Wednesday 18 September 2019

Love in England before the '60s started to swing

Jonathan Cape, ?16.99 JOHN SPAIN Ian McEwan's new novel has been greeted with unqualified, sometimes ecstatic, praise from every reviewer in Britain, which may strike some readers here as a bit odd when they read the book. For a start, it's not a novel. It's barely even a novella. In some ways it's more a long short story, built around a single event and involving just tw


By Ian McEwan

Jonathan Cape, ?16.99 JOHN SPAIN Ian McEwan's new novel has been greeted with unqualified, sometimes ecstatic, praise from every reviewer in Britain, which may strike some readers here as a bit odd when they read the book. For a start, it's not a novel. It's barely even a novella. In some ways it's more a long short story, built around a single event and involving just two characters - if it was a play it would be a one-act two-hander.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. There are some great novellas. This, however, is not one of them. The fact is that On Chesil Beach is not really that good. It's beautifully written in places, as one would expect from the author of the Booker-winning Amsterdam and the international bestseller Atonement, but it's too slight to have the same appeal as a novel.

The torrent of praise may be because McEwan is generally regarded as the pre-eminent novelist in Britain today - Atonement sold over a million copies in the UK alone and the movie with Keira Knightley is now on the way - and that seems to have warped perceptions of his new book.

There's also a bit of history involved. McEwan's last novel, Saturday, was famously (and justifiably) savaged by John Banville in a lengthy review in the New York Review of Books. That book had a plotline that would have made any half-decent thriller writer blush, turning on several bizarre and unbelievable coincidences. It was saved somewhat by the exquisite writing but the book overall was unconvincing and, worse, superficial for a novel that was touted as an assessment of post 9/11 Britain.

Banville's comprehensive demolition job on McEwan at the time caused outrage among the critics in Britain, who dismissed it as jealousy. Their humour did not improve when Banville won the Booker and they got their own back in reviews of Banville's winning book The Sea. And it seems that these critics - including some very eminent people - are still in defensive mode.

Without such an explanation, it's hard to understand the glowing reviews On Chesil Beach has got in Britain. Not only is it slight (163 small pages with big type), but the book soon becomes so tedious that even McEwan's precise and frequently stunning writing cannot save it.

And (once again) the story is unconvincing.

Part of the problem is that not very much happens. Saturday involved the doings of a number of characters over a single day. On Chesil Beach narrows the time frame to just a few hours, the critical evening when a newly married couple have disastrous sex on their honeymoon.

The action, such as it is, takes place on a day in the summer of 1962 in an antiquated hotel on Chesil Beach, a famous stretch of pebble strand in Dorset. Edward and Florence are 22-year-old newly-wed virgins nervously anticipating the big moment as they eat their room-service dinner - a slice of melon with a cherry on top, grey beef with flour thickened gravy and sherry trifle. We learn from flashbacks that he is from a modest background, with a father who is a teacher and a mother brain damaged in an accident. She is an upper middle-class girl who plays classical violin professionally. Both have rather odd backgrounds and are a bit odd themselves as a result, role-playing rather than really living, prisoners of their formative years and incapable of getting in touch with either their own true feelings or each other.

The novel (if it can be called that) is both an evocation of Britain at the time and an explanation of how a single event can shape entire lives. In summary the story revolves around how one premature ejaculation and an inability to communicate afterwards destroys two lives that had the potential to be fulfilled and happy.

The intensity of the few hours in the hotel is interspersed with numerous and telling flashbacks in which they each recall incidents from their past that help to explain how they see themselves and each other. And this is done superbly by McEwan, recreating those becalmed years in parts of England after the '50s and before the '60s started to swing.

Apart from the fact that nothing much happens, a bigger problem with the book is that neither Edward nor Florence is very interesting. In fact for a lot of the time they are downright boring. Nor are they entirely convincing. They meet when both are in London at university. Even with their backgrounds, it's hard to believe that they manage to remain such complete innocents sexually.

Yes, this was the year before 1963, the year sex started in Britain according to Philip Larkin. But Larkin was not being serious and anyway it's a myth that it all started with jiving to Cliff Richard. There was a lot of bopping of both kinds going on during the trad jazz craze that swept the dancehalls and clubs in Britain in the late '50s and early '60s thanks to musicians like Humphrey Lyttleton.

McEwan seems unaware of this. The repressed Britain he recreates no doubt existed at the time in some parts but it was not typical of student life in London and other cities. It's also hard to accept that even a pair of oddballs like Edward and Florence could handle a messed-up wedding night so badly. They've been to university and lived in London - and he's into blues and rock - yet they are so overwhelmed by the mishap that she runs off in horror down the beach and instead of looking forward to round two he becomes stupid with humiliation and rage. Is it not far more likely that such a couple would get over their embarrassment, try again and maybe eventually get tolerably good at it?

McEwan does attempt to explain this by making her frigid, not just disgusted by sex but panicked at the idea of penetration and nauseated even by kissing. To her the failure is both a disaster and a welcome escape. And Edward is not much better, over-eager, anxious and with no humour to ease his clumsiness. This repressed pair presumably are meant to be emblematic of England at the time.

But, in spite of McEwan's wonderful writing, his forensic examination of their personalities and his masterful recreation of the period, it is just does not work. It does not work because it's hard to care about what happens to such a hopeless pair. There are subsequent flashes forward by the author to what happens to the pair later in life which adds poignancy to the story. But it's not enough.

And even McEwan's recreation of the period occasionally lets him down - most notably when he has Edward trying to expand Florence's musical taste by playing her the Beatles and the Stones before either band had released any records. Also his writing, most of the time superb, falters sometimes. He describes the sea at Chesil Beach "whose steady motion of advance and withdrawal made sounds of gentle thunder, then sudden hissing against the pebbles". Good, but not great.

Even so he is a great writer. But he's a great writer badly in need of a great subject.

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