Sunday, 20 July 2008

Nobel Aspirations!

There was talk, when Ian McEwan’s ‘On Chesil Beach was up for The Booker Prize, of its shortness:  The implication is of a slight story, of a lack of depth – of ‘all very well, but …’.

I take it the people talking in that way either use a pair of scales to determine the quality of literature or have senses so exhausted from reading too many words as to be unable to determine true quality when it bites them.

This is not a book for literary gluttons – it is one for the epicure.

The plot is simple – we go through the agonies of two people on their wedding night: Both are virgins; both are deeply in love; both are nervous.

A simple tale.

But this is the end of the post war generation – the moment when one culture dies and another hope-full springs on the scene.  In his poem, Anus Mirabilis, Philip Larkin made the point:

Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three

and it is as if On Chesil Beach has taken this as a leitmotiv.  The book is set just before this year of wonders.

Sex, sexual relationships, the physical linking of two people is very much an element in the book – but it is not only the physical, it is a psychological and spiritual, a communal and private expression of the moment of giving up a hard-fought-for independence.

As befits such a topic, several of the descriptions are quite explicit – Ian McEwan has the luxury of writing after the, ‘end of the "Chatterley" ban’ and consequently can talk of what is a forbidden subject to the post war generation (at least in respectable circles).

Music is also a key.

Florence is a young, talented, classical musician with an inability to see anything of interest in the popular music of her day; Edward, whilst being a little more flexible, swings a different direction – he dreams of fathering a daughter who would follow her mother into the world of music, possibly as a violinist (but, you never know, maybe with an electric guitar).

Edward gets into brawls outside pubs – enjoying the violent release of energies wound like a clock spring inside; Florence keeps a tight grip on her tensions using the notes on the printed score for her release and dominating, tyrant like almost, the rehearsals of the string quartet she forms.

Both are intelligent, both have a degree of single-mindedness both have families which encapsulate the standards of their time.

Florence’s family is a mix of business and academia – father earning, mother bohemianish philosopher – she knows the right people.  Edward comes from a different end of the same class – his father is a headmaster of a primary school, his mother, well, his mother ‘looks after’ the house.  Both have sisters, both have good childhoods.

How then do we get to the tragedy on the beach - for this is a tragedy – a real tragedy, of Ancient Greek proportions – how do we get beyond the point of no return?

Part of the answer, I think, lies in the hubris of mankind – we fail to make the right sacrifices letting the gods, ‘kill us for their sport’.  One word can make a difference, and we won’t speak that word through pride, or duty, or fear, or, - for whatever reason.

Another part is the downright stupidity of innocence … if there was ever an argument needed for sex education in schools – this is it!  But that is to reduce what is a sublime story to the ridiculous (although I do think Mr Mc knew his was a tightrope walk between tragedy and comedy).

Sublime too is the writing – there are descriptions here to relish: The cold coagulated early 60’s food; the cheap ‘French’ wine; the material of the dresses; the tackiness of bodily fluids.  Part of the intenseness of the story comes from this exceptionally careful use of appropriate description – you are firmly placed in a material world.

Not that this really happened – IM makes very clear on the last page of the book, “the characters in this novel are inventions.”  The need for this reminder is not just a legalistic, ‘someone might sue’, but a reflection of the success and believability of the story – as I read I thought of my older sisters (of this generation) and their wedding nights. I remembered the meals (and could name the wine).

The frightening verisimilitude gives added power to what I believe is a tale of essential humanity – there, but for …

(I also think this is the book the Nobel Prize committee will turn too one day and say – Universal Literature).

Technorati Tags: , , ,

No comments: