In Key Largo Humphrey Bogart’s character tells a child a ‘fairy tale’, incongruously (in this film noir context) passing on the Jewish folk myth that the baby in the womb is all-knowing until at the moment of birth an angel touches its face just above the lip – this explains the philtrum – and wipes its mind clean. The unborn narrator of Ian McEwan’s new novel, Nutshell, isn’t omniscient but has formidable mental powers, able to analyse, synthesise and, necessarily, use language. He also has tastes, preferences, opinions, all of which logically depend on something he hasn’t had, experience, but logic isn’t the sovereign element in any novel.
Upside down in utero, his thoughts as well as his head fully engaged, as he puts it in a flurry of ungainly wordplay on the first page (‘I’ve no choice, my ear is pressed all day and night against the bloody walls’), he responds to messages from his mother’s body, changes in her heart rate, shifts in her digestion – but also to more distant signals. When the mother who encloses him listens vaguely to a podcast or a radio transmission he gives it full attention. Wine his mother drinks doesn’t pass any sort of sensory organ in the foetal narrator but is assessed with unstinting prenatal connoisseurship just the same:
No one seems to want to read aloud the label so I’m forced to make a guess, and hazard an Echézeaux Grand Cru. Put … a gun to my head to name the domaine, I would blurt out la Romanée-Conti, for the spicy cassis and black cherry alone. The hint of violets and fine tannins suggest that lazy, clement summer of 2005, untainted by heatwaves, though a teasing, next-room aroma of mocha, as well as more proximal black-skinned banana, summon Jean Grivot’s domaine in 2009.
Such a preposterously knowledgeable register seems played for laughs, but though a previous novel, Solar, earned McEwan a Gloucestershire Old Spot pig named after the book (the prize for the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for comic fiction), his relationship with comedy is uneasy. This passage is more Bollinger than Everyman.
The narrator of Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing had a Shandean foreknowledge, fragmentary but direct, of events in the world before her birth, and the neonate Robert, in Edward St Aubyn’s Mother’s Milk, not only remembers being born (someone ‘clamping his head and wrenching his neck from side to side’) but the preceding state of bliss – ‘never the whole thing again, the whole warm thing all around him, being everything’. McEwan’s narrator, in addition to being attuned to the outside world (at one point he describes the placenta as receiving signals like a radio), has memories that seem to stretch back indefinitely: ‘I once drifted in my translucent body bag, floated dreamily in the bubble of my thoughts through my private ocean in slow-motion somersaults, colliding gently against the transparent bounds of my confinement … That was in my careless youth.’ More than 190 pages later, he’s still in the womb.
McEwan has shown an interest before now in suspended time, the dilated moment when an event that will change everything hangs in the balance, whether it’s The Child in Time’s slow-motion account of a road accident, a few overstuffed seconds needing several pages to unpack, or On Chesil Beach’s agonising account of a wedding night that will either seal or shatter a couple. The narrator of Nutshell is another child in time, floating in time even before his time begins, and with only one way out; bound up with all the other advantages of modernity he lists (‘hygiene, holidays, anaesthetics, reading lamps, oranges in winter’) is good perinatal care. At the moment of birth the narrator will enter the world of action, but even now he has some tiny ability to intervene, by kicking. Couldn’t he communicate with his mother by kicking in Morse code? This would admittedly be bizarre, a sort of internal séance (‘Is there anybody there?’), but then the donnée of the book is already extreme. In any case, it’s a possibility that isn’t floated, and the reason may be that the narrator, despite any amount of helpless love, has no reason to trust his mother.
There hasn’t been a first-person narrator in a McEwan novel since Enduring Love in 1997 (and before that only in his first, The Cement Garden, 1978, and then in Black Dogs, 1992). He has seemed to favour the effects of a greater distance, which needn’t exclude flexibility and intimacy and can in any case be deceptive. Crystals of agency and self-interest can precipitate out of an apparently neutral solution. Both Atonement and Sweet Tooth could be categorised as masked first-person narratives, since the impersonal authority of the story being told unravels towards the end of each book, with the revelation that one of the characters has in fact been responsible for the words on the page. First-person quasi-omniscient is at least as anomalous a class of narration as masked first-person, and that ‘quasi’ presents a few problems. If the narrator of Nutshell can hear the ‘airy downward glissando’ of an aeroplane thousands of feet up making a descent towards Heathrow then it seems hard to credit him missing words spoken barely inches away. McEwan’s solution is to have the transmission of information defeated by the crunch of salted nuts in his mother’s mouth, by the tiled echo of a bathroom when the taps are running, or simply by his narrator dozing off.
Establishing a narrator’s authority requires that his limitations be established too. That’s the function of a passage in which the narrator imagines a confrontation between his father and his mother’s lover, down to a catalogue of details: ‘To each side are poetry books and typescripts loosely piled, sharpened pencils, and two glass ashtrays, well filled, a bottle of Scotch, a gentle Tomintoul with an inch remaining, a crystal tumbler, a dead fly on its back inside, several aspirins lying on an unused tissue.’ The narrator’s real-time reconstruction of events is immediately refuted, and yet the fantasised attendant scene-setting somehow stands – an astute way of finessing the straitened conventions of such a project.
The book’s epigraph is from Hamlet: ‘Oh God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space – were it not that I have bad dreams.’ An image combining confinement and possibility fits well enough with McEwan’s sense, most fully explored in Saturday, that Western life in the 21st century is a luxurious purgatory, with knowledge corresponding as closely to powerlessness as to power. It must come as a shock to innocent readers of Nutshell, if any exist, that the epigraph is much more closely bound to the novel than by mere affinity of theme – and to realise that the book’s narrator ‘is’, in some sense, Hamlet. His mother’s name is Trudy, her lover is called Claude, and though this further revelation is delayed, yes, he is her brother-in-law. The two of them are plotting murder.
Nutshell-Hamlet’s father is a poet and publisher of poets called John Cairncross, living away from the marital home in hopes of a reconciliation with Trudy, though all he achieves is easier access to her bed for his rival. (The surname has a noble ring, though it is made up of two things that can mark a grave.) The house is a valuable piece of real estate, worth millions despite its dilapidated condition, and becomes a more mundane motive for murder than anything in Shakespeare. In this reconfigured, chronologically dislocated family drama – the time is well and truly out of joint – revenge isn’t a duty that can realistically be laid on Nutshell-Hamlet. Prevention is a closer possibility, though still a theoretical one, but there’s nothing mysterious about inaction in this context. Nevertheless he rehearses various attempts to intervene before the act, or to punish the culprits after it, imagining a future ‘panther-self of sculpted muscle and long cold stare’, and still failing to bring off violence even in fantasy. ‘Thus the ideal form of powerful, competent being. What then are my chances, a blind, dumb invert, an almost-child, still living at home, secured by apron strings of arterial and venous blood to the would-be murderess?’ His best bet may be to wait to be born and then impose love on Trudy:
I’ll bind her with this slimy rope, press-gang her on my birthday with one groggy, newborn stare, one lonesome seagull wail to harpoon her heart. Then, indentured by strong-armed love to become my constant nurse, her freedom but a retreating homeland shore, Trudy will be mine, not Claude’s, as able to dump me as tear her breasts from her ribcage and toss them overboard.
If the language here seems laboured and stalely literary his excuse must be that he hasn’t actually spoken a word yet, nor even heard one with his own ears.
For the play’s Hamlet, philosophising was partly a way to make the case for action, partly a way to defer it. For Nutshell-Hamlet it’s as inescapable as the amniotic fluid in which he floats (‘Waiting is the thing. And thinking!’). At one stage he recapitulates (‘I’ve heard it argued …’) a theory of evolution based on pain; it’s cogent and even persuasive, though he himself hasn’t experienced anything worse than existential malaise topped off with a second-hand hangover. But when McEwan strikes a note of jaunty erudition – ‘The world cries out for fresh-faced empiricists,’ for instance – he risks infringing a secondary copyright, not Shakespeare’s but Stoppard’s. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is a subversion of a classic that has itself become a classic, but its appropriation of Hamlet almost qualifies as a piece of misdirection, masking the primary influence. It’s true that the attendant lords in Stoppard’s play recapitulate Hamlet’s dilemma in a diffuse form: he knows what he’s supposed to do and doesn’t do it, they don’t know what they’re supposed to do. But the distinctive elements, the desolate vaudeville routines between an almost interchangeable pair, the eloquent laments for the death of meaning, the absence of significant female presence, all have a different provenance. Stoppard borrows Shakespeare’s play but Beckett’s universe.
It’s hard to separate the urge to over-write Shakespeare from the urge to out-write him. John Updike took a wily indirect approach in his fine 2000 novel Gertrude and Claudius, offering a prequel that foregrounds the fact that Shakespeare too was reworking rather than starting from scratch. In Part I Updike substitutes ‘Gerutha’ and ‘Feng’ for the familiar names of his title, taking them from the legend recounted in the Historia Danica of Saxo Grammaticus, written in Latin in the 12th century, first printed in 1514. The names undergo further mutation in Part II under the influence of a 1576 French adaptation of Saxo, becoming ‘Geruthe’ and ‘Fengon’ (King Hamlet, previously Horwendil, becomes Horvendile). Only in Part III do the characters’ names assimilate to Shakespeare’s.
Updike also complicates the roles played by the brothers, the entitled and the usurping. His version of King Hamlet woos Gertrude bluntly, while his Claudius is a courtly lover, quoting the Provençal troubadours. This Claudius has undergone a romantic ordeal, spending ten years abroad as a ‘free lance’, his absence from Denmark representing both the attempted renunciation of his desire for Gertrude (and the political turmoil it might bring) and proof of its durability. He has knowledge of the Mediterranean and even of Islam. It isn’t only his relationship with Hamlet père that is destabilised. This Claudius can match Hamlet fils, the student from Wittenberg, in terms of subtlety and breadth of experience, and he sees his nephew, ‘witty, large-minded and many-sided’, as a potential kindred spirit.
In Nutshell the situation is updated – and necessarily reduced in scale since these are private citizens whose affairs have no political repercussions – but not radically rethought. Logically Polonius can’t appear, though the character of Claude, who spouts clichés every time he opens his mouth, seems to have taken on much of the original’s windy sententiousness – ‘dull to the point of brilliance, vapid beyond invention, his banality as finely wrought as the arabesques of the Blue Mosque’, as Nutshell-Hamlet puts it. Even with the support of the Shakespearean framework the murder plot seems very thin. All the boldness has gone into the choice of point of view, leaving nothing left over for the world outside the womb. True, Claude the property developer is in need of money (he’s down to his last quarter million), and would dearly like to get his hands on the house in Hamilton Terrace, while Trudy’s love for John has turned to an exasperated hatred, made fully toxic when she discovers, or imagines, that he has a new partner of his own. But somewhere along the line what started out as cosmic tragedy has turned into an example of the despised Hampstead novel or its nearby geographical equivalent (Hamilton Terrace being an especially desirable street in St John’s Wood), the novel of adultery and bad behaviour among the comfortably off. Even the timing of Trudy’s disaffection seems rather pat:
Trudy hurries on a rising note, before her tightening throat can silence her. ‘Trying for a baby all those years. Then just as, just as …’
Just as! Worthless adverbial trinket! By the time she tired of my father and his poetry, I was too well lodged to be unhoused.
In a more realistically conceived tale, a woman who has been trying for a baby for years with a husband she has come to dislike would most likely be pregnant, when it happens at last, not by him but by her lover. This possibility can’t be explored here since it represents not a refinement of the Hamlet scenario but its negation.
It isn’t just Shakespeare plays that have a textual history – many novels have their own First Folios and Bad Quartos, their corrupt floppy disks and impregnable Dropbox files. It’s hard to muster evidence against the idea that Nutshell is an old project, long wrestled with, and now not all that happily brought to term. The incidental detail (smog in Beijing, conflict in Syria, the growing fashion for ‘vocal fry’ among women, the popularity of luggage with four wheels rather than two) is satisfactorily contemporary, but the human particulars are either missing or unconvincing. If Trudy is 28 at the time of the novel’s setting, and Nutshell-Hamlet can reasonably hope to see the last day of the 21st century, at which time he will be in his early eighties, then she was born in the late 1980s, and the brothers John and Claude, though older, aren’t of a different generation, since John married her comfortably before he was thirty. Trudy’s vowels are ‘expensively constrained’, and she seems never to have worked – or to have been expected to.
If Claude, the younger brother, inherited a seven-figure sum on their father’s death, then presumably John benefited too. So they’re privileged and posh, all three, and poshness offers some indemnity from fashion, conferring a borderline plausibility on John’s fedora, worn even in high summer, the taste in fine wine and single malt whisky that he shares with his brother, and the love of classic poetry that is his alone – he knows The Waste Land by heart, as well as ‘The Cremation of Sam McGee’. Still, posh people aren’t unrooted, rather the reverse, and these three are. They belong neither to a generation nor a world of social connection. It’s just about possible to imagine Prince Harry saying of Prince William (the two pairs of brothers must be close contemporaries), ‘He thought I was an insignificant scab,’ but even he would be likely to express himself in words that don’t smell so much of mothballs.
It’s a small shock when Trudy, near the end of the book, tries to take a photograph of her mother out of its frame, since no mother has been mentioned before. She’s presumably dead, otherwise some reason, circumstantial or emotional, would need to be given in Nutshell-Hamlet’s vicinity to explain why she should stay away from her daughter and growing grandchild. This cameo appearance is only required so that Nutshell-Hamlet can produce some wordplay referring to the removal of his mother ‘from the frame’. Shakespeare of course had the advantage that no one expected him to portray Claudius’s or Gertrude’s parents. But in the pseudo-realistic context to which the situation has been transposed it’s odd that the oldest people in Trudy’s and the brothers’ families should be well shy of forty. Nutshell-Hamlet continues to pass on the dire predictions he hears on the news, foretelling ‘the urinous tsunami of the burgeoning old, cancerous and demented, demanding care’, without seeming to notice that life expectancy in his immediate family is stalled at medieval levels. He has no particular reason, actuarially speaking, for expecting to survive into his eighties.
Precise social notation isn’t always as crucial in McEwan’s work as it was in On Chesil Beach, where it gave the book much of its power, but his professionalism normally supplies it as a matter of course. The paradox of Nutshell is that the restrictions on the point of view have no substance. They melt away. The narrator may be constrained but the writer is not, and in practice there is nothing that is excluded a priori from making its way into the book. Here’s Nutshell-Hamlet denouncing pernicious tendencies in the academy:
Offended, I enter a state of grace. Should inconvenient opinions hover near me like fallen angels or evil djinn (a mile being too near), I’ll be in need of the special campus safe room equipped with Play-Doh and looped footage of gambolling puppies. Ah, the intellectual life! I may need advance warning if upsetting books or ideas threaten my very being by coming too close, breathing on my face, my brain, like unwholesome dogs.
This piece of slightly tetchy commonsense liberalism is an unlikely utterance to come from a being who will reach an institution of higher learning, all being well, sometime in the 2030s, but makes perfect sense coming from a writer whose recent remarks on the subject of transgender people (‘Call me old-fashioned, but I tend to think of people with penises as men’) caused a certain amount of offence.
When Paul Griffiths wrote his novel let me tell you, published in 2008, he made the formalist decision to narrate Ophelia’s life story using only her idiolect in the play – a vocabulary of 483 words. Good luck trying to voice personal grievances or casual opinions about cultural trends through that! The chosen material resists the chooser in ways that can be productive, with an anti-psychological method producing a cascade of psychological effects. Giving Ophelia a loving relationship with her mother wouldn’t necessarily be Griffiths’s intention, but it isn’t an option anyway. ‘Mother’ isn’t one of the 483 words, and the only way to designate such a person in Ophelia’s past is with an emphatic ‘she’ or ‘her’, much closer to the key of bitter resentment than amity.
McEwan’s more casually determined material also fights him, moving in directions that are unplanned and even unwanted. It turns out that Hamlet, at this stage in the plot’s prehistory, with the prince unborn and the king unkilled, but with a sexually gluttonous couple, individually ineffective, urging each other on to acts of evil, is more like Macbeth. McEwan works hard to substantiate some sort of folie à deux between these two rather underpowered specimens as a means of driving the plot on: ‘The man who obliterates my mother between the sheets obeys like a dog. Sex, I begin to understand, is its own mountain kingdom, secret and intact. In the valley below we know only rumours.’
The success of Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life, with its endless rebirths (and of its sequel, A God in Ruins), shows that a cosmology that doesn’t make the slightest sense need not be a bar to acclaim and brisk sales. McEwan’s narrator is self-conscious, but he’s not aware of being a literary thought experiment – that is, he’s aware that his mother Trudy and his uncle Claude are plotting to kill his father, but he doesn’t detect the pattern they’re following. If there’s one thing, surely, that can’t exist in the world of the book then it’s Hamlet itself – just as it can’t happen in Shakespeare’s play that the prince, asked by Polonius what he’s reading, can reply not ‘words, words, words’ but that he’s come across a rather intriguing book by Saxo Grammaticus in the castle library. Even the existence of such an embargo doesn’t solve the problems. The book is structured by protruding absences, like negative flying buttresses. Tony Tanner in his Prefaces to Shakespeare refers to the ‘ripples of ontological unease’ produced by Hamlet’s staging of The Mousetrap, but there are also uneasy ripples when we’re confronted not by a play-within-a-play but a novel-without-the-play-inside-it. Both Atonement and Sweet Tooth created a paradoxical kind of fictional space, where the inside and the outside were made ambiguous by the revelation that a character could also be a partial author, but the dimensional anomaly, the Klein bottle effect, brought some new energy with it. Nutshell risks being an impossible object of a lesser order, an object with no inside for the reader to inhabit at all.
There’s no explicit reference to Hamlet or Shakespeare, but plenty of allusion, some of it so direct that it might as well be explicit reference. When Nutshell-Hamlet hears his father say, ‘She thinks I protest too much,’ does the phrase not ring a bell? Introducing his father’s protégée and perhaps lover, a poet whose favoured subject is owls, he defends the narrowness of her specialism by meditating on the benefits of limitation: ‘To be bound in a nutshell, see the world in two inches of ivory, in a grain of sand.’ He must ‘know’ that the second of these phrases derives from Austen, the third from Blake, but where does he think the first one comes from? It’s like a strange party game, in which books have to guess their own epigraphs, written on scraps of paper and stuck to their foreheads.
If you’re going to quote a famous phrase, from the most famous soliloquy in the language, and start off iambically, you’d better have a destination in mind that isn’t faltering prose: ‘To take my life I’ll need the cord, three turns around my neck of the mortal coil.’ There’s no substance to the idea that iambic verse recapitulates the mother’s heartbeat, whether heard in infancy or actually in utero: poetic metre is culturally specific. But Nutshell-Hamlet must count as an exception. Perhaps this stumbling line is meant to represent not harmony in the womb but something closer to foetal distress.
Anything that draws attention to the existence of Shakespeare and above all to Hamlet counts as self-sabotage in this context, since Nutshell-Hamlet and the play can’t exist in the same universe. It seems a particularly poor idea to have Claude mention diphenhydramine as a possible poison: ‘Kind of antihistamine. People are saying the Russians used it on that spy they locked in a sports bag. Poured it into his ear …’ Beyond a certain point it’s the writer’s job to filter out ironies rather than encouraging them to build up, irony being like salt in cooking, something that can spoil a dish either by its absence or its indiscriminate use. Anything that opens up a gap between the reader and the characters – if Hamlet doesn’t exist for the narrator, it can’t exist for his uncle either – leaches pleasure and meaning out of the experience of the novel. Mangled quotations from Macbeth (Trudy saying ‘So we’ll stick our courage to the screwing whatever’) are just as disruptive of the book’s precarious standing as an independent aesthetic object with its own internal laws.
McEwan’s whole project seems to underestimate the cultural pervasiveness of Shakespeare, and of this particular play. In the context of English-speaking culture Shakespearean language behaves not like a jukebox waiting for coins but like an Aeolian harp, not needing to be plucked to resonate. The slightest breath will activate it. There are single words (‘arras’ certainly, perhaps ‘nunnery’, ‘frailty’, ‘rotten’, ‘borrower’, ‘method’ and of course ‘nutshell’) that set off the tingle of association.
The dialogue with the gravedigger in Philip Roth’s Everyman is one of the finest things in his late work, a scene of stoic eloquence, with the gravedigger (black, over fifty, with a precise style of speech like a Southerner’s) explaining in detail what he does:
I don’t use a machine because it can sink the other graves. The soil can give and it can crush in on the box. And you have the gravestones you have to deal with. It’s just easier in my case to do everything by hand. Much neater. Easier to take the dirt away without ruining anything else. I use a real small tractor that I can manoeuvre easily, and I dig by hand.
Is this a homage to Shakespeare? Well, how would we tell one way or the other? Putting it the other way round, what more could Roth have done to prevent his scene from being read as a nod to Hamlet? There’s no overlap between them. Roth has chosen a single note of resignation, the consolation of facing mortal facts head-on, an even tone that is the opposite of Shakespeare’s whirlwind of jokes, quibbles, commentary on society, politics and religion, songs and flights of fancy. It doesn’t make a difference. The moment you undertake to write a scene with a gravedigger you step into a shadow you can never step out of. Paul Griffiths’s formalist decision to pin himself inside the verbal fabric of the play can look like a drastic but effective solution, a pragmatic way of wiping the slate clean, starting from scratch even if the material to be used is by definition second-hand.
Updike’s cunning in Gertrude and Claudius was to place himself somehow upstream of Shakespeare, so that he could safely intervene in the hallowed language, slyly suggesting that formulations that have become proverbial were proverbs in the first place. So his Polonius uses the phrase ‘neither a borrower nor a lender be’ as if it were already a cliché, rather than a formula that Shakespeare sent on its way into the dictionaries of quotations. Updike teases the reading brain with paraphrases only a step removed from canonical passages: Gertrude’s maid comes up with ‘There’s a shape in things, fiddle and fuss however we will around the edges,’ and Hamlet’s father tries in vain to formulate his own sense of something rotten in the state of Denmark, ‘a local situation so elusively slack and malodorous’.
The very different ground rules of Nutshell, though more often breached than observed, forbid any such games, except perhaps in the last line of the book, a safe place because a transitional one, marking the lifting of a spell if any has been imposed. McEwan chooses a reformulation of Hamlet’s own last words. Perhaps if Alex Ross hadn’t used the phrase for a celebrated survey of 20th-century music he would have opted for ‘The rest is noise,’ entirely suitable for a newborn’s first exposure to the sounding world. (McEwan chooses ‘chaos’.) In the body of the book, the attempt to align its language with the force field of Shakespeare’s has the effect not of supercharging but demagnetisation: ‘But lately, don’t ask why, I’ve no taste for comedy, no inclination to exercise, even if I had the space, no delight in fire or earth, in words that once revealed a golden world of majestical stars, the beauty of poetic apprehension, the infinite joy of reason.’ Passages like this, encroaching on the substance of the play, only aspire to the level of the paraphrases used in some parallel-text editions to fillet reduced meanings out of magnificence.