Thursday, September 08, 2005

The Lost Weekend

Ian McEwan's Saturday

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

- Matthew Arnold, 'Dover Beach'

Let me say this straight off: What were the judges of the Booker thinking? I don't care how good the competition is, or how brilliantly written the books on the shortlist (of which the only one I've read so far is Never let me go) may be, how could they not include this book in the shortlist? Saturday is, quite simply, the best book written this last year that I've read, with the single exception of Philip Roth's Plot Against America.

But let me begin at the beginning. The truth is I've never been a big fan of McEwan's writing. While I think his writing has improved over the years (Of the three previous books of his that I've read - The Comfort of Strangers, Amsterdam and Atonement - the only one I truly cared for was Atonement, and that too a little grudgingly) I've never really warmed to him as an author, the way I have to say, Graham Swift.

Not that I don't think McEwan has tremendous talent. I'd be one of the first to recognise him as one of the finest prose writers of his generation - a master of the kind of precise, taut and balanced prose one associates with Forster. I've also been deeply impressed at times by the depth of his psychological insights, by the way he has of taking an odd, awkward situation and making it come alive in a way that seems natural, so that having read the scene you cannot imagine it having happened any other way, despite the outrageousness of what seems, in recounting the story, the most ridiculous of plot developments. But most of all, I have always admired McEwan for the barely supressed violence of his writing, the sense of almost physical menace, the constant impression that for all the apparent quietness of the scene something terrible is about to happen, that will leave all the participants scarred forever. In Saturday, McEwan writes: "All he feels now is fear. He's weak and ignorant, scared of the way consequences of an action leap away from your control and breed new events, new consequences, until you're led to a place you never dreamed of and would never choose - a knife at the throat." This is McEwan's method, if there is one thing that binds his novels together it is the presence of that "trivial thing / that changed some childish day to tragedy" [1]. And it's this spectre of consequences, potentially lethal, haunting his novels, that make him one of our most unique and impressive writers.

For all that there's always been, for me, something hollow about McEwan's novels. Beautifully written, and tightly plotted, they've always seemed to me to lack that essential core that makes a novel truly come alive. In many ways, novels like The Comfort of Strangers feel more like dress rehearsals than the real thing, the writing of a young man flexing his literary muscles while he waits for a topic to write about.

In Saturday he finally finds that topic. Of course, the fact that he does so is only partly the result of his own growth as a writer; part of why McEwan sounds more real now is because in the last four years the world itself has become a darker, more frightening place, where the note of lurking danger that McEwan strikes so perfectly sounds so much more real [2]. That said, it is still true that Saturday is a novel that captures more perfectly than anything I've read the mood of the post 9/11 world (or at least the Western post 9/11 world). In the book, McEwan writes: "London, his small part of it, lies wide open, impossible to defend, waiting for its bomb, like a hundred other cities. Rush hour will be a convenient time. It might resemble the Paddington crash - twisted rails, buckled, upraised commuter coaches, stretchers handed out through broken windows, the hospital's Emergency Plan in action. Berlin, Paris, Lisbon. The authorities agree, an attack's inevitable." Read in the aftermath of the bombings in the London subway, those words seem eerily prophetic.

As a novel, Saturday engages this new, more hazardous world from many angles. The novel opens with an outsider's perspective on the terror. Woken by insomnia in the early hours of the morning, its main protagonist, neurosurgeon Henry Perowne, sees something that horrifies him and finds himself left helpless by the sight. McEwan writes: "He feels culpable somehow, but helpless too. These are contradictory terms, but not quite, and it's the degree of their overlap, their manner of expressing the same thing from different angles, which he needs to comprehend. Culpable in his helplessness. Helplessly culpable....His crime was to stand in the safety of his bedroom, wrapped in a woollen dressing gown, without moving or making a sound, half dreaming as he watched people die." At the heart of Perowne's anxiety, though is the simple, perhaps naive hope, that he and his family are irrefutably safe. Locked inside his burglar alarmed home, or his air-conditioned Mercedes, Perowne remains personally untouched by the world's disasters. As his son puts it: "When we go on about the big things, the political situation, global warming, world poverty, it all looks really terrible, with nothing getting better, nothing to look forward to. But when I think small, closer in - you know, a girl I've just met, or this song we're going to do with Chas, or snowboarding next month, then it looks great." This seeming indestructibility of his personal world is what allows Harry Perowne to watch the news, debate the advisability of going to war with his daughter (McEwan's own view on the Iraq war are well concealed here - he struggles valiantly to see the matter from both perspectives - for and against) and muse about the evils of the Saddam regime, without ever letting it touch him too closely.

The grand theme of the novel, of course, is that this security is false, and that before the day is up (literally) it will be revealed to Perowne that his own world is no less fragile, no less unprotected. "At the end of this day, this particular evening, he's timid, vulnerable, he keeps drawing his dressing gown more tightly around him." The slow gathering of the menace that will come to overwhelm his safe little world, along with veiled, almost allegorical musings about the nature of terror and security, of right and wrong, justice and love are the subject of Saturday.

Before I go further, I suppose I must mention the book's obvious parallels to Mrs. Dalloway. Both novels are set within the space of a single day. Both follow their middle-aged protagonists through their daily round as they prepare for a party to be held in the evening. Both progress largely through and with the minds of their main characters, describing their memories and thoughts as the events of the day (ending with a final denouement in the evening brought on by the actions of a tortured young man) force them to reevaluate their lives. Both feature grand processions through the streets of London. Both have the air of a crisis thinly concealed, waiting to break out (and eventually doing so).

That Woolf's is the finer book, there is, of course, no question. But McEwan's purpose here is not so much comparison as it is contrast. The use of Mrs. Dalloway as a sort of literary mirror helps McEwan make one of the critical points of his book. In Mrs. Dalloway the demons of the main protagonist are internal; outwardly safe and content, Mrs. Dalloway's anguish arises out of an inexplicable disillusionment with her own life, a sense of pointlessness that all the outward trappings of her calm cannot quell. It is a symptom of her unrest that her counterpart in the novel, a man driven to suicide by external horrors, seems, somehow, more alive than she herself.

In Saturday, McEwan pulls off a glorious counterpoint to this idea. Here the main protagonist is perfectly satisfied with his own life, the demons that threaten him, as arbitrary as the ones that torment Mrs. Dalloway, are entirely external. It is the outside world that threatens to overwhelm Perowne's internal contentment; and, ironically, his nemesis is a young man who is suffering from an internal malady - a slowly degenerating nervous condition. In this sense, everything in Saturday is a reverse of Mrs. Dalloway, a literary gambit as fascinating as it is clever.

It is a pity, therefore, that McEwan does not learn more from Woolf's naturalness, from (most importantly) the mercilessness of her endings. In denying us any real consolation in the ending of Mrs. Dalloway Woolf writes a novel that has become a classic of all time - a masterwork of perfection that few books since could match. McEwan, alas, does not have Woolf's stomach. It's not just that his plot seems clunkier and more contrived (his writing is good enough to allow him to more or less get away with that); it's more that he attempts, ill-advisedly, a sort of reconciliation at the end, a clumsy effort to introduce a note of hope, a sense of things working out. This is a grevious mistake - the one part of the book where the book truly flounders. It is a crucial part of the reality we live in that there are no easy solutions, no quick coincidences that will fix the problem. It would be nice if we could repair the harm we have done, nice if we could go in and fix things back to the way they used to be; but if there is one thing that Iraq has taught us, it is that life is not that easy and that damage once done must be lived with. This is a point that McEwan shies away from making, and it is the one major defect in an otherwise almost perfect book. The irony is that McEwan himself seems conscious of having struck the wrong note, so that the last fifteen pages of the book return to a less hopeful, more anxious tone, and are rich with some of the book's more resonant prose. It is this last hurrah that ultimately saves the book, but the taste of that one misstep lingers, right till the end.

That said, this is a brilliant book. The writing is superb throughout, and some of the scenes described (the squash match, Henry's fight with his daughter) are classic explorations of the way that petty confrontations can rapidly get out of hand, drawing us into them with their own momentum. In this, as elsewhere, McEwan's writing is note-perfect, making the characters come breathlessly alive. This is also a richly allegorical book. It is surely not coincidence that when the Perowne family gathers for the sweeping finale, their ranks include a celebrated but aging (and slightly drunk) poet, a young independent-minded mother, a musician, a lawyer and Perowne himself, a man entirely dedicated to science and his work, who has no real taste for or interest in, poetry.

What then is McEwan's answer to the terror that lurks in our streets, waiting to spring out at us? The book has, I think, two suggestions to offer. First, there is the redemptive power of art. In one place, McEwan writes: "Out in the real world there exist detailed plans, visionary projects for peacable realms, all conflicts resolved, happiness for everyone, for ever - mirages for which people are prepared to die and kill. Christ's kingdom on earth, the worker's paradise, the ideal Islamic state. But only in music, and only on rare occasions, does the curtain actually lift on this dream of community, and it's tantalisingly conjured, before fading away with the last notes." As the novel progresses, poetry will become, bizarrely enough, the weapon of the Perowne's salvation, a reminder from McEwan that real beauty, the kind that touches the heart, may still be our best defense against evil.

But there is a stronger, and perhaps tougher point that McEwan makes. And this is that we can only fight the terror by being utterly and inalienably ourselves, by being true to our fundamental natures. To be twisted into fighting by someone else's rules is to suffer not only a loss of dignity and self, but more importantly, perhaps, to suffer direct harm because we are choosing to fight in ways that the evil itself is expert at. Instead we must be who we really are, must do what we are best at, making the self the weapon with which we fight the world. If you are a poet, use poetry; if you are a doctor, use your medical knowledge, your skill at surgery. Whether it works or not is not important; being true to who you are is the only hope you have because it is the only way you can stay in control, the only way you can wrest power back into your own hands.

At one point in the novel, Perowne, having just had an unpleasant and violent encounter, reaches the squash court to play a game with his friend. As he steps out to play the game "it occurs to Perowne that what he really wants is to go home and lie down in the bedroom and think it through". If he doesn't do this it is only because "there's a momentum to the everyday, a Saturday-morning game of squash with a good friend and colleague, that he doesn't have the strength of will to interrupt." This, ultimately, is McEwan's final message - the proverbial stiff upper lip. Life will go on, McEwan suggests, and if we are to survive the terrors of the modern world, we must go on with it - must not let evil frighten us away from living the lives we always wanted, never sacrifice our own integrity on the altar of our fear. Yes, the world is a dark and vulnerable place now, but our only triumph lies in accepting that fact and going on as if nothing was wrong.

Bottomline: Saturday is one of the finest novels I've read this year (I know, I know, I've said this before, but it bears repeating) - not only because it's a near perfect evocation of the angst of the post 9/11 world, but also because in every other way it is an intelligent, skilful and deeply satisfying read. That it is sombre and extremely dark is indisputable, the ending (or part of it) is a little weak, and the story, after you've put the book down, is probably best not thought about too much (you begin to see how outrageous the plot really is). For all that, this is a book you have to read - if only because it is the best thing that one of the finest writers of our time has ever written.


[1] William Butler Yeats Among School Children

[2] Reading the book, the poem I was reminded of most forcibly was this chilling Auden masterpiece


Blogger Jabberwock said...

One of the best literary posts I've read in a long time - thanks. That bit about the barely suppressed violence is bang on. I haven't read The Comfort of Strangers but I wonder if you've seen the very creepy film version starring Christopher Walken, Natasha Richardson and Rupert Everett - I think it captured McEwan's tone of "almost-physical menace" really well.

1:23 AM  
Blogger Falstaff said...

Jabberwock: Thanks. No, I haven't seen the movie - but having read the book the casting seems absolutely perfect!

7:20 AM  
Blogger Veena said...

Almost makes me want to go out right this moment and grab a copy from somewhere and start reading. Thanks!

2:36 PM  
Blogger uma said...

lovely review. "being true to ourselves"... yes..

3:50 AM  

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