October 08, 2007

Ian McEwan On Chesil Beach

On Chesil Beach is a novel of missed opportunities, of tragedies reached because of youth and failure to speak out. It is a tragedy of a moment where a call wasn't made, where communication failed, where naivety led to crisis. Its about the wedding night of two young people. Edward a recently graduated student from the University of London who studied history and hopes to write it and Florence a beautiful musician who plays in a quartet and loves her music but has spent her life in the cloistered surroundings of all female company. They met in a pub in Oxford and fell in love walking through fields and talking idly in the summer after they had both graduated. They come to their wedding night, both of them facing their first love alone for the first time in a sexual context and filled with expectation of how good or bad it will be. McEwan is excellent at conveying particularly Florence's nervousness about the act, her fear of Edward's roughness and the way he squashes her as they lie together, her disgust at his semen.

This is a novel filled with uncomfortableness. It happens in 1962, before according to Philip Larkin sexual intercourse began. Taking place in a hotel on the beechfront, just after the wedding, with the accompaniment of the most awful British cuisine imaginable, an atmosphere of mundane tawdriness dresses what should be the most romantic encounter of their lives. They adjourn to their bedroom for the 'act' and hear the radio downstairs playing the news to men, taciturnly listening. Both Florence and Edward come from families, who are unconventional, he has a mad mother, she has an academic mother- but in both their families the mother and father don't communicate themselves. Edward's family is insecure socially, Florence's is effortlessly superior. Edward wants to prove himself somehow, Florence wants to cultivate her music.

The period is less crucial to this than the critics presume. People of my generation who are in their twenties now still feel a great deal of anxiety about sex, not everything is easy. Albert Camus once suggested that inside there is always unhappiness and insecurity, I can't remember his exact phrase but he was right to capture that essential hesitation in the human condition. Perhaps though what is intrinsic to the period is the ignorance of both characters about sex on their wedding night- today people tend to marry later. There are some wonderfully comic vignettes- Edward cannot undo the back of Florence's dress. There are also moments of miscommunication which are filled with a tragic potential energy. One such for example is Florence's arousal as Edward brushes her against a stray pubic hair- he doesn't continue to massage her thigh and thus a moment of connection is lost, a moment when she is reassured enough to have confidence that she will enjoy what is to come.

That moment though is filled with something else. McEwan takes us inside the heads of both his characters. Both Florence and Edward have things they could and should say to each other. Both of them have moments where they are driven less by desire than by the situation to say things which hurt and don't help. Both of them find it difficult to articulate their desires. Florence can't say to Edward that she is fearful and finds the initial sexual contact repulsive rather than attractive. Edward is too busy wanting to be a man to want to be a husband. In that bedroom are all sorts of anxieties and problems with English society in the sixties. From the banality of the cuisine to the ubiquity of desires for masculine affirmation, from the ignorance about sex to issues about class, we can see the scene on Chesil Beach as a microcosm of English society in 1962.

McEwan plays with these strands deftly and also demonstrates how this moment, this fumbling failure is crucial for both of the characters. He reminds us how important our choice of partner in life is and thus how important it is when we lose a partner who suits us. Edward finishes the book as a fashionable failure, having done everything in his life apart from think. If anything could have given him purpose and determination, it would have been marriage to Florence. She would have awakened his talent and turned it to more use than becoming a fop about town. We are presented with Edward's nostalgia in his sixties, his realisation that in later life he has failed to be more than superficially successful and he dates it all back to this moment. Of course age has its delusions as well as youth: and it is the image of Florence the pure that he keeps in his mind refusing to go and see her concerts at the Wigmore hall. For her too, though we see less, we know that there is regret.

Regret is the ultimate emotion that this novel provokes. There is a sense of might have been here which is impossible to capture in a review. McEwan has done it again though, blending the comic and the tragic together. Showing us how even a gesture is vital in the ballet of love and how finding yourself in the wrong position when the music, unexpectedly stops, can be disastrous.

Crossposted at Bits of News.


jmb said...

This is a very good and thorough review but I'm not sure that it has made me want to read the book. And I always read Ian McEwan. It sounds very depressing.

On the other hand I married in 1961 in London, although I'm Australian, and London was a very swinging place then with plenty of premarital sex going on and the pill had just become available in Britain. I found English women rather more "free spirited" than I was used to. I wasn't part of that scene but knew plenty who were. So I should be interested since it is my era.

Since this book is part of my book circulation group I will be reading it in a few months. I've copied this review to my hard drive so I can compare it with what I think about the book.