Art Kavanagh

Talk about books: a newsletter about things I’ve read

“An exemplary case of unacknowledged self-persuasion”

Ian McEwan, Enduring Love

Joe Rose, the narrator of all but a few chapters of Ian McEwan’s 1997 novel, Enduring Love, is a successful science journalist, a popularizer and explainer of other people’s research and discoveries. He has written about a wide range of scientific topics, from dinosaurs to quantum physics, evolutionary biology to technical advances in biblical scholarship; and done very well out of it, being able to afford an apartment with a roof-garden in an art deco building in Maida Vale that cost half-a-million pounds, even in the aftermath of the 1998 {correction: 1988} property crash. Joe is a highly intelligent and observant man but he has blind spots about certain aspects of his own behaviour.

Joe has for the previous seven years shared this almost idyllic life with Clarissa Mellon, an extremely beautiful academic whose area of research is the life (and presumably work) of John Keats. They have fundamentally different ways of looking at the world. As Clarissa remarks one evening:

“Twenty years ago you and your friends were all socialists and you blamed the environment for everybody’s hard luck. Now you’ve got us trapped in our genes and there’s a reason for everything!” … Everything was being stripped down, she said, and in the process some larger meaning was lost. (p. 70; all ellipsis in quotations is added)

Joe has his riposte ready:

I told her I thought she had spent too much time lately in the company of John Keats. A genius no doubt, but an obscurantist too who had thought science was robbing the world of wonder, when the opposite was the case. … Clarissa said that I had not understood her. There was nothing wrong in analysing the bits but it was easy to lose sight of the whole. I agreed. The work of synthesis was crucial. Clarissa said I still did not understand her, she was talking about love. I said I was too, and how babies who could not yet speak got more of it for themselves. She said I still didn’t understand. There we had left it. No hard feelings. (p. 71)

The novel tells the story of a crisis that affects Joe following its opening episode, which reads like a particularly clear thought experiment in game theory. A man dies horribly when he falls from several hundred feet, the last person to let go of a helium balloon being borne away by a sudden fierce gust of wind. The other four people who have been holding onto the balloon’s ropes, including Joe, have all given up but in the fifth man, John Logan, “the flame of altruism must have burned a little stronger” (p. 15). The ten-year-old boy in the balloon’s basket survives.

Joe becomes obsessed with establishing (to his own satisfaction) that he was not the first person to let go of the balloon. He insists that another body (but he can’t say whose) dropped to earth before he did. The four men acted almost simultaneously, and it doesn’t seem to be important to anybody else to identify the first person to fall away. But Joe knows about game theory, particularly Prisoner’s Dilemma, according to which the “defection” of one person means that the other players’ best option is to do likewise. If he wasn’t the first, then he was justified in letting go the rope. It would have been folly for him to have acted otherwise. It doesn’t seem to occur to him that he barely had time to register what the other men were doing, so that his own decision can hardly have been influenced by theirs.

Joe’s crisis is exacerbated by his interactions with another of the four men, Jed Parry. Jed is a friendless former English language teacher who unexpectedly inherited a house in Hampstead and a largish sum of money and who has become convinced that God has allowed him to inherit these for the fulfilment of some “purpose”. Following the balloon tragedy, Parry comes to believe that his purpose is to rescue Joe from atheism and bring him to God. He also believes that Joe loves him. He returns this supposed love, expecting that it will be the means of Joe’s salvation.

Jed bombards Joe with phone calls and letters, and waits outside Joe’s apartment for most of the day. He convinces himself that Joe is sending him signals, by moving the curtains of his front window, and by the way he touches a privet hedge. The secret messages contradict Joe’s direct statements: that Joe does not love Parry, does not wish to be brought to God or to religious belief and that he wants Parry to leave him alone.

The police say they can’t intervene: trying to convert somebody is not a crime and Parry’s behaviour, while no doubt a nuisance, doesn’t include threats, insults or abuse. The policeman suggests that Joe might be best advised to invite Parry in for a cup of tea, to try to talk things through.

Joe has often felt that his writing, though lucrative and clearly in some sense fulfilling, is “parasitic” on the work of real scientists. He completed a doctorate in quantum electrodynamics but then went travelling “widely, recklessly and for far too long” (p. 75) followed by an unsuccessful business venture:

By the time I got back to quantum electrodynamics the hole in my CV was too big, my maths was rusting up, and I was looking too old in my late twenties for this very competitive game. (p. 76)

Now, under pressure from his own feelings of guilt and inadequacy over the death of Logan, and from Parry’s unwelcome attentions, Joe’s dissatisfaction with his career is revived. Clarissa reminds him that he has already resolved to accept his lot, but he insists on making enquiries about possibly finding a place in his old department, which result in a humiliating dismissal from his former professor, which does nothing to improve his state of mind:

Not only were there problems of admittance procedures and of diminishing funds for pure science, but my proposal for work on the virtual photon was redundant. “I should assure you that it is not because the answers have been found, rather that the questions have been radically re-framed in the past five years. This re-definition appears to have passed you by. My advice to you, Joseph, would be to continue with the very successful career you already have. (p. 106)

Parry’s insistence that Joe has been sending him messages by manipulating his curtains has suggested something to Joe but it takes him some time to recall exactly what. De Clérambault’s syndrome gets its name from the psychiatrist who treated a Frenchwoman suffering from the delusion that George V (whom she had never met) was in love with her. She believed that the king communicated with her using the curtains at Buckingham Palace. Once he remembers these details, Joe becomes certain that Parry suffers from de Clérambault’s syndrome (also known as erotomania).

It’s a “classic case” (p. 157), he assures Inspector Linley, though the case is less clear than he suggests: he has already told the inspector that Jed’s obsession with him “doesn’t seem to be about sex” (p. 155). The case study in the first Appendix to the novel suggests that it’s not unusual for sufferers from the syndrome to “have self-protectively vague notions of what they actually want from the love-object” (p. 240).

Whether or not Joe’s diagnosis is reliable, his reading on the subject of erotomania leads him to predict that Jed will turn violent or dangerous when thwarted. In this, he turns out to be correct: Jed hires contract killers to shoot Joe in the restaurant where he, Clarissa and her godfather are having lunch to celebrate her birthday. The gunmen mistakenly shoot (though not fatally) a businessman and recently promoted government minister who had coincidentally been the target of an attack in Addis Ababa eighteen months earlier. As a result, the police do not take seriously Joe’s insistence that Parry was behind the attack or that Joe was the intended victim.

Ultimately, a remorseful Parry admits responsibility for the shooting. Joe feels vindicated and makes it clear to Clarissa that he expects her to apologize for doubting him, and to repair their relationship (which inevitably has come under strain during the crisis). But Clarissa is appalled that Joe has illegally bought a gun to protect himself from Parry, and she also believes that Joe has made the crisis worse by his aggressive and confrontational response to Parry, that in a sense he drew Parry on himself. In a letter to Joe, she writes:

That evening after the accident — it was quite clear from the things you were saying then that you were very troubled by the thought that it might have been you who let go of the rope first. … Isn’t it possible that Parry presented you with an escape from your guilt? You seemed to be carrying your agitation over into this new situation, running from your anxieties with your hands over your ears, when you should have been turning on yourself those powers of rational analysis you take such pride in. (p. 217)

In other words, perhaps Joe had indeed been communicating to Parry something entirely at odds with the literal sense of what he was saying — and Parry in the grip of his delusions had drastically misinterpreted it.

Joe and Clarissa do not resolve their differences within the boundaries of Joe’s narrative, but we learn from the appendix (the case study mentioned above) that this was not the end of the story:

The victims of de Clérambault patients may endure harassment, stress, physical and sexual assault and even death. While in this case R and M were reconciled and later adopted a child, other victims have had to divorce, or emigrate, and others have needed psychiatric treatment because of the distress the patients have caused them. (p. 242)

Joe, the scientifically minded rationalist with his disapproval of Keats’s obscurantism, bears some resemblance to the protagonist of Saturday, which I discussed in a previous issue of this newsletter. That book’s neurosurgeon, Henry Perowne, is an acute but unsophisticated reader who doesn’t see the point of literature that doesn’t deal with reality: “No more midget drummers”. There is some overlap between the territory of the two novels. In writing about Saturday, I suggested that it’s centrally concerned with the avoidance of conflict, and that both Henry and his daughter Daisy resort to lies to deflect aggression from the violent Baxter. It seems to me that Enduring Love looks at the legitimacy of using lies to protect the feelings of someone who is grieving.

Joe goes to visit Logan’s widow, ostensibly to assure her of her husband’s courage but in reality to try to find absolution for his own failure to match it. She tells him there was a woman in John’s car who didn’t wait around after the incident and with whom he had presumably been having an affair. Joe reluctantly accepts her request that he speak to the other people who were present, to find out what they may have seen.

Even as I agreed I realised that I would be in a position to censor the information and perhaps save the family some misery. (p. 121)

At the end of his narrative, he produces two unfamiliar characters: the Euler Professor of Logic at an Oxford college, and a pretty student named Bonny Deedes, who is 30 years younger than he. The Professor explains to Mrs Logan that he and Bonny — or is it Bonnie? — are in love and, his car having broken down, they had hitched a lift with her husband on the day of his death. After the tragedy, they had made themselves scarce, leaving their picnic and the young woman’s scarf in the car. They had walked for a couple of hours to a village pub where they met one of the men who had been holding the balloon’s rope. He told them he thought there was no need for them to come forward unless “there were disagreements, or conflicting stories” (p. 229). It was through this man, Joseph Lacey, that Joe found the professor.

Is the professor’s story to be believed? It seems to me that there are contradictory indications. The account is slightly implausible but that’s by no means conclusive against its credibility. The strongest point in its favour is the connection with Joseph Lacey: without him, there’s no explanation as to how Joe managed to get in touch with Professor Joseph Reid. Bonnie says almost nothing and seems bored and unengaged, but not particularly embarrassed. It’s not easy to imagine that she was involved with either Logan or Reid. Might she not be a passing student that Reid roped in to take part in an unusual experiment in practical ethics?

On balance, I’m inclined to believe Reid’s story, with the caveat that it could easily be a fabrication, and that Joe had shown a willingness to deceive Mrs Logan in order to protect her feelings.

Page references are to the Vintage paperback edition, 1998.

I’ll have more to say about Ian McEwan’s novels in a few months time. In the next issue, though, I’m probably going to write about the Jacobean play The Revenger’s Tragedy which is these days usually attributed to Thomas Middleton. I don’t have a view on the attribution question and I’m unlikely to form one in the next two weeks. It’s a fascinating play, whoever wrote it.

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