Monday, April 6, 2015

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago. 

 “ON CHESIL BEACH” by Ian McEwan (first published 2007)
            Am I allowed, if just occasionally, in this “Something Old” spot, to tell you how much I disliked a novel and how I alert you to it solely as a means of deterring you from reading it?
            Of course I’m allowed, because I run this ruddy blog and there’s not an awful lot you can do about it. So there!
I am neither hot nor cold about the English novelist Ian McEwan (born 1948), despite all the acclaim he has received. McEwan has been both commercially and critically successful. Seven of his novels have been filmed. He has been six times nominated for the Booker and four times shortlisted. On this blog, when I was reviewing his weak 2012 effort Sweet Tooth [look it up on the index at right], I suggested that when McEwan won the Booker in 1998, for his lame novella Amsterdam, there was a widespread suspicion that the judges were compensating him for the failure to even nominate his earlier, and much better, Enduring Love (1997).
Despite its consistently sardonic and superior tone, I quite enjoyed Enduring Love, essentially the story of a mentally-deranged man who believes himself to be in love with another man and causes trouble when he is spurned. I couldn’t help being aware, however, of McEwan’s negative and destructive views on love, marriage and domesticity. He is rarely able to write about them without putting the knife in. It is neither right nor seemly to attribute an author’s views to his own domestic circumstances, but McEwan was involved in a very messy and public custody battle when his first marriage broke up, and this may have had at least some influence on the way he depicts the relationships between men and women.
In my review of Sweet Tooth, I referred to On Chesil Beach (shortlisted for the Booker 2007) as an interesting, if limited, reflection on defunct sexual mores. I was being far too polite. This short novel is in fact a smug and very self-satisfied piece of work.
Alerting us to the short novel’s main themes in a clumsy and obvious way (but regarded as brilliant compression by McEwan’s devotees) the opening sentence reads: “They were young, educated and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible.”
            In the very early 1960s, an English couple, Edward Mayhew and Florence Ponting, both 22, come to a seaside hotel in Dorset for their honeymoon. He is nervous that he will not perform properly in bed. She is mildly repelled by the whole idea of physical contact. There is a dim, and very faint, suggestion – hinting at catchpenny pop psychology on McEwan’s part - that she has been sexually abused by her father. In great close-up physical detail we get every least physical reaction they have to each other as they eat a meal and prepare to go to the bedroom. We also get long flashbacks to their respective family backgrounds.  He is more lower-middle-class than she is, more of a country boy, with a taste for jazz and brawling, a schoolteacher father and a mentally-damaged mother. She is more wealthy, upper-middle-class, her father prosperous in business, her mother a lecturer in philosophy at Oxford. He has vague ideas of becoming an historian. She is a musician, plays in a string-quartet and hopes to perform at the Wigmore Hall. She is at least relieved that her parents did not condescend to his parents at the morning’s wedding.
            Eventually, after all their mutual anticipation and anxiety, the bedroom scene comes, and it is a complete disaster. Virginal, over-excited, and inexperienced in love-making, he ejaculates prematurely and messily all over her. She is disgusted and runs off down to the pebbly strand of the title. (Ah yes – a pebbly strand. Such a symbolically liminal place.) He later follows her. They argue and she runs off.
Flashforward. The marriage is annulled for non-consummation. Years go by. They never see each other, though he hears of her success as a musician. He goes through various women and an unsuccessful marriage. Occasionally he wonders why they didn’t make a success of it, and regrets the happy marriage and children that could have been. End.
When I checked them out, I found a number of English reviews of this novel immediately plunged in by quoting Philip Larkin’s poem “Annus Mirabilis”, which begins:
Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) -
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles' first LP.

Up to then there'd only been
A sort of bargaining,
A wrangle for the ring,
A shame that started at sixteen
And spread to everything
This is clearly because the historical setting of On Chesil Beach is so very specific – the early 1960s with lots of deliberate period detail. Hanging over much of it is the implicit idea that these two virgins would have benefitted sexually from the permissiveness and openness that was to come later in the 1960s. In other words they were, by McEwan’s implication, victims of the social and sexual constraints of their time. In its mixture of close-ups and long-shots, the novel is stylistically competent. But as to its major themes, I’m not so sure. Frankly, I’m not convinced that the level of sexual ignorance was then as great as McEwan depicts it. McEwan would have been 14 at the time the novel is set. One wonders if this is really the dramatization of every spotty adolescent’s delusion that his parents didn’t know anything about sex. Or is On Chesil Beach in fact the portrait of the repressed habits of a particular English social class?  Or is it simply a tale of two neurotic and atypical individuals – in which case it has little meaning for the rest of us, unless we are to accept McEwan’s caricature of an earlier age?
To McEwan’s credit, there is at least a little ambiguity in the ending. Far from celebrating the “sexual revolution” of the 1960s, it seems to suggest that Edward took a wrong path in not persisting with Florence, and that he now regrets it. The moral may simply be that Edward Mayhew and Florence Ponting (gosh, how deliberately Victorian those surnames sound) should have talked to each other, and that openness of communication about sexual matters is essential for a happy marriage. But none of this atones for the superior and condescending view that McEwan takes of an earlier age, and the thinness of his conception.
There. You really don’t have to read this one now.

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