this aspect of the novella—it is an engaged meditation on the historical, cultural, and psychoanalytic narratives that uphold an economy Kaja Silverman terms the “dominant fiction [that] solicits our faith above all else in the unity of the family, and the adequacy of the male subject” (Male Subjectivity 15-16). This fiction, Silverman explains, manifests itself as “the ideological system through which the normative subject lives its relation to the symbolic order and [quoting Ernesto Laclau (24)] it is the mechanism by which a society ‘tries to institute itself as such on the basis of closure, of the fixation of meaning, of the non-recognition of the infinite play of differences’” (Male Subjectivity 54). It is a narrative pattern that Laura Mulvey famously recognizes as sadistic in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” her influential 1975 essay on film and the objectifying male gaze (14-26).
In an early review Christopher Ricks draws a particularly telling link between McEwan's position as author and that of Mary, one of his protagonists, grieving over the body of her dead lover:
The last page of the book grants access to Mary bewilderedly “in the mood for explanation.” “But she explained nothing.” There is a great pathos in this ending, and it comes from the coinciding—perfectly honourable—of Mary's doubleness with McEwan's. He too is in the mood for explanation, but is willing, at least for now and at least in the face of the pain which he has imagined, to explain nothing.
My aim is to engage the ongoing critique of the political role of psychoanalysis in feminist theory by extending and explicating what McEwan—perfectly honorably and perfectly appropriately—chooses not to explain, and so the essay that follows is a close reading of The Comfort of Strangers as an exploration of the violent psychic dreams through which we imagine ourselves into existence as gendered subjects. In line with this psychoanalytic perspective, I read McEwan's decision “to explain nothing,” mirrored as it is in Mary's inability to articulate her argument, as a traumatic breaking off of the text in the face of the unnameable horror that has occurred.
My critical framework is the Freudian account of the family romance and the shaping force of sadomasochism as they are foregrounded by McEwan, and also Lacan's remapping of Freud's psychic topography. That topography is, I suggest, significantly mirrored in the mysterious topography of Venice, the city in which the novella is set. McEwan's text is exemplary for my purposes because it self-consciously inscribes the “dominant fiction” with a sadistic savagery that unmasks its origins in psychic structures and exposes the dangers of failing to recognize the role of the psyche in the formation of social reality.1 My point of departure is psychoanalysis, but I have found myself “looking back” (Rich, “When” 35) not only to Mulvey's “Visual Pleasure,” itself a discussion of the Oedipus complex, but also to another seminal essay, Adrienne Rich's “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision,” that also shares McEwan's concern with gender and violence and that was also published in the decade before The Comfort of Strangers. Rich, whose poetry provides McEwan with his epigraph, sees the “re-visioning” of the past as a means of restructuring a male-dominated and self-destructive culture, while Mulvey sees the narrative of psychoanalysis as a political weapon for exposing the sadistic force of “the unconscious of patriarchal society” (14).2 McEwan's story, culminating in a sadomasochistic murder in which perverse perpetrators and “innocent” victims are alike complicit, is an expression of what Freud terms the “merciless violence” the superego can come to exercise over the ego, a violence which can spiral into “a pure culture of the death instinct” (Freud, Ego 53). The driving force behind the sadomasochistic violence of his story is oedipal, and—despite its overt “nastiness”3—it is a move toward understanding that opens up the possibility of rereading the Oedipus with all the polemical force of Rich's rereading as a political “act of survival” (“When” 35).
Drucilla Cornell's feminist project, like Mulvey's and Silverman's, emphasizes the importance of psychoanalysis as well as of semiotics. It also rethinks legal interpretation as an act of “recollective imagination” which, while it recognizes the power of an already given reality, views the past not as a prison that prevents change but as a storehouse of signification always open to rereading, “open to the invitation to create new worlds” (Transformations 23).4 McEwan's allusive text functions as just such an act of “recollective imagination,” an invitation to recognize that for all their force, the psychic realities that underlie the narratives that make us what we are have their foundation in fantasy, and so they are open to being rethought, reshaped, reformed. With this in mind, I will read McEwan's novella as a parable for gender relations and examine his use of intertextual repetition together with the broader structuring dreamlike and theatrical qualities of his narrative. These elements allude to the fact that, although we may be shaped by powerful “ancient dreams” (McEwan 125) that favor sameness over difference, we nevertheless have agency. The trajectory of McEwan's skillfully constructed narrative seems fated, but he makes us aware that the actors on his oedipal stage could have extemporized. Had Colin and Mary, or, for that matter, Robert and Caroline, understood the script in its historical, cultural, and psychic complexity, things might have ended differently.
The actors in McEwan's psychodrama play out prescribed roles precisely because the script that structures their behavior is invisible to them; psychic space proves as unmappable as the city of Venice, which I suggest is the perfect mirroring backdrop, at once a museum and a historical map for western culture. Unnamed yet unmistakable,5 Venice underpins the narrative at every level. Like Fredric Jameson in his discussion of Kevin Lynch and cognitive mapping, McEwan draws an analogy between the inability to map urban space and the inability to map social structure (Jameson 416). The Comfort of Strangers is about the repercussions attending the failure to read and negotiate a city, but more importantly it is about the failure to read and negotiate, to reread, renegotiate, and revision the culture for which Venice stands as a kind of museum. McEwan's Venice, like the London of Conrad's Heart of Darkness, is “one of the dark places of the earth,” and the “meaning” of his narrative, like Marlow's, is “not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which [brings] it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine” (Conrad 5). Conrad's city is the dark heart of the British Empire but, given McEwan's echoes of Conrad in the unnamableness of his city and its landmarks and the unspeakable horror he uncovers at its heart, it is interesting that Marlow's direct reference is not to the modern commercial metropolis but to the settlement on the banks of the Thames “when the Romans first came here, nineteen hundred years ago” (5). There is a striking similarity between Marlow's fantasized description of London's river and historical reconstructions of the Venetian lagoon, when the refugees of the old cities of Altino, Aquileia, Concordia, and Padova fled there in the fifth century. John Julius Norwich wonders “who in their senses […] would leave the fertile plains of Lombardy to build a settlement—let alone a city—among these marshy, malarial wastes, on little islets of sand and couchgrass, the playthings of current and tide?” (Norwich 40), and Marlow imagines “[s]andbanks, marshes […] precious little to eat fit for a civilized man […] cold, fog, tempests, disease, exile, and death—death skulking in the air, in the water” (Conrad 6). The emotional responses of Marlow's conjured Roman commander, too, could be attributed to the early Venetians (or, for that matter, to McEwan's tourists), who may well have felt themselves to be “in the midst of the incomprehensible,” faced with “[t]he fascination of the abomination […] the growing regrets, the longing to escape, the powerless disgust, the surrender, the hate” (Conrad 6). McEwan's gothic “tale” is a waking dream of corruption, imprisonment, mutilation, and death whose extrapolated “meaning” is an exposition of the shaping power of the sexual imagination, and of social structure as it finds its expression in contemporary sexual politics—the “dominant fiction.” The “horror” he exposes at the heart of the unnameable lies not so much in human cruelty and ritualized murder, or even in the passive collusion of its alienated victims, as in the uncanny precision of the mirroring of the first narrative by the second, of the “tale” by the “meaning.” The sadism that has demanded the tale of Robert and Caroline and Colin and Mary at once explains and is explained by the psychopathology of western patriarchy.
McEwan's Venice serves as a metaphorical map against which to read and interpret not only western history and culture but also our modernist and postmodernist understanding of the psyche, and at the same time it is a figure for ancient narratives of the labyrinth, that impenetrable space which resists mapping or topographical survey. For reasons that include its decaying beauty and watery, labyrinthine topography, Venice in all its seductive otherness has long been read as a figure for death and for the feminine body, hallucinatory object of and liminal obstacle to the hero's desire. In the second half of the twentieth century that narrative topography accommodates the psychic topography mapped by Freud and redrawn by Lacan: the centrality of death and the woman to the Venetian narrative and to psychoanalysis makes them a perfect fit. The fragmentation of the city, which has been reflected in that of fictional Venetian protagonists and culture alike since the Renaissance, is intensified as the crumbling Venetian stage bears witness to allegories of psychic disintegration expressed in bodily mutilation and murder and also in a wider politics of social disintegration and environmental degradation. McEwan's Venice, material enough for all that it is an unnamed fantasy city, is alternately a clearly articulated space, all sunlit, glittering surface as it opens out from the Piazza San Marco onto the Lagoon and the Adriatic, and an illegible labyrinth, confusing and sinister as it collapses back into a womblike enclosure of narrow streets and canals. A perfected, contained medieval/Renaissance city, whole and unchanging, Venice may be read as a figure for the Lacanian Imaginary, but at the same time it is a figure for the end of everything as it slowly loses the battle against time, pollution, and rising water levels and returns to the Real of the Lagoon from which it was created. From this perspective, too, the Venetian stage is an ideal site for McEwan's story of Colin and Mary, English tourists in Venice, and Robert and Caroline, who live there: the dark, pure perversity of Robert and Caroline's relationship is the overt expression of that which, repressed, structures the somewhat dishonest, somewhat dull, occasionally passionate, largely comfortable normalcy of Colin and Mary's.
From the beginning, as Colin and Mary are drawn into the liminal space of the labyrinth and toward death, a sense of fatal inevitability is reinforced through echoes of a second modernist novella: Death in Venice.6 Mann was candid about the autobiographical aspects of this work. He said his experiences on holiday there in 1911 provided much of the material, and that he found the novella difficult to complete (qtd. in Reed 153-54). McEwan admits in an interview with John Haffenden that “something” of a visit to Venice with his partner in 1978 “found its way into the book” (qtd. in Haffenden 177). It goes without saying that Colin and Mary are no more Ian McEwan and Penny Allen than Gustav von Aschenbach is Thomas Mann, but McEwan has said he found the writing “painful” (qtd. in Haffenden 170), and in writing Colin's death, he felt as if he were writing his own (qtd. in Haffenden 183). In the construction of his narrative, McEwan takes up Mann's juxtaposition of the Apollonian and the Dionysian, his references to Platonic thought, and his anxieties surrounding sexuality and the power of the repressed ancient myth of Dionysus within the contemporary sexual imagination. Mann's expressed concern is with the place in society of art and the artist at the beginning of the century; McEwan's is with Platonic oppositional logic—Mary's “organizing principle” (125) is that which shapes western metaphysics.
McEwan's text by no means mirrors Mann's, but a series of elliptical and increasingly unheimlich doublings and echoes accrue as the protagonists lose their bearings. Both narratives are driven by the homoerotic attraction of an older man to a beautiful younger one,7 through whom some kind of transcendent state is to be achieved. The sense of material decay that pervades Mann's Venice is almost entirely metaphorical in McEwan's and the only plague is high-season tourists, yet there is a sense of threat (“It's like a prison here,” Mary complains to Colin ), and in spite or, unconsciously, because of it, the visitors, like Aschenbach, choose not to leave. It is as though, like him, they “[share] the city's secret, the city's guilt” (Mann 65). An unpleasant yet somehow alluring “Dionysian” stranger entices them into the labyrinth until all escape routes are shut off, and Aschenbach's quiet death in the presence of his “pale and lovely Summoner” (73) is replaced by a horrifying parody of the Maenadic frenzy and bloody mutilation of his bacchantic dream (Mann 65-67) as Colin is murdered by Robert and Caroline (McEwan 121).
Other repetitions from Mann have less to do with the overall structure of the text, but are nonetheless forceful. It is a commonplace that Venetians, and even Venetian tourists, dress elegantly—Joseph Brodsky (who was a regular visitor for twenty years and is buried in Venice) wryly suggested it is as though visitors take up a challenge to match the city's constructed beauty (Watermark 24-28). Like Aschenbach, McEwan's tourists spend a good deal of time in “self-obsessed” (13) narcissistic grooming. Each dresses with infinite care, Aschenbach, because “[l]ike any lover, he desire[s] to please” (Mann 67), and Colin and Mary, “as though somewhere among the thousands they were soon to join, there waited someone who cared deeply how they appeared” (McEwan 13). The hotel barber daubs Aschenbach's lips “the colour of ripe strawberries” (Mann 68); Colin's lips, too, will be carefully rouged, but with spilt blood. Of Aschenbach's self-mastery, “a nice observer once said […] ‘Aschenbach has always lived like this’—here the speaker closed the fingers of his left hand to a fist—‘never like this’—and he let his open hand hang relaxed from the back of his chair” (Mann 9). In light of this, Colin's dangling wrist as he lounges on the hotel balcony, and as he is later mimicked by Robert, is telling. Mann's “laughing song,” performed by a strolling player who uncannily evokes the mysterious “horned” figure Aschenbach saw outside the mausoleum in Munich just before he was overwhelmed by the fatal urge to visit Venice (4-5), is echoed in an attenuated contemporary version Colin and Mary hear played over and over on a jukebox in Robert's dismal gay bar. On the Lido, they watch adolescents play aggressive games at the water's edge, recalling the “rather lawless and out-of-hand” fight between Mann's Tadzio and Jaschiu (72), but in McEwan's text the game centers on a young man and a young woman, underscoring that what is at stake in The Comfort of Strangers is not lawlessness but the maintenance of a violent patriarchal law that insists on the centrality of heterosexuality.
In his earliest writings on sadism and masochism, Freud notes that their most remarkable feature is that they oscillate. They “are habitually to be found to occur together in the same individual. […] A sadist is always at the same time a masochist” (Three Essays 159). Not only are they “[t]he most common and the most significant of all the perversions” (157) but, he suggests, they are culturally serviceable, since they encompass attitudes to masculine activity and aggression and feminine passivity and compliance that are compatible with normative heterosexuality. Later (and this relates to Robert's psychic reality) Freud recognizes that they could be more overtly dangerous (Ego 53). McEwan draws attention to the deadly persistence of sadomasochism within the late-twentieth-century western sexual imagination; for all that death is central, the driving force that pushes the subject beyond the pleasure principle is not the desire for death, but the normative production of gendered subjectivity, which Freud explains by means of the Oedipus.
Colin and Mary lose their way in a multilayered liminal space that is at once a physical labyrinth and a maze of constructs whose roots are in western culture's distant social and psychic past—and McEwan's hypocrite lecteur must negotiate the equally complex space of the mirror construction that is the text itself. In terms of a Lacanian psychic topography, it is not surprising, given the associations that exist between sadism and looking (Lacan, Four Fundamentals 181-84), that in this most to-be-looked-at of cities, the Imaginary, with its fantasies of cohesion and mirror likeness, holds sway. Further, the Imaginary contaminates the Symbolic so that language, rather than disrupting Imaginary cohesion by introducing the possibility of difference and change, upholds the mask that disguises at the same time as it disavows the presence of the Real. The division between vision and language, looking and speaking (underscored by the fact that twentieth-century Venice exists to be admired, and that Colin and Mary don't speak the language that surrounds them, as well as the link between sadism and language and masochism and silence8), can be plotted according to the text's division into chapters. In the first two, Colin and Mary are “not on speaking terms” (11). Foregrounded against this absence of language, against its failure, are a plethora of concepts that are linked to the field of vision: narcissism, exhibitionism, voyeurism, performance, and audience, together with such signifiers as mirrors, cameras, binoculars, photographs, and the “screen” of the retina. Scopophilia persists, but there is a marked increase in speech beyond the second chapter. Chapter three, for example, is a lengthy confessional monologue recited before a captive audience, and it is followed by a series of dialogues, cross-examinations, and confessions that continue until the final pages, when the text subsides back into speechlessness. Chapter seven seems almost a celebration of linguistic exchange. The standard methods of argument of the western rhetorical tradition that have dominated Colin and Mary's conversations until now are “re-visioned” and displaced by what appear to be more open-ended exchanges that move toward recognizing, articulating, and analyzing desires that threaten Imaginary identity and unity. Up to this point,
[t]he unspoken assumption […] was that a subject was best explored by taking the opposing view, even if it was not quite the view one held oneself; a considered opinion was less important than the fact of opposition. The idea, if it was an idea and not a habit of mind, was that adversaries, fearing contradiction, would be more rigorous in argument, like scientists proposing innovation to their colleagues.
Topics begin to be “explored” rather than “defensively reiterated, or forced into elaborate irrelevancies” (81) that maintain and protect the rigid mask of the Imaginary, but by the next chapter Colin and Mary have lapsed into resistance and reticence, recognizing that, oxymoronically, all the talk of the past few days has been an extension of the “unacknowledged conspiracy of silence” (91) that has allowed the unspeakable to remain unspoken. The horror that lies beneath the mask of language they have created is revealed to be the “merciless violence” of the novella's structuring sadism. Unnamed, it retains its terrible power to control and subjugate, to punish or to forgive, and thus to drive the narrative. “Sadism demands a story,” as Mulvey says (22).
This brings me back to Venice and its role in McEwan's exploration of the “dominant fiction.” For all its labyrinthine confusion, this city is in many ways a clearly articulated space, its medieval construction rendered still more legible through Renaissance town planning. Henri Lefebvre has said that “Venice, more than any other place, bears witness to the existence […] of a unitary code or common language of the city” (73), but codes and common languages have to be deciphered and assimilated before they can provide a key. Pattern eludes Colin and Mary. They persistently leave behind the easily read tourist areas of San Marco and Dorsoduro for the labyrinthine alleys of Castello and Cannaregio, but “the fine old churches, the altar-pieces, the stone bridges over canals” (12) remain alienated illegible fragments rather than taking on shape as individual parishes that have, over the centuries, coalesced into a complex but unified whole. By day they distractedly experience the city as a series of jumbled images projected in rapid succession against the screen of the eye as they are swept along on a tide of tourists. At night, after the crush subsides, instead of actively plotting a course on a map or choosing a path according to the logic of the city's configuration, they are led, passively, by their senses. They dip into what is for them an unmappable, invisible city after the manner of the flaneur, responding randomly to the tantalizing curve of a street, the smell of frying fish, the comforting sight of a distant stranger.
That this failure to map urban space proves deadly suggests by extension the careful attention that must be paid to the negotiation of cultural space, and also of McEwan's mirroring textual space. On the occasions Mary and Colin do resort to maps they find them to be either badly printed, incomplete, or a series of disconnected fragments, and they find, like McEwan's readers, that it is easy “to get lost [walking] from one page to another” (20). Colin and Mary move impulsively, their failure to read or to remember almost willful; we may of course choose to do the same, but for all the labyrinthine complexity of McEwan's text, it is possible to move back and forth within it, literally or by means of memory, recognizing and misrecognizing, remembering and misremembering, noting a repeated phrase or image, interpreting now this piece of the puzzle and now that, until pattern and meaning are gradually revealed. It is possible to make links between his images, words, and silences, and also to move beyond the bounds of the text itself, since if culture and the role of the “dominant fiction” are to be understood and interpreted, it will be necessary to extrapolate an allegorical “mental map of city space […] to that mental map of the social and global totality we all carry around in our heads in variously garbled forms” (Jameson 415).
McEwan plays on a Venetian sense of enclosure and claustrophobia by introducing only four characters. Three of them are alien to Venice. Mary and Colin move through a museumlike space in which one may look at a culture through its artifacts, skimming across the surface without the need to go deeper. Caroline is Canadian, and has been imprisoned within the house since her arrival with Robert several years earlier. Although Robert grew up in London, he inherited his grandfather's Venetian palazzo and functions within a milieu of local people as the other three do not. Of the four, only he has the key, the controlling power that comes from a knowledge of the city that enables him to co-opt it as a stage for the drama by means of which he will transform psychic reality into real event—although by the end of the text it is apparent that Caroline has been directing from the wings.
Mary and Colin have been lovers for seven years. We learn little about her life and even less of his, but significantly, given the text's theatrical aspect, and the place in it of the voyeurism/exhibitionism binary, they have both been actors. McEwan alludes, directly or indirectly, to three dramatic tragedies that turn on family romance and violence and its painful corollary, the getting of wisdom—The Bacchae,Oedipus Rex, and Hamlet—and Mary and Colin will each be assigned specific roles to play in the restaging of Dionysian passion that is at the same time a restaging of the Freudian family romance and the culmination of a drama at once absurd and tragic, contemporary and ancient. Theirs is “no longer a great passion” (18) but they insist they are so close they feel like “misted mirror” images of each other (18). Reinforcing this, Caroline remarks that they look “almost like twins” (67). Such a superficially attractive ease of resemblance disguises a perilous denial of difference that fixes them within the static realm of illusion, narcissism, and the Imaginary, and outside language and the Symbolic. The Imaginary city they glide across is similarly illusory and similarly dangerous.
From the beginning, their holiday proves exhausting. They sleep badly and suffer recurrent nightmares of infantilization, passivity, and helplessness. Mary's suggest she feels trapped by her family and incapable of protecting her children, and Colin's are pure Freud—“of flying […], of crumbling teeth, of appearing naked before a seated stranger” (12).9 These dreams of helplessness and exposure are relentlessly realized until, immobile, Mary will watch Colin bleed to death before her.
Each morning they allow themselves to be swept along with thousands of other visitors, “dutifully fulfill[ing] the many tasks of tourism the ancient city imposed” (14). It is a passive, even masochistic, routine from which they return exhausted to sleep away the afternoons before rising to set out again as night falls. All this is, of course, normal enough behavior for people on holiday, but in the context of the whole it is disturbing. Not only are they somewhat sleep-deprived but they sleep and dream during the sunlit, “rational” part of the day, and wake to occupy an irrational dream space at night. Sleeping and waking, dream and reality, blend into a waking dream, until they begin to sleep not just at inappropriate times but in inappropriate places—first in the street, and then in the house of a far from comforting stranger.
They lose themselves, but instead of taking pleasure in the aimlessness of the flaneur as might have been possible had each been alone (the flaneur is, after all, necessarily a solitary figure), they spend hours exasperatedly retracing their steps. The closeness of their relationship, artificially intensified by their isolation in a foreign city, leads to an unspoken stultifying identification with the other's desire, and thus to compromise and resentment. From the beginning there is a sense that more than just their holiday is out of kilter. Arguments are “resolved” without ever being articulated. Mary feels as though she is sleepwalking not just through the labyrinth of Venice but through her life, and longs for the “comfort” of the ordered existence of her childhood, “for time and events to be at least partially subject to control” (19). Things are critically out of balance, but McEwan is at his most coolly witty in these opening pages, and his protagonists' situation is amusing in its familiarity, for all that it is disquieting. By such means complicity is from the opening pages extended from McEwan's victims to include his reader.
Late in the evening, Colin and Mary are lost and hungry and bickering when their path is suddenly blocked by the third actor in the drama, who offers to guide them to a restaurant. From the beginning, Robert is obnoxious. His machismo and misogyny are undisguised, yet Colin and Mary follow him deeper into the labyrinth, farther and farther from the brightly lit legibility of San Marco and Dorsoduro to a gay bar, probably somewhere in Cannaregio. The bar is full of chainsmoking silent young men, the music supplied by the juke-box is “chirpily sentimental” (29), and there is no food, but, beguiled at finding themselves amongst local people in this city of visitors, they stay, a captive audience for Robert's long, patently rehearsed confessional monologue about his childhood, an ugly case study of oedipal desire, paternal violence, sibling hatred, and revenge. He stops only as the bar closes, and leaves Colin and Mary, hungry, tired, and now slightly drunk, to make their own way back to Dorsoduro. Still hopelessly lost, they wander on until dawn, snatching an hour's sleep in a narrow street near the Ospedale Civile on the Fondamenta Nuove, about as far away from their hotel as they could possibly be. In the morning, they take the vaporetto to San Marco, returning to the area of the city they know, whose code is easily deciphered. When they meet Robert a second time—or rather, as later becomes clear, when he shows himself to them a second time—they are no match for his insistence that he offer them further “hospitality.” He carries them off to his house, uncannily close to the calle in which they had fallen asleep a few hours before.
Again they sleep during the day, to wake in a room whose walls are barred by the rays of the setting sun shining orange through shutters, recalling Mary's earlier feeling of imprisonment. She wakes first and spends a long time staring at Colin, her mirror twin. Her gaze slowly catalogues the parts of his naked body in terms that suggest a sculpted beauty that is iconic, not quite real in its androgyny. He has a narrow waist, slender, hairless legs, and “abnormally” small feet. She “move[s] closer to examine his face as one might a statue's” (56). The skin of his ears is “so pale and fine” as to be “almost translucent,” their construction so intricate as to be “impossible.” His eyebrows are dark and straight, his lashes long and thick, and his “unnaturally” fine dark hair curls on his slender, womanly neck. His nose in profile lies classically “flat, along the face,” its nostrils no more than sculpted “commas” (56). The description could be of a classical sculpture, or, looking forward to the photographs Robert takes and their immobilizing two-dimensionality, the eroticized, horizontally posed male nudes of late-eighteenth-, early-nineteenth-century French neoclassical painting10—for example, Anne-Louis Girodet's The Sleep of Endymion or Pierre-Narcisse Guérin's Aurora and Cephalus. A childlike physical flawlessness and vulnerability and an ambiguous sexuality are emphasized by the fact that “his arms [are] crossed foetally over his chest” (55) and he lies face down with only the upper part of his body “twisted a little awkwardly towards [Mary]” (55), so that neither pubic hair nor genitals are visible. There is in such an image of androgyny, as Francette Pacteau has pointed out, the promise of the (impossible) erasure of sexual difference as the resolution of the narcissistic desire for pregendered completeness and self-sufficiency (Pacteau 63). In the light of their unspoken sense of entrapment within their “mirror” relationship, it is telling that Mary moves to stroke Colin but, rather than wake him, chooses instead to gaze without touching.11
This lengthy construction of Colin as the object of the gaze is the first description we have of him, and it is telling that it is framed by the first overt reference to a structuring scopic regime that has been foregrounded from the beginning. Robert, described in some detail on his first appearance, is Colin's physical antithesis. The oppositionality of the representation of the two men, as arresting as the mirroring that exists between Colin and Mary, begs to be read in iconographical terms: naked and clothed, supine and upright, passive and active, innocent and knowing, spectacle and spectator, masculine and feminine, and so on. At their first meeting Colin is dressed in white, and Robert wears a black shirt (26) that is both a declaration of his machismo and, in the light of his politics and his nostalgia for the way the world was during his father's and grandfather's lifetimes, a sinister nod toward Italian fascism and the reinscription of the patriarchal values that accompanied it. Robert projects an immediacy and a worldliness that contrast with Colin's somewhat petulant passivity. Colin is confined, immobilized by the camera, while Robert is actively present, a Mulveyan three-dimensional figure in the landscape, alert, moving surely across the feminine space of the city, manipulating his surroundings and the people he comes across. His is a performance of masculinity that declares his virility. In one nice juxtaposition, Colin cannot get the attention of a waiter in the Piazza, but a few minutes later the water-taxi drivers squabble for Robert's custom. The contrast becomes even more striking when Colin is described in sleep in Robert's house. Contained and displayed within the feminine space of a shuttered bedroom, he is beautiful, passive, prone, oblivious. Each man is portrayed as other than human; Colin's slender beauty causes Mary to liken him to a god and Robert to liken him to an angel, and this accentuates Robert's brutishness. He is almost simian: stocky, with long muscular arms, large hairy hands, and a carefully exposed “pelt” of chest hair (26).
From the moment Colin wakes, the carefully staged direction of the drama becomes clearer. Since the one piece of clothing to be found is a woman's dressing gown, it falls to Mary to venture out of the enclosure of the bedroom. She finds herself in a gallery that is more like a museum than a lived-in house. Like Pandora, or Bluebeard's bride, with all that those figures conjure up of forbidden secrets and spaces, female sexual curiosity, and guilt, she tries to open a sideboard, “a monstrosity of reflecting surfaces whose every drawer ha[s] a brass knob in the shape of a woman's head” (60), but all the drawers are locked, the knowledge they might contain denied her.
The fourth actor is introduced. Caroline has been watching Mary's breach of etiquette from a balcony, and now she questions her about her life, continuing to stare, adding a twist to the increasingly complicated field of vision when she owns to having watched Colin and Mary as they slept. This admission of voyeurism is the more peculiar not only because they were naked but because of its juxtaposition to Mary's observation of her sleeping lover. With what we already know of Colin and Mary's mirror relationship, Caroline's confession nudges Mary's narcissistic delight in her lover's beauty from an uncomplicated pleasure in looking toward something abnormal, perverse. Mary is uncomfortable but barely responds to Caroline's disclosure and when Colin hears, he merely asks Caroline if she's American, as if that would explain either her unusual behavior or her remarkable lack of embarrassment. The relative ease with which they both accept this objectification recalls their self-obsessed preparation before stepping into the city as though onto a stage.
For all this looking, the stream of language continues as Caroline presses Mary to confess her feelings for Colin and her views on sexual love. She is comically confused by Mary's ironic description of a women's theater group she had belonged to and the problems they'd had working together, and she is stunned by the idea of a play without male characters, since without an active (sadistic) masculine figure to create the action, “what could happen?” (68).
In keeping with the pattern of display and vision, Robert acts as cicerone for Colin in a tour of the “family museum” (59)—furniture, paintings, books, sculpture, and such prosaic items as brushes and razors, a riding crop and a fly swat (70-71)—that are his paternal legacy. A collection of memorabilia, it parodies the cultural authority and validation offered by the museum—doubly resonant in the context of this city, which is itself a museum to the past—for not only does it prove to be a collection of fragments shored against the ruins of patriarchal culture, but the things are valued less for themselves than for their associations with his father and grandfather, who inhabited a golden time when men were men and women knew their place. A series of “murky,” artistically insignificant paintings are prized first because his grandfather collected them, and second because his father showed that “certain brushstrokes were those of a master” (71); opera glasses are revered because both men witnessed particular performances through them. He delivers a banal homily on gender politics, philosophizing that we are confused and unhappy because men don't believe in themselves and “[w]omen treat them like children, because they can't take them seriously” (72). For all that women talk of freedom, they want masculine aggression and dream of captivity. Colin, “affable, but strained,” responds with mocking banter about “the good old days” (73). It is an encounter between strangers establishing the boundaries of small talk, but Robert has no conception of boundaries, social, bodily, or psychic. His transgressive behavior is more tangible than his wife's, and he punches Colin in the stomach so that he falls to the floor. No one else sees what has happened and nothing is said.
Colin and Mary's response to this unpleasant encounter is as odd as the encounter itself: they retreat to their hotel room, and make love for days. Conversation is renewed along with sexual passion. They discuss their lives and rework old arguments about gender and class politics from a personal rather than from their usual detached, analytical perspective, and each actually tries to listen to the other. They also—playfully—invent sadistic fantasies, but neither the fantasies nor what might underlie them ever enters into the intense conversations they conduct outside sex. They barely refer to the experience at Robert and Caroline's that marked the shift in their relationship; they speak neither of the sadomasochism each later admits they recognized in the other couple, nor of the coercion to which they each acquiesced.
After three days, Mary, a little self-consciously and for the first time since their jouissant idyll began, slips downstairs to have breakfast alone, and when she sees Colin smiling down from the balcony, she is jarred by an uncanny sense of unease “at the back of her mind, just beyond her reach, […] like a vivid dream that cannot be recalled” (84). The anxiety persists and the next day she wakes at dawn, struggling out of a horrifying nightmare she doesn't explain, except to say she realizes that seeing Colin on the balcony had reminded her of a photograph Robert had shown her. It was blown up and indistinct, but she now knows the man in the picture was Colin. At first Colin placates her, but as she begins to formulate her thoughts and to face what is happening, he cuts her off and falls asleep—this time the hour and the place are appropriate for sleep, but the circumstances demand wakefulness. Mary doesn't name the unnameable, and the moment is lost.
Later the same day they escape to the Lido and the open Adriatic. At the edge of the ocean, they begin to speak about the photograph, recognizing it now as evidence of Robert's predatory voyeurism. They admit they were aware of Caroline and Robert's sadomasochism, and Colin confesses Robert had hit him. This is a second moment when they might have recognized themselves as enabling elements within Robert's brutal fantasy and refused the roles he allocated them. Because they do not, the Lacanian scopophilic loop remains intact12 and Robert and Caroline will be able—jointly—to take up the position of sadistic subject, and experience a jouissance beyond the pleasure principle. Colin and Mary no sooner begin to talk than their mode of conversation relapses into adversarial detachment, and instead of being discovered and examined, their appalling fascination is repressed, allowed to retain its power. Their passionate talk and lovemaking now seem to have been “nothing more than a form of parasitism, an unacknowledged conspiracy of silence” (91). Sickened, they return to their mode of irritable taciturnity, papering over the glimpsed violence that lies at the heart of their relationship. On the way back to the vaporetto, Colin returns to the question of Robert and the photograph, but this time Mary forestalls discussion, shrugging it off as though she has forgotten the horror glimpsed only a few hours before. Their silence on the return journey is broken by an apparently casual agreement to walk back across the island to the hotel from the Ospedale Civile stop instead of going on to San Marco, because “[i]t will be quicker” (98). With their record for negotiating the city, it's hardly a convincing reason, and when Caroline waves from her balcony they wordlessly walk toward her.
Robert leads Colin back to his bar. The women remain at the house, and at Mary's insistence it is now Caroline's turn to talk, to confess. By the time Caroline has described the development of her relationship with Robert, his “deep loathing” for her (for all his play-acting, she explains, “[i]t wasn't theatre” ), the pleasure she came to take in the pain as well as in her feelings of guilt and helplessness, Mary has drunk the spiked tea Caroline has prepared, and her silence is no longer voluntary. Like Bluebeard's bride, her curiosity is satisfied and, like her, she is in no position to retreat to take stock of her newfound knowledge. The men return, and Mary, her still gaze fixed on the scene being enacted before her, takes up the role of Hitchcockian “made-to-order-witness” (Silverman, Threshold 126; n. 6, 243) to the ritualistic murder of her lover. Like Pentheus manipulated by Dionysus, she is forced to watch what she has refused to see. It is, and it is not, theater.
The matching pieces of the textual puzzle coalesce around the vision/language division: the first is the photograph Mary recalls in her nightmare, a grainy blowup of Colin standing on the hotel balcony;13 the second, the oedipal story within the story Robert narrates to Colin and Mary. The photograph is, like Venice itself, a figure for the text's structuring scopophilia; at the same time, and again like Venice, it is a figure for reading and interpretation and the role of memory. Associated with the photograph that frames Colin as “spectacle” is an enfilade of gazes that extends to include Robert, Caroline, and Mary, and the reader, in a complex structure of fascination and complicity. Mary's uncanny experience of seeing Colin on the balcony nudges her memory and she struggles to recall what turns out to be the forgotten photograph. She remains within the narcissistic economy that applied when she looked at his sleeping body, but now she occupies Robert's line of vision, and this results in a subtle shift, actual and metaphorical, in her perspective. She sees as though through the lens of his camera, her gaze contaminated by his, rather as earlier her pleasure in looking at Colin's sleeping body was corrupted by its juxtaposition with Caroline's voyeurism. She is inserted into the position of the bearer of the gaze as Colin has been placed in the position of its object. This does not make her a voyeur, but it does further align her with Robert and Caroline on their side of the voyeur/exhibitionist binary, and foreshadows her role as coerced witness to Colin's murder.
Caroline, too, gazes at the photographic image of Colin from Robert's perspective. Confined within his house, the only perspective available to her is the one he chooses. The camera becomes her eye, and the photograph of Colin provides what she lacks: access to a world in which she can make something happen. As she looks, she crosses from the position of masochistic object to share the visually active role of voyeur and begins to plan with Robert how to transform sadomasochistic fantasy into deadly reality. “It's like stepping into a mirror,” she explains to Mary (114).
In this way, the field of vision comes to encompass the reader, hypocrite lecteur and mirror witness to the unfolding drama. Just as Mary struggles to recall the photograph and to interpret the circumstances surrounding its existence, so the reader must remember and bring together a series of random textual and intertextual elements surrounding the same image, metaphorically narrowing his or her eyes until the unheimlich fragments achieve their terrible clarity. Mary's gaze is fascinated and complicit; her desire to know leads her into the trap Robert and Caroline have set. The reader's desire to know suggests a similar complicity.
McEwan's textual staging distracts attention from the blown up photograph when it is first mentioned, so that it is as easy for readers to overlook its importance as it is for Mary. Dinner at Robert and Caroline's apartment is over. Caroline and Colin are center stage as she hints at her imprisonment and insists Colin promise that he and Mary will visit again. Mary overhears, moves upstage away from the conversation, and suggests it is time to leave. She glances first at a magazine and then at the photograph, in what appears to be no more than stage business. She is curious enough to take the picture in her hand and can make out a man smoking on a balcony, but like the thousands of other images that have “fallen dully on her retina, as on a distant screen” (12) over the past few days, it holds no meaning for her. Robert takes it from her after a few seconds, but not until the noose is drawn tight does McEwan let us know that Mary did not pick up the picture by chance, that Robert showed it to her. He does, however, provide a number of textual “clues” to the photograph's provenance and to its importance, clues that weave the image back into the text. It is a visual reprise of the early linguistic description of Colin smoking a joint on the hotel balcony, and photography has been foregrounded from the beginning by its presence and by its absence. By the time the picture is mentioned, seemingly disconnected references to lenses, cameras, and photography have become a kind of leitmotif. A camera is an instrument of domination and torture in Mary's nightmares: she dreams her ex-husband has cornered her and for hours relentlessly explains the operation of his camera as she sighs and moans and begs him to stop. She is bleached to photographic “silver and sepia” (22) by street lighting, becoming the living embodiment of Robert's gaze as he stalks and photographs them. In a shop window “a single camera lens [is] mounted on a velvet plinth,” (24) accorded the kind of reverence usually reserved for works of art or precious jewelry, and in this city of tourists, where “[t]wo-thirds, perhaps, of the adult males [carry] cameras” (47), Colin, as object rather than bearer of the gaze, takes no pictures. Before they leave the hotel, he watches tourists capturing the city and each other on film and recounts an anecdote about it to Mary, as a man in a small boat on the Giudecca Canal returns binoculars to their case.14 The binoculars chime uncannily with the suggestions of theatricality, and more particularly with those of voyeurism, recalling the description a few pages earlier of Colin and Mary's “exhibitionist” ritualized toilet preparations. When they encounter Robert later that evening, he is carrying a camera, although it is quite dark, and he still has it with him the next day when he runs them to ground in the Piazza. None of these references is accorded particular attention: not until Caroline sits Mary down before the record of Robert's perverse looking in the form of the collage of photographs of Colin, framed and cropped, reduced to two-dimensionality, do they shift into focus.
A second key to the textual puzzle is the embedded story that explains Robert's careful orchestration of Colin's murder in terms of childhood trauma and the effort to master it by reproducing the sadistic experience in all its painful horror. Robert's perverse barroom soliloquy may have its basis in the real events of his childhood, but it is an expression of his psychic reality.15 He prepares himself as an actor might, pausing, adjusting his body and breathing—going into character. There is neither opportunity nor need for a response from Mary and Colin, who are set up as audience rather than as interlocutors; this may be a self-telling, but there is to be no talking cure. There is something of Browning's technique in what is essentially an interior monologue, in that it is as though in spite of itself psychologically revealing of Robert and incriminating of the feared and respected father he longs to emulate. For all that he professes only admiration and respect, the paternal portrait is that of a vain, manipulative, petty tyrant, complete with Hitlerian moustache, whose inner sanctum deserved to be defiled by his powerless son.
Just as the photograph may be read as a figure for scopophilia in the text, Robert's family narrative is a figure for the Oedipus complex, with its foundations in violence, eroticism, and guilt. Robert's account circulates around fantasies of possession of the mother, and paternal retribution for his forbidden desire to be the father and for his failure to measure up to the father, to be like the father (Freud, Ego 34). He describes fantasies of humiliation and punishment that are echoed in the wider structuring violence of the “dominant fiction” that informs the text as a whole. Although his behavior is sadistic, what demands his story is not “simple” sadism but its oscillatory other, an unconscious primary masochism that will ensure his public punishment and humiliation. The unconscious desire to master the trauma of childhood betrayal and punishment at the hands of his father leads to the reproduction of his psychic reality in an effort not to bind it, but to shatter the guilty ego once and for all, and in so doing to achieve a jouissance that can only be attained with the complete destruction of the self. This will be effected beyond the bounds of the text, when he will step onto the juridical stage and become the object of the gaze of society.
Robert is the youngest of five siblings, the only son and, according to his monologue (31-40), not merely his stern father's favorite, but “his passion” (32). When his father is away, Robert shares his mother's bed until, at the age of ten, he meets Caroline and transfers his love to her. His father is a terrifying figure (“even the ambassador was afraid of [him]” )16 who pits his daughters against their brother. His sisters, too, are “frightening”: a more or less undifferentiated Medusan “tangle of ribbon and lace and curls” (40), and they turn their castrating fury on their little brother. His oldest sisters—tellingly named Eva and Maria—will be punished for reaching sexual maturity while he, as the male heir and “the next head of the family” (33) is set up by his father in a false position of power over them. His father pretends to allow Robert to infantilize his sisters, forbidding them to go out unchaperoned or to exchange girlish socks for silk stockings. But, as he discovers, the dangerous female body is not so easily contained, and in their parents' absence his sisters flaunt their outlawed sexuality before his spellbound gaze, transforming themselves from “tall schoolgirls” into “real women” (34) as they put on the fascinating and threatening masquerade of femininity in the form of their mother's clothes and makeup. As they pose narcissistically for each other, he follows them, “looking at them all the time, just looking” (34). At dinner that night, Robert betrays his sisters, and in his father's study, a forbidden, secret place of gold leaf, chandeliers, and red velvet, he witnesses his sisters being beaten.
They take their revenge by persuading him to swallow castor oil before gorging on the chocolate that is forbidden him because it was “bad for boys. It made them weak in character, like girls” (35). As the room begins to swim, Eva and Maria bind him and lock him in his father's tabooed study (“Bravo Robert! […] Now you are big Papa” ), where he throws up and defecates on the precious rugs. Before his father's return, the sisters untie their brother and leave him to his fate (37). Now it is his turn to be beaten, for failing to measure up to his paternal inheritance, for proving to be no better than a weak-willed girl.
Freud explains this kind of fantasy in terms of the negative Oedipus and “moral masochism” (“Masochism” 161, 165); the split subject turns upon itself, the superego hounding and punishing the ego. He describes “an unconscious sense of guilt” (166) which drives the subject “to seek punishment at the hands of a parental power” (169). The ego, which is after all, as Silverman reminds us, “first and foremost a bodily ego,”17 becomes “the erotogenic zone of choice, the site where [the moral masochist] seeks to be beaten” (Silverman, Male Subjectivity 188-89). In the case of the female subject, masochism is more or less acceptable within the formations of normative heterosexuality, in keeping with the binaries that define woman as the gentle, passive, childlike, weak, evil, lacking, guilty complement of man. The positive resolution of the Oedipus complex, which validates the little girl's willingness to subordinate herself to the masculine subject, means such fantasy may be acknowledged consciously. She identifies with her (powerless, passive) mother and “loves” her (powerful, active) father. With maturity she will “become” the mother and transfer her love for the father to a patriarchal husband. However pathological her behavior may be, Caroline recognizes her love of suffering and her desire to be destroyed; Robert has had to repress the homosexual desire to be beaten/loved by the father, so that his desire to be destroyed is unavailable to consciousness. Misrecognized, it is outside his control, even more dangerous than his sadism or Caroline's desire for self-destruction.
She describes their marriage, which proceeded smoothly enough until they were unable to conceive a child. Robert, anxious to step into his father's position, “was desperate to be a father, desperate to have sons, but nothing came of it” (108). Further proof of his “castration” was exposed as doctors discovered there was “something wrong with his sperm” (108). Unable to be the father, he began to hurt Caroline as they had sex, punishing in her a femininity he feared in himself. They found their roles irresistible, and after they moved to Venice the level of violence and the pleasure they took from it escalated until Robert broke Caroline's back. They had stepped into the Real, and according to Caroline, they were at once frightened and thrilled, and “the idea of death […] wouldn't go away” (110). “We had arrived at the point we had been heading towards all the time” (109)—that “point” is also, of course, the geographical, topographical space of Venice as figure for the body of the woman and as the Real of fragmentation, horror, and death.
At a physical level, Robert is in control, but at the level of the psyche, the power relation is less definite. It becomes clear that Caroline takes Robert “seriously” only within the frame of her bodily pain: for the rest (and tellingly, given Robert's sermon to Colin about gender roles), she describes him as a child who makes up stories and is obsessed with his father and grandfather and his “little museum” of their possessions (111). His desire may be unavailable to his consciousness, but it is all too available to being manipulated by Caroline's desire.
Robert must prove that he is not weak like his sisters; indeed he must show that he is like the father, and he must be the father, whom he introjects as the sadistic superego. His conscious drive to destroy Colin, who is for him exemplary of the gender “confusion and unhappiness” (73) that pervades and undermines patriarchal culture, masks an unconscious drive toward his own humiliation and destruction. The murder ensures the annihilation of his castrated self, and makes “real” the father of his psychic reality. In “punishing” Colin, he is able at last to step into his father's shoes and punish his failed, effeminate self once and for all, and this ultimate transgression will guarantee the ego's exposure and destruction at the hands of the law, as the symbolic father. Part of Robert and Caroline's planning includes escape, but because the unconscious aim of Robert's desire is to engineer a repetition of his childhood trauma, he ensures he will be caught and punished by leaving a legible trail. Air tickets are booked in their own names; before Robert kills Colin he parades him through the streets leading to his bar, telling everyone they meet they are lovers; and Mary is set up as a witness. In the wake of his crime, he defiles the patriarchal house as he had once defiled his father's study, smearing it with the blood of his victim that is the guilty and abject trace of his own feminized aberrance.
I have spoken of the structure of McEwan's text as a negotiation of two textual zones, the “tale” and the “meaning,” against the mental map of Venice as a figure for culture. A tale of gothic horror informs a discussion of our “dominant fiction,” and an individual capacity for “map reading,” the negotiation of urban space, is a figure for the negotiation of social structure. The trauma faced by patriarchal culture at the end of the twentieth-century is vividly figured in Robert's personal trauma. The disruption of the “dominant fiction” by feminism and the development of gender politics reflect Robert's after-the-event construction of his childhood, and each threatens his Imaginary relation with the phallus. His museum, reflecting the role of Venice as a museum to western culture, is a defense against chaos, a collection of fragments he has shored against the ruins of a society he views as undermined by a feminizing force that is bringing him, and patriarchy as a whole, face to face with loss.
His sisters tricked him into exposing his weakness for sugar, and by analogy, his femininity. For all that he appears to have succeeded in hobbling and imprisoning his wife where he was unable to control his siblings, she too views him as infantile, and he has been unable to make her the bearer of his sons. Robert explains to Colin that in his father's and grandfather's time, men “understood themselves clearly. They were men, and they were proud of their sex. […] There was no confusion” (72). But now men are filled with self-doubt and women “treat men like children because they can't take them seriously” (72-73). Nobody, it would seem, benefits. His “recital” could be reworded: “I am confused. I don't believe in myself as a man, and Caroline treats me as a child because, for all that she is terrified of me, she cannot take me seriously.” Robert must perform a masquerade of masculinity in order to retain the fantasy of the phallus as signifier of masculine potency in the face of the appalling abyss of the fantasy of the feminine. Constructed by castration and lack, he rigidly, as it were, maintains an active, sadistic position while unconsciously being drawn toward that of the passive masochist. Such a response has terrible repercussions: for all that Colin colludes in what happens, he dies because the misrecognized aim of Robert's unconscious drive is his own discovery and punishment.
In the last lines of the text, Mary sits beside her lover's body in the hospital mortuary, and begins to explain the story Caroline told her on the afternoon of the murder, and to extrapolate from that “her theory, tentative at this stage, of course, which explained how the imagination, the sexual imagination, men's ancient dreams of hurting, and women's of being hurt, embodied and declared a powerful single organizing principle, which distorted all relations, all truth” (125). But she loses the thread of her argument, rather as she repeatedly lost her way in the city. She lapses into silence and so any examination of the violence that underlies the trauma she has experienced is cut off, the possibility of change blocked. The text literally becomes silent too—it ends—but the challenge of McEwan's text is that we do not lose the thread, that we recognize the patterns by which we have narrated ourselves into being, since only then will we be able to undertake the task of “re-vision.” Adrienne Rich states that we must recognize that a change in the concept of sexual identity is essential if there is to be a real shift in the old political order, and insists that for this to happen, we must reread and revision the past that has constructed us:
Re-vision—the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction—is […] more than a chapter in cultural history: it is an act of survival. Until we can understand the assumptions in which we are drenched we cannot know ourselves. And this drive to self-knowledge […] is part of our refusal of the self-destructiveness of male-dominated society. A radical critique of literature, feminist in its impulse, would take the work first of all as a clue to how we live, how we have been living, how we have been led to imagine ourselves, how our language has trapped as well as liberated us […]. A change in the concept of sexual identity is essential if we are not going to see the old political order reassert itself in every new revolution. We need to know the writing of the past, and know it differently than we have ever known it; not to pass on a tradition but to break its hold over us.
The Comfort of Strangers breaks off too, but McEwan's polemic is as urgent as Rich's or Mulvey's or Cornell's. Although he is writing fiction and “meaning” is veiled behind his gothic “tale,” the narrative structure that foregrounds the violence of the “single organizing principle” that is patriarchal law and that equates remembering and revision with survival, means that it would be fatal to ignore the narratives of psychoanalysis; as Cornell insists (“What” 76), they provide a collection of “analytic tools” by means of which it is possible to critique and reimagine those aspects of social reality that have their basis in psychic fantasy.
In an interview a couple of years after the book was published, McEwan discussed at length eroticism and sadomasochism in relation to The Comfort of Strangers itself and also in the wider context of political theory and practice. He explained that in the novella he was attempting to address issues of the unconscious and the role of sadism and masochism, “which act out the oppression of women in patriarchal societies but which have actually become related to sources of pleasure,” since to view relationships of power from a purely rational position as the effect of social forces alone means we are vulnerable to manipulation at the irrational, psychic level (qtd. in Haffenden 178). Lacan recognized the central importance of masochism to the psychic economy when he wrote ironically in his introduction to the seminar he called The Ethics of Psychoanalysis that “it would be a definite sign that we have really arrived at the heart of the problem of existing perversions, if we managed to deepen our understanding of the economic role of masochism,” adding that “it is useful to give oneself a task that is unattainable” (15).
The epigraph McEwan chooses for The Comfort of Strangers comes from Rich's “Sibling Mysteries,” published in Dream of a Common Language (1978): “how we dwelt in two worlds / the daughters and the mothers / in the kingdom of the sons” (Dream 49). (In a 1985 interview McEwan said of Comfort, “People of our generation, who grew up in the 1950s, grew up in the time of the fathers” [qtd. in Haffenden 179].) Rich's essay, a 1971 address to the MLA published in 1972, is not a direct intertext, but it was a central influence on feminist thinking at the time. It was reprinted in 1976, and collected in On Lies, Secrets, and Silence in 1979. Mulvey's “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” was first published in Screen in 1975.
When McEwan was his student, Angus Wilson said he especially liked his writing's “nastiness” (qtd. in Lawson 45). Reviewers have tended to respond less positively, and an almost prurient interest in his text's nastiness and the possibility that they mirror his own behavior has dogged him since his first volume of short stories was published in 1975. In a 1990 interview, McEwan exasperatedly pointed out how often reviews of his work focus on, and misread, a short violent scene as though it were the whole novel and, with an apparent refusal to take into account the power of the novelistic imagination, McEwan himself is portrayed by interviewers as “a trembling ghoul, who's just stepped away from some unspeakable act.” He gives as an example the dismemberment of a body in The Innocent, which is read neither in the context of the whole novel nor, metaphorically, in the context of a century of violence that has resulted in the dismemberment of Europe itself (Johnson 16).
Cornell's fascinating discussion of the indeterminacy of the sign is based on the semiotic theory of Charles Sanders Peirce (Transformations, esp. Ch. 2).
For McEwan it is the sense of Venice rather than the reality that counts, and he manipulates the city and its topography to suit his purpose: “The unnaming of Venice gave me, I thought at the time, a degree of descriptive freedom. I think I rotated parts of the city to catch the sunset. I also wanted to be set free of the place-name tedium that can bog down fictions set in real cities. Finally, an unnamed city was a better sink for C and M's vulnerability” (personal communication, 1 September 1996). He told John Haffenden in 1983 that from the beginning he found himself “to be describing the city in terms of a state of mind, and vice versa” (177). But, as Gaetano d'Elia and Christopher Williams note in discussing his deliberate decision to avoid topographical connotations, this is “senza ombra di dubbio la città di Venezia” (without a shadow of a doubt the city of Venice) (233): the Zattere, Palladio's Redentore church viewed from Colin and Mary's hotel on the Giudecca, the Fondamenta Nuove, the Piazza and Basilica of San Marco, the Lido and the island of San Michele are rendered with meticulous realism. And, as d'Elia and Williams note (233-36), he quotes, almost verbatim, the famous description of the domes and west facade of the Basilica from Ruskin's The Stones of Venice (2: 67; McEwan 49), but in keeping with the namelessness of the rest, he excises a reference to the Lido, and doesn't credit Ruskin. Interestingly, when Colin and Mary are not literally lost, their position in the city is clear to the reader—in their hotel on the Zattere, trying to get a glass of water in the Piazza San Marco—but when they are lost in the labyrinth, so is the reader. The area around Robert's bar, for example, seems to be Cannaregio but could as easily be Castello or even San Polo.
Intertextual repetition is a marked characteristic of twentieth-century Venetian fictions in general: in The Passion (1987), Jeanette Winterson's Henri recalls the French madman of Shelley's Julian and Maddalo; in The Book of Mrs Noah (1987), Michèle Roberts's narrator's fantasized underwater experiences in Venice recall the boundless crystal caverns imagined by Radcliffe's Emily during her visit to Venice in The Mysteries of Udolpho; the hero of Caryl Phillips's The Nature of Blood (1997) is a rereading of Shakespeare's Othello; and Coover's Pinocchio (Pinocchio in Venice ) is wickedly reminiscent of Mann's Aschenbach. Each of these repetitions serves a particular purpose, but what is fascinating about McEwan's allusions to Death in Venice is a shared focus on the shaping influence of ancient tragedy, which he extends to an engagement with psychoanalysis's rereading of the oedipal narrative.
Mann's Tadzio is of course a child; Colin is adult, but he is repeatedly infantilized.
As Susan Suleiman puts it, “since all fantasy is ultimately textual […] the subject of Sadean fantasy can be none other than the speaking subject of the Sadean sentence” (66).
The dreams Colin lists are even mentioned on the same page in The Interpretation of Dreams: “There is a fair amount of agreement, however, over the interpretation of various forms of dreams that are described as ‘typical’, because they occur in large numbers of people and with very similar content. Such are the familiar dreams of falling from a height, of teeth falling out, of flying and of embarrassment at being naked or insufficiently clad” (Interpretation 37).
My reading of Colin's body in terms of iconography employed in French neoclassical painting is influenced by Thomas Crow's work on that subject, including his paper “Observations on Style and History in French Painting of the Male Nude, 1785-1794,” which uses these paintings as illustrations of shifts that occurred in the period in the depiction of classical subjects.
For Freud, of course, scopophilia is foreplay and properly should lead to intercourse; anything else risks perversion (Three Essays 156-57).
Lacan discusses Freud's insight that the sadomasochistic drive is directed toward the active sadistic subject. “At what moment, says Freud, do we see the possibility of pain introduced into the sado-masochistic drive?—the possibility of pain undergone by him who has become, at that moment, the subject of the drive. It is, he tells us, at the moment when the loop is closed, … when the subject has taken himself as the end, the terminus of the drive” (Four Fundamentals 183. The italics are Lacan's.). The loop to which he refers is the circular path of the drive which, rather than moving from sadistic subject to masochistic object, begins and ends with the subject.
The image has something of the haunting effect of the photographs in Cortázar's short story “Blow-Up” and, even more particularly, of the photographs in Antonioni's film of the same name.
The man in the boat is probably Robert, who has just taken the photograph he later shows to Mary.
Caroline emphasizes this point when she says that while Robert's childhood was “weird,” he “exaggerates a lot, and turns his past into stories to tell at the bar” (108).
True to the Browningesque nature of his monologue, Robert casually reveals in this fantasy of hierarchies of power that his father was not actually an ambassador; he was not at the top of the diplomatic pecking order (108).
The ego is first and foremost a bodily ego; it is not merely a surface entity, but is itself the projection of a surface.” Strachey's footnote to Freud's text adds: “I.e. the ego is ultimately derived from bodily sensations, chiefly from those springing from the surface of the body. It may thus be regarded as a mental projection of the surface of the body” (Ego 26).
Brodsky, Joseph. Watermark. New York: Farrar, 1992.
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. 1902. New York: Norton, 1971.
Coover, Robert. Pinocchio in Venice. London: Heinemann, 1991.
Cornell, Drucilla. Transformations. New York: Routledge, 1993.
———. “What is Ethical Feminism?” Feminist Contentions: A Philosophical Exchange. Ed. Seyla Benhabib, et al. New York: Routledge, 1995.
Cortázar, Julio. “Blow-Up.” Blow-Up and Other Stories. 1967. Trans. Paul Blackburn. New York: Pantheon, 1985. 114-31.
Crow, Thomas. “Observations on Style and History in French Painting of the Male Nude, 1785-1794.” Visual Culture: Images and Interpretations. Ed. Norman Bryson, Michael Ann Holly, and Keith Moxey. Hanover, NH: UP of New England, 1994. 141-67.
d'Elia, Gaetano, and Christopher Williams. La Nuova Letteratura Inglese: Ian McEwan. Fasano, Italy: Schena, 1986.
Freud, Sigmund. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works. 18 vols. Ed. and trans. James Strachey. London: Hogarth, 1953-74.
———. Beyond the Pleasure Principle. (SE) 1920. 18:1-64.
———. “A Child Is Being Beaten.” (SE) 1917-19. 17:177-204.
———. “The Economic Problem of Masochism.” (SE) 1924. 19:157-70.
———. The Ego and the Id. (SE) 1923. 19:1-66.
———. The Interpretation of Dreams. (SE) 1900. 4 and 5.
———. Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. (SE) 1905. 7:123-245.
Haffenden, John. Novelists in Interview. London: Methuen, 1985.
Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke UP, 1991.
Johnson, Daniel. “The Timeless and the Timely Child.” The Times Saturday Review. 8 December 1990: 16-17.
Lacan, Jacques. The Four Fundamentals of Psychoanalysis. 1977. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Trans. Alan Sheridan. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1979.
———. The Ethics of Psychoanalysis 1959-1960: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book VII. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Trans. Dennis Porter. New York: Norton, 1992.
Laclau, Ernesto. “The Impossibility of Society.” Canadian Journal of Political and Social Theory 7.1 and 2 (1983): 21-24.
Lawson, Mark. “Innocent Victim.” The Independent Magazine. 28 April 1990: 44-45.
Lefevbre, Henri. The Production of Space. Trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith. Oxford: Blackwell, 1991.
Lynch, Kevin. The Image of the City. Cambridge, MA: Technology, 1960.
Mann, Thomas. Death in Venice and Seven Other Stories. Trans. H. T. Lowe-Porter. 1954. New York: Vintage, 1989.
McEwan, Ian. The Comfort of Strangers. 1981. London: Picador, 1982.
———. Letter to Judith Seaboyer. 1 Sept. 1996.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” 1975. Visual and Other Pleasures. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1989.
Norwich, John Julius. A History of Venice. 1982. London: Penguin, 1983.
Pacteau, Francette. “The Impossible Referent: Representations of the Androgyne.” Formations of Fantasy. Ed. Victor Burgin, James Donald, and Cora Kaplan. London: Methuen, 1986. 62-84.
Phillips, Caryl. The Nature of Blood. New York: Knopf, 1997.
Reed, T. J. Thomas Mann: The Uses of Tradition. London: Oxford UP, 1974.
Rich, Adrienne. The Dream of a Common Language. New York: Norton, 1978. 33-49.
———. “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision.” 1972. On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966-1978. 1979. London: Virago, 1980.
Ricks, Christopher. “Playing with Terror.” London Review of Books. 21 Jan.-3 Feb. 1982: 13-14.
Ruskin, John. The Stones of Venice. 1851-53. 3 vols. London: George Allen, 1905.
Silverman, Kaja. Male Subjectivity at the Margins. London: Routledge, 1992.
———. The Threshold of the Visible World. London: Routledge, 1996.
Suleiman, Susan Robin. Subversive Intent: Gender, Politics, and the Avant-Garde. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1990.
Winterson, Jeanette. The Passion. 1987. New York: Vintage, 1989.
SOURCE: Annan, Gabriele. “Wages of Sin.” New York Review of Books 46, no. 1 (14 January 1999): 7-8.
[In the following review, Annan commends Amsterdam, praising it as a “savage farce”and an “indictment of human nature.” Annan also lauds McEwan's descriptive skills, scientific acumen, and portrayal of children.]
Ian McEwan is a prize winner. His novels and stories have won the Somerset Maugham Award and the Whitbread Prize, and have been shortlisted for Britain's most hyped trophy, the Booker Prize. This year he won it with Amsterdam. When the award was made in October, there were murmurs that it must have been an act of reparation by this year's Booker judges for their predecessors' mistake: the 1997 prize should have gone to McEwan for Enduring Love, which was thought to be a much meatier, longer and more profound novel. Amsterdam is an intricate satirical jeu d'esprit and topical to the point of Tom Wolfeishness. It is also funnier than anything McEwan has written before, though just as lethal.
Death always figures in his work. In his heart-rending (but ultra-cool) first novel, The Cement Garden, a mother dies and her four young children bury her in a box of cement in the basement: their father died some time before, and they realize that if her death becomes known, they will be separated and sent to orphanages. In The Innocent, a couple of lovers accidentally kill the woman's violent divorced husband in self-defense. McEwan devotes many pages to their methodical dismembering of the body (“There was a glutinous sound which brought him the memory of a jelly eased from its mould”) and the difficulties of its disposal. Reviewing Enduring Love (which opens sensationally with a man killed falling from a balloon) in these pages last April, Rosemary Dinnage remarked that “among the critical praise that festoons his book jackets, the word ‘macabre’ crops up more than once.” But until Amsterdam, McEwan's macabre has not been merely “grim, gruesome” (OED); not been like, say, Genet's. There have been hints of the supernatural. His novels are spooky—particularly Enduring Love and The Child in Time, which is, among other things, about second sight.
So what happened when McEwan won this year's Booker Prize seemed as strange as one of his own plots—as though he himself had second sight, in fact. On the very day it was announced, a ministerial scandal broke in the British press and the subsequent events developed along lines uncannily like the story of Amsterdam. In fact as in fiction, a government minister resigned because of a harmless sexual indiscretion. The real-life minister went home with a stranger he met on Clapham Common, a known homosexual beat. He was robbed at knife-point and blackmailed. He informed the police, the affair became public, and he chose to resign. In Amsterdam, McEwan's foreign secretary is forced to resign because photographs of him in drag appear on the front page of a national paper. What makes the coincidence even stranger is that as the real-life events in Britain faded from the front page, a story broke about the birth of Siamese twins: it happens in Amsterdam as well.
Julian Garmony, the foreign secretary in Amsterdam, is a bland right-wing monster, a hanger and flogger who wants to keep immigrants and asylum seekers out of Britain. (McEwan usually manages to introduce an element of anti-Thatcherism, most notably in The Child in Time, where each chapter is preceded by an excerpt from a spoof Thatcherite, ultra-disciplinarian “Authorised Childcare Handbook”). There is a danger that Garmony might be the next prime minister. So Vernon Halliday, the editor of a national paper, decides to use the photographs to ruin his career: he convinces himself that this is a noble cause. But his motives are mixed: he needs to raise a falling circulation, and the Garmony scoop would make it zoom.
There is a lot of opposition from the old-guard journalists on the paper, who feel that Vernon has been dragging it down-market since he took over after, the previous editor was sacked. They are dismayed at the proposed invasion of Garmony's privacy. (In Britain at this moment, you couldn't find more topical subjects than invasion of privacy and the vulgarization of the press. Vernon is frantic with indecision, and seeks the advice of his oldest friend. Clive Linley: Clive sides with the older journalists. Besides, he points out, publishing the photographs would be a betrayal of the adorable woman who took them. She is called Molly, and the book begins with her funeral. The wife of the millionaire George Lane, a shareholder in Vernon's paper, she died in her forties of a degenerative disease.
George owns the photographs, is keen to sell them, and urges Vernon to publish them. Molly had had a great many affairs, including twice each with Vernon and Clive, and once with Garmony, she remained on the warmest terms with all three. Sentimental nostalgia for her affects them all. The plot here is pure Feydeau, except for Molly's horrible death, which is pure McEwan, who is given to dwelling on physical horrors especially deterioration, decay, decomposition, putrefaction. It is not the only plot, though: Amsterdam is a thriller as well as a farce, with a plot whose extreme convolution and plethora of unlikely coincidences reads as a sendup of the thriller genre.
It is also an ethical duel between Clive and Vernon, neither of whom is ethically motivated at all, though both like to think they are. Clive is a composer of independent means, and his morality is actually the fat-cat fastidiousness of a spoiled, conceited man who thinks he may be a genius. He is currently absorbed in a commission for a “Millennial Symphony” to have its premiere shortly. As for Vernon, the general view of him is that he does “not fully exist. Within his profession Vernon was revered as a nonentity.” Neither Clive nor Vernon is likable or even charming. Both are hypochondriacs, and thoughts of Molly's grisly demise bring on suspicious tingling sensations and feelings of numbness in both of them. Without disclosing their disquieting symptoms to each other, they make a suicide pact: each promises that if his friend becomes incapacitated, he will make the necessary arrangements with a euthanasia specialist in Holland.
But their argument about the photographs turns nasty; they fall out, and each seizes a chance to stab the other in the back, with the result that Vernon gets the sack. As for Clive, rage at Vernon's perfidy destroys his concentration and he fails to get together the finale for his symphony—which therefore later turns out to be a flop. Its première, by a British orchestra, is only a week ahead. The orchestra is currently performing in Holland, so Clive flies to Amsterdam for rehearsals. Vernon follows him, and the suicide pact turns into a reciprocal murder by medical syringe. One isn't, of course, meant to believe in this far-fetched scenario. Amsterdam is a savage farce about horrible people, whose every motive is flawed—and that goes for the minor characters as well, except the dead Molly. They are all hypocrites, adept at finding ways of living with any bad conscience they might have. The old-guard journalist who overcomes his objections and finally backs Vernon about publishing the photographs is typical of all the rest. After Vernon is fired, “he was heard to say in the canteen that once his misgivings were not listened to, he did his best to be loyal. By Monday they had all remembered their misgivings and how they had all tried to be loyal.” McEwan is a super-sleuth when it comes to digging up bad motivation.
Amsterdam is an indictment of human nature, with special reference to the Sixties generation to which Clive and Vernon belong—and all the other players too (except for the ruthless young journalist who steps into Vernon's shoes).
Nurtured in the postwar settlement with the state's own milk and juice, and then sustained by their parents' tentative, innocent prosperity, to come of age in full employment, new universities, bright paperback books, the Augustan age of rock and roll, affordable ideals. When the ladder crumbled behind them, when the state withdrew her tit and became a scold, they were already safe, they consolidated and settled down to forming this and that—taste, opinion, fortunes.
Because Amsterdam is cast as a farce, McEwan can be even more judgmental than usual. Moral judgment is a built-in component of his stories, which often feature a woman whose wisdom and exemplary behavior show up the callousness or just the wetness and confusion of the men. His women are also much better at loving than their partners. McEwan can write about love with a rare combination of delighted surprise and specificity that gives it an unusual sheen; and he is brilliant at writing about children—though when he writes about babies, especially dead, unborn, or aborted ones, the pathos can be excessive.
There is no scope for any of this in Amsterdam, or really for the lyrical evocation of nature that is, another of McEwan's specialties. Perhaps that is why a longish Wordsworthian interlude doesn't come off. Clive goes to the Lake District to seek inspiration for the finale of his symphony, and his walk in the hills turns out rather tedious—overlong and overloaded with the names of mountains and dales that can't evoke much for anyone who hasn't been there. On the other hand Clive's compositional problems and tactics are made so clear that one can almost hear the score as well as see it go down on the ruled paper. McEwan knows about composing music: he wrote the words for Michael Berkeley's oratorio Or Shall We Die? And he enjoys displaying his expertise. In The Innocent it was electronic engineering and tunneling; in The Child in Time, relativity theory; and in Enduring Love, evolutionary genetics, psychiatry and physics. In Amsterdam one gets not only music but also journalism: the daily hypertension of the editorial meeting.
McEwan is among the most idiosyncratic of British novelists, even if he doesn't seem interested in experimental writing. His prose is precise and revelatory, and whatever he writes about comes up fresh, luminous, and surprising, like a familiar painting recently cleaned. An example: Clive glimpses an old black woman “folded double” with osteoporosis. If she were just “bent” double, one wouldn't notice her; “folded” evokes her pathos and makes her visible. She gets only one sentence for her walk-on appearance, but she fulfills her purpose, which is to evoke pathos at that point in the story. The contrast between McEwan's superclean prose and lay-preacher stance on the one hand, and his steamy, ghoulish, tender, sometimes even mawkish subject matter and moods on the other, make him dangerously attractive and repellent at the same time.
SOURCE: Morrison, Jago. “Narration and Unease in Ian McEwan's Later Fiction.” Critique 42, no. 3 (spring 2001): 253-68.
[In the following essay, Morrison examines aspects of time, gender identity, and historical memory in Black Dogs and Enduring Love, particularly as informed by Paul Ricoeur's Time and Narrative and the feminist theory of Julia Kristeva.]
For a generation of well-established postmodernist writers in Britain, the exploration of narrative as the containment and control of temporal experience is of central importance. What makes Ian McEwan's writing especially worthy of attention is the way in which his experimentation with time and narrative is interlinked with the rethinking of gender identity. The early stories First Love, Last Rites (1975) and In Between the Sheets (1979) contained troubled and claustrophobic examinations of emergent masculinity. However, his novels from the 1980s onward contain an increasingly confident investment in gender as the central problematic through which the agency of the male writer can be reimagined in relation to both time and social space.
Perhaps the starkest example of this strategy can be traced in McEwan's anti-nuclear oratorio Or Shall We Die? (1983). Here the key mother-and-child image iconic to the oratorio form is set up directly against the paradigm of “mastery” and war. A working opposition is clearly established between a masculine-identified trajectory toward destruction, epitomized by the experience of the Cold War, and the promise of salvation in “womanly times” (23), characterized as an amalgamation of maternal empathy and (in an unexamined paradox) the post-positivistic Einsteinean legacy in science. Femininity, however, is not naturalized through conventional characterization but is broadened and abstracted as an alternate paradigm of temporal and social understanding. Thus gender becomes the focus in McEwan's work for a distinctive response to existing political and historical conditions:
Shall there be womanly times, or shall we die? […] Can we have strength without aggression, without disgust, strength to bind feeling to the intellect?
In The Child in Time this stylized use of gender as an approach to the political is developed much further, with the ideological obsessions of the Thatcherite right ironically reduced to the pathos of prepubescent male anxiety. In this novel again, a feminine principle of empathy or insight and the New Physics are clearly conflated, most obviously through the figure of Thelma, a woman scientist. In a far more complex way than was possible in the oratorio, however, the quantum notions of complementarity and relative time have in this text become an organizing principle for the rethinking of masculinity in relation to the dissolution of the nuclear family. For example, the key confrontation between the protagonist Stephen and his mother is narrated at a moment before his own birth, when he is both adult and foetus combined. The loss of Stephen's daughter at the beginning of the novel and the subsequent breakup of his marriage are similarly framed around themes of temporal disjunction: catatonia, obsession, and infantile regression on the part of the male-identified characters, contrasted with a therapy through music, landscape, and study schematically identified as a “womanly” alternative. The Child in Time, therefore, can be seen as establishing very clearly in McEwan's work the development of a gendered framework for understanding social and personal time, with this negotiation written through the experimental form of the narrative itself as well as through its particular thematic foci.
In this essay I explore the way in which McEwan extends this distinctive engagement with time, narrative, and gender within his texts in two of his most recent novels, Enduring Love and Black Dogs. In Enduring Love, with Joe Rose's precious picnic of focaccia, black olives, and 1987 Daumas Gassac, we are aware almost immediately that here the stake in McEwan's wager on narrativity will be the constitution of a moneyed, successful masculinity. Indeed, the novel opens with the symbolic emasculation of its protagonist, his heroic impulses immediately revealed as banal and redundant in a bungled attempt to save a child from a ballooning accident. Like McEwan's earliest writings, the focus of Enduring Love is personal and claustrophobic. In Black Dogs, however, McEwan's canvas is much larger. With a narrative that spans the experience of two generations, there is a much stronger concentration here on the notion of femininity as a possible response to the vaster impasse of time and historicality associated with the postmodern. Moving alternately in and out of the linear writing conventions of biography, history, and chronology, the structure of McEwan's writing in this novel forms a spiral of meaning as much as it forms the familiar continuity of linear narration. At the same time, as the novel draws on the postmodernist thematics of dislocation and fragmentation, however, there is also an assertion of the risks or the costs implied by the epistemological breakdown and relativity with which postmodernist writing seems often to be so comfortable. Thus in the postwar setting of McEwan's novel, the all-too-canonical suggestion of amnesia as a defining feature of the postmodern condition is at the same time thrown into sharp and uncomfortable relief against the political and historical imperatives of the Holocaust and of neo-Nazi resurgence in Europe.
In contrast to the explicit political engagement of some of his earlier works, Enduring Love is striking for what seems like a loss of confidence in relation to the broad discourses of politics and history, a narrowing of narrative horizons and a return to personal obsessions. Certainly, in its negotiation of narrative form and of masculinity alike, Enduring Love is not a text of affirmation. Instead, its articulation of unease about the efficacy of both is everywhere apparent within the novel. The focus is on a successful writer whose comfortable family and professional life is challenged by the attentions of a fanatical male admirer. Above all, the novel depicts a scrabbling for security, as the protagonist seeks to bring the force of the law and of psychiatric medicine to bear on his unwelcome pursuer. However, the surge of panic that structures and consumes this text does not arise from any threat to his material security. Rather, the intruder needs to be seen as the catalyst for a panic that emerges from the more basic crisis that the novel discloses in the relationship between its privileged male subject and the public narratives of science, medicine, and law that are supposed to constitute and to defend his embattled masculinity.
At the end of the text, McEwan appends case notes and a fully reproduced and referenced journal article on de Clérambault's syndrome, the condition with which the “fanatic” Parry is ultimately identified. With its trappings of medical-scientific legitimacy, this appendix seems, on one level, to provide a sense of security and closure for the text. Such scientifically ratified documentation should represent an epistemological anchor for the narrative, locating its exploration and confirmation of masculine identity within the real. Approaching this documentation from our retrospective position as readers, we see the function and meaning of McEwan's novel very clearly on one level. Within the legitimizing discourse of science, both the standard of a “normal” masculinity and narrativity as a privileged mode of its articulation have been secured.
On another level, however, the text specifically invites our incredulity toward this grand narrative of male affirmation. As Umberto Eco suggests in his commentary Reflections on “The Name of the Rose,” it is necessary to distinguish between the possibility of what we might call the naïve and informed readings simultaneously facilitated by postmodernist writing. In Eco's scheme, the more informed reader might usefully be thought of as a “meta-reader,” who reads not only through the text but also above it, who is alive to quotation, intertextuality, self-reflexivity, and epistemological insecurity. To read Enduring Love in this sense, then, is first of all to identify the spuriousness of McEwan's appended documentation. From the moment we start to dig around in the text, the very specificity of the references in McEwan's appended article invites the realization that these case notes and this entire academic journal are dissimulated continuations of the main fiction. In that sense Enduring Love mirrors directly the “scholarly” appendix that concludes Margaret Atwood's novel The Handmaid's Tale, which invites us to consider both the problematic status of Offred's account as a document and the violence implicit in her “historicization” within academic discourse. Similarly, the insertion of these fake fragments of psychiatric medicine in Enduring Love appears to an informed reader as a strangely overdetermined gesture of legitimation. With a characteristic postmodernist duplicity, McEwan's protagonist himself has already explicitly allowed for this possibility: “De Clérambault's syndrome was a dark, distorting mirror that reflected and parodied a brighter world of lovers whose reckless abandon to their cause was sane. […] In other words, what could I learn about Parry that would restore me to Clarissa?” (128).
Taking those reading possibilities together, McEwan-Joe's appendices must be considered as presenting us both with the neutrality of information and with the knowledge of its duplicity. On a simple level, the novel educates us about a pathology of gender. As Joe suggests: “For there to be a pathology there had to be a lurking concept of health” (128). In that sense, these discursive fragments work to articulate in reverse the notion of a stable and healthful masculinity, a hegemonic narrative of gender identity within which the protagonist is able to reappear as the privileged subject. On a second level, however, in relation to his domestic status as a successful heterosexual male, the citation of a spurious psychiatric discourse in McEwan's text illustrates the instrumentality of that discourse in resecuring the privileged professional male as the standard of psycho-sexual normalcy. In terms of our informed reading, the reverse side of this coin is the destabilizing effects those appended fragments introduce into the narrative fabric of the novel. Understood in Eco's first sense, they seem to represent within the broader structure of the text a confirmation of the fruitful continuum between the writing and reading of literary narrative and the understanding of the world of the real. In Eco's second or “meta” reading, however, by disclosing the epistemological crisis on the underside of narration, they seem rather to display the opposite. Over the shoulder of the narrator, against the grain of their own intentionality, they precipitate a knowledge of narrative dislocation, mirroring exactly the dislocation of a privileged masculinity with which the novel is centrally concerned.
Throughout McEwan's text, narrative, symbolized and encapsulated in the appended, concentrated text of this case study, is clearly foregrounded as the means through which rationality, identity, and especially a sense of temporal coherence repeatedly try to establish themselves. At the beginning of the text, as Joe and Clarissa attempt to come to terms with the ballooning accident and death they have witnessed, there is an instant tension between the forces of narration and those of meditation or repetition, specifically polarized along gender lines. Narrativization is implicitly posed as the means of containment and control that represents one half of this dichotomy: “so much repetition that evening of the incidents, and of our perceptions, and of the very phrases and words we honed to accommodate them that one could only assume that an element of ritual was in play, that these were not only descriptions but incantations also” (28). In a refiguration of the gendered opposition set up in McEwan's earlier work, moreover, we can see in place here, from the outset, the idea of a schism between the (male) protagonist's reliance on a therapy through narrative and his (female) partner's quite different desire to envision an encapsulating image:
A little later we were back in our seats, leaning over the table like dedicated craftsmen at work, grinding the jagged edge of memories, hammering the unspeakable into forms of words, threading single perceptions into narrative, until Clarissa returned us to the fall, to the precise moment when Logan had slid down the rope, hung there one last precious second, and let go. This was what she had to get back to, the image to which her shock had attached itself.
Narrativity is strongly identified as the medium through which Joe articulates his own masculine knowledge and agency. A science writer, his journalistic work is alternately a narration of scientific advances for popular understanding and an exploration of the death of narrative in science. Through narrative, very consciously, he both succeeds and fails to address the disruption precipitated by the fanatic Parry. Indeed, the text presents itself on a literal level as the record of that highly self-conscious struggle of narrativization. At the same time, however, the instability and disjunction potentially implicit in narration are constantly foregrounded: “I've already marked my beginning, the explosion of consequences. […] But this pinprick is as notional as a point in Euclidean geometry […]” (17). In Joe's intricate attempts to defend and justify his hegemonic subject positioning through narrative, we witness at the same time the increasing erosion and destabilization of his psychic and social world.
This text, then, is engaged in unpacking the assumption of a continuity between the socially legitimized grand-narratives of legality and medicine and the positioning of the privileged male subject. The public discourse of criminality, Joe painfully discovers, is not invoked as easily as he presumed against a diffuse and enigmatic threat to his person. The narrative of psychiatric knowledge requires articulation and ratification within the overdetermined frameworks of case study, public record, and predictability before it can be deployed as a weapon of policing and confinement. Instead, in the ironic twist of the novel's main text, we unwillingly discover that only the banal narrative of male violence can be engaged with ease. In The Innocent (1990) McEwan plays with and discards the genre of the spy thriller, with a tunneling project in postwar Berlin whose sexual overtones become increasingly and alarmingly apparent within the novel; in Enduring Love the generic quotation we encounter is that of the hard-boiled investigator, of a masculinity that is both orthodox and marginal, operating on the edge of the social, whose legality and stability are constantly in question:
Clarissa thought I was mad, the police thought I was a fool, and one thing was clear: the task of getting us back to where we were was going to be mine alone.
The very banality of this pivotal plot line—Joe rescues his frightened partner from the clutches of the knife-wielding erotomaniac by blowing off his elbow with a handgun—foregrounds what we might usefully denote as the postmodernist dynamics of this text, in relation to which our assent as readers is simultaneously demanded and withdrawn. At the moment we are encouraged to empathize, we are also encouraged to recoil and critique. On a simple level, Enduring Love narrates the triumph of an orthodox masculinity in restoring the protagonist's own identity and position within the nuclear family. At the same time, however, it also illustrates the breakdown within a text of the narratives of legality and mental health of which the professional, rational, solvent male is supposed to be the subject.
For Paul Ricoeur in Time and Narrative, the function of narrative in relation to the everyday living of social and personal lives is to reflect and to affirm the coherence of temporal experience. Thus, according to Ricoeur, “time becomes human to the extent that it is articulated through a narrative mode, and narrative attains its full meaning when it becomes a condition of temporal existence” (1:52). Between the vast scheme of cosmic time, the meaning-laden scale of the historical, and the private, fluctuating experience of personal time, there is the potential for discordance. The task of narrative is to cement a continuum between those three orders of time perception. It could be argued that narrative in Ricoeur's scheme has a fundamentally conservative function. Arising out of “a pre-understanding of the world of action, its meaningful structures, its symbolic resources” (54) and mediating between those and the experience of the reader, narrative over and over rehearses and reproduces the hegemonic time frame. It ensures a comfortable continuum between our understanding of the cosmic or absolute, our sense of our historical placing, and the texture of our everyday experience.
Ricoeur's analysis becomes a problem in terms of the relatively unreconstructed commitment he frequently retains both to the universalistic properties of literature and to a notion of the author as auteur, self-determined designer of a work and of the readerly experience. Both of those critical tendencies emerge strongly, for example, in the analysis of Mrs Dalloway in volume 3. By the same token, there is little admission of the possibility that literary texts might also be deemed valuable and important for their articulation of ruptures, shifts, and discontinuities within the cultural and ideological fabric. Considering the negotiation of time in Enduring Love, however, it is nevertheless possible to see the usefulness of Ricoeur, not least in terms of his tripartite structure of understanding for time. The challenge posed by Parry to the security of the protagonist Joe can certainly be read on three levels, broadly mirroring the analysis proposed in Time and Narrative. First, Parry's stalking and harassment disrupt the fabric of Joe's personal life, in terms of his habitual work patterns and day-to-day routines. That threat on the one hand erodes his capacity to deploy the hours of the day usefully and, as important, on the other hand threatens his capacity to escape this level of consciousness into that other fundamental temporal experience, a necessary, undistracted state of intellectual concentration, “the high-walled infinite prison of directed thought” (48). Second, Parry's insistent intrusion precipitates pivotal crises in the larger narratives of Joe's family life and particularly in his professional life, the level at which personal experience interfaces with the public sphere. The stable relationship with Clarissa breaks down, and Joe finds himself compelled to re-assess the direction and value of his vocation as a writer. Finally, on a third and higher level, Parry's powerful imposition of a Christian teleology functions as a direct challenge to the temporal constitution of Joe's larger scientistic and evolutionary belief system.
The response Joe's narrative initially articulates toward this complex onslaught, moreover, can be seen as an attempt at a closer marriage between the levels of his temporal consciousness. That appears most obviously in the move to abandon his career as a journalist—a mere mediator of knowledge—in favor of a re-entry into the metanarrative of scientific research, “carrying my own atomic increment to the mountain of human knowledge” (75). The continuum between his science-defined cosmic understanding and the narrative of his professional life is thus to be cemented more firmly. As a journalist, Joe's meditation on the role of narrative in science has raised some uncomfortable questions, not only about the sanctity of scientific knowledge in relation to the history of the cosmos, but also about the status and meaning of his own career in relation to the history of science. The attempt to abandon that and to re-enter the research community offers an easy refusal of both those sets of questions, precisely because it offers the possibility of re-establishing a narrative coherence between the different levels of his temporal world.
The ultimate failure of Joe's attempt at ontological self-defense, through the failure of his research bid, leads to the necessity for the alternate strategy that dominates McEwan's text—the more violent narrativization of Parry himself. It is in this sense that Enduring Love is “about” de Clérambault's syndrome. Through the syndrome, the novel identifies the power of medical-scientific discourse as a guarantor of temporal and epistemological security. In a social sense, the appended documents are significant because they cast Parry into a ratified linear-narrative framework that carries the force of juridical and disciplinary power. On a personal level, moreover, what de Clérambault offers Joe is a surrogate solution to his own sense of temporal dislocation:
The name was like a fanfare, a clear trumpet sound recalling me to my own obsessions. There was research to follow through now and I knew exactly where to start. A syndrome was a framework of prediction and it offered a kind of comfort. I was almost happy. […] It was as if I had at last been offered that research post with my old professor.
Nevertheless, it is within this process that the affinity between the urges of narrativization and those of obsession is gradually and inexorably suggested in the text. In his journalistic role, Joe's own discursive practice involves a deployment of narrative as mediation: “People say I have a talent for clarity. I can spin a decent narrative out of the stumblings, back-trackings and random successes that lie behind most scientific breakthroughs. It's true, someone has to go between the researcher and the general public, giving the higher-order explanations that the average laboratory worker is too busy, or too cautious, to indulge” (75). In the course of the text, however, that professional penchant for the ordering and rationalization of the disordered becomes radically extended. While Joe labors with the enigmatic and allusive discourse of Parry's letters, cutting and pasting them into the deepening narrative of a threat (which he can then take to the police), the parallel suggestion is developed of the symbiotic relationship between Parry's intrusion and the neurosis implicit in Joe's own consciousness. For Joe, Clarissa's perception of Parry is cast in precisely those terms. “He was the kind of phantom that only I could have called up, a spirit of my dislocated, incomplete character, or what she fondly called my innocence” (102). Parry needs to be assimilated and contained within the narrative of criminality, and later of psychiatric disorder, before he can be policed and contained on a bodily level. On one level, the novel is the story of Joe's success in that endeavor. What emerges in his attempts to articulate Parry's deviancy is, nevertheless, as strong a conviction of his own obsessionality:
Three times I crossed the street towards him with my hidden tape recorder turning, but he would not stay.
“Clear off then!” I shouted at his retreating back. “Stop hanging around here. Stop bothering me with your stupid letters.” Come back and talk to me, was what I really meant. Come back and face the hopelessness of your cause and issue your unveiled threats. Or phone them in. Leave them on my message machine. […] I daydreamed violent confrontations that always fell out in my favour.
In her essay “Women's Time,” Julia Kristeva offers a critical perspective for understanding time and narrative through gender, providing a clear context to the narrative strategies that we see in McEwan's writing. In parallel with the experimentation, we can identify in The Child in Time and Enduring Love, Kristeva develops a clear association between the notion of narrative linearity and the notion of obsession. She argues that feminists have articulated a problem with the dominant “conception of linear temporality, which is readily labelled masculine and which is at once both civilizational and obsessional” (447). Outlining the possibility of a number of alternative feminist responses to hegemonic ideas of national and personal identity, she sets out a clear gender framework for understanding temporal organization. In relation to Black Dogs in particular, Kristeva's implied schematic opposition between intuition, mystical vision, and female subjectivity on the one hand and “male-stream” linear rationality on the other—an opposition she finds in need of significant renegotiation—offers clear lines of critical engagement:
In return, female subjectivity as it gives itself up to intuition becomes a problem with respect to a certain conception of time: time as project, teleology, linear and prospective unfolding; time as departure, progression and arrival-in other words, the time of history. It has already been abundantly demonstrated that this kind of temporality […] renders explicit a rupture, as expectation, or an anguish which other temporalities work to conceal.
For Kristeva the understanding of Europe in particular needs to be reconsidered in terms of its constitution in memory and historicality. Just as we can see with McEwan's protagonists, Kristeva suggests that for a new generation of feminists there is a need to negotiate between the time of narrative and history associated with the male and the problematic of the matrix space and the temporalities of repetition and eternity associated with the female.
In novels such as Black Dogs and Enduring Love, which center on the epistemological and existential problems of masculinity, the kind of gendered understanding of narrative, history, and biography that Kristeva proposes is highly applicable. With a far broader narrative scope than that of Enduring Love, McEwan's novel Black Dogs can be read directly in terms of its exploration of the problematic of historical memory through an explicitly gendered framework. More specifically, we see again in this novel an oscillation between the poles of intuition and rationalism, personified through the relationship of two of its central characters. Characteristically for McEwan's fiction, a male narrator becomes the focus of the text's attempt to negotiate a new understanding of personal and social time by mediating between these feminine- and masculine-identified modes of seeing and remembering:
Rationalist and mystic, commissar and yogi, joiner and abstainer, scientist and intuitionist, Bernard and June are the extremities, the twin poles along whose slippery axis my own unbelief slithers and never comes to rest.
The ability of narrative itself to articulate successfully and to preserve what needs to be remembered, as in both The Child in Time and in Enduring Love, is explicitly questioned in Black Dogs. Through the medium of a memoir, the novel follows its narrator Jeremy and his struggles to find or force coherence between radically disparate strands of temporal understanding: not only the biographical past of his mother-in-law June and the larger historical frame of World War Two but also the Holocaust and its legacy, the deterministic historicism of her postwar socialism and the universalist, visionary consciousness that remains her final, most defining feature. As Angela Rogers argues in “Ian McEwan's Portrayal of Women,” to read McEwan's treatment of femininity in terms of authenticity of characterization may well be to find his work wanting—indeed Rogers's essay is oriented toward precisely such a conclusion. The serious limitation of that critical approach, however, is that it fails to recognize fully the role and use of gender in McEwan's writing, not as the medium of naturalistic narration but rather as the structural focus for a broader spiral of temporal and historical concerns. The strategy of McEwan's text is to pivot a plurality of narrative threads on a clear central moment. Indeed, Black Dogs turns on the simplest of parables, a girl frightened on a country path by a pair of dogs; all other narrative concerns are twisted and woven around that central motif.
Drawing again on Ricoeur, I have already implicitly characterized the task of narrative here, of Jeremy's memoir, as that of needing to find simplicity, security, and coherence between the dislocated levels of the temporal—the historical, the cosmic, and the personal. McEwan's text continually discloses something less reassuring: not the ease and potency of narrative as a guarantor of memory and of knowledge, but rather that it is barely adequate for this task. According to Ricoeur, historical narrative itself needs to be understood only as a “knowledge by traces” (3: 120). The construction of historical meaning must be conceived as the retrospective inscription of causal sequence on otherwise enigmatic marks of passage, a summary appropriation of traces or vestiges of something that has passed or is past. In Black Dogs even more strongly than in Enduring Love, we see in Jeremy's memoir the problems and the labor of forming that narrative chain, as well as the enigmatic quality of the trace itself.
First, the articulation of June's life as a linear development is constantly frustrated by the complexity and discontinuity of her consciousness, within which not biographical or historical causality but the coordinating force field of a central image or parable, the black dogs, dominates the alignments of her life and understanding as powerfully as a magnet under paper:
As far as June was concerned, it was to be the centrepiece of my memoir, just as it was in her own story of her life—the defining moment, the experience that redirected, the revealed truth by whose light all previous conclusions must be rethought.
Within the distinctive mode of June's understanding through insight and revision is an attempt to encapsulate in the central parable or vision something that is simultaneously meaningful on a personal, historical, and cosmic level. But the success of that endeavor is never clear. Second, in Bernard's Berlin experience we find an attempt to negotiate between those same elements, between the historicality of the Wall's demolition, the mystic identification between the young girl Greta and his dead wife, and the personal consummation represented by his courage in standing against racism at the close of an era. His experience is not offered as one of affirmation, however, but one closer to humiliation.
The progression of the various episodes of the novel, from Berlin in 1989 to Majdanek in 1981 to the Bergerie in 1989 to St Maurice de Navacelles in 1946, offers not a chronological or even a coherent narrative progression but rather a spiraling reorientation of temporal perspectives, through the disparate connections of history, of family, of intuition and recollection. In the midst of that complex or spiral of concerns in Black Dogs, moreover, only through the motif of the dogs, only in a vision or a dream, is any suggestion of closure found or durability, any possibility of encapsulation of the novel's vast concerns—on a historical level of racism's resurgence in Europe, on a political level of the danger of institutional and governmental complicity, on a biographical level of the possibility for making meaning out of an individual life, and on a spiritual or even visceral level of the understanding of evil. Paradoxically, nevertheless, part of the basic quality of that encapsulating vision or dream is to remain both transparent and enigmatic:
They are running down the path into the Gorge of the Vis, the bigger one trailing blood on the white stones. They are crossing the shadow line and going deeper where the sun never reaches, and the amiable drunken mayor will not be sending his men in pursuit for the dogs are crossing the river in the dead of night, and forcing a way up the other side to cross the Causse; and as sleep rolls in they are receding from her, black stains in the grey of the dawn, fading as they move into the foothills of the mountains from where they will return to haunt us, somewhere in Europe, in another time.
Within the text of Black Dogs, the framing of narrative in relation to the multilayered fabric of the temporal, refracted through the prism of gender, is a central concern. Around the axis of feminine identification, the dissident temporality of dreamtime is celebrated and privileged within the time-gender framework of the novel. However, that mode of seeing and understanding is also presented as problematic. June's consciousness is trenchant and visionary in its convictions but also fractured and riven with amnesia and the threat of temporal vacancy. “She cleared her throat. ‘Where was I?’ We both knew she had peeped into the pit, into a chasm of meaninglessness where everything was nameless and without relation, and it had frightened her. It had frightened us both” (49). By the same token, moreover, the novel offers a strong articulation of the inadequacy of conventionally ordered narrative, schematically identified with the male, for the task of social and personal remembering. On the opposite axis of McEwan's gender divide, the male-identified investment in a leftist historicism is presented as equally problematic. Against what are presented as the scientistic and deterministic contours of socialism in the postwar era, the mediation of historical time itself here precipitates a sense not of affirmation but of disillusionment and dislocation: “The news we didn't want to hear was trickling through. […] Finally the contradictions are too much for you and you crack” (89).
As in Kristeva's essay, the novel presents us not with a choice between linear rationality and the temporalities of repetition and eternity but rather the need for a third way, or to put it differently, the challenge of imagination posed by the insufficiency of plot or of vision alone. In June's struggle for coherent understanding and in Bernard's, along both of these axes of McEwan's gendered scheme, the problem of incoherence, framed again as a disjuncture between the levels of temporal understanding, is central. On the one hand, the novel is enthralled and disturbed by June's investment in the immutable and her oscillating disclosure of vision and amnesia; but, on the other hand, there is an unwillingness to relinquish the sense of agency and the different promise of redemption held and withheld by Bernard's socialist and scientistic rationality. Against the enormity, the vast backdrop of that schism of understanding, what we seem to understand is the weediness of words in the novel, a sense of inadequacy around the writing of narrative, which surely will not be able to effect its task of synthesis and reconciliation. What finally anchors the novel, however, despite that canonical suggestion of narrative insecurity or inadequacy, is the presence of a balancing imperative, represented by the quiet and dominating presence of the Holocaust and the reality of neo-Nazi resurgence in Europe. Within the duplex and discordant framework of the novel, therefore, both the problem of historical memory and its absolute necessity are forced into our consideration.
In the Berlin section of Black Dogs, we see a self-conscious transposition of the parable of the black dogs from its place in June's visionary understanding to a scenario of concrete historicality in which Bernard becomes the protagonist. The decommissioning of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the accompanying citywide celebrations are only the background for an attack on the elderly Bernard by a group of young neo-Nazis. These skinheads, bunched in a pack with their hot breath and lolling tongues, are explicitly paralleled with June's dogs. The connection is clearly drawn between the central vision of the dogs, who attack and are wounded but then are ultimately reprieved by public complacency or complicity, and the continuing threat of neo-Nazism. In a characteristic strategy of resolution, not the Berlin authorities but a highly sexualized representation of young femininity—Greta, explicitly revisioned as June herself “the one on the left. Didn't you see?” (84)—is alone able to force a transformation of violence into impotency, reducing the racists to the status of “naughty children” (98). “She was a contemporary, an object of desire and aspiration. […] The force of her disgust was sexual” (98).
Later in the text, after June's honeymoon attack, the thematic importance of patriarchal complacency and complicity is most clearly foregrounded in relation to the challenge of femininity, with the inaction of the local authorities in St Maurice to the black dogs, whose wildness and ferocity stand both symbolically and actually as a reminder of their fugitive Gestapo owners. There is a persistent rumor of their use during the war in the sexual humiliation of an independent, unmarried woman in the village; now in the war's aftermath, the text suggests an unspecified reluctance on the part of the Maire and his men to eliminate this threat by having the dogs exterminated. Similarly, in the scene in Berlin in 1989, there is an undertow not just of inaction but of complicity within the public sphere in relation to the violence of the young neo-Nazis, who first attack a young communist revolutionary before turning their attentions to the respectable establishment figure of Bernard. Two “business types or solicitors” (96) begin the violence and whet the appetite of the crowd and of the young Nazis for a beating. Moments later, “amazed by what their own violence had conjured up [they] had retreated deeper into the crowd to watch” (97). A hatred marginalized on one level is conceived and endorsed at another by the faces of a public and respectable masculinity. Moreover, not institutionalized authority but the moral-sexual force of the young Greta-June alone offers the possibility of its negation. In a scene whose focus and anchor should apparently be the weight of historicity itself, suggested jointly through the breaching of the wall and through the signal appearance of the neo-Nazis, McEwan's text instead becomes polarized between the sense of a more elusive and diffuse and recurring danger, suggested on a broader level than simply the presence of a few underprivileged thugs, and the insurgence of a specifically feminine agency that seems to provide its only effective counter-argument.
In the Berlin section of Black Dogs, the text does not invite us to witness the historical confirmation of the end of Nazism's legacy and of the Cold War, with the decommissioning of the Wall and a concomitant moment of liberation. Instead there is a clear suggestion of historicization itself as a dissolution of meaning. As Jeremy and Bernard encounter the city's excavation of the Nazi terror, the idea of digging up the Gestapo headquarters, like framing an extracted fingernail in a museum case, renders each not so much preserved as “neutralised” (93). Similarly, in McEwan's portrayal, the excitement and expectation of the masses around the Brandenburg Gate dissolve to a recognition that “nothing was going to happen” (88). The threat and the confrontation are not here but elsewhere. Only the symbolic face-off between the young woman Greta and the pack of Bernard's neo-Nazi assailants provides any possibility of closure to this event, whose historical monumentality McEwan's text works systematically to resist and deny.
For Ricoeur in the third volume of Time and Narrative, what makes this whole notion of the monument open to suspicion is precisely its pretension to finality, and the elision of its imbrication with politics and power. In Black Dogs, all of Nazism's legacy as a “warning from history” is seen as subject to mutation, dissolution, and appropriation. The integrity of the monument is supposed to reside in its brave immutability, as Ricoeur suggests. But what if that appearance of immutability and integrity turns out to be a chimera? In the section “Majdanek, Les Salces and St Maurice de Navacelles 1989” not the Berlin wall but the concentration camp at Majdanek becomes most illustrative of this sense of the duplicity and mutability of the monument that is supposed to be a stand against history.
As Jeremy and his partner Jenny approach the gates of the concentration camp, their first confrontation is with an official sign in commemoration of the dead. But this monument, this publicly legitimized document, provides a sense not of security or of affirmation or even absolute condemnation of “our universal reference point of human depravity” (37) but rather a sense of threat and unease, a clear suggestion of the imbrication of the place with politics, institutional complicity, and power:
“No mention of the Jews. See? It still goes on. And it's official.” Then she added, more to herself, “The black dogs.”
These last words I ignored. As for the rest, even discounting the hyperbole, a residual truth was sufficient to transform Majdanek for me in an instant from a monument, an honourable civic defiance of oblivion, to a disease of the imagination and a living peril, a barely conscious connivance with evil.
In Berlin, as we have seen, historicization becomes neutralization, with the symbolic demolition of the legacy of World War Two painted in terms not of euphoria but of blankness. The attempt by neo-Nazism symbolically to appropriate Germany's reunification is neutralized by the insurgence of a feminine agency that is simultaneously moral and sexual. At Majdanek, on the other hand, the distortion and appropriation of the monument are offered with even darker implications. Each, it is implied, contains within it a different form of connivance that subverts and appropriates the possibility of a benign historicality. Each contains a threat that we cannot afford to ignore.
Within and around the questioning of the historical monument comes a necessary questioning of the narrative fabric that constitutes and surrounds it. It is easy to see that, through the motif of Jeremy's memoir, Black Dogs constantly foregrounds its own status as a document in preparation, a negotiation, and an articulation. Clearly, a potential paradox exists between the novel's disclosure of itself as a made text, as something both compromised and unfixed, and the sense of the need to witness something more absolute—for the preservation or encapsulation of a point of durable meaning in relation to the threat of Nazism and its legacy. For Ricoeur, the critique of the monument is also that of the document, whose status is no less suspect and compromised in relation to power and knowledge:
Conversely, the document, even though it is collected and not simply inherited, seems to possess an objectivity opposed to the intention of the monument, which is meant to be edifying. [But f]or criticism directed against ideology […] documents turn out to be no less instituted than documents are.
In a sense that is precisely the problem with which McEwan's text is grappling self-reflexively. Through June's memory and dream of the black dogs, instituted as it is into the family memory, through the witnessing of Nazi depravity first hand at the site of the concentration camp and the recognition of the continuing and institutionalized complicity in its project, through the documentation of the end of the Berlin Wall and the signal presence there of young neo-Nazis, what is at stake is the possibility of capturing in a document, through narrative, some durable sense of a threat that we should and must continue to take seriously.
The compromised status of the historicized past is a crucial part of the way in which that threat is constituted. On a different level of temporal perception, moreover, the possibility of a biographical discourse framed around June's life founders on Jeremy's difficulties in negotiating between the security of a linear-rational exposition and the more enigmatic and ungraspable structures of meaning disclosed within her vision and amnesia. In Ricoeur's scheme the classical function of narrative is clearly that of a guarantor of ontological and epistemological security. Its task is to mend discordance and to supply a structure of coherence that affirms the order and meaning of social and personal life. On a variety of levels, McEwan's text bears witness not to that process of coherence but rather to the insecurity or discordance of the biographical, historical, and metaphysical themes of which it is woven. Whether its central narrative motif of the black dogs is able to transfigure that discordance into a moment of durability or encapsulating meaning remains radically in question.
Both Enduring Love and Black Dogs are concerned with the struggle of narration. Each reveals in the center of its focus the craftedness of narrative and the difficulty with which narrative may be constructed as a coherent chain of meaning. To that extent McEwan's writing can be seen as symptomatic of a broad tendency in contemporary fiction. The unusualness of his work, however, is its distinctive use of gender as a focus for renegotiating those well-established concerns. For Julia Kristeva, the opposite pole to “women's time” of repetition, eternity, and the matrix space has often been seen as a masculinist temporality characterized by linearity, control, and obsessionality; and the task for a newer feminism becomes to transcend that kind of limiting dichotomy. In Enduring Love and Black Dogs, similarly, it is possible to see the ways in which an alternative to either of those gender polarities is explored on a number of different levels. McEwan's texts characteristically involve close identification with the problems and perceptions of their male narrators, but what we see in them is far from an attempt to rehabilitate some older, masculinist mode of authorship. On the contrary, McEwan's fiction might be better characterized in terms of its struggle to articulate the possibility of a narrative voice that is self-conscious in its refusal of full coherence or control and unable or unwilling to disguise the extent of its own instability and unease.
Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid's Tale. 1985. London: Vintage, 1996.
Eco, Umberto. Reflections on “The Name of the Rose.” Trans. William Weaver. 1983. London: Secker, 1985.
Kristeva, Julia. “Women's Time.” Feminisms. Ed. Robyn R. Warhal and Diane P. Hernde. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1991. 443-62.
McEwan, Ian. Black Dogs. London: Cape, 1992.
———. The Child in Time. London: Pan/Picador, 1987.
———. Enduring Love. London: Cape, 1997.
———. First Love, Last Rites. London: Cape, 1975.
———. In Between the Sheets. London: Cape, 1978.
———. “Or Shall We Die.” A Move Abroad. 1983. London: Pan/Picador, 1989. 1-24.
Ricoeur, Paul. Time and Narrative. Vol. 1. Trans. Kathleen McLaughlin and David Pellauer. 1983. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1984.
———. Vol. 3. Trans. Kathleen Blamey and David Pellauer. 1985. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1988.
Rogers, Angela. “Ian McEwan's Portrayal of Women.” Forum for Modern Language Studies 32 (1996): 11-26.
SOURCE: Winder, Robert. “Between the Acts.” New Statesman 130, no. 4555 (17 September 2001): 49.
[In the following review, Winder offers a mixed assessment of Atonement, praising McEwan's literary skill but finding the novel's narrative leaps and omissions unsatisfying.]
Ian McEwan's new novel [Atonement], launched smoothly into the slipstream of the autumn rush, presents us with a puzzle. On one level, it is manifestly high-calibre stuff: cool, perceptive, serious and vibrant with surprises. It will probably be on the Booker shortlist, and might even win. So it is probably silly to waste time pointing out that the most glaring aspects of the book are its weaknesses and omissions. As usual, McEwan has contrived a good story; but he seems weirdly reluctant to tell it. The title—thematic rather than dramatic—feels like the idea you have before you have an idea, and what follows also seems incomplete. There are fine episodes, but it feels, in the end, not so much a novel as a description of a novel, a selection of scenes from some much larger project. The best we can say is that it will be marvellous when it is finished.
McEwan has certainly mellowed, as the saying goes. His reputation was forged by a succession of stories written with a scalpel: icy, calculated, elegant and hair-raising. They had a subversive edge, and prickled with a sense of danger. But recently, in the Booker-winning Amsterdam and now in Atonement (whatever else, no one can say he is merely working his way through the alphabet), he has settled in milder country, in an antique, upper-class England more usually associated with the Iris Murdochs of this world. The Comfort of Strangers sent plain old Colin and Mary to Venice to be savaged; now he prefers people called Vernon and Cecilia, Leon and Briony. They are composers or diplomats with Firsts from Cambridge and priceless Ming vases, and live in stately homes. Their misadventures are subtle.
There's nothing wrong with that, and McEwan's senses are as alert as ever. A glug of warm wine, damp earth, a violent word, the hiss of breeze over water, a dismembered leg in the fork of a tree … the novel is alive with physical shocks. But he is an obstinate storyteller and plugs the flow of his ample saga by dividing (and condensing) it into three tidy set pieces. In a languid pre-war country pile, a precocious 13-year-old girl, Briony, utterly misreads the nature of the goings-on between her older sister and the boy next door, Robbie. Driven by a bravura compulsion to star as the heroine in her own melodrama, she falsely accuses him of raping a guest, and sends her sister's one true love off to prison.
It is rather terrific. There's a frisson of class conflict (the boy in question is the son of the cleaner—a ruffian, in other words) and all sorts of interesting things seem about to happen. So it's more than a little disappointing when—cut!—we jump forward and rejoin Robbie in the retreat to Dunkirk. It is as if the author flinched at the thought of describing Robbie in prison, or the vain efforts of his lover to save him. So a couple of years have passed, and now we're in the middle of a new tableau, as Robbie trudges across France with Stukas shrieking overhead. Not surprisingly, he is still obsessed by the injustice done him in those halcyon days before the war, but for now he has more immediate worries. Somehow he makes it to the famous beach, and joins the swarm of dejected troops waiting to be rescued.
Again, it's pretty exciting. Will he make it? What kind of revenge (or atonement) will he be able to exact when he returns? Will his love be able to withstand the shock of war and separation? Once again, we begin to tilt towards the edge of our seats.
So it's more than a little disappointing when—cut!—we jump forward again, and find ourselves back with Briony, in a hospital in London, lugging bedpans to and fro and trembling before the matron. She is grown-up now, and wrestling with her conscience at last. She wants to make amends. For a few pages, all of the book's plates are spinning on the same pole. The protagonists revolve towards a showdown and—oh no, not again, cut!—we jump to Briony in old age. She is now a feted author, brooding on the nature of fiction in a way intended to suggest that nothing we have read so far is quite what it seems.
It's clever. But so are people who can solve crosswords in five minutes. McEwan has taken the classic ingredients of the bodice-ripper—a quivering love story set against a backdrop of war—and, striving for ingenuity, declined to make the most of them. This is not really a criticism. McEwan is sufficiently modern to renounce “character in action” in favour of “character lost in thought”. He wants, as he says of Briony, to free himself from “the cumbrous battle between good and evil, heroes and villains”, and simply present, without judging, the friction between different minds, fogged as they are with apprehension and conceit. He even invents a letter written by Cyril Connolly, the editor of Horizon, to Briony. It's an admiring rejection of her first effort, urging her to have more respect for the “childlike desire to be told a story, to be held in suspense, to know what happens”.
McEwan tries to heed this advice, and offers plenty of suspense. But it is suspense of a thin sort, since it relies not on our ignorance of what might happen next, but simply on our not being told what is happening right now. McEwan deals out information cautiously, as if it were common to say too soon that the girl at the beginning of the book is 13, or that the year is 1938, or that many years divide some new chapter from its predecessor. McEwan carries on narrating in his shrewd and natural way, and it's up to us to figure out what he has neglected to mention. This is certainly a cunning way to keep us guessing, but the result is not mystery: it just feels blurred and out of focus.
None of this would matter if the author wasn't so obviously top-flight. And I might have got it completely wrong: perhaps the problem is not that McEwan is too tight-fisted with his booming emotional plot, but that he has leaned too far towards the love-war formula in the first place. Perhaps there is a fictional Gresham's Law, by which trashy ideas drive out good; maybe the fireworks of the underlying saga simply squelch his more delicate effects. McEwan once wrote a lovely children's book, The Daydreamer, which captured the gulfs between children and grown-ups more vividly than he does here. So perhaps there are not too many gaps, but too few. It's a terrible confession, because I know that reviewers are supposed to be thoroughly adept at snap judgements, but … I'm baffled. As I said, it's a puzzle.
SOURCE: Wood, James. “The Trick of Truth.” New Republic 226, no. 11 (25 March 2002): 28.
[In the following review, Wood commends Atonement as one of McEwan's finest novels, lauding the large scope of the plot and a feeling of “spaciousness” that is in contrast to McEwan's other works which, Wood asserts, have at times seemed “artificial” and contrived.]
Ian McEwan is one of the most gifted literary storytellers alive—where storytelling means kinesis, momentum, prowl, suspense, charge. His paragraphs are mined with menace. He is a master of the undetonated bomb and the slow-acting detail: the fizzing fact that slowly dissolves throughout a novel and perturbs everything in its wake, the apparently buried secret that will not stay dead and must have its vampiric midnight. These talents, which are enabled by a penetrating intelligence and a prose style far richer and more flexible than most contemporary writers dream of, have made McEwan an anomalous figure in Britain: perhaps the only truly literary best-selling novelist in that country.
The cost has been high, however. McEwan's work is very controlled, but its reality is somewhat stifled. More often than not, one emerges from his stories as if from a vault, happy to breathe a more accidental air. In his careful, excessively managed universes, in which everything is made to fit together, the reader is offered many of the true pleasures of fiction, but sometimes starved of the truest difficulties. McEwan's fictions have been prodigies: they do everything but move us. In his world what is most important is our secrets, not our mysteries.
In other words, McEwan's fiction has sometimes felt artificial. It should be said, in his favor, that most contemporary novelists feel artificial because they are not competent enough to tell a convincing or interesting story; it is a peculiar excess of proficiency and talent, like McEwan's—or like Robert Stone's, W. Somerset Maugham's, or Graham Greene's—that produces a fiction so competently told that it also feels artificial. Still, one has tended to read McEwan with the sense that he is beautifully constructing and managing various hypothetical situations rather than freely following and grasping at a great truth. (That this latter mode is also an artifice is only a banal paradox.) In particular, McEwan's characters, while never less than interesting, lively, and sometimes interestingly weird, have tended not to be quite human. Many of them have neither pasts nor futures, but are frozen in the threatening present. Many of them have parents who died when they were young. They rarely refer to their childhoods, and seem not to have the use of deep memory as such. McEwan, unlike most writers, has not seemed to need any kitty of childhood detail on which to draw. This absence of past stories, of loitering retrospect, allows him to polish the clean lines of his stories. Since his writing rarely dips into the reflective past, it can exist the better as pure novelty. This is the key to McEwan's extraordinary narrative stealth. His fictions, like detective stories, are always moving forward. They seem to shed their sentences rather than to accumulate them.
Atonement, perhaps following the claim of its title, is a radical break with this earlier McEwan, and it is certainly his finest and most complex novel. It represents a new era in McEwan's work, and this revolution is achieved in two interesting ways. First, McEwan has loosened the golden ropes that have made his fiction feel so impressively imprisoned. His new book is larger and more ample than anything he has done before, and moves from an English country house in 1935 to an extraordinary description of the British army's retreat at Dunkirk and a chapter set in wartime London. And second, McEwan uses his new novel to comment on precisely the kind of fiction that he himself has tended to produce in the past. It may be going too far to see Atonement as a kind of atonement for fiction's untruths—not least because Atonement is ultimately, I think, a defense of fiction's untruths. But it is certainly a novel explicitly troubled by fiction's fictionality—its artificiality—and eager to explore the question of the novel's responsibility to truth.
Of course, confessing to a sin is not the same as abstaining from it, and Atonement might easily have been no more than an over-controlled novel that sought to apologize for being over-controlled. But from the beginning the book has a spaciousness that is new in this writer. Significantly, Atonement is chiefly about a child, a little girl named Briony Tallis. The novel opens in 1935; she lives in a large country house in Surrey. Her elder sister, Cecilia, has just come down from Girton College, Cambridge. Her mother, who is subject to migraines, spends much of the time lying in her bedroom. Her father, a civil servant, is a distant presence, usually away in London. Around the house, in addition to the usual staff, is a young man named Robbie Turner, who has also just come down from Cambridge. Robbie's status is ambiguous: he is the son of the Tallis family's cleaning lady, and lives with his mother in a nearby cottage, but as a child he was taken under the family's wing, and his education was paid for by them. He practically grew up with Cecilia, who is in love with him. Alas for Robbie, young Briony, who is thirteen years old, is also in love with him, and Briony will ultimately take her revenge on him, the revenge of the child who feels tempted by, but still exiled from, adulthood.
The novel opens as a house party is about to begin. Briony's elder brother Leon and his friend Paul Marshall are coming from London. Briony's young cousins Pierrot, Jackson, and Lola Quincey have just arrived. Briony has always dreamed of writing, and she is eager for her three cousins to act the parts of her new verse play, The Trials of Arabella.Mansfield Park, with its staged play in a country house, and its reflection on the dangerous excesses of the theater, is an obvious progenitor. McEwan has an epigraph from Northanger Abbey, and he clearly wants to perform that most difficult literary task, the simultaneous creation of a reality that satisfies as a reality while signaling itself as a fiction. The characters, for instance, have obviously theatrical and outlandish names (Pierrot, Lola, Leon, Briony), which are simply incompatible with verisimilitude.
One of the ways in which McEwan does endow this fictive world with a reality is by genuinely interesting himself in the ambitions and the follies of a little girl. Briony Tallis, a prim, yearning, intelligent child with a rage for order and a tendency to judge before comprehending, is one of the novel's achievements. McEwan is funny about Briony's pretentious habit of stealing complicated words from the dictionary, so that her verse melodrama, The Trials of Arabella, opens thus:
This is the tale of spontaneous Arabella Who ran off with an extrinsic fellow. It grieved her parents to see their first born Evanesce from her home to go to Eastbourne Without permission …
We follow Briony's furies and daydreams, as her plans for the staging of her play are slowly thwarted (as in Mansfield Park, the play is never successfully performed). McEwan is especially acute in his conjuring of the aimlessness and solitude of childhood. In one typical scene, we watch Briony as she sits and plays with her hands:
She raised one hand and flexed its fingers and wondered, as she had sometimes before, how this thing, this machine for gripping, this fleshy spider on the end of her arm, came to be hers, entirely at her command. Or did it have some little life of its own? She bent her finger and straightened it. The mystery was in the instance before it moved, the dividing moment between not moving and moving, when her intention took effect. It was like a wave breaking. If she could only find herself at the crest, she thought, she might find the secret of herself, that part of her that was really in charge. She brought her forefinger closer to her face and stared at it, urging it to move. It remained still because she was pretending, she was not entirely serious, and because willing it to move, or being about to move it, was not the same as actually moving it. And when she did crook it finally, the action seemed to start in the finger itself, not in some part of her mind. When did it know to move, when did she know to move it?
From here, Briony goes on to consider her own sense of reality: “was everyone else really as alive as she was? For example, did her sister really matter to herself, was she as valuable to herself as Briony was? Was being Cecilia just as vivid an affair as being Briony? Did her sister also have a real self concealed behind a breaking wave, and did she spend time thinking about it, with a finger held up to her face?” If the answer is yes, Briony thinks, then “the world, the social world, was unbearably complicated, with two billion voices, and everyone's thoughts striving in equal importance and everyone's claim on life as intense, and everyone thinking they were unique, when no one was.” But if the answer is no, she thinks, then Briony “was surrounded by machines, intelligent and pleasant enough on the outside, but lacking the bright and private inside feeling she had.”
So we follow the vain drift of a child's logic over a page. A universal experience is evoked, and McEwan subtly makes the banal and childish dilemma—when do I control my fingers?—the spur to those larger frustrations of childhood, the questions of authority, agency, importance. What child has not selfishly thought: is anyone else as real as I am? And McEwan traces this mental discussion with an exemplary tact, the language having the poise and the exactitude of the adult novelist while inhabiting the imperfect simplicity of the child (“the bright and private inside feeling she had”).
Briony is about to discover that her sister Cecilia does indeed feel as “valuable to herself” as Briony does. Or, rather, Briony is about to ignore this truth, in a moment for which the rest of her life will be an atonement. Staring out of the window, she sees Cecilia and Robbie standing by the large fountain. Suddenly, Cecilia strips down to her underwear while Robbie watches her, and steps into the deep fountain to retrieve something. Cecilia emerges, puts her clothes back on, picks up a vase of flowers that had been hidden by the fountain, and walks into the house. Robbie also walks away. The scene stirs the little girl, who had once confessed her love to Robbie. She has the sense that she has witnessed some adult mystery, perhaps a scene of obscure erotic domination. Briony does not know what McEwan has told us, namely that Cecilia dipped into the fountain to retrieve a piece of the broken vase, and that Cecilia's provocative stripping had more to do with erotic challenge than submission or fear.
Briony is aware that her dim comprehension of what she has witnessed burdens her with an obligation not to race to judgment. Indeed, after her witnessing, she decides to abandon melodrama (which has been her habitual literary genre) and begin the more difficult task of writing truthfully and impartially. She could write the scene from three different perspectives, she excitedly realizes, from three points of view; her excitement was in the prospect of freedom, of being delivered from the cumbrous struggle between good and bad, heroes and villains. None of these three was bad, nor were they particularly good. She need not judge. There did not have to be a moral. She need only show separate minds, as alive as her own, struggling with the idea that other minds were equally alive. … And only in a story could you enter these different minds and show how they had an equal value.
Six decades later, McEwan tells us, when Briony Tallis is a celebrated author of fiction “known for its amorality,” she will recall this year, in newspaper interviews, as a turning point in her literary development.
But in fact Briony ignores her own caveats, and vandalizes the wise perspectivism that she claims to have discovered. Over the next few hours, the idea that Robbie is an erotic menace, an outsider or even a predator, grows in Briony's mind. She interrupts Robbie and Cecilia having hurried sex in the library, and again infers from their position that Robbie is forcing Cecilia into something unpleasant. (McEwan tells us that actually the lovers were equally sexually inexperienced and mutually attracted.) When, later that night, Briony's fifteen-year-old cousin Lola is sexually attacked in the garden, Briony assumes that the shape she saw in the darkness, running away, was Robbie. (Lola was attacked from behind, and seems unable to identify her molester.) Briony tells the police that she is sure that she saw Robbie, and she has other information too, all of it damning to Robbie's case.
Her determination to accuse Robbie is bound up with her literary impulses. She needs to make a story of it:
Surely it was not too childish to say there had to be a story; and this was the story of a man whom everybody liked, but about whom the heroine always had her doubts, and finally she was able to reveal that he was the incarnation of evil. But wasn't she—that was, Briony the writer—supposed to be so worldly now as to be above such nursery tale ideas as good and evil? There must be some lofty, god-like place from which all people could be judged alike, not pitted against each other. … If such a place existed, she was not worthy of it. She could never forgive Robbie his disgusting mind.
In part, Briony has been unable to shed her old melodramatic impulses, and is merely showing her age, even as she strives to get beyond it. But in part what is at work in her is the excitement of shaping a story that fits, that makes too much sense. McEwan surely wants us to reflect on the dangerous complicities of fiction, not just of melodrama but of form itself, which insists on sealing and plotting. What Briony saw was in truth plotless, because it could not be made to mean. Yet a plot is exactly what she imposes. Fiction, even very good fiction, often tends to notarize the incomprehensible simply because it insists on its readability. This is exactly the kind of fiction that McEwan has tended to produce in recent years; his last two novels, Enduring Love and Amsterdam, both begin with mysteries that they then efficiently lay bare. Formally and stylistically, both begin novelistically and accelerate into the neat, jig-sawed domain of the thriller. Atonement, by contrast, seems to want to ponder the deformation of tidiness in such fiction, and to propose instead an enriching confusion. McEwan, as Chesterton has it, chooses reality's battered truth over form's perfected error.
The paradox, of course, is that it is only through fiction itself that we can see how mistaken Briony is. McEwan's own wise perspectivism enables us to inhabit that “lofty, god-like place from which all people could be judged alike.” Thanks to his own novel, we discover how terribly Briony misjudged the moment in front of the fountain. Thus Atonement is both a criticism of fiction and a defense of fiction; a criticism of its shaping and exclusive torque, and a defense of its ideal democratic generosity to all. A criticism of fiction's misuse; and a defense of an ideal. And this doubleness, of apologia and celebration, could not be otherwise, for art is always its own ombudsman, and thus healthier than its own sickness. Art is the foundation of its own anti-foundationalism, and the anti-foundation of its own foundationalism. And from this comes a further paradox: McEwan's perspectivism, whereby we see all the characters equally, cannot avoid having a shaping torque of its own. There is no such thing, really, as a confused or truly messy fiction; distortion is built into the form like radon underneath sick buildings. The greatest, freest, truest, most lifelike fiction is nothing like life (though some is closer to it than others). McEwan certainly knows this.
So innocent Robbie is arrested, and as Robbie is put into the police car Briony again watches from a window: “The disgrace of it horrified her. It was further confirmation of his guilt, and the beginning of his punishment. It had the look of eternal damnation.” This is a fine example of how subtly McEwan follows the self-serving theatrics of Briony's mind. The idea that being arrested by the police is confirmation of guilt is a non sequitur indulged in by many people, often to disastrous effect, and probably no more so than to a child, who has rarely if ever seen the police doing their work. It is the final non sequitur from a girl who has consistently allowed the unfinished picture to finish her judgment, who has taken wonders for signs.
In its second and third parts (each about sixty pages long) Atonement leaves behind the Tallises' country house, but it cannot leave behind the shadow of Briony's false incrimination. In Part Two, we have advanced by five years, and are following Robbie Turner as he retreats, with the rest of the British Expeditionary Force, through northern France to Dunkirk. We gather that he has been in prison, that he and Cecilia have been corresponding, and that a remorseful Briony, now eighteen, wants to retract her statement to the police so that Robbie's name might be cleared. Cecilia, we learn, has not spoken to her parents or brother since 1935 (they sided with Briony against Robbie); and of course there has been no communication between Cecilia and her younger sister.
But in some ways this information is incidental to McEwan's extraordinary evocation of muddled warfare. I doubt that any English writer has conveyed quite as powerfully the bewilderments and the humiliations of this episode in World War II. After more than twenty years of writing with care and control, McEwan's anxious, disciplined richness of style finally expands to meet its subject. This section is vivid and unsentimental, and most importantly, though McEwan must have researched the war, there is no inky blot of other books: his details have the vividness and body of imagined things, they feel chosen rather than copied.
There is marvelous writing. Robbie has been wounded; he feels the pain in his side “like a flash of colour.” Day after day, the British soldiers make their weary, undisciplined way to Dunkirk. They can see where they are supposed to be going, because miles away a fuel depot is on fire at the port, the cloud hanging over the landscape “like an angry father.” They are not marching, but walking, slouching. Order has broken down, and a tired anarchy rules. McEwan captures the fatigue—which invades even eating—very well: “Even as he chewed, he felt himself plunging into sleep for seconds on end.” Into this obscure, thudding chaos, discrete and vile happenings explode and then disappear. Occasionally the Luftwaffe's planes strafe the straggling infantrymen. And one day Robbie turns to hear behind him a rhythmic pounding on the road:
At first sight it seemed that an enormous horizontal door was flying up the road towards them. It was a platoon of Welsh Guards in good order, rifles at the slope, led by a second-lieutenant. They came by at a forced march, their gaze fixed forwards, their arms swinging high. The stragglers stood aside to let them through. These were cynical times, but no one risked a catcall. The show of discipline and cohesion was shaming. It was a relief when the Guards had pounded out of sight and the rest could resume their introspective trudging.
As the soldiers near Dunkirk, Robbie crosses a bridge and sees a barge pass under it. It is like the boat in Auden's “Musee des Beaux Arts”: ordinary indifferent life continues while Icarus falls. “The boatman sat at his tiller smoking a pipe, looking stolidly ahead. Behind him, ten miles away, Dunkirk burned. Ahead, in the prow, two boys were bending over an upturned bike, mending a puncture perhaps. A line of washing which included women's smalls was hanging out to dry.” Finally, when the soldiers come upon the beach, they taste the salt—“the taste of holidays”—and then they see the remarkable formlessness of an army waiting to be shipped back to England. Some of the men are swimming, others playing football on the sand. One group is attacking a poor RAF officer, blaming him for the Luftwaffe's superiority. Others have dug themselves personal holes in the dunes, “from which they peeped out, proprietorial and smug. Like marmosets. …” But the majority of the army “wandered about the sands without purpose, like citizens of an Italian town in the hour of the passeggio.”
In a novel so concerned with fiction's relation to actuality, this amazing conjuring cannot but fail to have the weird but successful doubleness of the novel's first section: it has a grave reality, while at the same time necessarily raises questions about its own literary rights to that reality. Was Dunkirk really like this? Stephen Crane's evocation of Antietam was so vivid that one veteran swore that Crane (who did not fight) was present with him. Like Crane's descriptions, McEwan's gather their strength not from the accuracy of their notation but from the accumulation of living human detail, so alive that we are persuaded that such a thing might have occurred even if no one actually witnessed it. The soldiers dug into their own little holes in the dunes, like marmosets, has just such a fictive reality, so that it becomes irrelevant to us were a veteran to say: “this never happened.” McEwan has made it seem plausible, because alive. This is what Aristotle meant when he said that a convincing impossibility is preferable in literature to an unconvincing possibility. Yet this great freedom shows how dangerous fiction can be, and why its transit with lies has historically been subversive and threatening. Again, McEwan wants us to reflect on these matters. He has Robbie ponder: “Who could ever describe this confusion, and come up with the village names and the dates for the history books? And take the reasonable view and begin to assign the blame? No one would ever know what it was like to be here. Without the details there could be no larger picture.” It is fiction, and McEwan's fiction, which provides “the details” that history may miss. But—and this is a gigantic but, surely, which this novel acknowledges—those details may be invented, may never have happened in history.
In Part Three, we see Briony working as a trainee nurse at a London hospital. We learn that she is terribly sorry for what she did in 1935 and that, in a gesture of atonement, she has forsworn Cambridge, and dedicated herself to nursing. Late in the section, she visits her estranged sister in Clapham, and finds her living with Robbie, who has briefly returned from his army service in France. Again, McEwan writes superbly well, especially in his evocation of Briony's nursing experiences. Soldiers arrive, looking identical in their dirt and torn clothes, “like a wild race of men from a terrible world.” One of them has had most of his nose blown off, and it falls to Briony to change his dressings. “She could see through his missing cheek to his upper and lower molars, and the tongue glistening, and hideously long. Further up, where she hardly dared look, were the exposed muscles around his eye socket. So intimate, and never intended to be seen.” There is great tenderness in this description of the poor soldier's eye muscles, “so intimate and never intended to be seen.” We may even think of another moment, earlier in Briony's life, when she also witnessed something “intimate and never intended to be seen.” But the mark of the true writer, the writer who is really looking, really witnessing, is that notation of the soldier's exposed tongue as “hideously long”—something worthy of Conrad.
Atonement ends with a devastating twist, a piece of information that changes our sense of everything we have just read. It is convincing enough, but its neatness seems like the reappearance of the old McEwan, unwilling to let the ropes fall from his hands. In an epilogue, set in 1999, we learn that Briony, now a distinguished old novelist, wrote the three sections—the country house scene, the Dunkirk retreat, and the London hospital—that we have just read. Moreover, Robbie and Cecilia were never together, as the third section suggested. Robbie was killed in France in 1940, and Cecilia died in the same year in London, during the German bombing. The conjuring that we have just witnessed has been Briony's atonement for what she did. She could not resist the chance to spare the young lovers, to continue their lives into fiction, to give the story a happy ending.
This twist, this revelation, further emphasizes the novel's already explicit ambivalence about being a novel, and makes the book a proper postmodern artifact, wearing its doubts on its sleeve, on the outside, as the Pompidou does its escalators. But it is unnecessary, unless the slightly self-defeating point is to signal that the author is himself finally incapable of resisting the distortions of tidiness. It is unnecessary because the novel has already raised, powerfully but murmuringly, the questions that this final revelation shouts out. And it is unnecessary because the fineness of the book as a novel, as a distinguished and complex evocation of English life before and during the war, burns away the theoretical, and implants in the memory a living, flaming presence.
SOURCE: Schwartz, Lynne Sharon. “Quests for Redemption.” New Leader 85, no. 2 (March-April 2002): 23-5.
[In the following excerpt, Schwartz praises the engaging fictional world of Atonement, but objects to the novel's concluding postmodern conceit.]
Good news: In a world turned surreal, realism in literature lives on, at least in Britain. Both Ian McEwan, prolific and experienced, and Andrew Miller, a young author of two previous novels, offer new works that seduce, absorb, illuminate, and comfort. By “comfort,” I'm not suggesting that their visions are complacent or reassuring—far from it. But their painstaking exploration of private dilemmas in the midst of public turmoil validates the struggle to find coherent meaning. That remains a worthy aspiration, both writers remind us, even if the results are forever out of reach.
McEwan, with eight novels, two story collections and several prizes to his credit, is always fresh and arresting. Whether his theme is political, philosophical or domestic, he brings to it moral consciousness and educated skepticism, in shapely, intricate sentences George Eliot would have admired. The Child in Time (1987) presented a delicious dissection of the hypocrisies of Margaret Thatcher's government, and Black Dogs (1992) examined, with enviable objectivity, the usefulness of belief systems as embodied in a married couple—a religious mystic and a liberal positivist who can't live with or without each other. McEwan's finger is always on our pulse, so to speak: The narrator of Black Dogs ponders “whether our civilization at this turn of the millennium is cursed by too much or too little belief,” a question that at this pass appears to have been answered.
Atonement is a dense, unsettling meditation on the interplay of imagination and reality, uneasy partners that need yet injure each other as grievously as the couple in Black Dogs. The story is set in 1935 at an ugly English country house built on the site of an older, beautiful one. In residence is the Tallis family. The father is away in London doing something obscurely connected with the approaching war and being unfaithful, and the mother is a patient Griselda, accepting, ineffectual and migraine-ridden. Thirteen-year-old Briony, the youngest child, consumed by a literary imagination (she goes on to become a successful novelist), causes the damage that requires atonement. Its victims are her older sister, Cecilia, and Cecilia's lover, Robbie, a former servant's gifted son whom the Tallises have taken under their wing. The first half of the book dwells on Briony's ambiguous accusation against Robbie and its immediate, devastating consequences; the second half leaps ahead five years to the War and the ignominious British retreat from Dunkirk.
At the start, to celebrate her adored older brother's return from London, Briony, the family's gifted darling, has written a play. A genre romance with typical heroine, villain and rescuer, it is to be performed by three visiting cousins—15-year-old Lola, already sexually wily, and her younger twin brothers. In between rehearsals, Briony spies from a window the incomprehensible scene that changes her life forever. She sees Cecilia and Robbie standing at a fountain. All at once, seemingly at Robbie's command, Cecilia removes her skirt and blouse, steps into the fountain, ducks under, then quickly walks away. As the huge enigma of adult behavior is borne in on her, “Briony had her first, weak intimation that for her now it could no longer be fairy-tale castles and princesses, but the strangeness of the here and now, of what passed between people, the ordinary people that she knew, and what power one could have over the other. …”
Instantaneously, she is transformed from a childish scribbler of hackneyed romance into a realist. She imagines writing the scene she's witnessed: “Her excitement was in the prospect of freedom, of being delivered from the cumbrous struggle between good and bad, heroes and villains. … There did not have to be a moral. She need only show separate minds, as alive as her own, struggling with the idea that other minds were equally alive. It wasn't only wickedness and scheming that made people unhappy, it was confusion and misunderstanding; above all, it was the failure to grasp the simple truth that other people are as real as you.”
The meaning of the scene that brings about such transformation is simple. Cecilia and Robbie have grown up together and have just finished their years at university, where they avoided each other, finding their easy childhood friendship turned awkward in a setting where class barriers—that perennial ingredient of British fiction—are divisive. Back home, the awkwardness remains. At the fountain, they argue over filling a vase of flowers, he trying to help, she refusing the help. When the vase, a precious heirloom, breaks, Cecilia hunts for the pieces underwater. The tussle signals the opening moves of a love both are scarcely aware of. Yet only a few hours later it is consummated ardently, if not ideally, against a shelf of books in the library. Briony bursts in and once more is baffled, imagining the worst.
Class divisions cast a dark shadow when the oldest brother returns with a guest: stupid, pompous, but attractive Paul Marshall, a budding business tycoon thanks to his Amo chocolate bars, soon to become a staple of the British troops. Paul has his eye on the seductive Lola (shades of Lolita?), but when she's raped at night in the woods, no one suspects so rich and innocuous a stranger. Instead Briony accuses Robbie, the social upstart: She “thinks” he is the man she sees running away. Her thinking is a blend of inference, conjecture, envy, and self-dramatizing—all the elements of an overheated adolescent imagination. On her mistaken testimony Robbie goes to prison; his plans for medical school are over, his life ruined.
In 1940, having been released to serve in the infantry, Robbie, embittered but valiant, trudges through the French countryside to reach the Channel and home. Strictly speaking, this long section is not essential to the moral tale of injury and atonement, but it is narrated with such fierce verisimilitude—the wretched, bedraggled, fearful, hungry soldiers (their Amo bars long consumed) running from the strafing of German planes—that it justifies itself. And its vividness is exemplary, a brutal contrast to the serene country estate of Part I, where Briony has mused in privileged, sheltered leisure over how best to portray reality.
Cecilia and Briony, estranged from each other and their family since the debacle of Robbie's alleged crime, work as war nurses in London. McEwan's description of Briony's student training, especially her trial by fire when a convoy of wounded soldiers arrives at the hospital, is magnificent. After Dunkirk, the repentant Briony seeks out Cecilia and Robbie, still steadfast lovers, in an attempt to right her wrong and clear his name. She grasps her own early “confusion and misunderstanding.” She has learned, to her sorrow, that “the simple truth that other people are as real as you” applies to life as well as to fiction. The specific acts of reparation are self-evident—recanting to the authorities, explaining to her family—but not until decades later can she find a way to make genuine atonement.
Then comes the one flaw: a 17-page epilogue in the voice of Briony at age 77, which is an unwarranted excursion into postmodernism. To wit: To atone at last for my awful deed, dear reader, I wrote the novel you have just read. … McEwan even drops a few words recalling the final page of Charlotte Bronte's Villette: “It is only in this last version,” says Briony, “that my lovers end well, holding hands. … What purpose would be served if …” No purpose would be served if I told, either. (Briony, with her dry-ice nature, is not unlike Bronte's heroine, Lucy Snowe, except she pursues her dreams more aggressively.) “I know there's always a certain kind of reader,” Briony goes on, “who will be compelled to ask, But what really happened?”
Not fair. I relish literary sleight-of-hand as much as the next one, but with a novel which for 330 pages gives no hint it is that kind of game, I become “a certain kind of reader.” Why would McEwan spin such a rich and splendid story this way? I hope he has not decided realism no longer suffices. More likely the process of novel-writing, the way life contorts into fiction, intrigues him as it does Briony. Or else he means to illustrate Briony's desperate, guilty need to force a happy ending in the one realm she can control. Either way, his own process has been so successful that the reader is too invested in the story to care, so belatedly, about its armature.
Never mind. Forget the ending fillip. The rest is unforgettable.