A Knife at the Throat

Christopher Tayler

  • Saturday by Ian McEwan
    Cape, 280 pp, £17.99, February 2005, ISBN 0 224 07299 4

Ian McEwan’s vividly and meticulously imagined novels often focus on characters whose imaginations are either unwholesomely vivid or dryly meticulous. At one end of the spectrum lurk the sex murderers in The Comfort of Strangers (1981), Robert and Caroline, whose actions lead their victim’s girlfriend to surmise that ‘the imagination, the sexual imagination’, embodies ‘a powerful single organising principle’ which distorts ‘all relations, all truth’. The incestuous children in The Cement Garden (1978), the kinky politicians in The Child in Time (1987) and Amsterdam (1998), the voyeuristic ex-husband in The Innocent (1990), the stalker in Enduring Love (1997): in most of his books there’s at least one character who’s mesmerised by powerful fantasies, sometimes to the exclusion of everything else. And since ‘stories demand simple and incisive sets of oppositions,’ as McEwan told an interviewer in 1985, we also meet people who are very impatient with fantasy. Joe, the efficient, highly rational narrator of Enduring Love, is an obvious example, as is Bernard, the no-nonsense materialist in Black Dogs (1992). If the fantasists are too solipsistic, these figures are too relentlessly outward-looking for corrective self-scrutiny. Bernard, like Joe, loses the woman he loves, accused by her of being obsessed with rationality at the expense of emotion.

McEwan’s first two novels thrived on the contrast between the scrupulous clarity of his writing and the resonant oddness of his imagination. The Cement Garden and The Comfort of Strangers, which both speak of repressive fathers and the dizzying freedoms licensed by their overthrow, are narrowly focused. In The Child in Time, The Innocent and Black Dogs, on the other hand, McEwan’s increasing skill at combining elaborate patterns of imagery with rigorously worked psychological realism is brought to bear on a wider range of material. The only glimpse of the late 1970s public world in The Cement Garden comes in a passing reference to some overflowing dustbins: ‘We thought there might have been a strike but we had heard nothing.’ In the late 1980s and early 1990s, however, McEwan tackled Thatcherism, the Cold War, the Holocaust and German reunification.

The Child in Time also ushered in a fascination with science and a perceived antagonism between literary and scientific culture. ‘You “arts” people,’ spits Thelma, a physicist lecturing the protagonist on quantum theory. ‘You’re not only ignorant of these magnificent things, you’re rather proud of knowing nothing. As far as I can make out, you think that some local, passing fashion like Modernism – Modernism! – is the intellectual achievement of our time. Pathetic!’ There’s some irony here, since The Child in Time – with its allusions to Borges and Kafka – is McEwan’s most self-consciously modernistic novel. But it’s clear that he takes his scientific reading seriously, and in several of his books the two-cultures debate is pressed into service as part of a broader opposition between reason and unreason. Arguments between coldly rational men and credulous but empathetic women have recurred in his work since the story ‘Solid Geometry’, collected in First Love, Last Rites (1975). Black Dogs examines the human capacity for evil through the irreconcilable perspectives of June, a mystic, and Bernard, an old-fashioned socialist technocrat. In Enduring Love – a schematic novel which comes alive only during the scenes incidental to the grinding antitheses of the main plot – the narrator’s lover, a student of Keats, occupies the middle ground between religious delusion and emotionally inept rationality.

McEwan is interested in evolutionary psychology and the materialist theories of consciousness propounded by such writers as Steven Pinker and Antonio Damasio. He also has a cautious faith in the ennobling potential of literature and the redemptive capacities of romantic love. Enduring Love sets the two kinds of thinking against one another, but his recent novels are more concerned with reconciliation. In Atonement (2001), Robbie Turner – a 1930s Cambridge English graduate who has decided that Eng. Lit. isn’t everything, ‘whatever Dr Leavis said in his lectures’ – plans to go to medical school. He imagines becoming someone who embodies the best of both traditions, literary and scientific:

For this was the point, surely: he would be a better doctor for having read literature. What deep readings his modified sensibility might make of human suffering, of the self-destructive folly or sheer bad luck that drive men towards ill-health! Birth, death and frailty in between. Rise and fall – this was the doctor’s business, and it was literature’s too. He was thinking of the 19th-century novel. Broad tolerance and the long view, an inconspicuously warm heart and cool judgment; his kind of doctor would be alive to the monstrous patterns of fate, and to the vain and comic denial of the inevitable; he would press the enfeebled pulse, hear the expiring breath, feel the fevered hand begin to cool and reflect, in the manner that only literature and religion teach, on the puniness and nobility of mankind . . .

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