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.