Books: On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan
At a public interview in Vicar Street a few years ago, Ian McEwan said that he liked the idea that his fiction could be read in one, maybe two, sittings. Although the novel, Atonement, he was publicising at that time might be harder to digest so summarily, it is no doubt true that most of his other books are capable of being read in a couple of hours. McEwan's skill is to hit the ground running - the balloon falling to earth in 'Enduring Love', the kidnapping at the supermarket in 'The Child in Time' - establishing a pace to the narrative that holds the reader's interest until the close. But it's a sort of confidence trick because once you think more deeply about them, the books often seem contrived (I know it is fiction) and, well, ridiculous. 'On Chesil Beach' isn't any different: it's 166 pages long and opens with the proposition that it was impossible for young couples to discuss sex in England of the early 1960's, an idea based on the Philip Larkin poem about sex beginning sometime between the DH Lawrence trial and the first Beatles LP. From this starting point, the novel relates the disastrous wedding night of Edward and Florence, a pair of twenty-two year old university graduates who seem blessed with all the good fortune McEwan likes to give to his younger protagonists - think of the preternaturally gifted children of Henry Perowne in 'Saturday'. The problem centres on Edward's desire to fuck Florence and her wish to abstain. But what is intimated to be a sensitive rendering of the difficulties that the pre-hippy generation had with sex, is in reality a fairly crude clash between Nature and Culture. For how else could you account for Edward's unusual penchant for acts of casual violence, his love for the orgiastic sounds of Chuck Berry and the Rolling Stones, his interest in the crazed millenarian cults that Norman Cohn wrote about in 'Roots of the Millennium' and his rather upfront behaviour in the cinema when he tries to put Florence's hand on his erect knob? And what of Florence? How are we to reconcile her hatred of the sexual act with an all-consuming passion for classical music and the reverence with which she treats Wigmore Hall, scene of her most heightened engagements with the great composers? She's Culture, calcifying, deadening and ultimately as Gide wrote in 'The Immoralist', a 'suffocating second skin'. When Edward provides her with an actual second skin - the drying semen he spurts over her stomach - the marriage finishes.
'On Chesil Beach' feels at times slightly deranged but McEwan, with his attention to detail, manages to keep these wilder aspects from capsizing the story at least for the duration of its reading and there are a few touching passages towards the end as an older Edward returns to his father's home but in the longer term, I can't help thinking this will be regarded as one of McEwan's more bizarre books.