Monday, November 12, 2007

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

Once in a great while, a writer comes along who remembers to focus on small things, perhaps single events, and work outward to reveal a life, a time, a country. Ian McEwan is just such a writer. While most of you will know him because of his very ambitious World War I novel, Atonement, I think he is much more comfortable when he takes on less, restricts his focus, as he did in Saturday, an entire novel ostensibly covering just one day in the life of a British surgeon. In his newest novel, On Chesil Beach, he begins and ends with a single night—a wedding night for two young people who grew up in the forties and fifties.
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.
And now, in telling us who these two young people are and how they came to be here, at a hotel on this beach, McEwan is also able to tell us so much about the times, the anticipations and expectations. Edward and Florence are poised here, ready to begin their new life together, free at last. They had met in London in 1958, when “The Pill was a rumor in the newspapers, a ridiculous promise, another of those tall tales about America.” He is from a poor, small town, his father a principal in the local school, his mother permanently disabled by a freak railway accident (although neither he nor his siblings are aware of just what happenstance made their mother so different from the other mothers). Florence is from a more prosperous household, her father owns a small business and her mother is a professor. Both Edward and Florence perhaps more educated than most young people around them, but also profoundly naïve.

Florence supposes that it only she who is so innocent, so naïve, and that somehow Edward, certainly more worldly than she, will make the magic happen when the time comes. Edward, who through their relatively long courtship has come to understand to some extent Florence’s reluctance in matters sexual, does not correct his fiancé’s misconception regarding his worldly wisdom, and for his part, misreads her reluctance bordering on repulsion as simply sexual shyness, a veneer covering a deeper earthy sexuality.
He felt trapped between the pressure of his excitement and the burden of his ignorance. Beyond the films, the dirty jokes and the wild anecdotes, most of what he knew about women was derived from Florence herself.
This may sound like the setting for a romantic comedy, and certainly this little novel is not without humor. But it is not a comedy; it is as serious in its way as any book I have read in the past year. McEwan is so keenly aware of just how each of our histories hangs on a thread, dependent on a string of contingencies, of possibilities, and that the course of our lives is as liable to depend on what we don’t do, some crucial step not taken, as on any of our actions. How can they have let this ignorance continue for so long? Why don’t they talk to one another of their fears, their anxieties? Why doesn’t Florence seek counsel from someone, anyone?
There was no one she could have talked to. Ruth, her sister, was too young, and her mother, perfectly wonderful in her way, was too intellectual, too brittle, an old-fashioned bluestocking. Whenever she confronted an intimate problem, she tended to adopt the public manner of the lecture hall, and use longer and longer words, and make references to books she thought everyone should have read. Only when the matter was safely bundled up in this way might she sometimes relax into kindliness, though that was rare, and even then you had no idea what advice you receiving. Florence had some terrific friends from school and music college who posed the opposite problem: they adored intimate talk and reveled in each other’s problems. They all knew each other, and were too eager with their phone calls and letters. She could not trust them with a secret, nor did she blame them, for she was part of the group. She would not have trusted herself. She was alone with a problem she did not know how to begin to address, and all she had in the way of wisdom was a paperback guide. On its garish red covers were portrayed two smiling bug-eyed matchstick figures holding hands, drawn clumsily in white chalk, as though by an innocent child.
And thus they each approach this day, excited by the prospects for their future lives together, the children they might have, the home they will make together. Florence is very brave in her own ways; a skillful violinist, she has already formed a quartet that shows promise for a successful future. And Edward has been a diligent and successful student, intensely interested in history, and while his academic success has not been linked to any specific future occupation, his father-in-law seems anxious to take him into the business. They seem poised, ready to launch into this new life.
For over a year, Edward had been mesmerized by the prospect that on the evening of a given date in July the most sensitive portion of himself would reside, however briefly, within a naturally formed cavity inside this cheerful, pretty, formidably intelligent woman. How this was to be achieved without absurdity, or disappointment, troubled him. His specific worry, based on one unfortunate experience, was of overexcitement, of what he had heard someone describe as ‘arriving too soon.’ The matter was rarely out of his thoughts, but though this fear of failure was great, his eagerness—for rapture, for resolution—was far greater.

Florence’s anxieties were more serious, and there were moments during the journey from Oxford when she thought she was about to draw on all her courage to speak her mind. But what troubled her was unutterable, and she could barely frame it for herself. Where he merely suffered conventional first-night nerves, she experienced a visceral dread, a helpless disgust as palpable as seasickness.
At least this is not a case of an arranged marriage; neither has any doubts about having chosen the wrong person. While Edward is looking forward to a more physical relationship, it cannot be said that his interest in Florence is merely, or even mainly, sexual. And for her part,
… she loved Edward, not with the hot, moist passion she had read about, but warmly, deeply, sometimes like a daughter, sometimes almost maternally. She loved cuddling him, and having his enormous arm around her shoulders, and being kissed by him, though she disliked his tongue in her mouth and had wordlessly made this clear. She thought he was original, unlike anyone she had ever met.
Of course, I am not about to reveal the course of their wedding night, nor can I (without giving away too much of the plot) read to you some of the stirring concluding remarks by the author on just how much contingency rules our lives. But I can tell you that I find McEwan to be a genius of the heart. In my life as a reader, it has been almost only women writers who have wowed me with their emotional intelligence, their knowledge of relationships and the inner life. McEwan is one of a handful of exceptions to the rule. This is a wonderful little novel that you will read quickly, and if you are like me, will come away thinking you have learned something important about life and about communication.


  1. Larry, thanks for keeping me up to date. Now I know what I'll read next. McKwan is one of my favorites--so much so that I'm still refusing to see the movie version of Atonement. Just the casting turns me off. I'm currently reading Barbara Kingsolver's latest. It's non-fiction, about the politics of food. Really makes me wish I had more sunlight in my back yard and a longer growing season. Come see me at Utah Savage

  2. Larry, I don't recall if you've ever said what you think of Nabokov's great American novel, "Lolita." Have you ever taught this book in any of your Philosophy classes? I once took a class in English Lit. from Phillip Sullivan at the University of Utah and Lolita was the hot topic the entire semester. Phil asked me to take this particular class because he knew my history with the book. The class led to discussions of Freud and the Mormon culture here. It was most instructive.