The journey Ian McEwan has taken from the sensation of his early work to the nearly universal acclaim that has greeted the achievements of Atonement (2001) and Saturday has been fascinating. He first gained attention in the late1970’s and early 1980’s for the story collections First Love, Last Rites (1976) and In Between the Sheets (1978) and the novels The Cement Garden (1978) and The Comfort of Strangers (1981). Written in a style that might be described as existential gothicpopulated by deranged narrators, distinguished by acts of violence and sexual obsession that included incest, sadomasochism, fetishism, infanticide, dismemberment, entombment, and pornographythese books earned him both a well-deserved reputation as “a master of menace” and “a connoisseur of catastrophe” as well as the nickname “Ian Macabre.” The writers who seemed to inspire him were Edgar Allan Poe, André Gide, Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. The world McEwan created felt hermetically sealed; the impulse seemed to be to shock; the focus was the tortured psyches of his characters.
These books earned awards as well as attention, but by the mid-1980’s McEwan’s ambition and vision began to outgrow his early style and voice. Briony Tallis, the thirteen-year-old aspiring novelist in the first section of Atonement, seems to offer a self-portrait of the young McEwan when she decides that her goal will be to imitate “Mrs. Woolf,” to abandon the techniques of the nineteenth century novel to devote herself to capturing the stream of consciousness. “To enter a mind and show it at work, or being worked on,” she thinks, “and to do this within a symmetrical designthis would be an artistic triumph.”
Writing A Child in Time (1987), a novel about a kidnapping and its consequences, McEwan decided that the stream of consciousness and symmetrical design were not enough. In an interview, he described the novel as a turning point, where “political, moral, social, comic, and other possibilities moved in” to combine with his efforts to capture the “flow of thought.” His inspirations became the American writers he calls “the Senators”Saul Bellow, John Updike, and Philip Rothas well as Virginia Woolf. The change could not have been more startling, or more salutary.
Violence and the threat of violence have remained an essential aspect of McEwan’s fiction. The Innocent (1989) contains a gruesome killing, Amsterdam (1998) involves a suicide pact that becomes a double murder, and the moral violence in Atonement is accompanied by detailed descriptions of wounds and deaths in World War II. In his work after The Innocent, however, the violence no longer feels either willful or grotesque. Instead, McEwan’s fictional world has expanded, gained breadth and depth through its engagement with the physical and social realities that surround and shape his characters’ fates and consciousness. The portrait of occupied postwar Germany in The Innocent, the description of Berlin and Eastern Europe following the fall of the Berlin Wall in Black Dogs (1992), the treatment of Margaret Thatcher’s England in Amsterdam, the examination of the life of an English manor house between the wars and of London during and after World War II in Atonementall offer the same combination of careful attention to the particulars of the external world and to the flow of thought that characterizes the best work of Woolf and the American “Senators.”
The impulse is to explore, represent, comprehend the complexity of living in a meticulously described modern world. The focus is on the fragility of peace and happiness, on how easily a life, a love affair, a marriage, a family, a friendship, a community can be shattered by an unexpected twist or turn of circumstance and experience.
Like Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925), whose themes, images, characters, and concerns it so artfully echoes, Saturday describes a day in the life of a well-to-do Londoner. Like Bellow’s Herzog (1964), which provides McEwan’s novel with its epigraph, Saturday presents that day through the eyes and mind of its main character. Henry Perowne has everything:...
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