“A Grand Mass of Detail”: Ian McEwan, Lessons

lessonsReading back since 1986 did not bring him any fresh understanding of his life. There were no obvious themes, no undercurrents he had not noticed at the time, nothing learned. A grand mass of detail was what he found and events, conversations, even people that he could not remember. In those sections it was if he was reading of someone else’s past. He disliked himself for complaining onto the page—about living hand to mouth, not having the right kind of work, not making a long and successful marriage. Boring, no insight, passive. He had read many books. His summaries were hasty, without interest.

Ian McEwan’s Lessons is what I think of as a “soup to nuts” novel, one that, like William Boyd’s Any Human Heart, earns our interest in its protagonist just by sticking with him. Like Logan Mountstuart, Roland Baines doesn’t really develop: he acquires no particular wisdom or insight over the years. He just gets older, and as he does, things happen: people come and go, priorities change, happy times give way to sad ones, opportunities are seized or missed, regrets arise then are displaced by more immediate crises or distractions. The novel’s title suggests that these accumulated experiences teach him something, that the Roland on the last page will be knowing in a way that the Roland we meet at the outset of the novel is not. He is, but not because of any grand epiphany, just because he is older and has been through a lot. Roland is not Pip, reflecting on his earlier life from the moral vantage point of the end of his Bildungsroman. When he looks back, as he often does, it’s with the same mixture of speculation, resignation, satisfaction, and self-reproach that probably most of us become familiar with as we pass from youth into middle age:

These days he ate less, drank more and thought a lot. He had a chair, a view, a certain glass he favoured. Among his subjects were other single starting errors that multiplied through time into a fan-shaped array. On close examination the errors dissolved into questions, hypotheticals, even into solid gains. On this last he may have been deluding himself. But in surveying a life it was inadvisable to acknowledge too much defeat. Marrying Alissa? Without [his son] Lawrence there would have been no joy, no Stefanie, Roland’s new best friend. If Alissa [who left him to pursue her writing] had stayed?  . . . Her novel remained exquisite. Leaving school early? If he had stayed, Miriam [his sexually predatory piano teacher], by her own admission, would have hauled him from the classroom and he would have been sunk. . . . Abandoning classical piano and the chance of becoming a concert pianist? Then he would never have discovered jazz, would never have run free in his twenties or learned to respect manual labour or developed a snappy backhand.

And so it goes, on through the many choices that, for better and for worse, have made his life what it was and is.

Following Roland along the journey is consistently interesting, sometimes surprising, occasionally both funny and poignant. There is (unusually for McEwan) no big twist, unless you count that in itself as the trick he pulls on us this time: except for the cuts back and forth between grown Roland and his childhood, the novel is straightforward, chronological, with an almost old-fashioned dedication to exposition, creating a “grand mass of detail” the effect of which is not revelatory but cumulative. At first it takes a bit of patience: where is it all going, you wonder? It’s McEwan, after all, and also right at the beginning Miriam puts her hand on eleven-year-old Roland, where she shouldn’t: surely dark things are in store. But instead time just keeps passing, and though Roland and Miriam’s relationship does turn into something inappropriate and disturbing (how much better is it that at least he’s fourteen by then?), it doesn’t seem, in the end, to be very important. “Were you damaged by it?” a police officer asks Roland, when the possibility arises that Miriam could be held criminally liable for their affair. “No, not at all,” replies Roland promptly, and there really is no evidence in the novel that he was. Should that matter, to the detective, to Roland, to Miriam, to us? Isn’t what she (they) did just wrong? Is the implicit message that there are some wrong things that actually needn’t be a big deal, if we don’t make a big deal of them? Roland is not  haunted or traumatized, although when he finally confronts her many years later he is angry: “It had an effect, do you understand? An effect!” He never does press charges. If hers are the lessons of the title, I ended the book uncertain what they were, or what they meant.*

Roland asks himself those retrospective questions about his life during the pandemic: “His London was of the plague year, 1665,” he thinks, “of the diseased wooden town of 1349.” One of his lockdown projects is to sort and annotate boxes of photographs; like so many projects we all imagined would see us through those long indistinguishable days of anxious yet boring isolation, this one founders. One of the side-effects of reading Lessons for me, as it checks off the world events that affect Roland more or less directly (Chernobyl, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Cuban missile crisis, the Thatcher years, 9/11, 7/7, COVID), was remembering where I was when Big Things happened. Usually, like Roland, I was at most a distant witness, and yet when I think of them I have the feeling that I was there, that they happened to me too: I was in northern Italy when news broke of the accident at Chernobyl, for example, and for weeks we wondered (as Roland does) about the safety of the water, and whether we should keep eating local produce; I was nursing Owen late at night when news broke of Princess Diana’s fatal car accident, and nursing Maddie while idly watching morning talk shows when every station broke way from their regular programming because the first plane had hit the Twin Towers. We are always living in history; I enjoyed Roland’s journey through it. McEwan never uses him as a facile device for a “front row seat,” though; except for some idealistic early attempts to do something “meaningful” by smuggling items into East Berlin, Roland’s own story is (as most of ours are) relentlessly personal.

One of the most interesting aspects of the novel arises from one of its most personal events: Alissa’s decision to leave her husband and infant son. It isn’t until Roland reads her novel that he comes, not just to understand, but to accept the fierce necessity of her decision, which initially I thought might devolve into a predictably judgmental arc, Kramer vs Kramer style, about the selfishness of women seeking personal fulfilment at their family’s expense. Alissa herself describes her situation in ways much like Meryl Streep’s character does, in fact:

The two of you . . . I was nothing. I had nothing. No thoughts, no personality, no wishes except for sleep. I was sinking. I had to get out. . . . You’re a good father and Larry was tiny and I knew he’d be OK. And that you would be too, sooner or later. I wasn’t OK but I’d made my choice and I did what I had to do.

But unlike that character, she has no regrets. When Larry, grown up, shows up on her doorstep, she basically slams the door in his face: she chose otherwise. And when she tells Roland that she did what she had to do, she adds “This,” and hands him her book, The Journey, and it is a masterpiece, one he knows she never could have written if she had stayed home:

Would she, could she, have written The Journey there? The lapidary prose, the high-flying digressions offered up to the ghost of George Eliot, whom Catherine [the protagonist] admires, the fine painfully attuned consciousness of the heroine, the hovering watchful eye, the ever-generous tolerant narrative self-consciously organising, as if in slow motion right before the reader, the vast body of its material? No, impossible, no one could conceive a book of such ambition and execution in that house.

What is it worth, a book like that? More, Roland acknowledges, than the life she rejected. Yet that life has been his life: in rejecting it, she has declared, perhaps, that his life is not a worthwhile one, or perhaps that he is not capable of a better one, a higher one, because he does not have her talent, or her ambition, or her ruthlessness. The question of what we owe the geniuses among us, or what they owe us, is a perennially interesting one, for Roland and for us (and for Helen DeWitt, whose tart confection The English Understand Wool I also read recently). “I am a male Hardwick,” Roland plans to say when he attends a panel on Robert Lowell that takes up the painful story of The Dolphin, for which Lowell “plundered and plagiarised and reshaped the anguished letters and phone calls” from Hardwick when he left her for another woman. “You have to live it to know it,” he wants to say; “the quality of the work absolutely matters . . . Yes, I forgave her because she was good, even brilliant. To achieve what she did she had to leave us.”

Alissa achieves greatness (and very nearly the Nobel Prize). What does Roland have to show for his life, in his old age? A small hand in his, to lead him across the room. It’s an unexpectedly sentimental ending, from McEwan, another way in which this novel surprised me, but also pleased me. Maybe in his old age, he has tired of acerbity and cynicism, of twists that make us cringe or that shake our faith in each other and in the stories we tell. I have always admired the precision and heft and intelligence of McEwan’s prose; I am a big fan of Atonement (which I really miss teaching!), and also, if a bit more equivocally, of Saturday. I have read nearly all of his novelsbut I hated (hated!) Nutshell and so I passed on Machines Like Me. I’m glad I didn’t skip this one: I thought it was really good, and I’m looking forward to talking it over with my book club soon.

*A brief post-book club meeting update: After our discussion, I ended up thinking I underestimated the influence of Miriam’s assault, the effect of what you might call the residue of its trauma – although I do still think that it ends up absorbed in the larger story of his life. It is significant but not its defining event, which (perhaps – we debated this) is meant to signal something of a corrective to the current trend towards prosecuting “historical” wrongs.

“Meaning”: Ian McEwan, The Children Act


She thought her responsibilities ended at the courtroom walls. But how could they? He came to find her, wanting what everyone wanted, and what only free-thinking people, not the supernatural, could give. Meaning.

I love reading Ian McEwan’s prose. It’s so satisfyingly meticulous, every word the right one, every one placed just so. It’s not that he’s a relentlessly spare or minimalist stylist: he likes a detailed description, an apt but surprising simile, even the occasional conspicuous flourish, like the Bleak House allusion that opens The Children Act: “London. Trinity term one week old. Implacable June weather.”

But that allusion was just the first of many aspects of The Children Act that I found puzzling. Is it an interpretive hint or just a literary nod? What does this novel ultimately have to do with Bleak House? Both books have a dying child at their moral center, I guess, so that’s something. There’s Chancery Lane, too, and the whole legal context, but is Adam Henry’s case to be read as a metaphor for a broader social catastrophe, the way Jarndyce v. Jarndyce is? In Bleak House the legal system is a black hole into which not just money but lives, loves, good intentions, kind hearts, hopes, dreams are all inexorably drawn. The family court over which Fiona Maye presides certainly seems like a similar vortex of unreason and despair:

The new coinage was half-truth and special pleading. Greedy husbands versus greedy wives, maneuvering like nations at the end of a war, grabbing from the ruins what spoils they could before the final withdrawal. Men concealing their funds in foreign accounts, women demanding a life of ease, forever. Mothers preventing children from seeing their fathers, despite court orders; fathers neglecting to support their children, despite court orders. Husbands hitting wives and children, wives lying and spiteful, one party of the other or both drunk, or drug-addled, or psychotic; and children again, forced to become carers of an inadequate parent, children genuinely abused, sexually, mentally, both . . . And beyond Fiona’s reach, in cases reserved for the criminal rather than the family courts, children tortured, starved or beaten to death, evil spirits thrashed out of them in animist rites, gruesome young stepfathers breaking toddlers’ bones while dim compliant mothers looked on, and drugs, drink, extreme household squalor, indifferent neighbors selectively deaf to the screaming and careless or hard-pressed social workers failing to intervene.

In Bleak House Jo’s plight comes to represent that of all the children failed, not just by their parents, but by a state that proclaims its patriarchal authority but has abandoned its paternal responsibilities — more than that, the inability, or unwillingness, of anyone in power to save him is a symptom of a moral decay infecting the whole nation. “And dying thus around us every day,” charges the narrator, implicating his entire audience. England itself is the real “Bleak House” — and Esther, of course, is its symbolic housekeeper-savior. McEwan too shows us a world that is spectacularly failing its children, its dysfunctional families a sign of a society come unmoored.  But from what? Not from religion, which features in several of Fiona’s cases as just another source of conflict, one powered by its own forms of irrationality. Against its destabilizing power is set the organizing intelligence of the law: Fiona’s work is to wrestle all the chaotic elements into order, to sort and weigh and evaluate and ultimately rule, with the “welfare” of the children her top priority — which, compared to Bleak House at least, seems like progress.

And yet The Children Act is surprisingly equivocal about both law and religion. I say “surprisingly” because McEwan is well-known to be one of Richard Dawkins’s “brights,” that is, an atheist, and The Children Act seems perfectly set up to enact a decisive confrontation between the sacred and the secular. Fiona’s ruling on Adam’s case was just what I expected — well, I couldn’t have filled in the specifics in advance, but the decision itself seemed predictable, and yet it is also eloquent:

his welfare is better served by his love of poetry, by his newly found passion for the violin, by the exercise of his lively intelligence and the expressions of a playful, affectionate nature, and by all of life and love that lie ahead of him.

Adam, too, is initially converted, embracing his new chance at life and rejecting the rule of the “tooth fairy.” He sees Fiona as his savior:

You were calm, you listened, you asked questions, you made some comments. That was the point. It’s this thing you have. It added up to something. You didn’t have to say it. A way of thinking and talking. . . . It wasn’t about God at all. That was just silly. It was like a grown-up had come into a room full of kids who are making each other miserable and said, Come on, stop all the nonsense, it’s teatime! You were the grown-up.

Indeed she was, so why is this not the happy ending, for Adam and for the novel?

ChildrenAct-542x800The loose thread that unravels this tidy resolution is Fiona herself, who is not an abstraction, a theoretical embodiment of law or principle, but a person preoccupied by the fraying edges of her own once-elegant life: a discontented husband looking for the passion they no longer share; discontent of her own about her lack of “significant relations defined above all by love,” including having no children of her own (“Her failure to become a woman, as her mother understood the term”); doubts about the efficacy of her work, for which she has given up so much else (“she belonged to the law as some women had once been brides of Christ”). When Adam seeks her out as a … what? mentor? teacher? guru? sponsor? … she’s uncomfortable, understandably, as his impetuous proposals cross boundaries between the personal and the professional, between her public role as a judge and her private life:

I love being ‘young and foolish’ and if it wasn’t for you I’d be neither, I’d be dead! I wrote you lots of stupid letters and I think about you all the time and really want to see you and talk again. I daydream about us, impossible wonderful fantasies, like we go on a journey together around the world in a ship and we have cabins next door to each other and we walk up and down on the deck talking all day.

“I want to come and live with you,” he says; “I could do odd jobs for you, housework, errands. And you could give me reading lists, you know, everything you think I should know about.” Is it his failure or hers that, with the whole world now open to him, Adam sees in it only Fiona — or, at any rate, sees Fiona as the only source of wisdom and guidance? “Without faith,” she thinks later, when — turned away, or turned loose, by Fiona, Adam has made a drastic return —

how open and beautiful and terrifying the world must have seemed to him. . . . Adam came looking for her and she offered nothing in religion’s place, no protection, even though the Act was clear, her paramount consideration was his welfare. How many pages in how many judgments had she devoted to that term? Welfare, well-being, was social. No child is an island. She thought her responsibilities ended at the courtroom walls. But how could they? He came to find her, wanting what everyone wanted, and what only free-thinking people, not the supernatural, could give. Meaning.

Is that the message behind Adam’s sad fate, that something needs to fill the gap left by religion’s absence? If so, why is it Fiona’s individual responsibility to provide it? Or is the failure a collective one — or is Fiona falling, at Adam’s naive prompting, into solipsism, imagining that somehow she (the “grown-up”) has all the answers, when the responsibility really lay with Adam to embrace his hard-won independence and make meaning for himself?

McEwan doesn’t make the novel the polemical knock-down case he surely could have against Jehovah’s Witnesses in particular or religious believers more generally; The Children Act is a less schematic novel, I think, than Saturday, in which the contest between artistic and scientific worldviews plays out in a clear, if not quite clearly resolved, counterpoint. But neither does he concede that religion is a particular force for good, or a particular good source of meaning. Does he mean to leave us agnostic? “Why replace one tooth fairy with another?” asks Adam, to which Fiona replies, “Perhaps everyone needs tooth fairies.” It’s a bit of a let-down, not to mention a rather big concession to the tooth fairy crowd, if the novel’s best idea is that everyone needs something to believe in.

And what is the connection between this contest (if that’s what it is) and the details of Fiona’s personal life? Is her faltering marriage another symptom of the need for some more enduring belief, or some governing authority? Or is it just further evidence that the world is “open and beautiful and terrifying” depending on our own choices? Is it human love that should provide what Adam is looking for? Or perhaps is it music, which plays a large part in Fiona’s story? Walking to work Fiona mentally practices the Bach partita she has been memorizing:

The notes strained at some clear human meaning, but they meant nothing at all. Just loveliness, purified. Or love in its vaguest, largest form, for all people, indiscriminately.

 The novel’s climax is her triumphant performance with a fellow lawyer, a singer, in which they “entered the horizonless hyperspace of music-making, beyond time and purpose” — but the promise of this moment, that here, somehow, is the transcendence we all need, is undermined by Fiona’s lurking conviction that “something waited for her return.” She walks out on their standing ovation and returns home to the devastating news of Adam’s death, her failure in one realm overwriting her success in another. That’s life, I suppose, and perhaps that’s what we’re left with, what we have to make our own meaning out of. Amid the resulting emotional morass Fiona’s marriage “uneasily resumes,” and she and her husband lie “face to face in the darkness.”

“The bare outline of a useful story”: Ian McEwan, Sweet Tooth

sweettoothIf Sweet Tooth were not by Ian McEwan (author, as is stressed on the cover of my edition, of Atonement — one of my very favorite recent [that is, post-2000] novels) would I have been disappointed in it? How unfair, in a way, that the burden of great expectations should interfere with my appreciation of this well-crafted, elegantly told tale with its clever premise so smoothly executed. If only books could be read “blind,” as orchestral auditions are sometimes done now — with the author’s identity concealed and so no preconceptions or biases to come between us and the words on the page. And yet I’m not sure that pristine anonymity is quite what we want. When writers raise the bar, isn’t it only fair to test their subsequent efforts not just against the books they already outmatched but against their own previous personal best? Once an ice skater has included a quad, doesn’t every program without one seem just a tad safe, no matter how perfect the triple axels?

And I’d say “safe” is a good word for Sweet Tooth, along with “flat” and “smart” — and, again, only for McEwan would that last term not be entirely praise — smart is the least I expect of him. Knowing Sweet Tooth was “an Ian McEwan” I read along in full expectation of a big twist, a surprise, a treat that would throw everything I thought I knew about the book into some new perspective, or draw together its elements into a shape I hadn’t seen before. By page 300, I was getting downright impatient for this revelatory moment, as on its own surface terms the book I was reading wasn’t giving me much of a thrill. Then when the long-anticipated game-changer arrived, it was so obvious that I realized that in one way or another I had already predicted it. (In case you’re wondering why I didn’t know all about it from reviews, I typically avoid reviews of books I know I’m going to read until after I have a chance to read them for myself. I suppose that’s my own modified version of the audition screens. Now that I’ve finally read Sweet Tooth, I’ll be looking up what other people have said about it.)

The revelations of Sweet Tooth are actually not that different from the writerly twists in Atonement, but the payoffs seemed much slighter to me. It’s true that I didn’t see until I did some careful rereading just how artful Atonement is (one of my favorite details is that Briony turns out to have made the changes recommended by Cyril Connolly at Horizon). Maybe if I reread Sweet Tooth, I’ll find the experience a similarly stirring literary treasure hunt. But I’d need some extrinsic motivation to do that (maybe the other reviews will provide it?) because Sweet Tooth never gripped me: it lacks the gutsiness that lies beneath Atonement‘s opening aestheticism and that comes out into the open during the war sections. Where is the equivalent in Sweet Tooth of the Dunkirk sequences? What here even approaches the wrenching pathos of Atonement‘s elegaic conclusion? The cruelty and devastation we see in Atonement are greater than anything in Sweet Tooth, the people in it at least as guilty of selfishness, greed, and betrayal — but they also love passionately. Sweet Tooth, in contrast, seems all head and no heart; its people (like, as it turns out, the narrative itself) are just petty and manipulative. “I was a novelist without a novel,” Tom reflects, “and now luck had tossed my way a tasty bone, the bare outline of a useful story.” He just hasn’t filled that outline in with the richest tints of humanity.

The novel’s “duplicitous point of view” (in McEwan’s — or rather Tom’s — own phrase) is an escape clause for these complaints, of course. How much of the dully plodding quality of the narrative is excused by the revelation that it’s not as it first seems (or as it seems for 300+ pages)? In particular, how many of Serena’s deficiencies as a narrator and protagonist can be blamed on the actual storyteller? Are her limitations really his limitations — he can’t read her, much less convey her, as a more complex character? In that case it’s not McEwan who’s in any way deficient. If anything, he’s doubly clever because he can play at being someone who’s not as good a novelist as he is, and his imitation is pitch perfect! And the lengthy “reveal,” which  lacks both the urgency and and the beauty of Atonement’s conclusion (“I like to think that it isn’t weakness or evasion, but a final act of kindness, a stand against oblivion and despair, to let my lovers live and to unite them at the end”) and offers instead only dreary petulance (“I told you that it wasn’t anger that set me writing the pages in the parcel in front of you. But there was always an element of tit for tat”) before its final, understatedly flamboyant, flourish — any letdown we might experience is attributable to the same cause. But isn’t McEwan ultimately still accountable for inflicting his imperceptive (and somewhat artless?) doppelganger on us through the fictional author he’s created? How can we credit him with knowing better (and somehow also doing better) if he doesn’t give us a sign? I didn’t pick up on any evidence of metafictional distancing, though maybe I didn’t put the clues together: it’s true there are a number of debates about fiction embedded in the novel that perhaps are meant to reflect sardonically on the kind of novel Tom has finally written.

One way in which McEwan never disappoints is his forensically precise diction: who else would describe oysters as “glistening cowpats of briny viscera”? If I somehow hadn’t known the identity of the author of Sweet Tooth –if he were concealed behind that opaque screen — I think that at that moment, I would have started comparing him to McEwan nonetheless.

Monday Miscellany: Friday Night Lights, South Riding, Ian McEwan, & a Musical Bonus

We’re finishing out a four-day weekend here based on a holiday we don’t even celebrate in its hopelessly commercial secular form–Maddie is the only one of us who’d really appreciate Easter Bunny stuff but she’s allergic to both eggs and nuts, so never mind, and just as well too, really. It doesn’t seem like much really went on or got done, but the grown-ups did finish up the first season of Friday Night Lights, which I’d heard buzz about on Twitter from folks including Maud Newton (and Daniel Mendelsohn held it up as a counter-example in his recent smackdown of Mad Men, as well). I was finally motivated to get going on it by Sonya Chung’s post on it at The Millions. We both enjoyed it, which is no small thing considering that I wouldn’t ordinarily ever watch that much football. The characters are engaging and brought to life very convincingly, and there’s plenty of interest in the storylines. But we weren’t swept away by it: it already seems to be falling into the usual TV drama pattern of just one damn plot twist after another–when in doubt, throw in a crisis!–with the additional fairly melodramatic use of the football games to bring things to fever pitch (my husband, who does watch football, was amused that nearly every game was won or lost on the last play, in the final seconds). So far, there’s no sense of a larger project or developing insight of the kind that you get with The Wire or Deadwood, and the premise itself is not as breathtakingly stark and unexpected as In Treatment. I appreciate good storytelling, and I share Chung’s appreciation for the show’s commitment to heartfelt emotion, even to sentimentality.  It’s just that now we know it’s possible to do something more ambitious within the same basic structure. I’ll probably watch at least the second season (though I think my husband won’t), to see if it builds over time into something more, or at least to see if my initial attachment to the characters keeps me hooked, wanting to know what happens next.

In the meantime, I’m about 2/3 throug Winifred Holtby’s South Riding and enjoying it a lot–for some of the same reasons I liked Friday Night Lights, actually, including its straightforward commitment to character development and its interest in the dynamics of a tight knit community under pressure. I particularly like Holtby’s narrative voice, which is smart and analytical without being pedantic. The introduction to my (badly proofread) BBC Books edition promptly and plausibly compares it to Middlemarch. If I were writing one of those annoying “X meets Y” jacket blurbs for it I might call it “a post-war Middlemarch written by a socialist Anthony Trollope,” because while it has the wide range of Middlemarch and the sensitivity to the ways multiple stories can be interconnected, it has none of the formal sophistication of the earlier novel: in fact, it is structured very much like Friday Night Lights or any other conventional multiplot fiction, simply moving from focus to focus while progressing more or less linearly towards its conclusion. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! And in fact it’s a more interesting choice in 1940 than it was in 1860, if only because by then other alternatives had been so abundantly demonstrated, and Holtby’s own awareness of her more immediate literary context is pointed to by conversations within the novel itself about writers including Virginia Woolf. Lauren Elkin has some thought-provoking comments about this at Maitresse, comparing Holtby to Elizabeth Bowen (whom I’ll be reading for one of my book clubs soon, making Lauren’s post doubly relevant!):

It would be a stretch to classify South Riding within the category of modernism.  Although they share thematic concerns, Bowen seems more interested in the possibilities of form, whereas Holtby seems more interested in the possibilities of message. “We are members of one another,” Holtby writes in her prefatory letter to her mother, quoting Paul’s letter to the Romans (Romans 12:3-8). She is not only referring to members of the same community, of course, but to the community of humanity. Bowen’s citydwellers, on the other hand, feel more alienated than ever, and have an awareness of themselves as estranged from anything as conventional as a community. Communities, for Bowen, are in the process of being dissolved, and there is not much that can be done about it. Bowen’s novels and essays constantly interrogate and ironize concepts like “community,” and “humanity.”  Her novels interpret themselves for the reader, her sentences twist in syntax to avoid banality, her young heroines are intensely aware of themselves as young heroines, her novelistic forms double back on themselves. Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle call this aspect of Bowen’s work the “dissolution of the modern novel.”

I’m intrigued by the phrase “the possibilities of message,” and I’ll think more about how or whether Holtby’s form is or is not integral to the “message” of her novel as I finish it up–tonight, perhaps!

On a completely different topic–or maybe not, since it’s also about novels and what ideas inform them–I found this discussion with Ian McEwan about books that have influenced his fiction very interesting. Not surprisingly, he emphasizes books about science. An excerpt:

I don’t need to ask what the influence on your novels is here, as science plays a big part in many of them – most noticeably in Solar, but also in Saturday and Enduring Love. What is the nature of your individual relationship, as a writer, with science?

I would like to inhabit a glorious mental space in which books like Slingerland’s would not need to be written. In other words – and this comes back to the notion of mental freedom – your average literary intellectual, just as much as your average research scientist, would take for granted a field of study in which the humanities and sciences were fluid, or lay along a spectrum of enquiry. This is the grand enlightenment dream of unified knowledge. If you think of the novel as an exploration or investigation into human nature, well, science undertakes a parallel pursuit. Of course, much science is concerned with the natural world, but increasingly it has invaded the territory of the novelist. Neuroscience routinely deals with issues not only of consciousness, but of memory, love, sorrow, and the nature of pain. I went to a fascinating lecture on revenge and the reward system by a German neuroscientist a few years ago.

I’m sometimes asked by a literary intellectual in an on-stage discussion – often through the medium of a puzzled frown – why I’m interested in science. As if I was being asked why I had a particular fascination for designs of differential gears in old Volkswagens, or car-parking regulations in Chicago in the 1940s. Science is simply organised human curiosity and we should all take part. It’s a matter of beauty. Just as we treasure beauty in our music and literature, so there’s beauty to be found in the exuberant invention of science.

Finally, once before I posted a sample of one of Owen’s original compositions. If you’re interested, you can follow this link to another, this time the slow movement of the Sonatina for Piano and Violin that was his entry in the composition category at this year’s Kiwanis Festival. It’s an amateur recording of a live performance, so not studio quality, but I think it’s beautiful…

Ian McEwan, Solar

Solar is everything I expected of a new novel by Ian McEwan, who may be the smartest contemporary writer I read: clever, timely, acerbic, well-written, intensely readable. The problem is that those expectations are not, themselves, at a peak, by which I mean I had no expectation that a new novel by Ian McEwan would be humane, beautiful, or morally weighty. I believe Atonement to be all of those things; I believe Saturday to be all of those things at various points, though not as unequivocally so as Atonement. But after reading Atonement and Saturday I read some of McEwan’s other novels, and was alienated by what felt to me like intellect and skill divorced from humanity.  Enduring Love fascinated but repelled me; A Child in Time puzzled me. Amsterdam left me cold, notwithstanding its Booker Prize, and then so did On Chesil Beach. Of course it is not a universal prescription for excellence that a novel satisfy both heart and head, but that’s what I want, that’s what I think takes a novel from good to great, and Solar seems quite content to leave my heart untouched. I think this is a missed opportunity for a novelist with McEwan’s gifts. Why not set against the shabby opportunism of the protagonist (who is both brilliantly drawn and wholly unsympathetic) either some idealism not undermined by the general attitude of cynicism that permeates the novel–even if only to show it up as ineffectual against the absurd realities of political and scientific institutions–or some unembodied but evocative commitment to the beauties of the planet Michael Beard only pretends to cherish? Bleak House is an unforgettable critique of the stupidities of a system that serves, at most, only those who constitute it, because we see beyond it, unrealized, an idea of human flourishing, of love and justice, worth yearning for. Thus we find the yammering of innumerable lawyers both comic and tragic. Where is Miss Flite, or Lady Dedlock, never mind Jo the crossing sweeper, in McEwan’s universe?

But then, McEwan is not a reformer; he has not taken it upon himself to be–or to target–the conscience of a nation. Is he, in fact, a skeptic about global warming? I’m sure I could find out if I read around in the innumerable interviews he has given since the novel’s publication, but then I’m not sure how relevant that question is, really, to Solar, which I think is less about climate change or solar power in particular than it is about the fallibility and foibles of a particular scientist and, more generally, the peculiarities and contexts of scientific research, which is, inevitably, both constituted and compromised by structures and inividuals bound up in many interests besides whatever lofty ones they claim to serve. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that his skepticism is directed at our faith in science (and scientists). Both the much-cited “boot room” and Beard’s increasingly chaotic and filthy basement flat undermine our confidence that these are people who can clean up a whole planet:

Four days ago the room had started out in orderly condition, with all gear hanging on or stored below the numbered pegs. Finate resources, equally shared, in the golden age of not so long ago. Now it was a ruin. . . . How were they to save the earth — assuming it needed saving, which he doubted — when it was so much larger than the boot room?

OK, we get it (and in fact I think we would have got it even without Beard’s rather heavy-handed analogy). But we don’t get anything much beyond Beard’s perspective, and while that kind of intense ‘focalizing’ is very effective for some things (including, of course, characterization, but also, here, some comic effects) I think enough is potentially at stake, given the range of interests the novel has–science, love, marriage, the uncertainties of both guilt and innocence, even, to take the broadest possible perspective, the value (or not) of the survival of human life on earth–to contextualize Beard himself better. The open ending, similarly, felt to me like the wrong technical choice. It’s not necessarily shallow artifice to resolve the plot: if you have raised substantive questions, your conclusion is your chance to proffer answers to them. Do the solar panels work or not? Is Lordsburg illuminated? The answer to that question would, in turn, illuminate much more for us, such as whether the cynicism so much on display stems from frustrated idealism or an uncompromising realism (if it weren’t for Atonement, I’d assume the latter). I thought there was an element of cowardice in the novel’s ending as it did, a refusal to commit either way, to override Beard’s failings and force us to accept that progress may come from sources we despise, or to endorse, once and for all, the philosophy of the boot room: we came, we saw, we made a mess we couldn’t fix.

I also found the book’s architecture puzzling. Its three parts make good enough sense in a way, organized around key episodes in Beard’s development (if that’s even the right word). But I don’t understand why we get the back-story on Beard’s childhood and first marriage at the beginning of Part Three: it’s a bit late for introductions by then, after all, and in fact thinking back after that stumble it seemed to me that in each section there was some awkward coverage of information necessary to get us caught up with Beard: who he’s involved with, what project he’s on, and so forth. I wonder what kind of novel would have resulted from a more conventional chronological approach. A longer one, certainly–but might it also have been a richer one, if it had allowed itself to take on the shape of a scientific Bildungsroman? The only growth we witness is in Beard’s girth: does the episodic structure of the novel reflect a rejection of or an avoidance of the relationship between individual growth and historical, social, or moral change? Perhaps McEwan believes people in general don’t learn or change much over time (but, again, we have Atonement as a counter-example). Beard’s stunted self makes for some pretty funny bits (though the scene with the ‘crisps’ is very good, my own favorite is probably the bit on the snowmobile when he believes his penis has not just frozen, but fallen off and “nestl[ed] under the crook of his knee”), but it’s a humor untouched with either love or horror: we laugh at Beard but are never brought into human fellowship with him. Beard himself, of course, is incapable of such fellowship, but I think McEwan should not have let his character’s limits limit his novel.

(cross-posted to The Valve)

Rereading Atonement

In my latest post about This Week in My Classes, I spent so much time on Gwendolen and Daniel Deronda that I never got around to Briony and Atonement. I mentioned there, though, that I was struck by at least one parallel between these two protagonists, which is their will to power or mastery. As it happens, they are both, also, severely chastened for their presumption, though in different ways: Gwendolen gets beaten down–not literally, at least, but figuratively–by her husband, who proves indifferent to her will and strong enough to master it–and also by the novel, which chronicles her halting progress towards a higher consciousness, one in which she is “dislodged from her supremacy in her own world” and must subordinate her own desires to “the larger destinies of mankind.” Briony, in turn, is forced to acknowledge the devastating and inalterable consequences of her own manipulation of reality into a story of her own telling, a story shaped by her own toxic combination of ignorance and precocity, of misunderstanding (of life, of other people, of love) and knowledge (of words and the power that they give you). “There was nothing she could not describe,” she reflects, even as she kneels beside her raped cousin and proffers a description of what happened, “her story, the one that was writing itself around her.” That slippage into the passive voice is revelatory of Briony’s evasion of agency, as if her words are not, themselves, decisions, as if her conviction that “the truth was in the symmetry” is about life, not art. That we can judge her error, her “crime,” as the narrator bluntly calls it, is of course due to Briony herself, our storyteller, “crime” her own word, later, when it’s too late. She knows, and says, that “she would never undo the damage,” not by any action, not by any redescription.

But it’s not Briony’s mastery of the facts, her tyranny over the truth, that I am most struck by at this point in my rereading: it’s McEwan’s over his story, his words, and thus my experience as I reread Atonement. It’s a mesmerizing experience because the control is so total, the effects so precisely wrought. Every detail seems just enough, placed just right.  I think this effect is particularly strong because I’m working on it after spending a few weeks thinking and talking about Modernism, and of course, the echoes are everywhere, self-consciously so, as is the critique or reaction against Modernism that has been part of our class discussion as well. The intellectual pleasures, in this context, are everywhere, like the allusions, some explicit (Cecilia quotes “In Memory of W. B. Yeats” in a letter to Robbie: “In the nightmare of the dark, / All the dogs of Europe bark”), some implicit:

In a field ahead, he saw a man and his collie dog walking behind a horse-drawn plow. Like the ladies in the shoe shop, the farmer did not seem aware of the convoy. These lives were lived in parallel–war was a hobby for the enthusiasts and no less serious for that. Like the deadly pursuit of a hunt to hounds, while over the next hedge a woman in the backseat of a passing motorcar was absorbed in her knitting, and in the bare garden of a new house a man was teaching his son to kick a ball. Yes, the plowing would still go on and there’d be a crop, someone to reap it and mill it, others to eat it, and not everyone would be dead . . .

“About suffering, they were never wrong,” indeed, and indeed the plowing does go on, after a Stuka attack that leaves only a crater where a mother and her son had huddled, the mother soothing her son, “telling him that everything was going to be all right. Mama would see to that.” Infusing his own novel with so many references to other novels might have turned Atonement into a kind of parlor game for pretentious literati–and I admit one source of satisfaction is “getting it” in this way. But I think the high level of intertextuality works in Atonement, because the novel is so metafictional, and intelligently so: it’s a novel that is, in part, about what we want or expect or fear literature does in the world, and in our heads, about where it comes from, about its “proper” subjects (“we do not believe that artists have an obligation to strike up attitudes to the war,” Cyril Connolly writes Briony; “Indeed, they are wise and right to ignore it and devote themselves to other subjects“–advice Ian McEewan, and Briony, both ultimately override, thus urging us, too, towards an interrogation of that particular form of aestheticism). Writing about writing too risks become tediously knowing, though, and Atonement avoids this trap too, by embracing story and character, by giving us a deep human problem to contemplate. The literary allusiveness is part of the novel’s realistic context as well as its self-awareness, too, and the characters (a novelist and two English majors chief among them) are believably, as well as aptly, engaged in thinking and rethinking the relationship of their stories to other stories they have read, which are always part of the texture of our lives.

So, McEwan dazzles (this reader, at least) with the intelligent profundity of his thinking about writing, but as important is that his writing is so good. Do I think so at least in part because I have been raised, trained, in the same tradition he invokes and engages? No doubt. What is it exactly that I admire so much about his style? I want to say, its lucidity–but so often it creates effects of slightly shimmering confusion or misdirection because he understands so well how to shade into the perspectives of his characters. Perhaps, its concision–but it isn’t an elliptical or minimalist style; he will linger over a detail (a leg, inexplicably in a tree, “pale, smooth, small enough to be a child’s,” a landscape, a sound, a smell). Its control–but there is emotion, even pathos, though it’s never sentimental (Briony, now Nurse Tallis, sitting with Luc Cornet as he dies, leaning closer to whisper in his ear the only remaining thing she has to offer: “It’s Briony. . .  You should call me Briony”). Maybe, overall, it’s the unstated but unequivocal certainty of the writing: this is the word, this is the place for it, this is enough. At any rate, I find it mesmerizing, satisfying, painful, beautiful.

A Reader’s Responsibilities

Ian McEwan’s recent letter in The Guardian points to an aspect of criticism that is perhaps underestimated by those advocating a turn away from academic approaches towards more ‘aesthetic’ or ‘literary’ responses. In reply to a reviewer who attributed one of his character’s views to him, McEwan writes,

As for Saturday – a character in a novel who expresses hostility towards novels in general should not be seen as an entirely trustworthy mouthpiece of his novelist creator. For example, the pro-Iraq war views Henry Perowne expresses in an argument with his daughter are not mine and nor, for that matter, are her anti-war opinions. On the other hand, I would agree with Perowne that some – not all – peace protesters are naive. Who can forget those daft and earnest English folk parading through central London last summer with placards that read, “We are all Hizbullah now”?

I sometimes wonder whether these common critical confusions arise unconsciously from a prevailing atmosphere of empowering consumerism – the exaltation of the subjective, the “not in my name” syndrome. It certainly seems odd to me that such simple precepts need pointing up: your not “liking” the characters is not the same as your not liking the book; you don’t have to think the central character is nice; the views of the characters don’t have to be yours, and are not necessarily those of the author; a novel is not always all about you.

The complaint that readers too readily conflate characters or narrators with biographical authors is a familiar one to students of the novel (Jane Eyre, anyone?); in part McEwan is asking that his artistic freedom be respected. But he is also demanding that his work be read properly, with due attention to its technical complexities, so that, to use his own example, it is not assumed that because his protagonist in Saturday is (cautiously) in favour of invading Iraq, either the author or the novel takes the same position. Particularly if a reader is going to make public pronouncements about a novel (as in a review), the reader should be skilled enough–knowledgeable enough–to avoid misreading. And it is possible to misread: a reader’s response can be wrong, misguided, confused. All opinions are not equal: some represent a fuller, more careful, better-informed engagement with all the elements of the work. Henry Perowne, to stick with the Saturday example, is a compelling but flawed character: his world view has limits not shared by the novel overall, which, among other things, self-evidently values literature more highly than the neurosurgeon does. One of the things the novel is about is the limitations of Perowne’s materialist view of the world–though at the same time, the novel is filled with respect for the “grandeur” in that view of things (a Darwinian phrase with rich implications for McEwan’s novel). In some of the anti-academic discussions, the reader’s responsibility to the text and author in question gets sidelined because of the emphasis on responding to, rather than analyzing, a text. A responsible (rather than just responsive) reading requires, just to give one example, attention to point of view, which can include recognizing when a thought or opinion not in quotation marks nonetheless represents the views of a character (“she was only Anne,” we read in Austen’s Persuasion, but a reasonably alert reader will promptly understand that this dismissive attitude belongs to Anne’s foolish family, and one of the novel’s main points is that their inability to appreciate her signals their broader moral disabilities). Unreliable narration is another technical issue that must be rightly understood for a good reading of many books: Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, for instance, would be radically misrepresented by a reader who accepted the narrator’s deference for authority as the novel’s own. While these days nearly anybody can read a novel, that does not mean everybody reads it equally well. Academic scholarship may be of questionable public value in its more erudite forms (though it may also be of intrinsic interest and therefore arguably worthwhile nonetheless), but in my own experience at any rate, English professors spend a lot of time trying to equip their students, not with politics or Theory but with the knowledge and tools to be better readers. If we do value literature, than this kind of expertise is surely worth promoting, even demanding.

Recent discussions about Pierre Bayard’s How to Talk About Books That You Haven’t Read prompt some of the same thoughts. While I can see many occasions on which you might be in a conversation about a book you have not read, I don’t accept that there is any value in your pronouncing on it in any way. For example, I have not read Bayard’s book myself, only reviews and commentaries on it, such as Leah McLaren’s in this week’s Globe and Mail. So I can talk about it in a limited way, and I might even get passionate about what I take to be some of its claims. But I can’t responsibly judge or review the book without reading it for myself. I think it’s outrageous if it is true, as McLaren’s column states, that Bayard “admits to giving lectures on books he hasn’t bothered to open”–unless (and you see, I can’t know this without reading more) he lectures solely on context, literary relations, historical significance, or other issues that do not depend on specific textual evidence or close reading. If he talks about the specifics or the qualities of the books themselves, he is a fraud. As McLaren points out, we live in an “era of crib culture” in which people seem ready to accept “intellectual shortcuts” whenever possible. But substituting someone’s report about a book for your own reading of it is shoddy as well as risky, and our readiness to give up on “heavy reading” is not necessarily something to be complacent about. Required reading lists have the merit of motivating students to struggle on with things they find uncomfortable, unfamiliar, even boring. As McEwan says, “a novel is not always all about you,” and in that respect education differs substantially from other ‘consumer’ products. To consider my own experience again, it’s remarkable how many students are capable of learning to like a novel, or (since ‘converting’ them to like things is not really the point of teaching them) learning to appreciate the merits, qualities, or significance of a novel, as a work of art and a contribution to pertinent cultural, social, aesthetic, or political discussions, even if their first response was boredom or confusion. Again, some expertise is required, some technical terms useful, some precision in analysis as important as visceral responses. And again I think that as readers, or as serious and responsible readers, we have an obligation to the texts and authors to study our primary source carefully before we arrive at (much less publish) our conclusions.

Ian McEwan, Saturday

I approached Saturday with caution because of its rave reviews, but I found this novel entirely engrossing, genuinely interesting, original, and moving. Part of the surprise it held for me was Henry Perowne’s cautiously supportive attitude towards the war in Iraq. I’ve become so accustomed to anti-war perorations from literary luminaries that I had no expectation that McEwan would offer anything different (I should have known better); the enormous uncertainty, the high stakes, the intolerable complacency of a pacifism that is content to leave Saddam in power, the difficulty of separating ends from means when responding to the call to arms made by leaders whose real motivations are surely mixed…I think McEwan did justice to the complexity of the judgments–the mental and moral balancing acts–called for by these circumstances. I thought the use of “Dover Beach” as a frame and model was brilliant: I can’t believe I didn’t recognize Perowne’s situation at the beginning as analogous to that of Arnold’s speaker until the poem appeared directly in the action. I’m curious about how or whether the initial encounter between Perowne and Baxter stands as its own analogue to the international situation: surely it does, and so Perowne’s feelings of responsibility for the violent consequences also have some application to the wider issues, including perhaps his stance towards the invasion of Iraq. Why is he a neurosurgeon? At what level is the fascinating issue of the relationship between physical and mental states raised by Perowne’s work on the brain also part of either the problem or the solution he posits for the world that lacks ‘certitude’ or ‘help from pain’? The turn from the window to the lover in “Dover Beach” has been criticized as an objectification of the companion, sought not as an individual but as solace, as a solution to the ignorant clash of armies. Has McEwan avoided that solipsistic impulse on the part of his protagonist? Does his family have the solidity Arnold’s love lacks? It is not credible in a simple realistic way that Baxter should be turned aside from violence by poetry, but how far is McEwan appealing to us to see some poetic essence (yearning, as Henry considers it?) as the saving grace in a world racked with ‘confused alarms of struggle and of flight’? The novel seems far too political to be satisfied with an aesthetic turn away from the clash itself. McEwan’s writing here seemed flawless to me, with all the richness of detail that made Atonement dazzling in its own way, but without the tendency I felt in that novel to abstraction or aesthetic self-indulgence: this book reads as if all of its details are necessary, and as if it is equally necessary that they be clear and concrete.