This is my fourth post about the fiction of Ian McEwan. I’ve previously discussed Saturday, Enduring Love and his spy novels, The Innocent and Sweet Tooth. This time, I want to write about two of his very short novels, which were published almost a decade apart: Amsterdam (1998) and On Chesil Beach (2007).

Although several of McEwan’s novels (including On Chesil Beach) have been nominated for the Booker prize, Amsterdam is the only one to have won it. That win notwithstanding, it is (as far as I can tell) universally agreed that Amsterdam is not his strongest novel. Indeed, it’s my impression that it’s not widely thought to be any good. Some years ago, Sam Jordison wrote in The Guardian:

The fact that it won the Booker will make many people (and more and more of them in the future) assume that Amsterdam must be McEwan’s best work, when it is far from it. And if Amsterdam were the only book of his I’d read, I’d never read want to read another …

Eileen Battersby thought it wasn’t even worth excoriating, characterizing it as “harmless” and “merely forgettable”, while agreeing that it was the “unworthy winner of the 1998 Booker Prize”. For John Mullan, though, it’s “a brilliantly acid little fable”.

It is indeed “little” but on this rereading I was surprised at how much incident and detail its 178 pages contain. I first read it (or at least started it: it’s a short flight) on my way back from London to Ireland for my mother’s funeral in 1999. No doubt that circumstance had some effect on how much I took in and what I made of it at the time.

The two central characters are Vernon Halliday, the editor of a national broadsheet who is under pressure to reverse the decline in its readership, and his old friend Clive Linley, a well known composer, generally seen as “conservative”. Linley is under pressure too: he has been commissioned to write a symphony for the millennium celebrations which are still some three years away, but the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam has already been booked for a rehearsal and the conductor is demanding to see the finished score. Unable to find the theme he needs to end the symphony, Linley decides to spend a week walking in the Lake District, in the hope that this will clear his mind and bring him inspiration, as it has before.

Linley rejects the label “conservative” and sees himself as the heir to Vaughan Williams. Some twenty years earlier, he wrote a book …

… which, like all good manifestos, was both attack and apologia. The old guard of modernism had imprisoned music in the academy where it was jealously professionalised, isolated and rendered sterile, its vital conventant with a general public arrogantly broken. (pp. 21–2)

On his first day in the Lake District, after a few distracting irritants, which include a large group of children in day-glo anoraks, Linley finds the theme he’s been looking for. Keen to write it down before it escapes him, he pays little attention to a developing conflict between a man and a woman. He has earlier seen the woman walking alone, and he notes that they are dressed quite differently: she for hiking, he in “an old tweed jacket and grey flannel trousers and a flat cap” (p. 85); so already there is reason to presume that they havn’t been walking together, and have not met by arrangement.

The conflict escalates: first, the man throws the woman’s backpack into a tarn, where it sinks; he then grabs her by the arm, trying to drag her away. Linley determinedly keeps his attention on the music he is trying to write down, and refuses to consider the possibility that the action unfolding before him might be an assault, that the woman might be in danger. Feeling satisfied with what he has written, he decides to cut short his stay.

He wanted to be away, he was longing to be on a train, hurtling southwards, away from the Lakes. He wanted the anonymity of the city again, and the confinement of his studio, and — he had been thinking about this scrupulously — surely it was excitement that made him feel this way, not shame. (pp. 89–90)

Halliday later tells him that the man he saw was “the Lakeland rapist” and that the woman he had attacked on that occasion had managed to get away. However, he attacked and raped another woman subsequently. If Clive had gone to the police after the attack he witnessed, they might well have caught the man earlier and prevented the later attack.

Clive remains reluctant to go to the police, insisting that his symphony is more important. When they do eventually come to see him (as a result of Vernon’s tip-off) it turns out that he is not guilty of any offence: there is no duty either to report a crime or to intervene to stop one. In fact the police treat him very well — because they are counting on his cooperation in identifying the man they have in custody.

But, no doubt because the alternative would mean admitting his guilt and shame at his appalling inaction, we see a hardening of Clive’s attitudes and a deterioration in his mental condition from this point on. Early in the story, he had had no time for those who claimed special privileges on the basis of their artistic importance:

He had a number of friends who played the genius card when it suited … These types — novelists were by far the worst — managed to convince friends and families that not only their working hours, but every nap and stroll, every fit of silence, depression or drunkenness bore the exculpatory ticket of high intent. A mask for mediocrity, was Clive’s view. He didn’t doubt that the calling was high, but bad behaviour was not a part of it. Perhaps every century there was an exception or two to be made; Beethoven, yes; Dylan Thomas, most certainly not. (p. 62)

As he gets nearer to the end of his symphony, though, Clive begins to suspect that the word “genius” might have some applicability to his own work.

It was a term that had suffered from inflationary over-use … There hadn’t been many. Among his countrymen, Shakespeare was a genius, of course, and Darwin and Newton, he had heard it said. Purcell, almost. Britten, less so, though within range. But there had been no Beethovens here. (p. 133)

These suspicions of his own genius have come to him “three or four times since he returned from the Lake District” (p. 133–4), presumably because only a work of genius could have justified his failure to report an attempted rape, or to prevent an actual one. He didn’t act; therefore the thing that prevented him from acting must be of momentous importance.

The novel devotes quite a lot of time to describing Linley’s compositional activities and his mental state while negotiating them. I suspect that that’s precisely what many readers haven’t liked about it. We get a little look at Vernon’s internal struggle, too, but there isn’t a lot to be said about it:

He could not say for sure that the absence was his.
The sense of absence had been growing since Molly’s funeral. It was wearing into him. Last night he had woken beside his sleeping wife and had to touch his own face to be assured he remained a physical entity. (p. 30)

Apart from the “early” Clive, none of these characters exhibits much in the way of an interior life. That, of course, makes it easier for the reader to avoid sympathizing with them, and contributes to what John Mullan calls the “brilliantly acid” quality of the story. It’s an approach that isn’t to be found in much of McEwan’s fiction since The Child in Time (1987).

Be that as it may, the other short novel that I want to discuss in this post is quite a contrast. It’s one of the books that Eileen Battersby recommends in the article I’ve already cited above:

… with the beguiling novella, On Chesil Beach (2007), McEwan surprised many readers with a story of how easily love can go very badly wrong. Set in 1962, it somehow reads as period – which I suppose it is – and, as he has so often proved, McEwan is at his best in the short form.

In spite of the dissimilarity between them, these two novels do share some themes, particularly that of music. As we’ve seen, the earlier novel’s Clive is a composer who spends much of his time trying to finish a symphony. Florence, one of the protagonists of On Chesil Beach is a musician who has formed and leads a string quartet for which she has high ambitions. She particularly wants to play in the Wigmore Hall (which is mentioned in Amsterdam too, as a venue in which Clive’s compositions have been performed).

Florence is thoughtful, determined, willing to act unconventionally and very smart. Unfortunately, she also fears she might also be, to use the horribly misogynistic term that was in common use at the time, “frigid”. After the disaster of their wedding night, she goes for a walk on Chesil Beach. By the time her new husband, Edward, has come out to join her, she has thought through their predicament and has a plan:

“… Edward, I love you, and we don’t have to be like everyone, I mean, no one, no one at all … no one would know what we did or didn’t do. We could be together, live together, and if you wanted, really wanted, that’s to say, whenever it happened, and of course it would happen, I would understand, more than that, I’d want it. I would because I want you to be happy and free. I’d never be jealous, as long as I knew that you loved me. I would love you and play music, that’s all I want to do in life … (p. 155; second ellipsis original)

Edward finds her suggestion insulting and humiliating and rejects it out of hand. And that’s it: the end of their marriage. Years later he has second thoughts:

… he often thought of her strange proposal, and it no longer seemed quite so ridiculous, and certainly not disgusting or insulting. In the new circumstances of the day, it appeared liberated, and far ahead of its time, innocently generous, an act act of self-sacrifice that he had quite failed to understand. (pp. 160–1)

But he does not go looking for Florence. When her quartet makes its debut at the Wigmore Hall in 1968, he is not sitting in the middle seat of the third row, as he had promised Florence he would be when she told him of her ambition. So maybe they would have been incompatible after all. Florence remains focused and disciplined, dedicated to her goal and her music. Edward, in contrast, “simply fell away from history to live snugly in the present” (p. 161).

He had drifted through, half asleep, inattentive, unambitious, unserious, childless, comfortable. His modest achievements were mostly material. He owned a tiny flat in Camden Town, a share of a two-bedroom cottage in the Auvergne, and two specialist record stores, jazz and rock and roll, precarious ventures slowly being undermined by Internet shopping. (p. 163)

Was this proof of incompatibility, or would they have led contrasting but complementary lives together? They never find out — and neither do we.

I can immediately think of one other novel by McEwan in which music plays a major part, The Children Act (2014). I’ll be rereading that soon and may have something to say about the role of music in that novel before too long.

Editions: I’ve used the Vintage paperback edition of Amsterdam (1999) and the Jonathan Cape hardback of On Chesil Beach (2007); ellipses added except where described as original.


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