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.
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.