Well done, Ian McEwan

Michael Wood

  • The Innocent by Ian McEwan
    Cape, 231 pp, £12.95, May 1990, ISBN 0 224 02783 2

There is a scene which recurs in several of Hitchcock’s films and which could well be in all of them, since it is so central to his favourite fear. An innocent man is discovered in a situation that makes him look hopelessly, undeniably guilty: the corpse in his arms, the knife in his hand. His innocence is both unquestionable (for us) and unbelievable (as far as everyone in the movie is concerned). This man has been framed by appearances, as we all could be; innocence is no defence, innocence doesn’t stand a chance.

A complex variant of this scene haunts Ian McEwan’s fiction, and creates, among other things, an eerie resonance for the mild-seeming title of his remarkable new novel. For McEwan, the innocent is never entirely innocent, always has a murky relation to the corpse and the knife. But an innocence remains amid the guilt, a bewilderment that no simply guilty person would feel. The children in The Cement Garden (1978) have buried their mother in the cellar, and they have committed incest. But they are still children, and they continue to look at each other ‘knowingly, knowing nothing’. Innocence is corrupted, complicated by weird cross-currents – ‘He was innocent,’ a character thinks in the new novel, ‘but it would take some explaining’ – yet only a thorough dose of knowledge (or guilt) could abolish it, and that dose is usually lacking, or in abeyance. Even McEwan’s adults are children, sometimes cripplingly so, as in The Child in Time (1987), where a politician commits suicide because he cannot bring his residual childhood into line with his frantic public life, where a father cannot mourn his lost daughter without re-creating his parents’ marriage and his own conception. Knowingness, McEwan keeps telling us, is a flight from knowledge, and knowledge is hard to come by and hard to take.

Hitchcock deals in fear, while McEwan deals in horror, in the Gothic in a rather special sense – in what we might call the Gothic of everyday life. This means that innocence itself has a rather different role to play. In Hitchcock innocence says, ‘I didn’t do it’; in McEwan it says, ‘I may have done it but you have to hear the whole story,’ or, ‘I did it, but only because I was ambushed by some stranger hiding in my personality, some other self I wasn’t prepared to meet.’

By Gothic I mean that moment in a fiction when all the emotions go underground, when what seemed like a logical, if extravagant plot turns to nightmare, driven by forces that no one will name. The corpse, for instance, already a practical problem in material reality, takes up its residence in the mind; the monster doubles in size; the aggrieved woman becomes the shrieking harpy, ascends from melodrama into myth – the woman needed appeasing, but the harpy has to be killed. ‘The imagination,’ McEwan memorably says in The Innocent, ‘was even more brutal than life.’ Ancient repressions must be at work here, stoking the imagination with horrors, and the violence which so suddenly surrounds us is surely a distorted reflection of what we are anxious not to know. If we could face what horrifies us, we presumably wouldn’t need these Gothic displacements. McEwan’s great gift is for getting his characters onto this level of experience by the most casual means: they step into the Gothic the way other people step onto buses, and the sheer ordinariness of their arrival in horror is part of what takes the breath away.

The world of espionage is the perfect place for a writer interested in the difference between knowingness and knowledge, and The Innocent is set in Berlin in 1955 and 1956, with a brief epilogue set in 1987. The Voice of America plays ‘Rock around the clock’, and then ‘Heartbreak Hotel’. This is Berlin before the Wall, torn by memories, littered with ruins, and even more littered with spies, ‘between five and ten thousand’, if a report quoted in the novel is to be believed. George Blake, sentenced in 1961 to 42 years in prison for spying, makes a few brief appearances and plays an interesting part in the plot. Intelligence, we learn, is a matter of levels of clearance. One set of persons believes they are building a warehouse. Those whose clearance takes them to the next level know that the warehouse is a radar station. Those at the next level know that the radar station is a cover for a tunnel which will permit the British and the Americans to tap the Russians’ telephone cables. And those at the level after that? It’s easy to see how espionage runs over into theology, and one American agent here bases a whole theory of human culture on secrecy. ‘Secrecy made us possible,’ he says, meaning that the first human who knew something that others didn’t know was the first individual.

Secrecy, of course, can be a cover for ignorance as well as knowledge, the very notion of the secret is a form of bluff. Much intelligence work must be done along these lines. And innocence might then get entangled in secrecy in quite complicated ways – not knowing, for instance, what it thinks it knows, an innocence in spite of itself. I’m not going to describe the plot of this novel – it has too many brilliant surprises, which should not be spoiled – but it won’t hurt to look at its chief characters and implications. Our first innocent is a young Englishman called Leonard Marnham, an electrician involved in the wiring of the equipment in the aforementioned tunnel. He meets Maria, an attractive German woman, and McEwan’s prose enters a realm of stealthy double-entendre which recalls the hint-filled atmosphere of Henry James – or rather, given the horror of much of what happens later, the atmosphere of a Stephen King who has learned to write like Henry James. ‘It had always been certain to start like this. If he was honest with himself, he had to concede that he had always known it really, at some level ... He thought, correctly as it turned out, that his life was about to change.’ The ostensible – and real – subject here is falling in love for the first time, but the carefully unspecific sentences echo already (even if we have read no further) like an elaborate soundtrack of promises. There are other delicately dropped narrative hints (‘Many years later’, ‘the beginning of the end of Leonard’s Berlin days’), which close off some plot possibilities, but still leave us groping, vulnerable to unguessed-at twists of action. Similarly, when Leonard is said to be ‘unaccountably happy’ or ‘uncomplicatedly happy’, we register the feeling – McEwan has made it entirely convincing – but also hear an unspoken threat, as if the old jealous gods were still on the lookout for such happiness. Leonard’s innocence ends, in one sense, when he finally understands the emotions which link him to Maria – McEwan’s account of the ugly, troubled emotions Leonard doesn’t understand is a tour de force of precision and lucid imagination – but in another sense his innocence, of the political world, of the vast domain of chance, of the way the past can highjack the present, is just beginning.

There are other innocents in the novel – notably the Americans, who remain naive even when they are up to complicated things, and are both dangerous and decent for that reason. Their minds, as Maria says of one of them, are ‘too simple and too busy’. Is the ‘special relationship’ between America and Britain a relationship between innocence and knowingness, or between brands of innocence? Between brands of innocence which are also brands of knowingness, perhaps. Little knowledge either way. And in a disturbing sense the Germans, too, are innocent – this is the subtlest, most glancing implication in the book. Leonard, who was 14 when the war ended, enters a bar on his first night in Berlin and hears a group of men talking. His poor German and his historical superstitions are enough to make him believe the men are unrepentantly discussing genocide, and he is quite wrong: the conversation is innocent. Later, though, when an ‘innocent’ character has been caught up in unimaginable butchery, he thinks, ‘I am no different from you, I am not evil,’ and we half-believe him. Or, rather, we believe he is different from us only because the Gothic has got him, but hasn’t (yet) got us. He is not a German, but the terms of his defence apply more closely to the Germans than to anyone else in the novel.

‘His dreams were starting without him’; ‘The numerous small anxieties associated with preparing a three-course meal animated her face’; ‘They knew one another much as they knew themselves, and their intimacy, rather like too many suitcases, was a matter of perpetual concern’; ‘It hurts. Hunched by the window with his empty glass, Stephen let his thoughts wither to those two words.’ These sentences, taken from three of McEwan’s four novels, are a form of signature. His writing is characteristically patient, sympathetic, inventive, intelligent, attentive to detail. The tone is always steady, even (especially) when it deals with repellent material. The books are also funny, in a macabre way, particularly The Innocent, where quite ghastly bits of behaviour keep stumbling across the structure of farce, as if farce were in the end the natural form of horror – horror’s home.

In the face of all this, it seems absurd (and ungrateful) to complain that things are sometimes too well done. The bookshops are full of novels that aren’t ‘done’ at all, and what would ‘too well done’ mean, anyway? But there is some sort of risk of claustrophobic neatness in McEwan’s work, a sense of too many suitcases. It arises, for example, in the way Leonard’s experience of love and his work in the tunnel are brought together in a series of images about burrowing, borders and the like – when he is said to miss the tunnel ‘almost as much’ as he misses Maria. These images in turn tie up with espionage when Leonard, wanting to hold a difficult conversation in the dark, assumes ‘that he was safer under cover.’ Similarly, in The Child in Time, a brilliantly described but gratuitous-seeming motor accident reveals its purpose when a baby is born in much the same way that a man was released from the wreckage of the crash. Accident, birth, damage, danger, life, death – got it? The problem isn’t, at least for me, the rather dogged ingenuity at work here, or the implied meanings, which seem rich and interesting enough. It is the sense of what in a less accomplished writer would be under-confidence, an unwillingness to leave well (or more often, wonderfully-rendered ill) alone. There is one occasion on which both McEwan’s elegant and stringent style and his tilt into overkill are nicely displayed. Leonard doesn’t want to leave Maria, but his injured pride is dragging him away, he is ‘drawn to his own defeat’: ‘Here he was, insisting on leaving. It was the behaviour of a stranger and he could do nothing, he could not steer himself in the direction of his own interests. Self-pity had obliterated his habitual and meticulous good sense, he was in a tunnel whose only end was his own fascinating annihilation.’ The image of a man failing to steer himself towards his interests seems witty and exact, as does the opposition between self-pity and good sense – which of us, in the right mood, wouldn’t instantly prefer self-pity? – and it is (just) possible that the tunnel has crept in as a casual, unpremeditated metaphor, the product of the writer’s busy unconscious, putting in a little overtime. The effect, though, is to dump the whole complicated sign-system of the novel on this small moment: tunnel, spies, underground, secrets, knowledge, innocence, history, all come bouncing into Leonard’s private life, when the connection has already been plentifully made. The writer at this point seems keener on Meaning than on meaning, and we are too busy with our admiration (or irritation) to attend to other feelings.

But this is a small distraction, McEwan’s own lapse into knowingness. Otherwise, The Innocent is a haunting investigation into the varied and troubling possibilities of knowledge. The sheer cleverness of the book is dazzling, and only fully to be appreciated as you turn the last page: but then cleverness is a real virtue here, the best guide possible to the questionable territory between innocence and whatever comes after.