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September 26, 2005

Saturday - Ian McEwan

Posted by David Womersley

by Ian McEwan
Pp. 280. London: Jonathan Cape, 2005
Hardback, 17.99

David Womersley - Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford - reviews Ian McEwan's Saturday. Prof. Womersley finds that McEwan "is coming ever closer to another novelist whose imagination was jolted into productivity and disagreement by Darwin: Samuel Butler".

Ian McEwan is the laureate of macabre calamity. Fancy a pleasant holiday deux in Venice? Then don't encourage the overtures of that friendly Italian couple, or one of you will end up in the morgue (Comfort of Strangers). Ever tempted to tell a foolish, pointless lie? Your own life, and the lives of others, may as a result be irremediably blighted (Atonement). Do you feel it your duty to help others in danger or distress? Those you help may become obsessed with you, to terrible effect (Enduring Love). It is to be sure a bleak moral world in which the roads of pleasure, weakness and charity all converge on the terminus of disaster.

At the end of Black Dogs (1992) McEwan offered some general thoughts about why it is that our world is so thickly sown with evil eventualities. The climactic episode in this novel is an encounter in the Southern French countryside in 1946 between a woman, June, and two black dogs which attack her, but which she manages to fight off. When June, now re-united with her husband Bernard, returns to her hotel later that afternoon, they learn that the dogs had been brought to the area by the Gestapo, and had escaped into the countryside when the troops had been recalled to Normandy following D-Day. There is a rumour in the village that the dogs had performed more than the normal duties of guard dogs: they had in addition been trained to rape women. Bernard is downcast by the implications of the incident:

For the first time he sensed the scale of the catastrophe [the Second World War] in terms of feeling; all those unique and solitary deaths, all that consequent sorrow, unique and solitary too, which had no place in conferences, headlines, history, and which had quietly retired to houses, kitchens, unshared beds, and anguished memories. This came upon Bernard by a pine tree in the Languedoc in 1946 not as an observation he could share with June but as a deep apprehension, a recognition of a truth that dismayed him into silence and, later, a question: what possible good could come of a Europe covered in this dust, these spores, when forgetting would be inhuman and dangerous, and remembering a constant torture?

June's response, meditated over many more years, has points of contact with that of her husband, but more interesting and more important points of divergence. In a more metaphysical version of her husband's more historically and socially inclined thought, she construes the black dogs she encountered as the embodiment of a latent evil which is always ready to manifest itself:

. . . that morning I came face to face with evil. I didn't quite know it at the time, but I sensed it in my fear these animals were the creations of debased imaginations, of perverted spirits no amount of social theory could account for. The evil I'm talking about lives in us all. It takes hold in an individual, in private lives, within a family, and then it's children who suffer most. And then, when the conditions are right, in different countries, at different times, a terrible cruelty, a viciousness against life erupts, and everyone is surprised by the depths of hatred within himself. Then it sinks back and waits. It's something in our hearts.
Yet, instead of driving June into despair, her interpretation of the black dogs impels her instead towards an insight into how the apparently irresistible slide into violence can be arrested:
Human nature, the human heart . . . has to develop and expand, or the sum of our misery will never diminish. My own small discovery has been that this change is possible, it is within our power. With a revolution of the inner life, however slow, all our big designs are worthless. The work we have to do is with ourselves if we're ever going to be at peace with each other. I'm not saying it'll happen. There's a good chance it won't. I'm saying it's our only chance.
It is a Wordsworthian insight. Small and unremembered acts of human kindness might cumulatively neutralise the accumulated mass of human evil. Such is McEwan's humanistic notion of atonement.

This pattern of thinking shapes Saturday. At one level the novel is a technical tour de force which narrates the events of a single Saturday in the lives of Henry Perowne and his family. Perowne is a successful neurosurgeon, happily married to the equally successful Rosalind, and blessed with two talented children. Awakening inexplicably early on the Saturday in question, he sees a blazing aircraft heading for Heathrow. Haunted by the memory of 9/11, he construes the plane as an imminent terrorist outrage, and as his day progresses interpretation of the burning plane oscillates between asserting it to be an innocent accident, and the discovery of a more sinister violent purpose hidden within it.

Meanwhile, on his way to a squash match, he has a minor collision with another car, whose loutish passengers are on the point of beating him up when he (slightly improbably, so my doctor friends tell me) diagnoses one of them, Baxter, as suffering from the inherited degenerative disorder, Huntington's disease. This defuses the incident. He loses his game of squash on a disputed let and returns home to prepare supper for a family gathering that evening. However, the party is interrupted by Baxter and one of his friends. They pull a knife and threaten violence. Once again the crisis is defused, this time by the recital of Arnold's Dover Beach by Perowne's pregnant poetess daughter, which induces a switch of mood in Baxter typical of those with Huntington's. Perowne and his son then get an opportunity to disarm Baxter, who falls downstairs and cracks his skull. The ambulance takes him to the hospital where Perowne is a consultant, and the on-call anaesthetist, unaware of the circumstances, telephones Perowne and asks him to come in and operate on Baxter the man who has just threatened him and his family. Perowne does so, successfully: a small return of good for evil.

That ungainly summary of the novel's plot will I hope serve to bring out its continuity with the running themes of McEwan's recent fiction. A new element in Saturday, however, is that of science. In part this enters the novel through Perowne's brain surgery. Perowne also however happens to be reading The Origin of Species, and allusions to Darwin (in particular to the famous phrase with which he launched his book's coda, "There is grandeur in this view of life") pepper the book.

Evolution seems ambiguous: it produced Baxter's congenital disease, just as it perhaps supplies the imaginative inspiration for Perowne's attempt to rescue good from evil by not surrendering to the natural impulse to revenge. When Darwin published his work, many contemporaries responded to it with dismay. With the advent of evolutionary biology men seemed to have entered into possession of a knowledge which allowed them intellectually to grasp, but which did not for the moment allow them to control and which did not put them outside the power of, the natural laws identified by Darwin which govern the sequences of all life on earth. It was this predicament of impuissant knowledge which prompted Hardy's troubled observation that:

we have reached a degree of intelligence which Nature never contemplated in framing her laws, and for which she consequently has provided no adequate satisfactions.
McEwan suggests that we have now moved beyond this predicament, and that our progress puts within our grasp a moral improvement. Professional, scientific solicitude is the humanist salvation.

Finally McEwan puts his faith in the benign silting up of uncountable, petty acts of foregoing and charity. The salvific, human mysteries of love, creativity and procreation are ranged against their dark alternatives, prevail, and seem more vigorous than in some of McEwan's earlier fiction: the flaming plane is not, in fact, the harbinger of the end of Perowne's liberal, tolerating world. In the decade or more since he wrote Black Dogs, McEwan's imaginative world has become one in which there is more suffering than evil, and more apprehension than suffering. He is coming ever closer to another novelist whose imagination was jolted into productivity and disagreement by Darwin: Samuel Butler. McEwan's Perowne might agree with Butler's narrator in The Way of All Flesh that life is much more a question of being frightened than of being hurt.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford.

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This is much the best review of Saturday that I have read. If only the newspaper reviewers coould be of this standard. Thank you - and well done Social Affairs Unit for recruiting Prof. David Womersley as a reviewer.

Posted by: David at October 4, 2005 12:48 PM

"Saturday" is an engaging and entertaining read. McEwan tried something bold and different, and he has succeeded. It is an elegant and absorbing novel that reminds the odd rhythms of everyday life, the sights and sound and smells of the city.

Posted by: Bie at January 5, 2008 08:43 AM
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