Tuesday, May 08, 2007

on chesil beach

This afternoon I finished reading Ian McEwan's 'On Chesil Beach', a curious and slight book which I thought was rather well written, yet somehow flat and unenjoyable. It centres on the wedding night and failed consummation of Florence and Edward's marriage, in 1962, a mere year before, in Larkin's words, 'sexual intercourse began' - and examines in deliberate, exact language the clash between their expectations and the failings of their pre-sexual liberation vocabulary, which means that the embarrasment of their failed intercourse can not be discussed.

As you might expect from such a premise, the book is small and evasive, a micro-portrait of an age where McEwan's prose is sometimes lovely (particularly when describing the transition of Edward's pallete as he meets and falls in love with his conspicuously middle class inlaws), and often irritating. Like several of his peers, since his appalling 'Saturday', McEwan has let his changing personal politics infect his prose, so just as in that book his account of the build up to the Iraq War was bizzarely one sided, here he takes every opportunity to decry the naivity of Florence and Edward's CND membership. More seriously, he frequently adopts an intrusive historian's tone into the narration, frequently telling us that this was before this, or this before that. He paints a bright enough picture of the age without having to signpost his references in this schoolmasterly way.

I finished the book feeling a bit let-down - impressed by his stylistic grace but unsure as to why he bothered. The book ends with Edward observing 'that an explanation of his existence would take up a minute, less than half a page'. This isn't true, and the author casts a subtle, realistic light on a short moment of that life - but the tone is mournful and stern rather than sympathetic, and too imbued by a present tense sense of 'they should have known better'.

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