A Knife at the Throat

Christopher Tayler

  • Saturday by Ian McEwan
    Cape, 280 pp, £17.99, February 2005, ISBN 0 224 07299 4

Ian McEwan’s vividly and meticulously imagined novels often focus on characters whose imaginations are either unwholesomely vivid or dryly meticulous. At one end of the spectrum lurk the sex murderers in The Comfort of Strangers (1981), Robert and Caroline, whose actions lead their victim’s girlfriend to surmise that ‘the imagination, the sexual imagination’, embodies ‘a powerful single organising principle’ which distorts ‘all relations, all truth’. The incestuous children in The Cement Garden (1978), the kinky politicians in The Child in Time (1987) and Amsterdam (1998), the voyeuristic ex-husband in The Innocent (1990), the stalker in Enduring Love (1997): in most of his books there’s at least one character who’s mesmerised by powerful fantasies, sometimes to the exclusion of everything else. And since ‘stories demand simple and incisive sets of oppositions,’ as McEwan told an interviewer in 1985, we also meet people who are very impatient with fantasy. Joe, the efficient, highly rational narrator of Enduring Love, is an obvious example, as is Bernard, the no-nonsense materialist in Black Dogs (1992). If the fantasists are too solipsistic, these figures are too relentlessly outward-looking for corrective self-scrutiny. Bernard, like Joe, loses the woman he loves, accused by her of being obsessed with rationality at the expense of emotion.

McEwan’s first two novels thrived on the contrast between the scrupulous clarity of his writing and the resonant oddness of his imagination. The Cement Garden and The Comfort of Strangers, which both speak of repressive fathers and the dizzying freedoms licensed by their overthrow, are narrowly focused. In The Child in Time, The Innocent and Black Dogs, on the other hand, McEwan’s increasing skill at combining elaborate patterns of imagery with rigorously worked psychological realism is brought to bear on a wider range of material. The only glimpse of the late 1970s public world in The Cement Garden comes in a passing reference to some overflowing dustbins: ‘We thought there might have been a strike but we had heard nothing.’ In the late 1980s and early 1990s, however, McEwan tackled Thatcherism, the Cold War, the Holocaust and German reunification.

The Child in Time also ushered in a fascination with science and a perceived antagonism between literary and scientific culture. ‘You “arts” people,’ spits Thelma, a physicist lecturing the protagonist on quantum theory. ‘You’re not only ignorant of these magnificent things, you’re rather proud of knowing nothing. As far as I can make out, you think that some local, passing fashion like Modernism – Modernism! – is the intellectual achievement of our time. Pathetic!’ There’s some irony here, since The Child in Time – with its allusions to Borges and Kafka – is McEwan’s most self-consciously modernistic novel. But it’s clear that he takes his scientific reading seriously, and in several of his books the two-cultures debate is pressed into service as part of a broader opposition between reason and unreason. Arguments between coldly rational men and credulous but empathetic women have recurred in his work since the story ‘Solid Geometry’, collected in First Love, Last Rites (1975). Black Dogs examines the human capacity for evil through the irreconcilable perspectives of June, a mystic, and Bernard, an old-fashioned socialist technocrat. In Enduring Love – a schematic novel which comes alive only during the scenes incidental to the grinding antitheses of the main plot – the narrator’s lover, a student of Keats, occupies the middle ground between religious delusion and emotionally inept rationality.

McEwan is interested in evolutionary psychology and the materialist theories of consciousness propounded by such writers as Steven Pinker and Antonio Damasio. He also has a cautious faith in the ennobling potential of literature and the redemptive capacities of romantic love. Enduring Love sets the two kinds of thinking against one another, but his recent novels are more concerned with reconciliation. In Atonement (2001), Robbie Turner – a 1930s Cambridge English graduate who has decided that Eng. Lit. isn’t everything, ‘whatever Dr Leavis said in his lectures’ – plans to go to medical school. He imagines becoming someone who embodies the best of both traditions, literary and scientific:

For this was the point, surely: he would be a better doctor for having read literature. What deep readings his modified sensibility might make of human suffering, of the self-destructive folly or sheer bad luck that drive men towards ill-health! Birth, death and frailty in between. Rise and fall – this was the doctor’s business, and it was literature’s too. He was thinking of the 19th-century novel. Broad tolerance and the long view, an inconspicuously warm heart and cool judgment; his kind of doctor would be alive to the monstrous patterns of fate, and to the vain and comic denial of the inevitable; he would press the enfeebled pulse, hear the expiring breath, feel the fevered hand begin to cool and reflect, in the manner that only literature and religion teach, on the puniness and nobility of mankind . . .

Perhaps the swooning cadences and the conflation of religion and literature indicate that we’re not meant to take Robbie’s ‘modified sensibility’ too seriously. After all, he’s the proud owner of ‘a printed rejection slip from Criterion magazine, initialled by Mr Eliot himself’ – and although he’s decided that an interest in literature is merely a ‘desirable adjunct to a civilised existence’, his daydream is coloured by the lingering notion of an aristocracy of sensibility, a spiritual elite. Elsewhere in Atonement, however, there’s a more down-to-earth expression of the idea that reading novels can make us better people. Briony, a young girl who will become a writer known for her ‘impartial psychological realism’, experiences an epiphany after witnessing a scene played out – incomprehensibly to her – between Robbie and Cecilia, her older sister:

She sensed she . . . could write the scene three times over, from three points of view; her excitement was in the prospect of freedom, of being delivered from the cumbrous struggle between good and bad . . . There did not have to be a moral. She need only show separate minds, as alive as her own, struggling with the idea that other minds were equally alive. It wasn’t only wickedness and scheming that made people unhappy, it was confusion and misunderstanding; above all, it was the failure to grasp the simple truth that other people are as real as you. And only in a story could you enter these different minds and show how they had an equal value. That was the only moral a story need have.

Writing in the Guardian on 15 September 2001 about the terrorist attacks on the US, McEwan said that one of the hijackers’ crimes was ‘a failure of the imagination’: ‘It is hard to be cruel once you permit yourself to enter the mind of your victim. Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is . . . the beginning of morality.’ This isn’t quite the same as saying that the hijackers wouldn’t have completed their mission if they’d been more interested in creative writing. And in Atonement, conversely, Briony’s insight – which is in part a retrospective fiction – doesn’t prevent her from committing the crime on which the story turns. If there’s any confusion on this score, however, McEwan clears up some of it in his new novel, Saturday, in which a materialist doctor reflects on the puniness and nobility of mankind while showing that it’s possible to have human sympathies without the aid of religion or literature.

Saturday has an epigraph from Saul Bellow’s Herzog (1964). Awaiting his mistress, who will shortly reappear wearing little more than a ‘black lace underthing’, Moses H. reflects on ‘what it means to be a man. In a city. In a century. In transition. In a mass. Transformed by science. Under organised power . . . After the late failure of radical hopes.’ And Saturday turns out to be a soliloquising novel of urban experience in a similar tradition, mostly written, like Herzog, in free indirect style – though McEwan makes less use than Bellow of interior monologue – and, like John Updike’s ‘Rabbit’ books, in the present tense. There’s also an allusion to Joyce’s ‘The Dead’ in the novel’s closing sentence (as McEwan pointed out in an interview on Radio 4), and the influence of Ulysses makes itself felt in several ways – chief among them the decision to limit the action to Saturday, 15 February 2003, and the early hours of the following morning.

Henry Perowne is a 48-year-old consultant neurosurgeon with a large house on a square near the Post Office Tower in Fitzrovia. He’s happily married to Rosalind, a newspaper lawyer. They have two children: Theo, an 18-year-old blues guitarist, who lives with them; and Daisy, an Oxford graduate currently living in Paris, whose first book of poems is about to be published by ‘a venerable institution in Queen Square’. It’s Perowne’s day off. A few hours before dawn he wakes up feeling oddly elated, as though ‘he’s materialised out of nothing, fully formed’. Standing at his bedroom window, he sees a burning plane cross the sky over London. These are ‘baffled and fearful’ times, and he fears the worst: a crash, a terrorist attack. ‘He feels culpable somehow, but helpless too.’ Should he call the emergency services? ‘His crime was to stand in the safety of his bedroom . . . half dreaming as he watched people die.’ Downstairs, he watches the TV news with Theo, who’s up late after a gig. There are reports on Hans Blix and the anti-war protest march scheduled for later that day. After a while, they learn that the plane he saw has landed safely, forced down by nothing more sinister than an engine fire. Perowne goes back to bed, makes love to his wife, and falls asleep.

By now – the end of the first of five sections – we’ve already learned a lot about Henry Perowne. A ‘habitual observer of his own moods’, he monitors himself in a clinical way: perhaps, he thinks, his strange euphoria has been caused by ‘a chemical accident while he slept – something like a spilled tray of drinks, prompting dopamine-like receptors to initiate a kindly cascade of intracellular events; or it’s the prospect of a Saturday’. He’s reading a biography of Darwin and considers his own pre-dawn fears a ‘legacy of natural selection in a dangerous world’. He’s a good husband and father and a conscientious worker. He worries about radical Islamists, who ‘belong in a doomed tradition about which Perowne takes the conventional view’ – also Bernard’s view of Communism in Black Dogs – that ‘the pursuit of utopia ends up licensing every form of excess.’ He’s scornful of religion in general, although he concedes that it has produced ‘decent people and good deeds, beautiful cathedrals, mosques, cantatas, poetry’. He hates people telling anecdotes during meetings: ‘Fantasising should be a solitary pursuit.’ And ‘he’s a dreamer sometimes. Like a car-radio traffic alert, a shadowy mental narrative can break in,’ and this licenses his essayistic reveries and the flashbacks to the day before and to the beginning of his relationship with Rosalind.

The remaining four sections continue in controlled slow motion, looping back to flesh out the Perowne family history. Rosalind’s father, a much anthologised poet called John Grammaticus, has left his French château and come to London to be filmed for a documentary. Daisy is coming to town too, with proofs of her book, My Saucy Bark. Perowne hopes to engineer a truce between his daughter and his father-in-law, who cantankerously poured cold water on her first poetic success. Rosalind is already at work, trying to quash an injunction similar to one brought against the Guardian in 2003. Perowne goes off to play squash with his hawkish American anaesthetist, whose rants about Iraq tend to drive Perowne into the peace camp. But he observes with mild disapproval the levity of the marchers gathering outside: ‘If they think – and they could be right – that continued torture and summary executions, ethnic cleansing and occasional genocide are preferable to an invasion, they should be sombre in their view.’ Then, driving down University Street, he clips the wing mirror off a BMW and finds himself in a rapidly escalating confrontation with its owner, a street tough called Baxter. He escapes a beating by noticing that Baxter shows all the symptoms of incipient Huntington’s and guessing, correctly, that mentioning this in front of Baxter’s co-thugs will throw him off balance. Driving away, he feels guilty: perhaps he’s abused the responsibilities conferred by his training.

Seeing Tony Blair’s face on TV in a shop window, Perowne remembers meeting him at the opening of Tate Modern: the prime minister mistook him for someone else and showed a flicker of self-doubt when corrected. That ‘hairline crack’ in his assurance is no longer visible. All Perowne can see now ‘is certainty, or at worst a straining earnestness’. His shopping done, he drives west and visits his mother in an old people’s home: her consciousness is steadily unravelling. He returns by way of Westbourne Park, where he stops off to hear Theo rehearse a new song. At home, he cooks and, after Daisy’s arrival, argues with her about the invasion of Iraq: the evasions, as he sees them, of her anti-war arguments drive him to take the opposite view. Grammaticus arrives, then Theo, then Rosalind and, with her, Baxter, who’s come with a knife and a sinister friend to avenge his humiliation.

Pushkin complained about Byron’s characterisation by saying that he has a conspirator ‘even order a drink conspiratorially, and that’s absurd’. Saturday comes close to something similar – having a neurosurgeon order fish neurosurgically. ‘Naturally, Perowne the fly-fisherman has seen the recent literature: scores of polymodal nociceptor sites just like ours in the head and neck of rainbow trout.’ But McEwan works hard to make Perowne more than a spokesman for the worldview he represents. Perowne’s totting-up of symptoms while being crowded by angry goons could seem unlikely, but it’s his way of keeping calm: ‘Speculating about it soothes him, even as he feels the shoulders of both men pressing lightly through his fleece.’

And almost everything else about Saturday has been thought through just as carefully. You get the sense that McEwan has storyboarded each scene, experimented with minutely detailed models, sketched out extravagant camera moves to emphasise the scale of his set: Perowne’s attention cranes up into the night sky before ‘zooming inwards . . . from solar dust and ice’, and dips underground to follow ‘fibre-optic cables, and cool fresh water coursing down pipes, and sewage borne away in an instant of forgetting’. The illusion that the novel is describing a pre-existing reality is skilfully sustained. Some of the scientific metaphors are overblown, as is some of the writing about Theo’s guitar playing, but the customarily firm forward march of the narrative works surprisingly well with the more spaced-out requirements of a day-in-the-life story, and at its best the combination of precision and lyricism is very effective: ‘He pauses a moment before ringing the bell – there’s a taste in the air, sweet and vaguely antiseptic, that reminds him of his teenage years in these streets, and of a general state of longing, a hunger for life to begin that from this distance seems like happiness.’

In Consciousness and the Novel (2002), David Lodge quotes V.S. Ramachandran describing the need ‘to reconcile the first person and third person accounts of the universe’ as ‘the single most important problem in science’. Lodge goes on to argue that novels – particularly novels written in free indirect style – do just that. One of the writers he discusses is McEwan, and Saturday is concerned with similar ideas. This is how Perowne’s thoughts are described as he drives down the street, worrying about the state of the world, a second before colliding with Baxter’s red BMW:

The assertions and the questions don’t spell themselves out. He experiences them more as a mental shrug followed by an interrogative pulse. This is the pre-verbal language that linguists call mentalese. Hardly a language, more a matrix of shifting patterns, consolidating and compressing meaning in fractions of a second, and blending it inseparably with its distinctive emotional hue, which itself is rather like a colour. A sickly yellow. Even with a poet’s gift of compression, it could take hundreds of words and many minutes to describe. So that when a flash of red streaks in across his left peripheral vision, like a shape on his retina in a bout of insomnia, it already has the quality of an idea, a new idea, unexpected and dangerous, but entirely his, and not of the world beyond himself.

Elsewhere, during one of several brilliantly described bouts of neurosurgery, Perowne reflects on ‘the brain’s fundamental secret’: the way that ‘mere wet stuff can make this bright inward cinema of thought, of sight and sound and touch bound into a vivid illusion of an instantaneous present, with a self, another brightly wrought illusion, hovering like a ghost at its centre.’ He believes that the secret of ‘how matter becomes conscious’ will be uncovered one day: ‘That’s the only kind of faith he has. There’s grandeur in this view of life.’ The last sentence is adapted from the famous closing sentence of The Origin of Species, as discussed in the biography of Darwin he’s been reading. It becomes a kind of catchphrase.

We’re left in no doubt that Perowne’s professional insights don’t interfere with his being a good man. And we’re left in even less doubt that – unlike the idealised doctor Robbie Turner imagines in Atonement – he’s not a better person ‘for having read literature’. Although he has no trouble respecting the reality of other people’s minds, his thinking is resolutely non-novelistic. ‘It troubles him to consider the powerful currents and fine-tuning that alter fates, the close and distant influences, the accidents of character and circumstance.’ When he tries to imagine how Newton or Boyle would have seen the modern city, ‘he can’t quite trick himself into it. He can’t feel his way past the iron weight of the actual . . . he’s a realist, and can never escape.’ Daisy has made him read Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary. He wasn’t impressed: ‘The details were apt and convincing enough, but surely not so very difficult to marshal if you were halfway observant and had the patience to write them all down.’ He’s actively hostile to other novels he’s read (including, it seems, The Child in Time): ‘This notion of Daisy’s, that people can’t “live” without stories, is simply not true.’

While he’d never notice it, Perowne is the protagonist of a highly structured novel packed with bookish in-jokes. For a start, Saturday is laid out like a giant chiasmus. Friday’s overbooked patient list was dealt with ‘by means of balancing and doubling’, and McEwan does something similar with the five sections of his book. The first and last chapters describe Perowne’s professional activities and end with sleep; the second and fourth focus on contrasting kinds of conflict. The central section contrasts the mother’s dementia with ‘a glimpse of what we might be, of our best selves’, afforded by Theo’s musicianship – and so on. Daisy’s poetry has been borrowed from McEwan’s friend Craig Raine, and there’s a network of Shakespearean allusions.

Writing a densely allusive novel from the point of view of a character who doesn’t get the point of novels lets McEwan have a lot of fun. He also writes acutely about the weird mixture of extreme comfort and free-floating anxiety that envelops his protagonist – a well-off, well-meaning but powerless bystander in the Global War on Terror. As a vehicle for humanitarian-interventionist hand-wringing about the invasion of Iraq, Perowne works well enough. But it’s sometimes hard to decide if the correspondences between different kinds of threat are overingenious or underdeveloped. The illness that brought Rosalind into Perowne’s ward was ‘certainly an attack on her whole way of life’, their courtship in hospital ‘a time of terror’; the unintended consequences of invading Iraq are compared to ‘a knife at the throat’. The expected grand correspondence between the political musings and the Baxter plot never quite emerges, however, and perhaps that’s for the best.

Towards the end, the redemptive power of literature comes crashing onto the stage in the person of Matthew Arnold. ‘Dover Beach’ plays a crucial role, and in one sense it’s a well-chosen poem: the confused alarms and ignorant armies chime nicely with the novel’s public themes. But even McEwan’s powers of persuasion can’t make the scene in which it occurs as believable as the rest of the book. It’s also disappointing to be served with such a heavy-handed reminder that culture can be more than ‘a desirable adjunct to a civilised existence’. Saturday shows a more attractive face with Perowne’s pleasure in his work and the world around him, his sustained immersion in the ‘rigid fidelity of objects, sometimes reassuring, sometimes sinister’:

What simple accretions have brought the humble kettle to this peak of refinement: jug-shaped for efficiency, plastic for safety, wide spout for ease of filling, and clunky little platform to pick up the power. He never complained about the old style – the sticking tin lid, the thick black feminine socket waiting to electrocute wet hands seemed in the nature of things. But someone had thought about this carefully, and now there’s no going back. The world should take note: not everything is getting worse.

As Arnold acknowledged in one of his more temperate moods: ‘Doors that open, windows that shut, locks that turn, razors that shave, coats that wear, watches that go, and a thousand more such good things, are the invention of the Philistines.’