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  On Chesil Beach
Ian McEwan

Ion Martea
posted 16 October 2007

Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach is unquestionably his most lyrical work to date. Here we have a novelist who has learned how to control language in such way as to provoke sensations that resonate with the harmony of the soul. In his protagonists Edward and Florence he has found a way to look at history as a living organism, one that develops through devouring itself. McEwan himself is caught in a game that he is unable to stop, resulting in a book that is both an exemplary work from one of the best contemporary English novelists and a major lapse for the same author.

‘They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible. But it is never easy’. This opening thought summarises McEwan’s novella, and serves as a metaphor for the story as a whole. The time is the summer of 1962. The Summer of Love is still a chimera in the early reign of Elizabeth II, where boys still consider playing around fair enough (as long as it’s kept decently quiet), and the girls are still raised in the shadow of ‘holy virginity’. Yet all crave for liberty, like Bertolucci’s Dreamers, in their innocent rooms, the only space safe from parental invasion. The difficulty of expressing this desire, however, is not specific to a particular historical period. One’s first encounter with liberty is horrifying because of its uncontrollable ecstasy.

McEwan is overtly writing about sex, and moreover dealing with the dilemma faced by the true anarchist who tries to reconcile his significance in the process of establishing freedom at the expense of the self. It is here where On Chesil Beach finds its power. Florence, the daughter of a wealthy businessman and a sharp academic, is struggling to escape the predictability of her world, and manages instead to see beauty in everything except her own home. For her, ‘the Soviet Union, for all its mistakes – clumsiness, inefficiencies, defensiveness surely, rather than evil design – was essentially a beneficial force in the world’. Yet, she ‘was disappointed in her mother, and even said so’, while ‘her father had just the sort of opinions you might expect from a businessman’. Even so, her ‘caviar socialism’ takes her as far as leading a successful classical quartet, dreaming about her man, always present in ‘the middle of third row, seat 9C’.

That man is Edward. Coming from a poor middle-class family, primarily raised by his father, who was always trying to hide the truth about his debilitated artistic wife, he is almost on the opposite pole. His admiration for the great men of history sits uneasily with his desire to widen the quality of human life. His concern though is purely academic, and it is no surprise that we find he represents the disillusionment of an entire genation of leftists activists, surprised that their efforts resulted up in social capitalism, while they are just old hippies in Camden. All he has to cherish is the regret of not having ‘love and patience’ at the right time of his youth.

McEwan’s metaphor is a wonder to unravel. Essentially, the failure to discuss sexual difficulties is really the failure of two leftist movements to find a pleasurable and meaningful intercourse with each other prior to the 1969 ‘revolution’. Edward wants it so eagerly, that his stiff cock would finish the evening at the first ‘slight adjustment’. Florence is so afraid of losing her privileged status, that a lone pubic hair, escaped from under her panties, would provoke ‘a definable physical sensation, as irrefutable as vertigo’. She would try to act, her body would push her unconsciously, yet, the desire to be oneself, to be redeemed for what one is, and not for what one can offer to the others, is too strong; it pulsates two violently into her brain to allow her pelvic desires to dominate. What they both lack is not charisma, but the acceptance on the volatility of their own beliefs. Their experiences of the world are too narrow to accept the full spectrum of what an ideology can carry.

McEwan has always been a great observer, and ardent critic of society, culminating quite early in political criticism through symbolism in his The Child in Time. The novelty of On Chesil Beach is that he has moved from being a critical bystander into a conceptual thinker. In his novella, we can finally find a dialectic being developed through literary techniques, rather than just a one-sided analysis of the history of current times. This is refreshing, McEwan deserving all the right plaudits for his achievement.

However, On Chesil Beach is hardly a masterpiece. The master of ‘first chapters’ trips himself up at his own smart literary game. For once, he has managed to extend a first chapter into an entire novel, without much loss of momentum. Yet, there is something quite superficial in the way this pace is maintained. Heavily relying on old characters from his previous novels, old musical references (Bruckner, Beethoven, Schubert and Mozart seem to be particular favourites), and the old sexual explicitness (so much more effective and raw in his first short story collection, First Love, Last Rites), McEwan finds himself in a creative cul-de-sac. It has got so easy to dismantle his construction to the point where the hidden meaning becomes the blindingly obvious. His mastery of language has been lent to a lost cause, when the reader can signal its technical use for provoking certain emotions – sensual, melancholic, or thrilling – even before one finishes the passage where a particular structure is used. In trying to create a metaphor, on this occasion the author has exposed his Achilles heel even before the war has started.

On the other hand, throwing stones at McEwan may seem slightly malicious, in an environment where he is one of the few to combine lyricism and storytelling, and still maintain his popular appeal. Maybe On Chesil Beach is the glimpse of a new era in McEwan’s writing, one that signals a view of the world that is not just empiricist, but cognitive and wholesome. One can only hope, for on this occasion we are left only with an excellent graduate dissertation.

MP3: Ion Martea's introduction to the Institute of Ideas Book Club discussion of On Chesil Beach.

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