Ian McEwan’s Family Values
A once-in-a-generation writer.
January 9, 2006
Jan 9, 2006
22 Min read time
A once-in-a-generation writer.
Books discussed in this essay
First Love, Last Rites, Random House, 1975
In Between the Sheets, Simon and Schuster, 1978
The Cement Garden, Simon and Schuster, 1978
The Comfort of Strangers, Simon and Schuster, 1981
The Child in Time, Houghton Mifflin, 1987
The Innocent, Doubleday, 1990
Black Dogs, Nan A. Talese, 1992
Enduring Love, Anchor Books, 1997
Amsterdam, Nan A. Talese, 1999
Atonement, Nan A. Talese, 2002
Saturday, Nan A. Talese, 2005
“The world has not fundamentally changed,” says Henry Perowne, the protagonist of Ian McEwan’s latest novel, Saturday. “Talk of a hundred-year crisis is indulgence. There are always crises, and Islamic terrorism will settle into place, alongside recent wars, climate change, the politics of international trade, land and fresh water shortages, hunger, poverty, and the rest.”
But of course we don’t, and can’t, yet know if the world has fundamentally changed, and we won’t know until many years have passed. Later in the novel McEwan introduces an opposing, less sanguine point of view: The government’s counsel—that an attack in a European or American city is an inevitability—isn’t only a disclaimer of responsibility, it’s a heady promise. Everyone fears it, but there’s also a darker longing in the collective mind, a sickening for self-punishment and a blasphemous curiosity.
Saturday came out in January 2005; on July 7 came the bombings in London. It was a prophecy, albeit an easy one. Asked by the German magazine Der Spiegel for his reaction to the attack, McEwan said, It confirmed my book. I mean, it’s not that I take any satisfaction from it, nor did I share any great insight, everybody’s been waiting. But at the same time as waiting they’re also forgetting because, you know, it’s been four years since 9/11. . . . When Henry Perowne is standing in the window he talks of [London] waiting for its bombs. Well, you know, here it was. It’s a bit like the death of an old parent. You could be waiting for it but that doesn’t stop you from being shocked by it. As for my emotions, I felt furious, I really felt sickened with anger.
This grim view of world events can be seen as the consequence of McEwan’s belief, increasingly evident in his work, in the virtues of tradition and stability as embodied in the family, the microcosm of civilization. These family values show how far McEwan has come from being the wunderkind who rocked the literary establishment in 1975 with First Love, Last Rites, a story collection that won the Somerset Maugham Award and made McEwan’s name as one of England’s most shocking and subversive young writers, the Michel Houellebecq of his day. First Love was soon followed by In Between the Sheets (1978), another collection of stories containing the creepy sexuality and glimpses of surreal worlds behind closed doors that won their author the nickname “Ian Macabre.”
A couple of these early stories still work in a callously humorous way, notably “Reflections of a Kept Ape,” despite its off-putting theme of bestiality, and “Dead as They Come,” in which a smooth yuppie loses his sang-froid and much else when he falls in love with a department-store mannequin. But the other stories in these collections, such as “Pornography” (a pornographer gets his just deserts and then some) and “Two Fragments: March 199” (more queasy sexuality, in a futuristic setting) are mere variations on a bleak theme. McEwan now describes his early work as “a sort of willed extravagance,” a reaction to the class obsessions of that era. “I dug deep and dredged up all kinds of vile things which fascinated me at the time,” he says. In that unappealing psychological landscape, however, his first novel, The Cement Garden (1978), although really just another story stretched out to novella length, looms over the prior story collections. It is a Lord of the Flies of the London suburbs, in which four children left alone in a rambling pile of a house after their parents die get up to all kinds of kinky mayhem on the way to acquiring maturity of a sort. Fluently written, bizarrely surreal, at times viciously humorous, the book marks the culmination of McEwan’s early period.
“I always used to deny this,” says McEwan today, referring to his early work, “but I guess . . . that I was writing to shock.” He went on doing so, although in his next book, The Comfort of Strangers (1981), he left the mean streets of London for the canals of Venice (although that city is never named, only evoked), where an unmarried English couple meet a sad and (yes) shocking fate. The book is first cousin to Daphne du Maurier’s “Don’t Look Now” in its portrayal of the sinister claustrophobia of Venice and in the slow evolution of a nightmarish collusion between victim and murderer. Mary and Colin, the hapless vacationing couple, take up with Robert, a charismatic psycho. It is no surprise that this character drives the plot to a climax of gratuitous sex and violence that somewhat clumsily fulfills the expectations of what went before. But despite the standard shock value, McEwan evokes larger themes here: the nature of good and evil and the constant imminence of the unexpected. The intrinsic value of everyday life becomes evident when a grotesque person—the “malevolent intervention,” in McEwan’s words—enters the ordinary intimate settings of the characters. And we care, because McEwan’s characters are universal, as are those of any good writer; they are the ordinary people who, in George Eliot’s haunting phrase, “rest in unvisited tombs.”
After The Comfort of Strangers came the Whitbread Award–winning The Child in Time (1987). Strong in parts, it is a disappointment overall. There are several children in different time periods in the novel: the narrator Stephen Lewis’s kidnapped daughter in the past and future; Stephen’s friend Charles, who tries, unsuccessfully and bizarrely, to become reborn as a child in the present; and the timeless hypothetical child under study by a governmental child-care commission on which Stephen (an eminent children’s author) sits. A realistic account of personal loss in the first chapter (McEwan’s first chapters are brilliant, frequently the strongest parts of his books) precedes a satire on greed and corruption. It is a Thatcher-era novel—the Iron Lady herself makes an awkward cameo appearance—and is overly earnest in its concern with exposing corruption in high places. The political becomes rather too personal, and the different aspects of The Child in Time undermine rather than support one another. The result is a bit of a mess. But there are moments of real power, especially when the story concentrates on Stephen’s loss; in this novel, as in all his mature work, McEwan’s real hero is the family.
Taking another a break from his scrutiny of London’s soiled underbelly, in The Innocent (1990) McEwan gives us a glimpse of Berlin’s. The hero—the virginal, earnest 25-year-old Leonard Marnham—is part of an Anglo-American team digging a tunnel from the British sector to the Soviet sector. It is 1954, the early days of the Cold War. Leonard, an employee of the British Post Office, gradually gets involved in a top-secret espionage operation involving the construction of the tunnel, built to enable eavesdropping on Soviet and East German radio communications (this is based on an actual historical incident). Paralleling his love–hate relationship with his abrasive, no-nonsense American boss—to whom, in a sense, Leonard loses his political virginity—is Leonard’s passionate affair with a German divorcée, who expertly deprives him of his physical virginity.
These are tense and dynamic relationships, masterfully unveiled, and the atmospherics are first-rate. The Berlin of McEwan’s novel is scented with the real thing, the diesel fumes and beery scents and the Wurstwagens and the bracing Berliner Luft, the air of Berlin. But when events suddenly yield a gruesome situation, we find ourselves briefly back in the cement garden of vintage Ian Macabre. Leonard and Maria try to hide the corpus delicti of a murder committed in self-defense; then, to save himself, Leonard performs a spontaneous act of espionage whose results resonate down the years. Leonard is left with the certainty that the one thing that could have saved him from a lifetime of self-doubt and guilt was family life with Maria; but his courage failed him when he needed it most, and he is left on the barren shore of eternal solitude.
John Fowles said of his masterpiece, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, that it was not a book that the Victorian novelists forgot to write but, perhaps, one that they had failed to write. Similarly, The Innocent in some aspects—Berlin, espionage, Anglo-American tensions, the morally burdened central figure—could be described as the novel that John le Carré failed to write; but in its near-religious regard for the marital state (and, by extension, the family unit) as a haven in the eye of the world’s storm, it is entirely McEwan’s.
And so the rebel turns respectable. The mature McEwan is fully present in Black Dogs (1992), well-described by Zadie Smith as a “brilliant, flinty little novel, bursting with big ideas.” Indeed, of all McEwan’s books, this is the most thought-provoking, as well as the one most provoked by thought. Set mainly against the backdrop of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, but moving also to World War II and the Communist takeover of Eastern Europe, the novel is a clear-eyed analysis of the 20th century’s disastrous love affair with ideologies. The heart of the novel is again a couple, a dysfunctional married one: Bernard is a lifelong communist and rationalist; his estranged wife, June, is an ex-communist-turned-mystic. Unlike Bernard, she has no doubts about her past or present beliefs: “Her certainty was authoritative, tranquil, born of years of thinking things through alone.” June has an encounter in France with the sinister black dogs of the title, which represent McEwan’s familiar theme of malevolent intrusion into innocent lives. The dogs, abandoned Gestapo watchdogs, are a chilling reminder of the horrors of the Nazi occupation of France, horrors that the world has mostly refused to fully grasp.
As befits a novel of ideas, Black Dogs is eminently quotable. June explains succinctly why she abandoned politics: Our wretchedness was our inability to take the simple good things life was offering us and be glad to have them. Politics, idealistic politics, is all about the future. I’ve spent my life discovering that the moment you enter the present fully, you find infinite space, infinite time, call it God if you want.
And Bernard wryly sums up the dystopian vision of so many in the age of ideologies: It wasn’t the brotherhood of man that appealed to me so much as the efficient organization of man. What I wanted was a society as neat as a barracks, justified by scientific theories.
It would be a fine epitaph for totalitarianism if those delusions were truly dead. It is worth noting that in Black Dogs and more and more in his later work, McEwan’s eye for quirky, distinctive detail gets sharper. For example, describing a paterfamilias in a French restaurant, he writes: “He lowered his head to take each morsel, as though the hand that fed him were not his.” We need no further details; the man is immortalized.
* * *
With this kind of writing McEwan shows signs of becoming a once-in-a-generation writer. The Booker Prize committee agreed, and awarded him the coveted prize in 1998 but, perversely, for his satire Amsterdam. Black Dogs or Enduring Love would have been a better choice, for Amsterdam is the odd man out among McEwan’s mature novels, being on one level not really serious at all, in fact very funny. Of course—it is a McEwan production after all—on another level it is serious indeed, about the ethics of euthanasia among other things, including adultery (the family unit threatened from within) and solitary artistic creation (the dangers of going it alone, outside all family units). The funny parts are truly funny (these comical interludes and the delightful children’s book McEwan published in 1994, The Daydreamer, suggest that he could make a fine comic novelist), but in Amsterdam McEwan’s humor is sardonic, never without a sting in its tail, as in this shrewd analysis of Clive, a famous Andrew Lloyd Webber–like composer with Beethovenian ambitions who, because he lives by himself, McEwan seems to be saying, also lives exclusively for himself, thereby running the risk of losing his objectivity, not to say his mental balance. When Clive stood from the piano and shuffled to the doorway to turn out the studio lights, and looked back at the rich, the beautiful chaos that surrounded his toils, [he] had once more a passing thought, the minuscule fragment of a suspicion that he would not have shared with a single person in the world, would not even have committed to his journal and whose key word he shaped in his mind only with reluctance; the thought was, quite simply, that it might not be going too far to say that he was . . . a genius.
In the end, the novel founders on the same reef as Clive’s symphonies: too much ambition, too flimsy a structure. However, there are powerful scenes, notably one in which Clive, hiking in the Lake District for inspiration, decides not to interfere in the vicious rape of a woman walker because this intrusion of dirty reality into his pristine creative universe would ruin the symphonic movement he is working out in his head. In fleeing the scene and abdicating his responsibility as a member of the human race he decrees that art comes first and people second, but he relives the moment in shame and gets his comeuppance.
The family is also front and center in Enduring Love (1997), whose justly famous first chapter is a compressed masterpiece of speculation, memory, beauty, and horror. In it McEwan distills our impossible longing for what might have happened, for what should have happened. Joe and Clarissa, a London couple, are our endangered family unit. They are interrupted during a bucolic picnic in a quiet corner of the Chilterns when a hot-air balloon drifts away from its moorings with a child on board. Joe joins three other men in trying to pull the balloon back to earth—and thereby changes his life forever. McEwan describes in minute detail the harrowing balloon flight that starts as farce and ends as tragedy, more as a result of the lack of leadership among the would-be rescuers than anything else.
What McEwan captures so well in Enduring Love is that futile human yearning that has deepened since the advent of photography, that freezer of time, to enter the past and stop the clock: at the second before the Archduke Franz Ferdinand is shot in Sarajevo, or President Kennedy turns to wave in Dealey Plaza, or the Titanic’s lookout spots the iceberg, or American Flight 77 hits the World Trade Center. McEwan writes, I’m lingering in the prior moment because it was a time when other outcomes were still possible. . . . I think that while we were still converging, before we made contact, we were in a state of mathematical grace.
There is an Edenic purity in what went before and hell in what has come after. In Enduring Love what comes after for Joe and Clarissa is Jed Parry, one of the men who failed to restrain the balloon. He is a religious zealot who develops a violent crush on Joe and, worse, becomes convinced that Joe is in love with him. Clarissa begins to mistrust Joe’s take on the situation, and the foundation of the family is undermined. In McEwan’s fiction, when the malevolent intruder appears, like Jed Parry or Robert in The Comfort of Strangers or the anonymous kidnaper in The Child in Time, the reader is put on notice that nothing less than civilization itself (a marriage, a family, a household) hangs in the balance.
Civilization itself does hang in the balance in Atonement, which narrowly missed winning the 2001 Booker. It is a roman à clef in triple time: 1935, 1940, and the present. An Agatha Christie–like atmosphere of vaguely sinister coziness prevails in the opening chapters, set in a comfortable manor in the Home Counties in 1935 on a hot, leisurely summer’s day. “I love England in a heat wave,” says one of the characters. “It’s a different country. All the rules change.” But then an event occurs that seems to break all the existing rules and is catastrophically misinterpreted by Briony Tallis, an imaginative 13-year-old girl with whom the novel opens and to whom, in her old age, it returns at the end. Rashomon-like, Briony’s misinterpretation of this event has drastic results for the lives of Briony’s family, especially those of her older sister, Cecilia, and Cecilia’s lover, Robbie Turner. In standard McEwan style, a stable family is under attack, but in this case a family member, Briony, is the malevolent intruder. The family buckles under the strain, and the atonement of the title is Briony’s lifelong search for peace of mind.
But it is the second part of the book that is worth the price. In it McEwan challenges time, our eternal nemesis, by uprooting the past and transplanting it into the timeless terrain of fiction. He vividly recreates the retreat of the British and French armies to Dunkirk in 1940, which Britain in later years trumpeted as a kind of victory and which the French remain convinced was the hinge of their own subsequent disaster. Robbie, formerly a Cambridge student, is now a subaltern in the Army leading his men through a devastated war zone in unfamiliar territory toward the coast, where their only hope is to wait for a naval evacuation of the type that did in fact occur. McEwan captures the near-transcendent exhaustion and the surreal experiences of men in war as well as Crane in The Red Badge of Courage and Tolstoy in War and Peace, the two best war novels I know of, and his eye for detail is honed ever keener. There were horrors enough, but it was the unexpected detail that threw him and afterward would not let him go. . . . It was a leg in a tree. A mature plane tree, only just in leaf. The leg was twenty feet up, wedged in the first forking of the trunk, bare, severed cleanly above the knee. . . . It was a perfect leg, pale, smooth, small enough to be a child’s. The way it was angled in the fork, it seemed to be on display, for their benefit or enlightenment: this is a leg.
This section of the novel could stand alone as a war novella of distinction. It is McEwan’s salute to his parents’ generation; his own father, who died shortly before the novel came out, has a walk-on role.
In the novel’s third part there are wonderfully observed scenes of London at war, of the rubble in the streets, of the frantic bustle and the nagging fear, as Briony becomes a nurse and Robbie and Cecilia reunite, not that this presages in any way their living happily ever after. We follow Briony to the present day, where she—in a sense, the villain of the piece—is condemned to live alone with her memories and her regrets. In this fine novel McEwan paints on a bigger canvas than usual, and although there are longueurs and a certain striving for effect, especially in the country-house chapters, Atonement shows him at the height of his powers.
* * *
And so we come again to Saturday, which, alas, does not reflect the author’s powers at their height, although it has its virtues. Like Ulysses, it is a one-day novel: it takes place on 15 February 2003, the day of massive demonstrations in London against the impending Iraq war. Henry Perowne, the hero, is a prosperous and contented neurosurgeon, happily married, with well-balanced children. The family fortress seems secure. It is also indistinguishable from the real-life McEwan redoubt; like his creator, Perowne lives in an elegant townhouse in central London, which McEwan lovingly describes. The Perownes’ own corner, a triumph of congruent proportion; the perfect square laid out by Robert Adam enclosing a perfect circle of garden—an eighteenth-century dream bathed and embraced by modernity, by street light from above, and from below by fiber-optic cables, and cool fresh water coursing down pipes, and sewage borne away in an instant of forgetting.
The home may be apparently secure, but the world is not. The imminent war and the general pessimism since 9/11 are eating away at Henry, but the novel opens with him waking up in the wee hours feeling unusually happy, for no apparent reason: An habitual observer of his own moods, he wonders about this sustained, distorting euphoria. Perhaps down at the molecular level there’s been a chemical accident while he slept—something like a spilled tray of drinks, prompting dopamine-like receptors to initiate a kindly cascade of intracellular events.
Saturday’s hero is supposedly a surgeon, hence the profusion of medical terminology. But he is essentially a writer, this “habitual observer of his own moods.” Not that McEwan hasn’t done his medical homework—the pages of Saturday are larded with medical terminology. The problem is not just that these terms, impenetrable to the lay reader as they are, thud against the clear pane of McEwan’s prose like dollops of mud. It is as if McEwan, stung by the commonplace that writers can only really write about writers, decided to get as far away from the literary world as possible (without actually taking as his hero a supermarket manager or a data-entry operator), mugged up a couple of medical dictionaries, then presented us with Henry Perowne, M.D., surgeon, wine connoisseur, Francophile, musician—but not a writer! As Zadie Smith put it in her recent interview with McEwan: There’s a paragraph in Saturday about surgery, apparently, but it seems to me to be about writing. . . . “For the past two hours he’s been in a dream of absorption”—it’s such an exact description of what it’s like to write when it’s going well. . . . You talk about him feeling “calm and spacious, fully qualified to exist. It’s a feeling of clarified emptiness, of deep, muted joy.”
It’s not brain surgery. As if to certify the fact, McEwan even gives Perowne a famous poet as a father-in-law and an aspiring poet as a daughter, hemming his surgeon in with literati.
No, Saturday has nothing to do with surgeons, and not that much with a man named Henry Perowne. Like all McEwan’s mature work it has a great deal to do with the fragility of the family unit; but it is mainly a book about the current crisis. Saturday seems to be about McEwan’s own conflicted emotions toward the terrorist threat, Iraq, Afghanistan, and so on. When Harry Perowne argues the merits of the inevitable war with his daughter, Daisy, both articulate points of view so familiar as to seem like arguments from any number of newspapers or blogs—or, likely, from the McEwan household. “Why is it” [asks Perowne] “among those two million idealists today I didn’t see one banner, one fist or voice raised against Saddam?” “He’s loathsome,” [Daisy] says. “It’s a given.” “No, it’s not. It’s a forgotten. Why else are you all singing and dancing in the park?”
When Perowne gets caught up in the backwash of the demonstration, he views the proceedings with similar disdain: Not in My Name goes past a dozen times. Its cloying self-regard suggests a bright new world of protest, with the fussy consumers of shampoos and soft drinks demanding to feel good, or nice.
He may have a point, but the problem with writing a novel in which the politics are so contemporary is that the plot devices can seem creaky, at best. In Saturday McEwan falls back on his old favorite—Perowne, on his way to play squash with a friend, has a minor car accident in a side street, and malevolence intrudes in the person of a small-time thug called Baxter. But Baxter, a loner and outsider, doesn’t reckon with the united strength of the family. In Saturday, politics aside, the sacredness of family is exalted, and in the course of this exaltation McEwan’s prose, too, rises to exalted heights, as in a memory of a family summer in (of course) France: The dinners outside in the interminable dusk, the scented wheels of hay in the small steep fields that surround the gardens, and the fainter smell of swimming-pool chlorine on the children’s skin, and warm red wine from Cahors . . . it should be paradise. It almost is.
Saturday should be a masterpiece. It almost is. But it stumbles on the pedantry and the topicality of the politics and misplaced, unbelievable medical details. Yet at its core it seems to come closer to being a true summation of McEwan’s feelings about the family than any of his other works. In the end, for Henry there is his wife and the children, and nothing else: Blindly, he kisses [his wife’s] nape. There’s always this, is one of his remaining thoughts. And then: there’s only this.
The last line pays homage to that other devoted family man, James Joyce, in a conscious echo of the famous final line of “The Dead” (“His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead”): “And at last, faintly, falling: this day’s over.”
So nothing and nobody is perfect. Joyce, too, had his imperfections as an artist, God knows. And Ian McEwan commits his imperfections on a higher plane than most of his contemporaries. He knows what a luxury it is for a 20- or 30-something writer full of youth’s arrogance and unearned cynicism to write bleak and pessimistic fiction, and how that impulse to nihilism becomes reductive and shallow and, ultimately, meaningless when life hands you the next generation in the form of your own children, to whom your duty is to try to bequeath a better world. To Ian McEwan, only the universal values represented in the family unit—love, loyalty, trust, stability—stand between us and barbarism. Better than that of any other living writer in English, his fiction enshrines the belief that these family values must also be the values of society, if we are to survive.
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January 09, 2006
22 Min read time