08 November 2007

Why Times Changed

On Chesil Beach
By Ian McEwan
Jonathan Cape/
Random House
Pages 166
Rs 570

Why did the '70s rock? How and why were the '70s a coming-of-age decade in the West? Were the '70s inevitable? McEwan has come up with a neat little book that is a fiction-illustrated essay and social commentary to explain the inexorability of the sex, drugs and rock and roll decade. It catches a generation on the cusp of a major change to show why the change came. It shows a generation suffering from unsustainable uptightness, and how these circumstances resolved themselves.

Structured strangely, the book takes to minimal extremes McEwan's usual ploy to turn the narrative on the hinge of a singular central incident. The whole book, bar the last five pages, deals with eight hours in the life of a newly wed couple, and those last five pages bring the story up to the present and sum up a life -- a ‘whatever happened to’ history of an entire generation.

The story, simply stated, is about a newly wed couple trying hard to shed their personal inhibitions and beat their social conditioning to consummate their marriage. The year is 1963. The newly weds, Florence Ponting and Edward Mayhew, to celebrate their honeymoon, are checked into a hotel on the Chesil Beach. As they self-consciously have their meal in their room waiting for the hotel staff waiting on them discreetly, to disappear, so that they could be alone to ‘in theory...to kick off their shoes and exult in their liberty,’ because ‘in just a few years’ time, that would be the kind of thing quite ordinary young people would do.’ ‘But,’ McEwan reminds us, ‘for now, the times held them.’

McEwan paints a Lucian Freud-portrait of the couple -- interpreted, like a caricature is, but chastisingly and painstakingly realistic.

Edward is poor. He is ‘not introspective’ and knows that yogurt is a ‘glamorous substance from James Bond novels.’ His father told him one Sunday afternoon that his mother is ‘brain damaged,’ a fact that made him feel a notional severance from his impoverished circumstances. He leaves his small town for London to study History. That is where he first meets Florence distributing CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) leaflets. A long sexless courtship makes Edward pop the question in the hope of sex in marriage.

Florence is rich. She is 'clever, but without guile,' ‘the squarest person on earth.’ Her father is a businessman. Her mother a philosopher. She cannot stand her father’s physical proximity but feels guilty to admit the fact to herself. Her mother is ok about Florence's CND activities but is appalled at her daughter’s soft-corner for the USSR.

Florence believes that despite its ‘clumsiness, inefficiency, defensiveness’ the Soviet Union is a beneficial force in the world. Florence’s mother just about tolerates her violin-playing. Florence is the founder and leader of the Ennismore Quartet. In life irresolute, in her quartet she is firm and decisive, a clear leader. But though she is delighted at the prospect of marrying Edward she is disgusted by the idea of having sex with him. She knows there is ‘something wrong with her.’

The book thrives on detail. McEwan’s all-knowing, Godlike narrator seem to be possessed of Dicken’s eye and Chekov’s heart: the characters’ circumstances and foibles are unsparingly observed, but never held against them. The times are everything to blame for: ‘While one heard of wealthier people going in for psychoanalysis, it was not yet customary to regard oneself in everyday terms as an enigma, as an exercise in narrative history, or as a problem waiting to be solved.’

McEwan does not shy away from the quotidian. He takes it head on. He does not glamourises it say in the way postmodernists and magic realist would. The everyday is the stuff of his fiction, and just like nondescript placards held up the right way create breathtaking portraits and sceneries in North Korean public functions aggrandising their revered leader, little details come thick and fast to flesh out a character.

McEwan also has a way with sex too. Indian writers couldn't do better than learn from McEwan how to write naturally and un-mawkishly about sex and have 'introspective' and 'erection' in the same sentence.

Do Florence and Edward do it? McEwan makes every word count before the reader is let on it. Without any showy literary tricks, McEwan uses the tools of the socio-psychological novel and English portrait to explain the times through people’s lives.

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