Think of England

Ian McEwan’s new novella evokes his homeland’s natural beauty and the straitened sexual manners of the early 1960s.

Of the protracted scene that makes a mockery of both ambitions, I will spare you an account. Only Larkin himself ever put it more bleakly—by complaining that the mechanics of the conjugal act seemed to have been designed by the army, or the Ministry of Food. No bungle, fumble, miscue, or calamity is omitted. In The Child in Time, McEwan showed his main character in a sort of time warp, suddenly aware that he was watching his courting parents and indirectly witnessing his own procreation. Nothing germinal could result from the awful moment depicted here. There isn’t even anything for either party to laugh at, no saving element of farce or fiasco. After an exquisitely painful exchange of words on the beach where Florence has run—both parties are depicted as relishing the saying of things that cannot possibly be unsaid—the curtain falls on the marriage, and it’s plain that the two will never be able to meet, or to speak, again.

Exploring the might-have-beens, McEwan expresses the difference between the pair in quasi-musical terms. Florence is a classically trained violinist and devotes the remainder of her life to a rather spinsterish role in a string quartet. Edward is swept away by the nascent rock-music revolution and loses himself in managing outdoor concerts and record shops, in a culture that rapidly makes the Beatles appear tame. Along with this life comes the sexual release that was denied him for so long:

By then, in the late sixties, he was living in London. Who would have predicted such transformations—the sudden guiltless elevation of sensual pleasure, the uncomplicated willingness of so many beautiful women? Edward wandered through those brief years like a confused and happy child reprieved from a prolonged punishment, not quite able to believe his luck.

But it is not McEwan’s habit to narrate in a straight line, and the blissed-out Edward sometimes ponders what his wretched one-night wife might have meant or intended when she stood desperate on the shingle and offered him the right to take other women if he would agree to the outward forms of marriage and companionship.

Very well: In what sense other than the Larkinesque does this brief fiction express anything “national”? There is, first, that even more awkwardly English question of class. Florence’s family is richer than Edward’s and has paid for the wedding and much besides, and at the critical moment she’s not above reminding him of this. Nothing in England can ever quite be separated from the inescapable question of one’s “background,” and in the early ’60s the codes of stratification were still quite intact. There is, then, and as aforementioned, the sense of a “deep England” that will outlast this transient sexual disaster. Indeed, the physical landscape is in some ways what helped bring the ill-matched couple together and hold them close. In describing their less- trammeled courtship, McEwan summons the folds and villages of the Thames Valley around Oxfordshire, and there’s no need to claim acquaintance with this territory (as I can) to feel its strong pull. Not since George Orwell re-created the lost atmosphere of Lower Binfield in Coming Up for Air have I read anything as good on that particular blend of meandering waters, undulant low-lying hills, slow-moving days, trudging plough horses, towpaths, sultry heat, and isolated hamlets and churches. Orwell composed that novel of aching remembrance in torrid Morocco, so I make no apology for saying that McEwan put me in mind, twice, of John Keats as he gazed on the work of ancient Attica: “Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness / Thou foster-child of silence and slow time.”

Here indeed is the unravished bride, and the reticence and the very tentative unfolding; here also the bold lover of whom it must be said “never, never canst thou kiss, though winning near the goal” and the “heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d / A burning forehead and a parching tongue.” For Edward, much time is lost in bitterly recalling the frozen attitude of the loth maiden and replaying the moment of desolate frustration.

Descending somewhat from the pathos of the sublime, McEwan portrays Edward as a hardheaded student of history, who until the defeat on Chesil Beach has considered a certain sturdy optimism as his birthright:

In three short years he studied wars, rebellions, famines, pestilences, the rise and collapse of empires, revolutions that consumed their children, agricultural hardship, industrial squalor, the cruelty of ruling elites—a colorful pageant of oppression, misery and failed hopes. He understood how constrained and meager lives could be, generation after generation. In the grand view of things, these peaceful, prosperous times England was experiencing now were rare, and within them his and Florence’s joy was exceptional, even unique.

Impressed by the “great man” theory of history, Edward has to wait until he is stout and 60 to appreciate that there was no imperative need to rush things that night, that his own unique opportunity to take command of events was once and irretrievably lost, and that

as she ran away from him, certain in her distress that she was about to lose him, she had never loved him more, or more hopelessly, and that the sound of his voice would have been a deliverance, and she would have turned back.

To conclude with Larkin’s dry, sarcastic summary of the case:

Then all at once the quarrel sank:
Everyone felt the same,
And every life became
A brilliant breaking of the bank,
A quite unlosable game.

McEwan, a ’60s child if ever there was one, comes to remind us that there were losers, all right, and that there still are. It would be less interesting to term this a generational achievement than a national one.

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Christopher Hitchens is an Atlantic contributing editor and a Vanity Fair columnist. More

Christopher HitchensFor nearly a dozen years, Christopher Hitchens contributed an essay on books each month to The Atlantic. He was the author of more than ten books, including A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq (2003), Why Orwell Matters (2002), God Is Not Great (2007), and Hitch-22 (2009). He was a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and wrote prolifically for American and English periodicals, including The Nation, The London Review of Books, Granta, Harper's, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, New Left Review, Slate, The New York Review of Books, Newsweek International, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Washington Post. He was also a regular television and radio commentator.

Hitchens began his career in England, in the 1970s, as a writer for the New Statesman and the Evening Standard. From 1977 to 1979 he worked for London's Daily Express as a foreign correspondent and then returned to the New Statesman as foreign editor, where he worked from 1979 to 1981. Hitchens has also served as the Washington editor for Harper's and as the U.S. correspondent for The Spectator and The Times Literary Supplement. From 1986 to 1992 he was the book critic at New York Newsday. He also taught as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Pittsburgh; and the New School of Social Research.

Born in 1949 in Portsmouth, England, Hitchens received a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1970.

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