Monday, November 5, 2012
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books
At the heart of Ian McEwan’s latest novel is a very simple conceit. Serena Frome, a nice young woman fresh from Cambridge, is hired by MI5, Britain’s spy service. This is in the early 1970s, so the Cold War is still on. At first, Serena has little more than what amount to filing duties. Then one of her superiors gives her a more interesting assignment, codenamed “Sweet Tooth”. Claiming to belong to a cover organization that dispenses literary grants, she is to approach a junior academic and writer of short-stories, T.H.(Tom) Haley , and offer him a generous grant to write a novel.
As MI5 calculate it, it’s possible that Haley, who has penned the odd anti-communist article, can be turned into a major anti-communist literary figure. Like other artistic talents covertly funded by the organization, he could be a counter-balance to all those left-ish literary figures who are too forgiving of the Soviet Union, or who argue that there’s no practical difference between the USSR and the Western Alliance.
Serena is at first not too enthusiastic about the assignment, which seems small beer compared with the mighty task of outwitting Soviet agents or pursuing counter-terrorism against the Provisional IRA (a big concern of MI5 in the early 1970s). But once she meets Haley, gets to know him, and gets to read his work, she feels differently about him. In fact she falls in love with him.
And there we have our very simple conceit – the degrees of deception the agent has to maintain in order to carry out her task. It’s a case of love, duty and the strong temptation to blow her own cover.
A number of reviewers have already complained about the difficulty of trying to examine a novel like this, without giving away the twists and surprises of its plot. Like those reviewers, I respect the convention that one does not give spoilers on a new novel. So I will offer no detailed synopsis beyond this set-up. Suffice it to say that the novel has multiple examples of betrayal and broken confidences, where espionage and personal feelings overlap. We soon learn not to be surprised that people are not always what Serena takes them to be.
Beyond this appearance-and-reality matter, McEwan has an added agenda. He wants to show his literary cleverness. As is established in the opening pages, Serena is an avid reader of novels. These are repeatedly referenced as she tells her own story in the first person. Sharper readers are supposed to see how her reading not only influences the way she sees the world, but also echoes the facts of her own story.
Then there is the device of having her read – and give detailed synopses of – Tom Haley’s short stories as she undertakes Operation “Sweet Tooth”. One story is about a man surrendering to a woman’s reckless love after she has mistaken him for somebody else. Another has a man objectifying women to the point of being in love with a mannequin. A third has a wife betraying a husband. Mistaken love, exploitation, betrayal – yes, they are all meant to underscore Serena’s own situation. And some of them are re-hashes of stories McEwan himself wrote in earlier years. In fact, elements of Tom Haley are an autobiographical portrait of McEwan. As a six-time nominee for the Booker Prize, and one-time winner, McEwan also has some fun at the expense of literary awards. He name-checks some of his literary friends.
Read as a sub-Le Carre story, Sweet Tooth has its points. Obviously part of McEwan’s inspiration was the “soft” Cold War, in which both Soviet bloc and Western Alliance secret services tried to influence covertly the literary and intellectual life of the West. The Encounter affair is referenced a number of times – a modest, intelligent, liberal-left but anti-communist magazine, which turned out to have accepted some CIA funding. There is some interest in McEwan’s depiction of MI5 modi operandi and recruitment procedures. In an early passage where Serena is being vetted, she tells us how she gave the recruiters exactly those opinions the service found acceptable:
“I spoke the language of a Times leader, echoing patrician, thoughtful-sounding opinions that could hardly be opposed. For example, when we arrived at the ‘permissive society’ I cited The Times’s view that the sexual freedom of individuals had to be balanced against the needs of children for security and love. Who could take a stand against that? I was getting into my stride. Then there was my passion for English history. Again [the MI5 recruiter] perked up. What in particular? The Glorious Revolution. Ah now, that was very interesting indeed! And then, later, who was my intellectual hero? I talked of Churchill, not as a politician but as an historian (I summarised the ‘incomparable’ account of Trafalgar), as the Nobel Laureate for Literature and then as the watercolourist….” (Pg.35-36)
This is almost an anthology of all the Tory prejudices that were then MI5’s intellectual touchstones. At the same time, the early 1970s were a time when the spy service was just beginning to recruit women and people with non-U accents, such as Serena’s sometime friend Shirley. There’s even a passing reference to a “Millie Trimingham” (Pg.39), transparently Stella Rimington who was to become MI5’s director-general in the 1990s.
Serena narrates all this from the perspective of 40 years later – but here we have a major problem. Men novelists can successfully adopt the voice of a woman; and women novelists can successfully adopt the voice of a man. But I was never wholly convinced of the reality of Serena. She seemed to have been neatly concocted by McEwan to illustrate his intended lecture on the Relationship of Life and Literature. In fact well before midway point I was irritated by the thought that she reminded me of nothing so much as Ian Fleming’s unsuccessful attempt to have a woman narrate his weakest James Bond yarn, The Spy Who Loved Me. (Incidentally, Ian Fleming is specifically referenced late in Sweet Tooth.)
A reason is ultimately offered for some of the things I complain of here – but that’s one of those things I can’t tell you lest I push the spoiler button.
I admit to having a limited and bumpy relationship with McEwan’s novels. I enjoyed Enduring Love, despite its pervasive sardonic tone; found On Chesil Beach an interesting, if limited, reflection on defunct sexual mores; and believe Amsterdam to be the slightest, and probably least worthy, novel ever to have won the Booker. (Gossip says it won as compensation to McEwan for not winning with better novels in previous years). I admit to not having read Atonement, which some people rate McEwan’s best. (I read the “Dunkirk” section when it was extracted in Granta, but apart from that only saw the movie version.)
In the NZ Listener, Guy Somerset wrote a largely negative review of Sweet Tooth, eventually dismissing it as ”a career novelist going through the motions”. [You can access his review on the Listener’s website.] A little harsh, maybe, but I can see Somerset’s point. Sweet Tooth is diverting enough while you are reading it. The author is an erudite, well-read chap who produces a clean and readable prose. But you do not finish it feeling you have been enlightened about the world or given insights that you did not have before. You finish it thinking it was an intellectual game, noting the glib trickiness of its ending and remarking “That was kinda clever”. Then you move on to what you hope will be something more engaged and heartfelt.
Enraging footnote: If you have the intention of reading Sweet Tooth, DO NOT look up the article on it on Wikipedia. Not only does it give away the novel’s ending, but it spoils all its other twists as well. I don’t mind committing those crimes when I am discussing one of my “Something Old” choices that have been in circulation for years, but it is very rough treatment indeed for a novel that is still hot off the press.