Welcome to REID’S READER, a site renewed fortnightly and devoted to the appreciation and discussion of books old and new by bibliophile, critic and reviewer Nicholas Reid. Each week REID’S READER offers Something New, Something Old and Something Thoughtful to readers and browsers. REID’S READER will sometimes feature guest reviewers and will sometimes offer general book news, but it does not run publishers’ publicity material.
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Monday, April 6, 2015
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.
CHESIL BEACH” by Ian McEwan (first published 2007)
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?
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
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.”
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.
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.
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?
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
really don’t have to read this one now.