Tag Archives: Ian McEwan

Middlemarch: Progress report 1

George Eliot, Middlemarch: A study of provincial life (George Eliot, 1871–1872; Könemann 1997), pages 1–162

I had read just eight pages of Middlemarch, two mornings’ worth, squinting through sleep bleared eyes, when a kind friend lent me her copy, a beautiful two-volume edition from a German publishing house that is set in type that will demand less effort than the on I picked up from Gould’s bookshop.

In other reading this month, when the protagonist of Ian McEwan’s Lessons reads the novel written by his estranged wife, he finds to his chagrin that it is brilliant, and includes ‘high-flying digressions offered up to the ghost of George Eliot’ (page 243).

So far, it’s not so much high-flying digressions as sharp authorial observations on the side that are delighting me. For instance, in the first scene where the gorgeous, privileged Rosamond Price and plain, less privileged Mary Garth have a scene together, there’s this brief excursion into the abstract:

Plainness has peculiar temptations and vices quite as much as beauty; it is apt either to feign amiability, or, not feigning it, to show all the repulsiveness of discontent: at any rate, to be called an ugly thing in contrast with that lovely creature your companion, is apt to produce some effect beyond a sense of fine veracity and fitness in the phrase.

(Page 130)

Part of the pleasure of this kind of thing is that it’s ironic. The narrator goes on to attribute to Mary the ‘vice’ of speaking with a satiric edge, a quality the narrator herself has in spades. There’s always a sense of the narrator as a character here, one who has a lot in common with George Eliot herself. In this example, it’s hard not to read the comment as springing in part from Eliot’s own experience of being seen as plain (‘horse-faced’, I dimly remember). The novel’s opening words, ‘To my dear husband’, affirm that George Eliot is a woman, and I guess she could assume that the English reading public knew who she was.

When I read Middlemarch in 1968, it was as part of an exhilarating immersion in literary classics. In the little notebook where I listed the books I read, it appears on the same page Racine’s Phèdre, Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh, and books by Pinter, Conrad, Joyce, Lawrence, Descartes and Rabelais. So reading it now, with that tsunami well in the past and without my 20-year-old predisposition to awe, is like meeting it for the first time.

I’m pretty sure I picked up on the ironic tone back then, but I doubt if I understood that the affectionate mockery of the idealistic heroine Dorothea and her pragmatic sister Celia, of gorgeous Rosamond and her flibbertigibbet brother Fred, and of ‘plain’, sarcastic Mary all has to do with their youth. The narrator is in love with their lack of world-weariness, and I’m in love with them too, as I doubt I was the first time around, however much I loved the book.

Mind you, I’ve read to the Emerging Artist a couple of passages that gave me joy. She responded to the first with a noncommittal noise, and to the second, ‘Now I know I was right not to read past the first page.’ So it’s not a book for all tastes.

So far, Dorothea has committed herself to marry the dried up old stick, Mr Casaubon. Youngish Dr Lydgate has arrived in the area full of reforming zeal. Rosamond, whose beauty no man could resist, is determined to marry someone from outsides Middlemarch and Lydgate is a likely prospect. Fred is in love with Mary, who has been his friend since childhood. The older generation is rife with intrigue to do with religious intolerance, political ambition, greed, and owning-class pretensions. So far, it’s a frothy comedy of manners as told by an immensely erudite and morally serious narrator.

This morning, there was some dialogue worthy of Oscar Wilde. Mary is responding to Fred’s proposal of marriage, which we understand has been made many times before::

‘If l did love you, I would not marry you: I would certainly not promise ever to marry you.’
‘I think that is quite wicked, Mary. If you love me, you ought to promise to marry me.’
‘On the contrary, I think it would be wicked in me to marry you even if I did love you.’
‘You mean, just as I am, without any means of maintaining a wife. Of course: I am but three-and-twenty.’
‘In that last point you will alter. But I am not so sure of any other alteration. My father says an idle man ought not to exist, much less, be married.’
‘Then I am to blow my brains out?’
‘No; on the whole I should think you would do better to pass your examination.’

(Page 162)

I hope they end up living happily together, rich or poor. I know their love’s path will not be smooth, any more than that of any of the other potential love matches.

Ian McEwan’s Lessons: page 75

Ian McEwan, Lessons (Jonathan Cape 2022)

This is a tentative experiment in a different way (for me) of blogging about books: take page 75 and write whatever comes to mind about it. After my next birthday, if I keep this up, I’ll take page 76.

Page 75 of Lessons would probably have a red line drawn through it by someone turning writing a film script. It’s mainly a minor character’s backstory.

By this stage of the novel, the main character, Roland Baines, has been abandoned by his wife, Alissa, with no warning and no real word of explanation, leaving him to care for their infant son. He has received a couple of postcards from European addresses, the most recent saying she is about to visit her parents in Germany. Page 75 begins with his wondering why she is visiting her parents and imagining that if she tells them what she has done, ‘the row would be like no other’. McEwan delivers on this tease later when Roland hears the mother’s account of that row, which is quite different from what he imagines. Later still, that account is confirmed by Alissa herself.

The rest of the page begins the back story of Alissa’s mother, Jane: born in 1920, educated in a grammar school, and by the end of the page nursing literary ambitions working as a part-time typist at Cyril Connolly’s prestigious literary magazine Horizon (a real magazine):

She later told her son-in-law that she was seated in an invisible comer and given the dullest correspondence. She wasn’t beautiful or well connected and socially adroit like many of the young women who passed through the office. Reasonably enough, Connolly barely noticed her but occasionally she was in the presence of literary gods. She saw, or thought she saw, George Orwell, Aldous Huxley and a woman who may well have been Virginia Woolf. But, as Roland knew, Woolf had been dead for two years and Huxley was living in California.

There are many passages like this in the book: passages that fill us in on someone’s background, or summarise a novel or (in one case) a children’s picture book. As here, the writing keeps the main narrative in sight: we’re getting Jane’s story, but it’s as told to Roland, and commented on by him. There are plenty of dramatic scenes in the novel – Roland visits Berlin as the wall is coming down; he has a weird physical struggle with a conservative politician in the wilds of Scotland; in his 70s, he confronts a woman who sexually abused him as a 14 year old – but even in undramatic passages like this, there’s plenty of complexity to hold a reader’s interest. There’s also a version of one of the novel’s recurring motifs: a life lived in the shadow of fame.

The novel tells the story of Roland’s life, from early childhood in Libya, his time at boarding school where he has a deeply troubling sexual experience with his piano teacher, through years of drifting, his shortlived marriage to Alissa, single parenthood, some years of happiness in a new relationship, to old age. His early promise as a pianist is blighted by the early quasi-consensual sexual abuse: that and his abandonment by Alissa are the two intimate experiences that shape his life. The Suez crisis, the Cuban crisis, the building and fall of the Berlin wall, Brexit and Covid 19: each of these also has a direct impact. The novel is immensely satisfying as the story of an ordinary life that covers, as it happens, almost exactly the same period as my own. I feel as if I know Roland.

Rereading page 75 makes me realise that his story also functions as a conduit for other stories, mostly stories of women: his mother, the piano teacher, Alissa, Alissa’s mother Jane, Daphne who is a good friend and confidante in the early chapters and later become much more, and finally, briefly, his granddaughter Stefanie. Each of these stories can be seen as holding lessons for Roland, and for us, or at least they can be seen as posing questions: about adults’ responsibility to young people in their care, about complex issues of consent, about how to face death, about the competing demands of art and personal relationships, about ways to assess success and failure. Not that it’s didactic. When Roland reads Tomi Ungerer’s Flix to his granddaughter, he tries to make it a teaching moment by asking her if the story ‘is trying to tell us something about people’:

She looked at him blankly. ‘Don’t be silly, Opa. It’s about cats and dogs.’
He saw her point. A shame to ruin a good tale by turning it into a lesson. That could be for later.

(Page 481-482)

Lessons is a good tale, or a whole entwined mass of good tales. One of them is the tale of a man who is offered many lessons and learns some of them. If there is one overarching lesson, it’s that the more you know about someone’s life, the less easy it is to make a sharp moral judgement.

The Book Group in an Ian McEwan Nutshell

Ian McEwan, Nutshell (Jonathan Cape 2016)

1911214330.jpgThe Meeting: This is the first time I’ve been to a Book group meeting without having read even one page of the book that’s up for discussion. The Emerging Artist asked me what excuse I was going to give. I replied haughtily, and a little disingenuously, that I didn’t need an excuse, because the group is about much more than discussing a book.

There’s food, which this time was excellent: our host had taken a day off work to buy ingredients and cook a fabulous Malaysian meal. (He joked that he had thought of making smoothies but decided against it – a joke which I only got a week later when half way through the book.) And there’s bonhomie: we caught up with each other’s lives, relationships, illnesses and other milestones.

We eventually did discuss the book. I gleaned that it is beautifully written, with many sentences that at least one person was compelled to read more than once. A couple of people laughed so hard at some parts they had to put the book down. The plot had to do with Hamlet, but not obviously. The central conceit, that the narrator is a foetus in the last weeks of gestation who knows an awful lot about the world from listening to podcasts, was either amusing (most of the group), richly metaphorical (one person), or one-joke tedious (the main dissenter who, incidentally, says he is an Ian McEwan fan).

I snuck a quick look at a page close to the end, and was enthralled. Here’s the paragraph I read, without spoiler anxiety, because after all it would have been odd for the narrator not to be born at the book’s end:

A slithering moment of waxy, creaking emergence, and here I am, set naked on the kingdom. Like stout Cortez (I remember a poem my father once recited), I’m amazed. I’m looking down, with what wonder and surmise, at the napped surface of the blue bath towel. Blue. I’ve always known, verbally at least, I’ve always been able to infer what’s blue – sea, sky, lapis lazuli, gentians – mere abstractions. Now I have it at last, I own it, and it possesses me. More gorgeous than I dared  believe. That’s just a beginning, at the indigo end of the spectrum.

In the course of the evening someone read a passage that he particularly enjoyed. To my uninformed ear it was a dry if elegantly constructed list of items such as one hears on the news every night, with nothing particularly clever, pleasant or moving about it.

The discussion must have been enticing enough because when the library emailed that a copy had finally become available, I borrowed it.

After the meeting: It turned out that the main challenge for me as a reader was the requirement that I willingly suspend, not so much disbelief, as my sense of late prenatal awareness as an actual thing, one that bears little or no resemblance to the sophisticated rumination, moral discrimination, wine connoisseurship and intense visualisation that characterise the narration here.

Once you are reconciled to the fact that there’s no attempt to imagine an actual foetus’s mental processes, and have set aside any anxiety about the potential damage from the mother’s copious alcohol consumption or vigorously receptive sexual activity, you can pay attention to the story, in which the narrator listens and feels helplessly while his mother (Trudy/Gertrude) and her lover/brother-in-law (Claude/Claudius) plot the death of his father.

Like a number of recent and forthcoming books, though not part of the Hogarth Shakespeare Project (Gillian (Gone Girl) Flynn will be doing Hamlet for that project), this is a novelistic riff on a Shakespeare play. The names and the incest–murder scenario aren’t all that links it to Hamlet. There are plenty of verbal echoes  – ‘To be’, though not ‘not to be’; ‘Seems, nay tis’, and so on. And Hamlet’s indecisiveness is parallelled in the narrator’s vacillations as he is influenced by his mother’s hormonal fluctuations and his own divided loyalties. The narrator toys with the idea of killing himself, with a literal ‘mortal coil’. There’s even a Shakespearean ghost.

The narrative swings along, and the remarkably well-informed foetus’s reflections are engaging, but I kept wondering if the central conceit was really any more interesting than the one in the movie Look Who’s Talking. In an odd way, it was this rather than the narrative question – would the plotters get away with murder? – that kept me in suspense. In the end, it was a passage very like the one that had so failed to impress me at the meeting that brought the narrative’s metaphorical power home for me. The narrator is well informed, like so many of us in the age of social media, about things he is all but powerless to influence. This helplessly informed state is the novel’s equivalent to Hamlet’s indecisiveness. ‘And always, there are problems closer to hand.’ That sentence, banal as it may seem out of context, is actually a call to action, and it’s what in the end made me love the book, though I still could have done without all the alcohol during pregnancy.