Thursday, June 11, 2015

On Chesil Beach

On Chesil Beach is a 2007 novella by the Booker Prize-winning British writer Ian McEwan. The novel was selected for the 2007 Booker Prize shortlist.

The Washington Post and Pulitzer Prize-winning book critic Jonathan Yardley placed On Chesil Beach on his top ten for 2007, praising McEwan's writing and saying that "even when he's in a minor mode, as he is here, he is nothing short of amazing".

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There is no epigraph to this short, elegantly realised novel, but if there were it would surely be the celebrated opening couple of stanzas from Philip Larkin's Annus Mirabilis:

Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) -
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles' first LP.

Up to then there'd only been
A sort of bargaining,
A wrangle for the ring,
A shame that started at sixteen
And spread to everything.

Ian McEwan's story exists exactly in that hinterland in British courtship between repression and licence, the Lawrence litigation and 'Love Me Do'. It is July of 1962 and Edward Mayhew and Florence Ponting, he an ardent graduate historian, she the tremulous lead violinist in a string quartet with aspirations to Wigmore Hall, both 22, have just got married in Oxford. Their love story and their tragedy grows out of McEwan's opening sentence, which contains within its careful confines almost everything you need to know about what follows: 'They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible.'

The honeymoon is to take place beside Chesil Beach, in a Georgian hotel. They eat their nuptial supper - melon with glace cherries, slabs of beef with overcooked veg, in their room overlooking the bay - while a pair of waiters, local lads, stands by intrusively. The beach, that unique spit of shingle which runs between the Fleet Lagoon and the Channel, immediately seems emblematic of several things: of this moment of certainty in lives that might never again seem certain; of the path that they have just embarked on together, a path which, like all married couples in love they believe they will be making new; but also of a romance that has taken place between the devil of Middle English rectitude and the deep blue sea of the coming sexual revolution.

Florence yearns for the former; she would rather never have anyone touch her, she believes, even this man she loves. She has been undone by the language of the wedding manual she has been reading (all 'mucous membranes' and 'glans' and 'penetration'). Edward, meanwhile, dreams fervently, silently, of the uninterrupted pleasure that will be theirs now the 'wrangle over the ring' has been sorted. Inevitably, these two worlds have collided several times already, and not favourably.

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The penis, in the contemporary novel, has been a mighty matter, looming large. Who will forget the narrator of The Bell Jar seeing an adult penis for the first time and being both fascinated and repelled? (‘The only thing I could think of was turkey neck and turkey gizzards and I felt very depressed.’) Or Fermina Daza, in a darkened room in García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, announcing, ‘I have never been able to understand how that thing works,’ and then slowly realising all the magical tricks this little rubbery object could do when suitably inspired? (‘She grasped the animal under study without hesitation, turned it this way and that, observed it with an interest that was beginning to seem more than scientific, and said when she was finished: “How ugly it is, even uglier than a woman’s thing.”’) It is not hard to imagine the surprise of Florence, the girlfriend of Edward Mayhew, a nice girl in her early twenties from a nice background in Ian McEwan’s new novel, On Chesil Beach, when ‘one Saturday afternoon in late March, with the rain falling heavily outside the windows . . . she let her hand rest briefly on, or near, his penis.’ What she experienced was ‘a living thing, quite separate from her Edward – and she recoiled.’ Edward, also in his early twenties, was so excited that ‘he could bear it no more’ and asked her to marry him. This short novel takes place on the first night of their honeymoon, with many flashbacks, and at the end a great flash forward, and at the core an enormous misunderstanding.

The relationship between the characters in On Chesil Beach is very close to the relationships between the people in The Ploughman’s Lunch (1983), the script for which was written by McEwan. In both cases, a young man from a class background about which he is very uneasy, who has an ailing mother, an interest in history, and wishes to write a book, falls for a girl from an upper-middle-class, bohemian family, only to find that she will not sleep with him. The girl’s mother is, in both cases, an academic with many opinions married to a successful businessman. (Florence’s mother has been a friend of Elizabeth David and is a friend of Iris Murdoch.) Both stories are set at a very precise date, with debates about socialism, Britain’s decline as a world power, and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

Both works exude a sense, alive in McEwan’s work since The Child in Time (1987), of Britain itself, its recent history and its public life, as an anchor in the narrative. Carefully researched moments in real time help to rescue the novels for seriousness, at times for earnestness, to move them away from the timeless and delicious cruelties of McEwan’s first four books, which were wonderful explorations of what he called in his introduction to the published script of The Ploughman’s Lunch ‘the dangers, to an individual as well as to a nation, of living without a sense of history’.

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Chesil Beach in Dorset is a favourite destination for geologists, and readers of Saturday, Ian McEwan's last novel, might expect his new one, On Chesil Beach, to have a lot of geological interest too.
It's easy to imagine Henry Perowne, the earlier book's
scientifically-minded protagonist, contemplating isostatic sea-level rises while trudging through the graded pebbles. It would probably make him think of Darwin.

And perhaps Daisy, his poetic daughter, could show up in order to quote Matthew Arnold's line about 'the unplumb'd, salt, estranging sea'.

Instead, the new novel - novella, really - turns out to be a tightly focused human drama. It's set, like the admired first section of Atonement, in the past and on the cusp of early adulthood.

As in Atonement, too, the characters' choices turn out to be more fateful than they're equipped to recognise when they make them, and there are strong yet tasteful hints that the resonant creepiness of McEwan's early fiction is at work beneath the surface melancholy and nostalgia for summers long ago.

Florence and Edward, the central characters, are newlyweds who have come to a hotel overlooking Chesil Beach to consummate their marriage. It's 1962, and for them, as for Philip Larkin, sexual intercourse has not yet begun - it is, in fact, a deeply worrying mystery.

Edward's worries are conventional - he fears 'what he had heard someone describe as "arriving too soon" ' - while Florence is repelled by the thought of sexual contact. She's terrified but, this being 1962, neither one of them feels able to speak of such concerns.

Writing in the third person, McEwan gives the reader access to both characters' thoughts with his usual skill, and the comedy of embarrassment, or of the kind of erotic misunderstanding that Milan Kundera used to specialise in, quickly disappears as the marital bed begins to seem more and more ominous. In neatly placed flashbacks, he also fills us in on the differences between Edward and Florence - class differences, mostly - while sketching out their courtship and their respective backgrounds.

It's a pleasure to watch McEwan fleshing out his characters, expertly shifting chronology and point of view around as he prepares for the coming bedroom scene and its aftermath.

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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. The geographical distinction that marks Chesil Beach in England is the grading of the shingle — the pebbles, that is — that forms its 18 miles: the pebbles are arranged, by wind and rain, in a spectrum of sizes and textures, so that the beach forms a spatial map of time. Each stone confesses a part of its relation to the whole. Local fishermen brag of the ability to make a blind identification of the original placement, on Chesil Beach, of a given stone.

Among the encompassing definitions we could give “the novel” (“a mirror walking down a road,” “a narrative of a certain size with something wrong with it”) is this: a novel is a vast heap of sentences,

like stones, arranged on a beach of time. The reader may parse the stones of a novel singly or crunch them in bunches underfoot in his eagerness to cross. These choices generate tension: in my eagerness to learn “what happens,” might I miss something occurring at the level of the sentence? Some experience this as a delicious agony, others distrust it. Our appetite for Ian McEwan’s form of mastery is a measure of our pleasure in fiction’s parallax impact on our reading brains: his narratives hurry us feverishly forward, desperate for the revelation of (imaginary) secrets, and yet his sentences stop us cold to savor the air of another human being’s (imaginary) consciousness. McEwan’s books have the air of thrillers even when, as in “On Chesil Beach,” he seems to have systematically replaced mortal stakes — death and its attendant horrors — with risks of embarrassment, chagrin and regret.

... young, educated ... virgins ... wedding night ... sexual difficulties. The first stone on McEwan’s new beach indulges his radical efficiency with a hook. If McEwan’s first chapters generally ought to be sent, like Albert Pujols’s bats, to the Hall of Fame, then we may agree that in this instance his first sentence is a first chapter of its own, as well as doing extra duty as its host book’s perfect piece of ad copy. (Here’s my spoiler warning: “On Chesil Beach” is far too lean and pure for me to muse on more than a few of its sentences without giving some secrets away. If you’re inspired by the hook above, read the book — it’ll be nearly as quick as reading my review, and more fun.) Then comes a second thought: But it is never easy. With startling ease these five words deepen and complicate the book. Who speaks, and from what historical vantage? The sentence entrenches the facts that precede it — and the facts to follow — in the oceanic retrospect of a ruminative mind, even as they claim to universalize the lovers’ predicament, to forgive them their place in the history of sexual discomfort.

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