Monday, August 30, 2004

Amsterdam by Ian McEwan

I want to talk to you this morning about the author Ian McEwan, and in particular about his Booker prize winning novel Amsterdam. I have to admit that I don't read a lot of books by white, male authors, maybe because I read too many of them in my early years, especially early college days, and too few women and minority writers, and now I'm simply making up for the omission. But actually I think I read mainly women authors because they are better writers and because they have much more emotional intelligence than most male authors. At any rate, Ian McEwan is an exception to the rule; he writes beautiful prose, and he manifests a deep understanding of humans and of their complex relationships.

As usual, I am many years late in coming to read and appreciate McEwan. Were it not for a wonderful niece of mine who reads at a pace at which I can only marvel and Robert Mercer with whom I have shared books and authors for many years, I would not have read McEwan at all. The book everyone recommended to me was his 2001 novel, Atonement, and that is indeed a wonderful book. Unfortunately, about half way through that book, the rains returned to Portland and my copy, left on an outside table, was so thoroughly soaked that I had to give it many days to dry out. By then I was so impressed with his writing that I immediately picked up another of his books I had on hand, and I read it through in the way that great books deserve to be read.

Penelope Lively, whom I have talked about several times in the last year or so, is keenly interested in the many ways that memory deceives us-how we create what we call memory, bending and distorting according to the veil of our own cares and concerns. McEwan, too, is interested in the ways that our self-absorption affects what we see or think that we see, the manner in which even that which we immediately perceive is filtered through the lenses of our predispositions, our wants and needs and fears, resulting in our 'seeing' simply what we are prepared to see, what we want to see. Furthermore, the moment that we report those perceptions to others, our own accounts transcend us, taking on a life of their own; those accounts, whether true or false, are loosed into the world, and all too often wreak havoc on those around us.

There is enough mystery and plot complexity in Amsterdam to make me even more cautious than usual about giving away too much in my attempt to entice you into reading it. But I can tell you a bit about how the story begins without giving away much.

In many ways this is a simple story: Two life-long friends begin to reflect together about the life and tragic death of a woman with whom both had been lovers; indeed, it is via their relationships with this woman that they had become best friends. The men, Vernon and Clive, go together to the funeral of their ex-lover, Molly. As others gather in a group to mourn the departed, Vernon and Clive remain apart to share fond memories of Molly and to renew and feed their hatred of George, the husband of Molly, and her caregiver through the course of a horrible disease which deprived her first of her memory, her self, and then of her life. They hate him because they see him not as a loving caregiver to Molly, but as her captor, controller; never able to control her (or her affairs) when she was her brilliant and beautiful and powerful self, once she is helplessly ill and in his clutches, he does not help her to die easily and with dignity, but instead holds onto what remains until she withers away. “He got her finally, when she couldn't recognize her own face in the mirror. He could do nothing about her affairs, but in the end she was entirely his.”

Clive, a famous composer, and Vernon, editor of a slowly fading but still well known newspaper, make a compact never to allow the other to suffer such a demeaning death, and the plot is set. Now McEwan skillfully, almost playfully, allows us to see the world through the eyes of each of these relatively powerful and totally self-absorbed men. Of course, neither sees himself as self-absorbed or even as selfish. Instead, each sees himself as a kind of public servant, using his gifts to better the world in whatever small ways he can. And while Clive secretly thinks of himself as a genius, perhaps worthy of comparison even to the greats, he would never think to make such claims public. Let others judge when his lifelong opus is complete. George, too, sees himself as a kind of modern day Socrates who, instead of acting so as to augment his image, his power, his fame, pares away his own needs, his own thirst for recognition, becoming almost a non-entity as he struggles to reveal to the world the truth. If he is important at all, if he has any role to play in the shaping of history, it is simply through his selfless devotion to the truth, to journalism as it ought to be.

In the course of revealing to the reader the world as seen through the eyes of these eminent personalities, McEwan asks a number of interesting questions. Is it right to betray the trust of a friend, the now dead Molly, in order to publicly humiliate a political figure who is about to assume a role of great power, and who will use that power to aid the wealthy and harm the poor? Is it right to bring such a person down by playing on the homophobic fears and prejudices of the they-self, the mob?

How much luxury and ease of living are warranted by one's talents, by the gifts that the artist can bestow on the world via his skills? Is the composing of a piece of music, perhaps even a great piece of music, worth turning a blind eye to the pain of others? Suppose at just the crucial moment of composition, that magic moment when the muse is moving inside one, releasing the key to an entire symphony, perhaps the crowning achievement of an entire life, an act of violence is occurring before one's eyes, perhaps even an act of rape, ought one to sacrifice that moment, that achievement in order to attempt to help the victim, perhaps ineffectually?

McEwan teases the reader with such questions, teases himself as a novelist with questions about the importance of doing art as the world burns. And while his themes are serious and his insights important, there is a levity about his work that I find refreshing. Somehow, he manages to mix tragedy and comedy in ways that are not offensive or jarring. His ability to write in different voices is impressive. He convinces me totally when he writes through the eyes of a thirteen year old girl in Atonement, and is equally convincing in the same book seeing through the eyes of a British soldier suffering the incredible ugliness and brutality of war. The voices in Amsterdam are distinct and real, and the distortions of memory, of what gets called perception, stunningly revealed by McEwan's wonderful skill with words.

Somehow (though I can't say just how) I am reminded of Jane Austin when I read him, and I see that as high praise indeed. I think I have learned from him; I think you will too.

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