When the Balloon Goes up

Michael Wood

  • Enduring Love by Ian McEwan
    Cape, 247 pp, £15.99, September 1997, ISBN 0 224 05031 1

A young woman is shaken in her understanding of who she is and what she wants. The walking holiday she and her husband have planned now seems, Ian McEwan says, ‘a pointless detour from her uncertainty’. The phrase is full of trouble, of precise and elusive implications. Uncertainty is a path, a destination, a need. Of course we may not like the thought, and many of us will prefer to see our detours as chosen directions, uncertainty as something to be shaken off rather than returned to. But truths can often be measured by the urgency of our desire to avoid them, and sometimes only by that.

What’s striking about McEwan’s later work – I’m thinking particularly of The Innocent, Black Dogs and his new novel Enduring Love – is its intimacy with evasion and failure, combined with an alert intelligence about these things which itself looks like grounds for hope. McEwan’s characters talk past each other, go manic, stumble into violence, cultivate suspicions, hide behind brilliant illusions. They probably can’t help or save themselves, or not many of them can, but it’s hard to believe that such patient and delicate understanding of their condition won’t help someone.

Jeremy, the narrator of Black Dogs, is writing a memoir about his wife’s parents, Bernard and June, ex-Communists who took off in opposite directions, towards emphatic rationality and passionate faith. They can’t live with each other and can’t stop thinking about each other, feeding greedily off hearsay, fuelling their favourite myths. They seem deluded, but their problem is more subtle and more desperate. They don’t know what to do with their lucidity, and have to keep running from it. Bernard thinks June in her religion is just as ‘absolutist’ as the Communists they left behind. ‘Politico or priestess, it didn’t matter, in essence she was a hardliner.’ Then he says, in answer to a question from Jeremy: ‘She was one of the few people I know who saw her life as a project, an undertaking ... I hated the nonsense she filled her head with, but I loved her seriousness.’

June for her part is convinced, in old age, that her ‘biggest single failure’ was to imagine that a good life could be made alone, and that her disagreements with Bernard mattered more than their love.

Bernard thinks I’m a silly occultist, and I think he’s a fish-eyed commissar who’d turn in the lot of us if it would buy a material heaven on earth – that’s the family story, the family joke. The truth is we love each other, we’ve never stopped, we’re obsessed. And we failed to do a thing with it. We couldn’t make a life. We couldn’t give up the love, but we wouldn’t bend to its power.

These are large questions, but McEwan has an eye for small ones too. ‘I thought even you were above this kind of new-age drivel,’ the narrator of Enduring Love says in the middle of an argument, and is surprised at his sudden mastery of the ugly idiom. ‘This “even” comes from nowhere,’ we are told, ‘a rhythmic filler, a reckless little intensifier. Clarissa has never expressed the remotest interest in the new-age package. She looks at him, surprised. The insult has in turn set her free.’ And so the row can blossom, as rows do, as if plotted by some sort of genetic programme. ‘Where do we learn such tricks?’ the narrator asks. ‘Are they inscribed, along with the rest of our emotional repertoire? Or do we get them from the movies?’

Late in Enduring Love we hear a story about a publisher who turned down Lord of the Flies. It wasn’t called that, and it had a long first chapter which Golding then cut. The anecdote doesn’t bear any great weight, except as an instance among many in the book of what can come to be seen as error, and I don’t imagine McEwan intends it as a clue. Still, there are resemblances between the two writers, notably their interest in children and the complications of innocence. More important, both writers expect the novel as a genre to do similar, rather awkward work, and both run the corresponding risks. Beyond that there are as many differences as you care to count.

The awkward work is that of directed thinking, which has always been difficult for the novel. The genre thrives on irony and play, as Milan Kundera repeatedly remarks, and T.S. Eliot meant to praise Henry James by suggesting he had a mind so fine no idea could violate it. We might say the same of dozens of other novelists. Plenty of ideas, but none of them nailed down, all of them implicated in other, conflicting ideas; and there are novelists who have scarcely any ideas at all. Kundera distinguishes novelists from writers (who also write novels): ‘The writer has original ideas and an inimitable voice ... The novelist makes no great issue of his ideas. He is an explorer feeling his way ... He is fascinated not by his voice but by a form he is seeking.’ The distinction, tilted towards novelists, makes writers seem stuffy, even preachy, certainly self-absorbed. Between Sterne and Goethe, Flaubert and Chateaubriand, Calvino and Montherlant, who would you choose? Certainly Golding and McEwan are novelists in Kundera’s sense, but they do make an issue of their ideas. I’m not suggesting that they push their ideas at us, or that there is something inartistic, insufficiently ludic, about their asking us to think so hard. Only that they use their novels to focus quite specific questions, rather than allowing their questions to arise, if at all, from a world imagined for its own multifarious sake.

If there is a risk in this kind of fiction, it is less that of preaching than that of debating, telling us too clearly what our intellectual options are, displaying both sides of a case in an unduly judicious way, as if left and right, hard and soft, north and south, were a universal allegory, always to be followed, never to be believed. That’s when you start feeling that play is not only more fun but perhaps also more serious. ‘Bernard and June are the extremities,’ Jeremy says, ‘the twin poles along whose slippery axis my own unbelief slithers and never comes to rest ... I am uncertain whether our civilisation is cursed by too much or too little belief, whether people like Bernard and June cause the trouble, or people like me.’ The picture of slithering unbelief is wonderful, and the question is important. But the question in this form is also part of the problem, and Jeremy is drastically tidying up the very topic he thinks he is confronting in its complexity. Too much or too little, people like them or people like me. Simple alternatives either way, and there’s always the middle if you can’t make up your mind. What if belief is not a matter of quantity or polarities, what if the idea of a cursed civilisation is too melodramatic to do anything other than muddy our minds? Certainly Jeremy is not to be confused with McEwan, and Jeremy’s various limitations become abundantly clear. But the book often finds itself stuck with his habits of thought, since Bernard and June, characters for Jeremy, are crucial elements in McEwan’s chosen narrative and intellectual strategies.

In both McEwan and Golding there is also the risk of parable, the casting of particular experiences into broadly enigmatic models, a genre which requires peculiar gifts, and doesn’t get on well with the novel. When Jeremy’s wife-to-be notes, on a visit to a German death camp, that Poles, Lithuanians, Russians, French, British and Americans are memorialised but Jews are not, she murmurs: ‘The black dogs.’ She is referring to her mother’s encounter with two huge German attack dogs in France after the war. The dogs were not only literally dangerous, possibly rabid, they were for their victim the incarnation of the human minds which had trained them, ‘creations of debased imaginations, of perverted spirits no amount of social theory could account for’. Jeremy pretends to be sceptical about this sense of the dogs as the embodiment of evil – ‘whether June’s black dogs should be regarded as a potent symbol, a handy catchphrase, evidence of her credulity or a manifestation of a power that really exists, I cannot say’ – but the book as a whole (Jeremy’s memoir, McEwan’s novel) is not in any doubt. The black dogs are all of those things, and no amount of rationality is going to make them disappear. They are our heart of darkness. In a slightly forced episode set in Berlin as the Wall falls in 1989, McEwan produces a handful of young neo-Nazis to make the point, but doesn’t mean to let the rest of us off the hook. ‘The evil I’m talking about lives in us all,’ June says. ‘It’s something in our hearts.’ We are back, I think, with the cursed civilisation, if not with original sin. The problem is not the parable as a form but the reaching for parable here, what this parable is being asked to do: contain and moralise the complications of a horror which is both diffuse and hideously specific. What if evil itself is too simple a notion, a single name masking contrarily caused ills? The parable would then be a detour, not at all pointless, from our uncertainty. Of course it is the book’s own profuse and vividly realised doubts, as distinct from its attempts to summarise or allegorise itself, which allow us to think this.

Enduring Love opens with a moral puzzle so beautifully posed that you wonder if the book is ever going to escape from the parable into the larger, looser fiction. Joe Rose, a science journalist, is happily living with Clarissa Mellon, a lecturer in English literature. Clarissa has been away, doing a spell of research at Harvard, and Joe welcomes her back with a picnic, which they take straight from Heathrow to the Chilterns. It’s a blustery day for an idyll, but otherwise everything is wonderful. ‘Each leaf seemed to glow with an internal light. We talked about the purity of this colour, the beech leaf in spring, and how looking at it cleared the mind.’ Joe is about to open a bottle of wine, ‘a 1987 Daumas Gassac’, specified as carefully as if Joe was James Bond, when there is a shout, and Joe runs off to help a man and a chill in trouble with an air balloon, ropes entangled, anchor failing to hold the thing down. Other men are running there too. The pilot of the balloon is on the ground, the child is still in the basket, frozen with fear. As the balloon lifts off in a gust of wind, five men are hanging onto the ropes, their weight surely sufficient to bring it to earth again in a moment. Then one of them lets go, then another. Within seconds only one man, not Joe, is left hanging on, and he is carried some three hundred feet up into the air, above a dipping valley. When the strength in his arms gives out, he lets go, and falls to his death. The child somehow manages to bring the balloon down and is safe.

Joe is eager to read the lesson of this event, as if he were taking refuge inside an article he might have written.

I should make something clear. There may have been a vague communality of purpose, but we were never a team. There was no chance, no time ... I know that if I had been uncontested leader the tragedy would not have happened. Later I heard some of the others say the same thing about themselves. But there was not time, no opportunity for force of character to show.

And again: ‘Hanging a few feet above the Chilterns escarpment, our crew enacted morality’s ancient, irresolvable dilemma: us, or me. Someone said me, and then there was nothing to be gained by saying us ... Suddenly, hanging there beneath the basket, we were a bad society, we were disintegrating.’

And what about the man who held on and died, did he show force of character or just folly? The parable makes painfully clear not only our need for others, but our need for faith in others, for trust in their staying with us. It’s not that the men are not a team or don’t have a leader, it’s that they can’t imagine, because they don’t have time, or because their fear is larger than everything else, the practical appeal of solidarity in this instance: the danger will disappear if everyone hangs on, but only if they do. What Joe can’t acknowledge is the amoral strength of his fear – not, as Clarissa writes to him late in the book, ‘the thought that it might have been you who let go of the rope first,’ but the fact that he let go of the rope at all – and the revealed inadequacy of going it alone, either letting go or hanging on. As the story unfolds, it is evident that dependence and interdependence are the ideas McEwan wants us to think through, although nothing prepares us, or Joe, for what happens next or the turn these ideas take. This is where the parable opens brilliantly into a novel.

Joe likes to be in control, and thinks he is. Immediately after the man falls to his death, Joe marches down into the valley to see what’s what. He realises later that ‘the euphoric calm I felt was simply a symptom of my shock,’ but at the time he is so busy admiring himself that he doesn’t realise someone else is admiring him too; that he exudes an aura that someone could fall in love with, and does. One of the other men, Jed Parry, said to be ‘28, unemployed, living on an inheritance in Hampstead’, finds a kind of magnetism in Joe’s shock, and compounds it with his own religious belief. It becomes Jed’s mission to bring Joe to Jesus. He pursues Joe the following day and many days after that, convinced that Joe gave him a special signal of love and is now denying it. ‘What possible reason would you have for thinking I love you?’ Joe says. Jed whispers, almost in tears: ‘Don’t. Please don’t.’ And earlier: ‘Everything’s changed now. Please don’t put on this act.’

Things escalate horribly from here. Jed writes long loving letters to Joe, Joe can’t talk properly about the problem with Clarissa, who begins to believe Joe is hallucinating the whole affair. Joe, against all his instincts and principles, finds himself going suspiciously through the letters in Clarissa’s desk, in search of some sign of defection. If she doesn’t take Jed as seriously as Joe does, perhaps she doesn’t take Joe seriously. The police find no case for harassment in Jed’s pursuit of Joe – ‘Trying to convert you is not against the law’ – and Joe thinks Jed, losing patience, is making veiled threats of physical harm, even of a contract on his life. This moment in the story is expertly balanced since we (or I), along with Clarissa, begin to think that Joe rather than Jed may be the problem. There is a shooting in a restaurant where Joe is sitting, but Joe thinks the goons get the wrong man. When we learn that the supposed wrong man has suffered a previous attempt on his life, we are sure we are lost somewhere in Joe’s fantasy, that Joe has invented the violence of Jed’s conspiracy. And when Joe takes off to buy a gun because the police won’t protect him, we are even more convinced. There is a wonderful test here not only of Joe’s but of our sanity when a policeman quizzes Joe about the meal he was having at the time of the murder attempt. ‘What flavour was the ice-cream?’ Joe says ‘apple’, the person he was lunching with says ‘vanilla’. It’s disconcerting to turn back a few pages and realise that Joe has told us the ice-cream was a sorbet, and that its flavour was lime. The point here, though, is less Joe’s unreliability in these matters than everyone’s. A further point is that you could be unreliable about ice-cream flavours without necessarily hallucinating people who are trying to kill you.

Joe meanwhile has found a name for Jed’s mania, de Clérambault’s syndrome, a recognised clinical delusion which involves the unshakeable conviction of another person’s love, and the determination, against all obstacles and evidence, to force that person, violently if necessary, to acknowledge that love. De Clérambault was a psychiatrist and ethnographer who died in 1934, and was later praised by Lacan and discussed by Deleuze and Guattari in Le Pli and Mille plateaux. McEwan gives an account of de Clérambault’s most famous instance, a French woman who was convinced that King George V was in love with her and believed, among other things, that a slight twitch of the curtains at Buckingham Palace was a signal to her. Enduring Love has a case-study of Jed in an appendix, complete with professional jargon and not entirely fake bibliography. It’s true that Joe’s researches into this condition look like another evasion of his own modest pathology, but he turns out to be right – about Jed and the syndrome, at least. Jed threatens Clarissa with a knife, and Joe saves her with his gun. Jed is charged with attempted murder, diagnosed as having ‘a well-encapsulated delusional system’ in place, and hospitalised. He continues to write loving letters to Joe, which the hospital does not forward.

So Joe is the hero, science and leadership win out, to the discomfiture of liberal sceptics like Clarissa? Jeremy, at the end of Black Dogs, squares up and sorts things out in similar manly fashion. Clearly McEwan wants to acknowledge the attraction of such a position, and to point to the weaknesses it exposes in other positions: the notion that Jed could have been talked out of his mania, for example, or that he wasn’t dangerous. Clarissa writes to Joe apologising for doubting his sanity, and for dismissing Jed as ‘a pathetic and harmless crank’. But then she goes on to say that ‘your being right is not a simple matter.’ Why was Joe so rattled by Jed even before he became threatening? Why did Joe go through her desk? Why wouldn’t he talk about letting go of the balloon rope, which Clarissa thought was the one important issue? These are good questions, but of course Joe’s being wrong is not a simple matter either.

Clarissa’s letter ... drove us further apart. Fifteen years ago I might have taken it seriously, suspecting that it embodied a wisdom, a delicacy that I failed in my bullish way to grasp. I might have thought it my duty, part of my sentimental education, to feel rebuked. But the years harden us into what we are, and her letter appeared to me simply unreasonable. I disliked its wounded, self-righteous tone, its clammy emotional logic, its knowingness that hid behind a highly selective memory.

Would Joe have been wrong fifteen years ago if he had taken the letter seriously? He would have missed what he now sees, what we might think of as Clarissa’s literary waywardness with hard facts, verging on a refusal to see how hard they are. But even now he misses Clarissa’s sense of the limited usefulness of hard facts in human affairs.

Joe and Clarissa are not the ‘twin poles’ of any discussion, though, and McEwan is not asking us to choose between them, or to find some middle course between their paths, only to understand the intricate double failure of their attempt at living with their proximity to catastrophe. What have they done, and is there a way back from there? There is a moment at which Joe has an insight he doesn’t discuss with Clarissa, and can’t himself incorporate into his responses to Jed’s pursuit of him. Clarissa tells Joe not to worry. ‘Some poor fellow has a crush on you and is trailing you about.’ What Joe thinks but doesn’t manage to say to her that this is not ‘some poor fellow’: ‘It was a man bound to me ... by an experience, and by a shared responsibility for, or at the very least, a shared involvement in, another man’s death.’ This is an experience which makes innocence unavailable to you, even if your actual behaviour might be judged entirely innocent. It may be that Jed’s insistence, and Joe’s concentration on Jed’s insistence, are attempts to reclaim the innocence they feel they have lost; and that Clarissa’s taking things lightly and getting on with her life are another version of the same thing. Joe and Clarissa would be trying to finesse the bond of experience, and Jed would be converting it into a mission.

In Enduring Love, then, as in most of McEwan’s novels, the crucial issue would turn out to be the lure of innocence. We may think of the title of The Innocent, and the different kinds of innocence strangely sustained amid corruption in The Cement Garden and The Comfort of Strangers. Of the loops into childhood in A Child in Time, and the innocence of a photograph of Bernard and June in Black Dogs, which is said to be ‘the innocence ... of the time itself’ – namely, 1946. In the same novel innocence is also attributed to a scorpion and to the blatancy of Soviet atrocities. Innocence is not guiltlessness, it is ignorance of what will happen to you and what others will make of you.

In Enduring Love, the loss of innocence is a lapse into unmanageable confusion, guilt by complication. Clarissa pictures Joe’s eager rationality as a form of innocence, and Joe himself, close to the end of his tether, failing to find in the contemplation of lower organisms a consoling image of ‘natural dependency’, concludes that we have fallen from nature. ‘We were no longer in the great chain. It was our own complexity that had expelled us from the Garden. We were in a mess of our own unmaking.’ This is a little grandiose, and recalls Jeremy’s cursed civilisation in Black Dogs. Perhaps complexity is not a matter for regret, and it tells us something about Joe that he thinks it is. But when Joe goes through Clarissa’s desk, he says, ‘I had crossed and re-crossed the line of my own innocence,’ which is a pretty complicated idea, rather like taking a detour from your uncertainty.

Innocence is what you lose once and for all: you can’t re-cross the line. The widow of the man who died in the balloon incident believes he was with another woman at the time. There was a woman’s silk scarf in his car, and food and wine for a picnic. The widow had had no suspicion of this affair, but evidence is evidence. Except that it isn’t always. The scarf and the picnic stuff belonged, we learn at the end of the book, to another couple, the man who died was just giving them a lift. ‘Can you ever forgive us for being so selfish, so careless?’ the man of the other couple asks, since they have so far kept silent about everything. ‘Of course I can,’ the widow says angrily. ‘But who’s going to forgive me? The only person who can is dead.’ She can’t restore to her husband the innocence the evidence seemed to take from him, because she can’t unthink her furious, recriminatory thoughts of the last weeks.

But it is not meaningless for Joe to speak of re-crossing the line of his innocence. There is no going back except in the imagination, but the imagination is not nothing. It is possible to hang onto an unsentimental memory of innocence, even alongside the firmest respect for experience, and in doing this we don’t just simplify the world. We remember that forgiveness, if we can manage it, creates a second innocence, and sometimes isn’t even called for. The dead man in this novel, unlike Jed but like many of our own loved ones and enemies much of the time, has committed no offence except in someone’s mind.