Evils and Novels

Graham Coster

  • Black Dogs by Ian McEwan
    Cape, 176 pp, £14.99, June 1992, ISBN 0 224 03572 X

As Penguin rescues the novels of Angus Wilson from out-of-print obscurity, here is an excuse to recall the argument of his most important work of literary criticism, the essay ‘Evil in the English Novel’. ‘For some time,’ he wrote in the Listener back in 1962, ‘I have been concerned about what is happening to the contemporary English novel ... I have been led to suppose that one of the troubles is that we are too much concerned with right and wrong, and not enough with evil.’ Contemporaneous with Wilson’s new canonisation is the showing in London of Merchant-Ivory’s film adaptation of E.M Forster’s Howard’s End, and a new novel from Ian McEwan. To a reader of First Love, Last Rites or In Between the Sheets it will seem an odd conjunction. Nevertheless, it is to Wilson’s implicit prescription that McEwan’s novels seem increasingly to answer, and in Black Dogs both the manner in which evil enters and determines his story, and the landscape he creates to summon and accommodate it, look soberly Forsterian.

In previous McEwan novels, evil has been defined by its opposite: it is that which invades and violently vanquishes love. In The Comfort of Strangers the fragile passion of Colin and Caroline, holidaying in Venice, attracts the fascinated attention of the sadistic Robert, who has already nearly killed his wife during their sado-masochistic sexual sessions, and eventually succeeds in calmly murdering Colin. In The Innocent the engagement night of Leonard, the callow English hero, and his German lover Maria, is interrupted by their discovery of her brutish, alcoholic ex-husband unconscious in the wardrobe, vainly installed there in order to view their loving consummation. When he rouses they kill him, desperately and messily, with an iron shoe last – and then seal the transmutation of their complicit passion by together dismembering the body in order to prevent its discovery. Simplest and most terrifying is the evil in The Child in Time: the theft of an infant only child from her parents.

‘I would be false to my own experience,’ testifies McEwan’s narrator, Jeremy, in the new novel, ‘if I did not declare my belief in the possibility of love transforming and redeeming a life.’ So we start from a characteristic affirmation, and are invited to consider a similar predicament: a honeymoon, the single happiest, most loving adventure in a young couple’s life, blighted and transcended by the incursion of an evil that breaks the two lives in half. Jeremy, orphaned at the age of eight, introduces himself as someone who, ever since, has ‘had my eye on other people’s parents’: Black Dogs is to be the story of his parents-in-law. June and Bernard have met during the war, fallen quickly in love, joined the Communist Party with enthusiasm, and gone to France for their honeymoon. Jeremy’s ‘memoir’ of his mother-in-law forms the text of the novel, conceived as an attempt to account for the fact that, ever since this mysteriously truncated expedition, Bernard and June have lived apart, he in London, remaining true to his Communist affiliation until the Russian invasion of Hungary, then progressing to a public career in Labour politics, she in anchoritic solitude in an isolated farmhouse in the same part of France, scornful of the worth of political activity, authoring books with titles like Mystical Grace: Selected Writings of St Teresa of Avila and Ten Meditations, and nourished by an epiphanic awareness of God that came to her during the confrontation with evil she refers to as her ‘black dogs’ episode.

Jeremy’s memoir scrupulously mediates Bernard and June’s rival diagnoses of the ‘black dogs’ incident, of each other, and of each other’s diagnoses. June offers her valedictory reflections to Jeremy from her deathbed in a Wiltshire nursing home: Communism, she maintains, was always a utopian, even pastoral vision to her, its appeal originating more in the weekly cycling trips into the countryside organised by branch members than in the ungainsayable truth of revolutionary theory – ‘it was always associated in my mind with beech woods, cornfields, sunlight, and barrelling down those hills, down those lanes that were tunnels in summer ...’ In her estrangement from her husband, she deplores their ‘inability to take the simple good things life was offering us and be glad to have them ... We couldn’t give up the love, but we wouldn’t bend to its power ... Whenever I’m complaining about the latest social breakdown in the newspapers, I have to remind myself – why should I expect millions of strangers with conflicting interests to get along when I couldn’t make a simple society with the father of my children, the man I’ve loved and remained married to?’ For Bernard, told all this by Jeremy, it is so much self-justifying delusion:

She left the Party years before me, but she never cracked, she never sorted the fantasy from the reality. Politico or priestess, it didn’t matter, in essence she was a hardliner ... You were either with her, doing what she was doing, or you were out. She wanted to meditate and study mystical texts, that sort of thing, and that was fine, but it wasn’t for me. I preferred to join the Labour Party. She wouldn’t have that. In the end she insisted on living apart.

McEwan’s grave, even-handed narrator takes no sides, preferring the role of chronicler to oracle, going only as far as to offer, in rueful comment on ‘the difficulties of communication’, the felicitously plangent image of ‘parallel mirrors in place of lovers on a bed, throwing back in infinite regression likenesses paling into untruth’. There is certainly about the busy, publicly-active Bernard more than a touch of Forster’s undeveloped heart, while the significance of June’s lifelong spiritual ‘quest’, as both he and Jeremy recognise it in glum admiration, is not its profundity or originality but its second-hand banality – to anyone but herself self-evidently not worth a life’s effort. In such respects both partners are quite right about each other, and the pathos of their accuracy implies the potential redundancy of a relationship founded in the simple passionate attraction of opposites.

But the irony in Black Dogs is far larger: it is not just that June’s or Bernard’s analyses of the irrevocable transformation of their marriage following a momentary incident in France are misguided or obscure – but that they will always fall short. McEwan’s wider search, beyond the narrator’s scrutiny of the ‘black dogs’ episode in June’s life, is, as it were, for the place of the June episode within the world of the black dogs. As with Forster’s greatest fictional articulation of a transcendent evil, A Passage to India, there is that sense of dwarves shaking hands, of the protagonists being slightly too small for their story – as if, above a certain threshold, they resist our efforts to see them as more ennoblingly interesting, because the landscape they inhabit is inimical to sacrosanct human idiosyncrasy.

McEwan shares Forster’s sensitivity to landscape as a numinous protagonist: just as it is the irreducibly colossal vista of the Indian plain that does most to lower Mrs Moore’s spirits as she travels back towards her ship after her visit to the Marabar Caves, so it is ‘the arid horizon, the dry mountains ahead ... the mad vigour which forced growth to cling on in the harshest of places’ which leads June to a deep, demoralising agoraphobia even before she encounters her dogs, an elemental pitilessness that will endure with infinite stamina whatever her love for her husband, her politics, her will. McEwan’s prose evokes this natural menace with tender precision. It is also in the French landscape that June locates a countervailing moral positive, in the serene farmhouse stumbled on as she and Bernard turn back from the scene of her ordeal (McEwan offers a moving glimpse of what would have lain ahead – also ‘the metaphorical landscape of the future’, which they never see), and which she impulsively buys and retires to for most of her remaining life, and then bequeathes as a happy holiday domain to her daughter and son-in-law.

If McEwan shares with Forster a certain symbolic grammar of good and evil, he is also both more Manichaean and more optimistic. For June, the significance of her black dogs is that they cause her to become aware of God: the incident brings not destruction but direction, reveals not a black hole but a goal. McEwan is concerned – in the most unsatisfactory sections of the novel – to complement this totemic experience with a number of climactic encounters for the narrator, in which evidence of a beneficent providence alternates with in timations of a spooky malignity undermining human affairs. He visits June’s farmhouse at night some time after her death, and narrowly avoids putting his hand on a poisonous scorpion: has his sudden feeling that there is another human presence in the house with him saved him, or nearly seduced him? He accompanies Bernard to Berlin to witness the demolition of the Wall – a lesson on the final defeat of the socialist ideal of a perfectible society, or confirmation of the political supremacy of people power? – and sees him rescued from an attack by local thugs by a young woman whose likeness to June Bernard has already remarked. At such points McEwan’s metaphysical inquiry shrinks to picturesque conundrums and a rather smug irony, a knowing wink of, You can’t rule it out, can you? Worst of all, the decision to place the narrator and his wife’s first declaration of love for each other at the site of the Majdanek extermination camp, looks like exploitative and sentimental melodrama – even if we have already heard all about his belief in the redeeming power of etc. When McEwan strays from the specific circumstances of June and Bernard’s life together his history becomes backdrop, moral positions are exaggerated into gestures and the numinous pales into superstition: you feel he is attempting to cast the net a little too wide.

So what about these dogs? I’m inclined to think it’s McEwan’s major error to let us see them at all. The narrator drops his studiedly personal navigation of the tale and in the final section of the book gives you what is offered, without evident authorial irony, as the authoritative, objective account of what happened. Not only has the relativistic collage of verdicts over the preceding pages accumulated to argue no such thing; it also brings the unknowable rather too near. Forster may not have been disingenuous in insisting he had no idea what was going on inside the Marabar Caves; he was in any case wise not to limit its implication by privileging his readership with a look. McEwan’s method, on the other hand, tells us not enough more than we’d pieced together already for the revelation to seem worth the wait, and too much for us to retain our feeling of menaced ignorance. Ultimately the evil in Black Dogs is too familiar to be frightening. Neither does it, therefore, escape its teller, unlike the ghastly stoic butchery performed by the two lovers in The Innocent, which utterly overwhelms the interest of a Cold War spy story. This novel’s evil is more like the dimming light-bulb of negation, undramatic and unkinetic, that breaks the back of A Passage to India – but it isn’t allowed to undermine McEwan’s economical, considered tale.

What does get away, however – indeed, what lingers most at the end of this thoughtful and compassionate novel – is not the evil it encloses, but the truly strange God that its heroine discovers: a ‘coloured invisible light’, as she distantly defines it: an apparently impersonal, undemanding, non-denominational presence. We go no further with her in comprehending it, even less far in seeing the point: not so much transcendent as reductive – a boring God, even, to an observer, a God whose disciple seems unable to rise above hippyish cliché in pronouncing her devotion to Him. In this respect June is entirely and successfully lost to Black Dogs, to her author and his readers. Where MeEwan’s narrator, seemingly at one with the novelist, touchingly but all too predictably celebrates human love in the face of evil, his novel’s imaginative distinction is its plausible suggestion of a sane, serene life sustained in a private region somewhere where even its characters, their politics, and most of all their love, cannot go.