Review of On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

An Alternative Review of On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan


Reviews customarily carry a post-script in which the qualifications of the reviewer, books published, relevant experiences, are sketched; presumably to endorse the appropriate choice of reviewer. So this reviewer will need to come clean. I chose myself and my relevant experiences are those of a lifelong publishing failure. Hence my interest in this hugely hyped prize-winning success. I want to understand my own failures by shining a torch into the structure and writing of a literary blockbuster.

Books are served up by the Publishing Trade who set the menus, and allow the chefs (the authors) small liberties in the matter of dressings, parsley covers and a dash of lemon. A successful Chef knows exactly what the Trade will buy, and one as consistently successful as Ian McEwan has obviously distilled his art to minimum stir-fry effort for maximum gain.

Since the book relies heavily on flash backs (ushered in at insensitive moments) I shall give myself the same latitude in terms of imagining this book’s planning. If you were listing the ingredients of your next best seller to fit the current market what would it contain? Sex, certainly: very few characters (attention spans of publishers are no longer Tolstoyan, even though their readers may hunger for meat): Social Class distinctions (they always score as easily as own goals-England is thumb-nailed by them); Attention to Period detail (gives an air of erudite perspective and the archives of Fleet Street provide all that a man needs in an afternoon, both incidental trivia and date-stamping news) and the introduction of a new, and unfamiliar closed shop (Classical Music has the advantage of suggesting culture in an ostensibly knowledgeable writer, and may provide a source of fascination to a reader without the experience to question it). So far so good. Now, how to make it original? Turn it on its head and make it entirely about no sex at all.

That way you can write prurient, voyeuristic pornography which will not be confined to the top shelf of your local corner-shop but piled high in W.H. Smith. We’re away. It also has the advantage of making any negative criticism seem the carping of a prude. I hope I can demonstrate that prudishness can be literary rather than sexual squeamishness. (Having undertaken the task I could not follow the example of a well read friend who threw the book out of the sleeper to Edinburgh rather than allow it to contaminate him further) This is a most insidious book.

So, ingredients sorted, what meal will they provide? In what proportion and order will they be mixed- to set a table both aesthetic to consume and satisfying to reflect upon? At the risk of an over-extended metaphor any book assumes a hunger in its reader (to follow willingly and trust the Chef not to poison ) some previous experience of food (by which to compare) some hope for new tastes and fresh ingredients (to inform, delight and surprise).
Ostensibly about a tragic misalliance between the inexperienced Florence and Edward that builds inexorably towards sexual failure, through a forensic dissection of characters caught in the headlights of the author’s glinting stare,(and unforgivingly in the period in which they are fixed, as though in plaster) it firmly refuses to be tragic. Cockroaches observed struggling in the cracks between boards are pitiful, and these cockroach characters are observed with the assistance of a nudging boot turning them over and over, delightedly eviscerating. The lucid spare opening gives the reader no choice but to follow the narrow focus on these insects and their helpless predicament. Even the landscape and the food are bent to it ‘thickened gravy…potatoes of a bluish hue….giant rhubarb and cabbages with swollen stalks…thick veined leaves…the sea’s motion of advance and withdrawal…’ We are only at page five, and we are on a compulsory slide into terrifying sex. This is the force feeding of Strasbourg geese.

The books construction is that of a simple a.b.a.b.c rhyme, (now-then-now-then-and the galloping consequence was…) or perhaps the author (having boned up on music) thought ‘first subject, second subject, development, recapitulation, and final Coda’ would cover it. First subject starts in the present (with appropriate news broadcasts to fix period, ‘Harold Macmillan had been addressing a conference in Washington about the arms race….’It continues for three pages via H bombs, Empire, politicians listed, President Kennedy and an ‘escape from the Communist East…by way of a commandeered steamship on the Wannsee’ These overheard snippets (and brief tour through world affairs) penetrate the terrified apprehension of a young bride. A little later the ‘cut and paste’ extract goes on for almost a page as the groom uses his wrapt attention, ‘Trade Gap, Pay Pause, Resale Price Maintenance ‘night of the long knives’…joining Europe’ to fight premature ejaculation. He(the PM)had just sacked a third of his Cabinet in the ‘night of the long knives’ . This places it in 1962, but the name was not used until later! This is an unwise marker to set down. Clearly food and manners elaborately detailed were not trusted to convey period, but vicarious news detail, however artificially inserted, would.

Badly bolted on authenticity runs throughout the book;‘ he often left the library….Oxford Street to the Hundred Club to listen to John Mayall’s Powerhouse Four or Alexis Korner, or Brian Knight’ Who cares? Who are they? ‘above the pretty village of Ewelme where Chaucer’s granddaughter was interred. Ewelme is where Florence, the main character got her sunburnt legs on a courtship picnic, alongside Chaucer’ granddaughter (?) Per-lease! Lists are endemic; about an incidental character…

‘He had an important (!?to whom?) jazz record collection, he edited a literary magazine, he had a short story accepted, though not yet published by Encounter Magazine, he was hilarious…a good mimic….-he did Macmillan, Gaitskell, Kennedy, Khrushchev in fake Russian,(we’re not yet finished)as well as various African Leaders ( obviously not readily identified in British archives-surely Idi Amin would cover them all), and comedians like Al Read and Tony Hancock…’

 All this to support the ‘high status figure’ who was ‘maddeningly talkative and clever’ and who, having no consequence to the plot, instantly disappears. The cumulative effect of these over-larded details is to undermine any belief that the author trusts his reader or himself. Many of his readers will have a more accurate memory of the period than the author and could imagine those details themselves. The insistence that the reader will consume his thumping sauces is not only patronising but it is responsible for undermining any subtlety, and growth of compassion. None of his characters are allowed to rise from the dissection slab on which they are relentlessly pinned, by such impersonal facts. They never get off the page.

The philosophy don, Violet, (Florence’s austere mother) is another insect ‘a sometime friend of Elizabeth David, managing a household in the vanguard of a culinary revolution, while lecturing to students on monads and the categorical imperative’…’the fresh hardback books…the new Iris Murdoch (she was Violet’s friend) the new Nabokov, the new Angus Wilson’ Long words, posh books, enough said. We have a clichéd Blue Stocking (who reads the book of the month)

Her florid businessman husband is equally boxed ‘just the sort of opinions you might expect from a businessman…Harold Macmillan was a fool, .a bloody fool…a pathetic bloody fool’ So, no room for growth, all businessmen are alike. The likelihood that these two would have co-existed stretches credulity to breaking point, if they were not cardboard figures wheeled on and off to pack pages.

By contrast the family of Edward have some struggling hope of flight; the portrait of his tragic dotty mother, and his stoical dutiful father struggling with poverty; the instinctive conspiracy to protect her and themselves by collusion in pretense, suggests an innate sensitivity. This is not only killed ‘She was brain-damaged and he was not. He was not his mother, nor was he his family, and one day he would leave and return only as a visitor’ but it never redeems Edward’s later reflections, or gives pause to his self-absorption. So why bother to draw, so well, what equally is then crushed?

The suggestion that Edward and Florence reflect contrasting ‘classes’ (and are the victims of class) ends up being only the contrast of circumstance and money. His father is a dedicated headmaster, for whom education is paramount, her mother an insensitive blue stocking. This equating of money as indicative of class trivialises almost the entire pretext of the book. The long descriptions of chilly North Oxford privilege (for Florence), the details of country yokel (for Edward) which could have sharpened tragedy, or explained mutual attraction, ends up as incidental self-indulgence. The writing is lean, smooth and expert which makes its application to empty rhetoric somehow more immoral, quite apart from its subject matter.

If one cannot like or care about any character, and the author seems determined that we shall not, why should one read this book? I believe the intention is deliberate; that we will follow the gruesome details of the sex, without the guilt that would accompany watching people we liked and cared about. This is why the book is pornographic. The inevitability of what happens is established by the end of the first section (pg33), in which all the brutal anatomical words have been highlighted;’ mucous membrane; glans; penetration; engorged, so the full horror steams ahead, but like any sexual tease it is held off (for 40 pages) to increase the pressure on it while we take a titillating detour through Section/Subject two and how the pitiful pair met. We are being taken for aroused fools, who having been aroused can be counted on to follow through, even in the absence of any hope of surprise, revelation or sympathy. This is why the book is voyeuristic, not waving, but dragooning.

The author knows this and explicitly gives that knowledge away. In another section he talks about words ‘…the power of words to make the unseen visible…. The term dissolved intimacy, it coolly measured …by a public standard that everyone could understand’

No doubt there are many who enjoy pornography, and this opinion will increase sales. From the almost universal ‘wonderful…exquisite…devastating…brilliant…compelling’ reviews it would seem nobody has looked at the ignorance of an important part of the subject matter, namely the classical music by which Florence’s social class, and personal ‘worth’ is elaborated. We are to believe that despite her sexual frigidity, and clumsy terrors, in her own world she is a kind of master, a pro. How does the author recognise that? Presumably by being qualified to judge. The handling of music is worth examining for what it illustrates about the cynicism of this book.

Lets start with ‘the sprightly argot’ legato, pizzicato, con brio’ So much for the words at the top of any score, and move on to playing ‘Florence’s playing was sinuous and exact….known for the richness of her tone. One tutor had said he had never encountered a student who made an open string sing so warmly…’ A warm tone on an ‘open’ string is caused by the quality of the instrument, not the playing. Apart from loud or soft the player cannot influence it. A ‘stopped’ string, particularly on the high notes of the e string or the low notes of the g would indicate warmth of tone. ‘She was always confident and fluid in her movements-rosining a bow, restringing her instrument’ Restringing is like threading a needle, and requires fiddly adjusters, and testing tension and tuning- hardly ‘fluid’ and rosining is like sharpening a knife, anybody can do it. This is facile ignorance.

We are to believe that this violinist has weathered the stiff competition of the Royal College where everyone is battling for opportunities and recognition (Even the block-buster quasi-documentary film of the period ‘Shine’ makes that clear) yet….

‘When…in a rehearsal of the quartet…she had a difference of opinion on a phrasing or tempo or dynamic…..she did not argue, listened calmly, then announced her decision…she knew her stuff, and was determined to lead, the way a first violin should…’ It shows a complete want of understanding about how chamber musicians interact and what their work requires. A Leader recalls tempi, entries, balance, after mutual discussion, rehearsal and agreement (pencilled into the score) but does not dictate a decision to an ensemble of equals. With that opinion of the role Florence would never get a second rehearsal. After ‘Vikram Seth’s ‘An Equal Music’ (an extraordinary analysis and understanding by a non-player) this is inexcusable, and arrogant. Is sex meant to be driving us so hard we will not notice?

It gets worse.

‘It was the opening of a Mozart Quintet……playing it had meant drafting in another viola player… and when ……they sight read it through, naturally the cellist in his vanity fell for it. If the opening phrase posed a difficult question for the cohesion of the Ennismore Quartet – named after the address of the girls hostel- it was settled by Florence’s resolve in the face of opposition, one against three…(my emphasis)

Apart from the obvious ‘one against three’ (A quintet has five players so it should be one against four- God help us) the pretentious ‘ naturally the cellist in his vanity’ implies all cellists are vain or the work in question, (later lumpenly identified as the D Major, played years later) will be guessed at (out of ten possibilities), and the cellist’s likely enthusiasm (for just a few opening bars) shared. Let alone the unlikelihood of naming a quartet- the most unstable of ensembles- after a prosaic residential hostel. He knows nothing about music or musicians, but drip-feeds any old detail.

Patronising condescension continues in the guided tour we get of the Wigmore Hall ‘The Green room, the tiny changing room, even the auditorium and the cupola could hardly account for her reverence…as if she had designed it herself.  ‘One night she actually stood at Benjamin Britten’s side…songs by Haydn, Frank Bridge, and Britten himself…the boy treble.. and Peter Pears who slipped her a ten shilling note….she discovered the practise rooms where legendary pianists like John Ogdon, Cherkassky thundered up and down….’ No professional violinist would remain so dewy eyed or so undiscerning as to list knowledge common to any casual listener…let alone as a string player focus on keyboard players and boy trebles et al. It is phoney phoney, and an insult to a half knowledgeable reader.

Phoneyness strikes one at every level, and crudity in ill-judged implausible choice of words that leap like a needle in the eye. This happens at intervals, as though Mc Ewan lapses in concentration. When Florence is desperately trying to hold on to the wisp of a destroyed relationship by suggesting a sex-less union, she mentions ‘Mummy knows two homosexuals who live together ‘as man and wife’. But then she adds ‘In Oxford, in Beaumont Street’. and further. ‘They both teach at Christ Church’ Since by this point we have had a lot of ‘mummy’ and we know exactly where she lives (Oxford), would anyone at such a juncture need or be likely to throw in the rest? Since the person she is talking to has also done a lot of time with mummy in Oxford? It simply doesn’t wash, not in the context.

Nor does her educated mother (however unmusical) referring to the long term playing (of a professional) as ‘screeching’. A popular misconception of violin practice lazily and implausibly applied. Edward ‘descends occasionally from the remoteness of his squalid family home’. We have not yet had the full forensic on this sad household, but in case when we do we may be tempted into care the character that is entirely immune to it splatters it with ‘squalid’. He wouldn’t. But the author undertaking to do it for him, renders the later layered description of the home (one of the best) and its habits superfluous when they are offered.

I remember London in 1963 for it was my first impression of this country. I recall vitality, protest marches, Carnaby Street pizzazz, Mary Quant skirt lines, vibrant street markets and a sense of optimistic excitement everywhere. None of the new music, new clothes, new food seems to have impinged on the two ‘students’ depicted in this book. I suspect that the vitality of the sixties (now evaporated) has evaporated from memory in the author, which is why the portraits of time place and character all seem false. They are false to the period, the smell, and the fresh winds of that time.

The absence of integrity in the lifeless characters, the laziness in which gobbets of arbitrary detail are tossed into the pot, and above all the hyped success of this work is a dispiriting portrait of both contemporary publishing and assumptions about British readers. Unless they are putting up with British Rail sandwiches, for want of alternatives.

In the March edition of Prospect magazine Philip Henscher wrote a perceptive article about the ‘State of the Nation’ novel in which he says “Where these books fail, I think, is in their point of departure. Too often I felt that the author had started not from memory and the painstaking reconstruction of long-forgotten sensations…They started, instead, from journalistic accounts of a period, from their own nostalgia-laden record collection…’ This seems as true of this book as it is of Sebastian Faulks’s ‘Engelby’ a tortuous trail through period detail, as though the author substitutes unfocussed reminiscence for story. It does not seem true of foreign writers, or immigrants, who remain unafraid of tragedy, emotion, poetry and in using all tell a tale with confidence. If this is true then perhaps British born novelists are not only planning their books for the ho-hum indifference of publishers, but are themselves the products of a society caught in an endless stretching yawn.

If I am right, there is no hope for me.

Philippa Rees © 2008

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