Thursday, April 05, 2007

On the beach

It's been difficult to avoid Ian McEwan's new novella, On Chesil Beach in the last few weeks. An extract in the Grauniad, rave reviews in both the Grauniad and the IoS, McEwan himself on Radio 4's Start the Week and now a serialisation on Book at Bedtime.

My first reaction was to think "I've heard this story before somewhere" and indeed I had. David Leland's film adaptation of Angela Huth's novel, The Land Girls (1998) includes a scene in which a young middle-class woman (a banker's daughter played by Catherine McCormack) gets leave to meet her boyfriend, a young naval officer (played by a then unknown Paul Bettany). Their unhappy night together in 1940 is spent in a hotel in Southampton after they have walked along a shingle beach. OK it isn't specifically Chesil Beach, but since the film is mainly set in Dorset, it may as well be. The Land Girls is one of my favourite films and unjustly ignored, probably because it's actually a good British melodrama with a sad ending. The idea of the shingle beach as a metaphor for an uncomfortable encounter is the crucial point. Of course, the ultimate usage of Chesil Beach as metaphor comes towards the end of Powell & Pressburger's The Small Back Room (1949) when David Farrar has to defuse a new type of German bomb on the beach (this time it is Chesil Beach). Needless to say, he is also in a rocky relationship with the wondrous Kathleen Byron.

Just by coincidence, I've also just read a paper on American Graffiti (US 1973) in a new Routledge book entitled 'America First: Naming the Nation in US Film', edited by Mandy Merck. The paper by Barry Langford discusses the way in which the film explores the white middle-class world of Northern California. The film is set in 1962, but already seems nostalgic for the 1950s. McEwan's novella is also set in 1962, presumably at the precise moment, as several reviewers have pointed out, quoting Philip Larkin, "before the Beatles first LP" when sex was yet to be invented.

I've never really taken to McEwan's writing. I remember a Wednesday Play, The Imitation Game (1980) that I quite enjoyed, probably for the wartime setting, but mostly I've avoided the other films made from his novels. I did read both Atonement and Saturday, but although I could see they were 'well-written', I still found them cold, without characters that moved me. It will be intriguing to see how Atonement works out for mass audiences as a 'big' British movie with Keira Knightley as star later this summer. Since I can't remember anything of the plot, I might well enjoy the film.

I guess I'm probably increasingly bored with the middle-class characters that McEwan seems to prefer. In her Grauniad review of On Chesil Beach, Natasha Walter rebukes McEwan for the political stance towards anti-war protestors taken by the protagonist in Saturday (the couple in On Chesil Beach meet at a CND rally). But she then states that you can't criticise literature on the grounds of the author's politics. Sorry, but I do. I didn't take to the surgeon in Saturday and I'm not attracted to the male character in On Chesil Beach. (I disagree with Walter on several of her general points about McEwan's writing, but overall I admire her approach to reviewing generally -- it's often a relief to see that she's on a Newsnight Review panel.) I'm also a little unsure about the whole notion of what '1962' represents. The critique of American Graffiti as too hermetically sealed is pretty convincing and I guess that in the UK too the social as well as the political world had begun to change by the late 1950s. All those rough working class lads seemed to manage to consummate their marriages and affairs in the novels of Stan Barstow, Alan Sillitoe and John Braine well before 1962.


Nick Lacey said...

An interesting comparison with The Land Girls (I'd forgotten that narrative point). I think McEwan's brilliant and On Chelsil Beach is as good as Saturday (I rate Atonement as one of the best books I've read).

I'd agree you can rebuke a writer on her/his politics but surely it's a mistake to conflate a character's and author's views? I had little sympathy with the protagonist of Saturday but it revealed to me a particular 'bourgeois mind' at that moment of time.

Similarly, On Chelsil Beach is removed from me in both class and time but its portrayal of human failings describes the experience of many.

McEwan's a great writer: he manages to deal with 'big issues' through small detail.

Roy Stafford said...

I probably didn't express myself very well. It certainly would be silly to not want to engage with a character in a narrative just because their politics were odious. On the other hand, the politics of the characters could well be a representation of the author's 'voice'. I think my problem with Saturday was that there weren't other characters with the same textual weight but different views and personal traits.

There are plenty of examples of characters who are loathsome, but who are presented with enough humanity to be fully engaging. The obvious one is John Wayne as Ethan Edwards. I think it was Godard who said it was impossible not to be moved when this bitter racist picks up Natalie Wood and says "Let's go home, Debbie".

That's my point really, I'm just a wimp who enjoys humanist texts (ones in which all the characters have humanity). I don't find that in McEwan -- which isn't to say it isn't there, only that I don't see it.

BTW, McEwan replied to Natasha Walter on the Grauniad letters page, protesting his leftist, anti-war principles. Possibly a mistake?