When the Balloon Goes up

Michael Wood

  • Enduring Love by Ian McEwan
    Cape, 247 pp, £15.99, September 1997, ISBN 0 224 05031 1

A young woman is shaken in her understanding of who she is and what she wants. The walking holiday she and her husband have planned now seems, Ian McEwan says, ‘a pointless detour from her uncertainty’. The phrase is full of trouble, of precise and elusive implications. Uncertainty is a path, a destination, a need. Of course we may not like the thought, and many of us will prefer to see our detours as chosen directions, uncertainty as something to be shaken off rather than returned to. But truths can often be measured by the urgency of our desire to avoid them, and sometimes only by that.

What’s striking about McEwan’s later work – I’m thinking particularly of The Innocent, Black Dogs and his new novel Enduring Love – is its intimacy with evasion and failure, combined with an alert intelligence about these things which itself looks like grounds for hope. McEwan’s characters talk past each other, go manic, stumble into violence, cultivate suspicions, hide behind brilliant illusions. They probably can’t help or save themselves, or not many of them can, but it’s hard to believe that such patient and delicate understanding of their condition won’t help someone.

Jeremy, the narrator of Black Dogs, is writing a memoir about his wife’s parents, Bernard and June, ex-Communists who took off in opposite directions, towards emphatic rationality and passionate faith. They can’t live with each other and can’t stop thinking about each other, feeding greedily off hearsay, fuelling their favourite myths. They seem deluded, but their problem is more subtle and more desperate. They don’t know what to do with their lucidity, and have to keep running from it. Bernard thinks June in her religion is just as ‘absolutist’ as the Communists they left behind. ‘Politico or priestess, it didn’t matter, in essence she was a hardliner.’ Then he says, in answer to a question from Jeremy: ‘She was one of the few people I know who saw her life as a project, an undertaking ... I hated the nonsense she filled her head with, but I loved her seriousness.’

June for her part is convinced, in old age, that her ‘biggest single failure’ was to imagine that a good life could be made alone, and that her disagreements with Bernard mattered more than their love.

Bernard thinks I’m a silly occultist, and I think he’s a fish-eyed commissar who’d turn in the lot of us if it would buy a material heaven on earth – that’s the family story, the family joke. The truth is we love each other, we’ve never stopped, we’re obsessed. And we failed to do a thing with it. We couldn’t make a life. We couldn’t give up the love, but we wouldn’t bend to its power.

These are large questions, but McEwan has an eye for small ones too. ‘I thought even you were above this kind of new-age drivel,’ the narrator of Enduring Love says in the middle of an argument, and is surprised at his sudden mastery of the ugly idiom. ‘This “even” comes from nowhere,’ we are told, ‘a rhythmic filler, a reckless little intensifier. Clarissa has never expressed the remotest interest in the new-age package. She looks at him, surprised. The insult has in turn set her free.’ And so the row can blossom, as rows do, as if plotted by some sort of genetic programme. ‘Where do we learn such tricks?’ the narrator asks. ‘Are they inscribed, along with the rest of our emotional repertoire? Or do we get them from the movies?’

Late in Enduring Love we hear a story about a publisher who turned down Lord of the Flies. It wasn’t called that, and it had a long first chapter which Golding then cut. The anecdote doesn’t bear any great weight, except as an instance among many in the book of what can come to be seen as error, and I don’t imagine McEwan intends it as a clue. Still, there are resemblances between the two writers, notably their interest in children and the complications of innocence. More important, both writers expect the novel as a genre to do similar, rather awkward work, and both run the corresponding risks. Beyond that there are as many differences as you care to count.

The awkward work is that of directed thinking, which has always been difficult for the novel. The genre thrives on irony and play, as Milan Kundera repeatedly remarks, and T.S. Eliot meant to praise Henry James by suggesting he had a mind so fine no idea could violate it. We might say the same of dozens of other novelists. Plenty of ideas, but none of them nailed down, all of them implicated in other, conflicting ideas; and there are novelists who have scarcely any ideas at all. Kundera distinguishes novelists from writers (who also write novels): ‘The writer has original ideas and an inimitable voice ... The novelist makes no great issue of his ideas. He is an explorer feeling his way ... He is fascinated not by his voice but by a form he is seeking.’ The distinction, tilted towards novelists, makes writers seem stuffy, even preachy, certainly self-absorbed. Between Sterne and Goethe, Flaubert and Chateaubriand, Calvino and Montherlant, who would you choose? Certainly Golding and McEwan are novelists in Kundera’s sense, but they do make an issue of their ideas. I’m not suggesting that they push their ideas at us, or that there is something inartistic, insufficiently ludic, about their asking us to think so hard. Only that they use their novels to focus quite specific questions, rather than allowing their questions to arise, if at all, from a world imagined for its own multifarious sake.

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