Dissecting the Body

Colm Tóibín

  • On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan
    Cape, 166 pp, £12.99, April 2007, ISBN 978 0 224 08118 4

The penis, in the contemporary novel, has been a mighty matter, looming large. Who will forget the narrator of The Bell Jar seeing an adult penis for the first time and being both fascinated and repelled? (‘The only thing I could think of was turkey neck and turkey gizzards and I felt very depressed.’) Or Fermina Daza, in a darkened room in García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, announcing, ‘I have never been able to understand how that thing works,’ and then slowly realising all the magical tricks this little rubbery object could do when suitably inspired? (‘She grasped the animal under study without hesitation, turned it this way and that, observed it with an interest that was beginning to seem more than scientific, and said when she was finished: “How ugly it is, even uglier than a woman’s thing.”’) It is not hard to imagine the surprise of Florence, the girlfriend of Edward Mayhew, a nice girl in her early twenties from a nice background in Ian McEwan’s new novel, On Chesil Beach, when ‘one Saturday afternoon in late March, with the rain falling heavily outside the windows . . . she let her hand rest briefly on, or near, his penis.’ What she experienced was ‘a living thing, quite separate from her Edward – and she recoiled.’ Edward, also in his early twenties, was so excited that ‘he could bear it no more’ and asked her to marry him. This short novel takes place on the first night of their honeymoon, with many flashbacks, and at the end a great flash forward, and at the core an enormous misunderstanding.

The relationship between the characters in On Chesil Beach is very close to the relationships between the people in The Ploughman’s Lunch (1983), the script for which was written by McEwan. In both cases, a young man from a class background about which he is very uneasy, who has an ailing mother, an interest in history, and wishes to write a book, falls for a girl from an upper-middle-class, bohemian family, only to find that she will not sleep with him. The girl’s mother is, in both cases, an academic with many opinions married to a successful businessman. (Florence’s mother has been a friend of Elizabeth David and is a friend of Iris Murdoch.) Both stories are set at a very precise date, with debates about socialism, Britain’s decline as a world power, and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

Both works exude a sense, alive in McEwan’s work since The Child in Time (1987), of Britain itself, its recent history and its public life, as an anchor in the narrative. Carefully researched moments in real time help to rescue the novels for seriousness, at times for earnestness, to move them away from the timeless and delicious cruelties of McEwan’s first four books, which were wonderful explorations of what he called in his introduction to the published script of The Ploughman’s Lunch ‘the dangers, to an individual as well as to a nation, of living without a sense of history’.

McEwan shares with his fellow English novelist Jim Crace not only an interest in history but in finding a style in prose that is slow-moving, yet compelling, at times stilted and dry, and then suddenly sharp and precise. His couple on their wedding night in On Chesil Beach have their past lives and their present circumstances dissected in the same deep slow motion as Crace’s couple lying murdered on a beach in his novel Being Dead.

Florence finds the idea of sex deeply disturbing. It is not simply that she is nervous about it. ‘The idea of herself being touched “down there” by someone else, even someone she loved, was as repulsive as, say, a surgical procedure on her eye.’ Even kissing makes her nauseous, and McEwan makes Edward’s tongue into a most invasive object as it makes its insistent way into Florence’s prim, unready mouth.

He wanted to engage her tongue in some activity of its own, coax it into a hideous mute duet, but she could only shrink and concentrate on not struggling, not gagging, not panicking. If she was sick into his mouth, was one wild thought, their marriage would be instantly over, and she would have to go home and explain herself to her parents.

Her problem is that she loves him:

She adored his curious mind, his mild country accent, the huge strength in his hands, the unpredictable swerves and drifts of his conversation, his kindness to her, and the way his soft brown eyes, resting on her when she spoke, made her feel enveloped in a friendly cloud of love. At the age of 22, she had no doubt that she wanted to spend the rest of her life with Edward Mayhew.

McEwan moves us between the consciousness of the bride and the groom. Poor Edward has refrained from masturbating for a week so as to be fresh for his wedding night and is in a high state of excitement as he and Florence finish their meal alone in a hotel room overlooking the beach. McEwan seems highly alert to the comic possibilities of this story, which could well be a bawdy ballad, and, as a way of keeping the reader’s face straight, manages a tone of almost reverent care for all their responses, for each moment in their history. He has always been interested in dissecting the body, making it seem a strange set of foreign objects, and he has some great new territory here. Florence, reading a manual, thinks of Edward’s ‘testicles, pendulous below his engorged penis’ and then, in the hotel room, has to face the reality of his erection, ‘broomstick hard and pulsing’ right beside her.

In the background is Harold Macmillan. It is 1962, after the end of the Chatterley ban but before the Beatles’ first LP. As the couple eat their supper, they can hear his voice on the radio in the hotel bar below. He is present in this novel much as Margaret Thatcher is in The Ploughman’s Lunch – to root the story in the real. McEwan uses current affairs much as a rock band uses drums or a salesman uses a smile. The fact that Macmillan is still in power also helps us to be convinced by Florence’s sexual ignorance, although her fear of sex belongs only to herself. Macmillan on the radio is addressing a conference in Washington ‘about the arms race and the need for a test-ban treaty’. This matters to Edward and Florence because they met first at a CND meeting, but they know, too, that no ‘British prime minister held much sway in global affairs.’ When they vote for the first time in the next general election, they will vote Labour and hope for a landslide.

For Edward, who has a tendency towards premature ejaculation, Macmillan’s real importance, however, is when he thinks that he is going to come. Instead of lying back and thinking of England, he thinks about ‘the face of the prime minister Harold Macmillan, tall, stooping, walrus-like, a war hero, an old buffer – he was everything that was not sex and ideal for the purpose.’ It works the first time.

The problem for Edward is that Florence is not simple. McEwan has offered her complex and ambiguous motives and responses. She is the lead violinist in a string quartet and quite bossy. This means that she contemplates telling Edward how she feels about his penis and his interest in having sex with her and then asking him to marry her nonetheless.

The Florence who led her quartet, who coolly imposed her will, would never meekly submit to conventional expectations. She was no lamb to be uncomplainingly knifed. Or penetrated. She would demand of herself what it was exactly she wanted and did not want from her marriage, and she would say so out loud to Edward, and expect to discover some form of compromise with him.

But she remains silent, and now he is lying naked beside her thinking of Harold Macmillan and she is not fully clothed either.

Despite her revulsion, she wants Edward to have a good time; she has, in fact, led him to the bed and led him on thereafter, although she doesn’t really mean any of this. Once he is naked, she rummages around as the manual has instructed and finds ‘his testicles first and, not at all afraid now, she curled her fingers softly round this extraordinary bristling item she had seen in different forms on dogs and horses, but had never quite believed could fit comfortably on adult humans’.

Once this happens, all thoughts of Harold Macmillan depart, and Edward ejaculates all over her. This scene is McEwan at his most controlled. The sound coming from Edward is ‘the sort of sound she had heard once in a comedy film when a waiter, weaving this way and that, appeared to be about to drop a towering pile of soup plates’. But what actually comes from Edward’s penis is described without any recourse to metaphors or similes: ‘In horror she let go, as Edward, rising up with a bewildered look, his muscular back arching in spasms, emptied himself over her in gouts, in vigorous but diminishing quantities, filling her navel, coating her belly, thighs, and even a portion of her chin and kneecap in tepid, viscous fluid.’ She runs out to the beach; after a while he follows. She offers him a sort of open marriage in which he can love her, but not repeat the exercise he has just performed or any variation on it. He refuses. The 1960s begin and they both have their lives, never meeting again.

It is difficult to judge whether to give away the plot of this book, as I have just done, is to lessen its impact on the reader. McEwan writes prose judiciously; his books seem to depend on plain writing and story and careful plotting, with much detail added to make the reader believe that these words on the page must be followed and believed as the reader would follow and believe a well-written piece of journalism. On Chesil Beach, however, is full of odd echoes and has elements of folk tale, which make the pleasures of reading it rather greater than the joys of knowing what happened in the end. For readers of McEwan’s own work there are sly winks and nods – a tennis match to compare with the squash game in Saturday (and another, funnier squash game in The Ploughman’s Lunch); a character becoming a good musician in both this book and Saturday; the use of a shingle beach on the edge of the Channel, echoing lines from ‘Dover Beach’, the poem which saves the day in Saturday: ‘The garden vegetation rose up, sensuous and tropical in its profusion, an effect heightened by the grey, soft light and a delicate mist drifting in from the sea, whose steady motion of advance and withdrawal made sounds of gentle thunder, then sudden hissing against the pebbles.’

It is also a novel about sex and class in England, riffing gently on the work of Lawrence and Forster, suggesting that Florence’s frigidity is partly a function of her class and is shared by her parents, especially her mother, Violet. As Florence hides out on the beach, she is

wedged comfortably in the angle of a branch, feeling in the small of her back, through the massive girth of the trunk, the residual warmth of the day. This was how an infant might be, securely nestling in the crook of its mother’s arm, though Florence did not believe she could ever have nestled against Violet, whose arms were thin and tense from writing and thinking.

Edward comes from the countryside, and this, to her, is part of his charm. (‘He loved her, but he wanted to shake her awake, or slap her out of her straight-backed music-stand poise, her North Oxford proprieties.’) Admiringly, he watches her play the violin, much as Grandcourt watches Gwendolen with a bow and arrow in Daniel Deronda, another novel with a disastrous wedding night. Her quartet is called the Ennismore Quartet, named after the address of the hostel where Florence and her colleagues stay in London, which echoes Ennismore Gardens where the novelist Henry St George in Henry James’s ‘The Lesson of the Master’ resides.

The style of the book may seem plain: there is no recourse to the use of cadence for effect, and there are no elaborate sentences or pyrotechnics of any sort. We are, after all, in England, where words mean what they say. So numerous are the images of stability and continuity in these years of peace and prosperity, that the reader takes them for granted. The sheer skill in holding tone, and playing with it, is hidden much of the time. The novel is a pure comedy, but it is told from the point of view of the two protagonists who do not think it is funny at all, and this is managed without making either of them seem tedious. The writing also shares the almost stilted diction of McEwan’s novel Atonement, a diction used with immense care to create distance and irony, without creating too much of either. It is like putting just enough air in a hot-air balloon to allow it to fly, making sure, however, that it can land as well. McEwan’s middle style manages to pace On Chesil Beach briskly, using, most of the time, the right amount of flashback before moving the story on, and allows the most heavily laden quasi-Victorian passage to sit happily on the page in the middle of all this: ‘It is shaming sometimes, how the body will not, or cannot, lie about emotions. Who, for decorum’s sake, has ever slowed his heart, or muted a blush?’ The trick is to stop the reader noticing.