By Ian McEwanNan A. Talese
A recent article in the London Sunday Times made the matter-of-fact statement that Ian McEwan had emerged in Britain as “our national writer.” I at once understood the justice of this opinion, but without at first being able to say what commanded my assent. A reading of McEwan’s latest novella allows one to be fractionally less vague. The “national” character of this literary fragment is to be found in its simultaneous evocations of time and place, which allow the reader—at any rate the reader of a certain age who is of English provenance—to locate himself with satisfaction in an identifiable geography at a given date.
But it’s not absolutely necessary to enjoy this shared relationship with either the story or the setting, for the subject is universal. It is sex—or, to be more precise, sex and the loss of innocence.
It’s perhaps more than a pleasing coincidence that the era is so well matched to the words of a famous poem by Philip Larkin, who for different reasons is now widely, if uneasily, accepted as contemporary England’s national poet. His “Annus Mirabilis” opens like this:
Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(Which was rather late for me)—
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.
It’s possible from internal evidence to put the date of On Chesil Beach at mid-July 1962—in other words, immediately before this crucial cusp. Two newlyweds, Edward and Florence, first meet at a rally for nuclear disarmament, but the trauma of the Cuban missile crisis is still just ahead. They know that an election is coming soon, and they both plan to vote for the Labour Party, hoping to end a long period of uninterrupted Tory hegemony. The country has not yet had to endure the absurdity of a state trial of Penguin Books for publishing Lady Chatterley’s Lover, at which E. M. Forster will emerge for the last time to testify for the defense.
“The ’60s,” then, have not quite ignited. Divorce is infrequent, homosexuality and abortion are still illegal, the gallows still operates in British prisons, and—as if to underline and emphasize all this—both Edward and Florence are facing their honeymoon night as virgins. As Larkin described the time before the sexual dam was breached:
Up till then there’d only been
A sort of bargaining,
A wrangle for a ring,
A shame that started at sixteen
And spread to everything.
We must therefore imagine a time when marriage was, rather than a genial mutual agreement to give up serial monogamy, an actual license to have sex. That this made the initiation of matrimony a trifle fraught cannot go without saying. It must be said. Larkin’s first verse is oft-quoted but usually with the elision of the third line (“Which was rather late for me”). Edward and Florence have not come to the altar too late to take advantage of the emancipation of the libido; they’ve turned up very slightly too early. McEwan’s opening sentence is almost deliberately awkward:
They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible.
He presumably does not mean to say that the couple were both young and educated on their nuptial night: The slight clumsiness makes a good beginning by provoking a faint embarrassment in the reader. How grim is this going to be? To say that the post-wedding and pre- defloration diner intime à deux is unpromising is to say the least of it:
This was not a good moment in the history of English cuisine, but no one much minded at the time, except visitors from abroad. The formal meal began, as so many did then, with a slice of melon decorated by a single glazed cherry. Out in the corridor, in silver dishes on candle-heated plate warmers, waited slices of long-ago roasted beef in a thickened gravy, soft-boiled vegetables, and potatoes of a bluish hue. The wine was from France, though no particular region was mentioned on the label, which was embellished with a solitary darting swallow. It would not have crossed Edward’s mind to have ordered a red.
In a few strokes, McEwan has also summoned the full gruesomeness of the English seaside “holiday,” at a period when cheap vacations in the Mediterranean were not commonplace and when the pulling of a cork was an art known to few waiters. On the other hand, and perhaps to be fair, Chesil Beach is one of the natural wonders of the English southern coast, with a layering of ancient shingle that shows in its patterns the action of the channel tides. (The late John Fowles wrote well about this part of the country, which borders also on Thomas Hardy’s territory.) All being well, the young couple plan a romantic walk along this imposing reach of polished pebbles. But first there’s an even more natural strait to be negotiated.
Convention used to portray the ardent groom and the blushful but receptive bride. Edward lives up to the first billing, but Florence is a bit more than blushful; she is, to be precise, frigid and hysterical. It’s not even a matter of closing her eyes and thinking of England; the very thought of penetration alarms and repels her. At intervals, McEwan sketches the backstory of each. We learn that Edward’s mother was brain-damaged and irresponsible, and we are allowed to surmise that Florence once had a nasty encounter of some sort with her father’s roguish masculinity. We don’t quite have to ask why Edward has put up with so much reserve from his fiancée for so long, because he’s shown as impatiently determined to make a woman of her and a man of himself.