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April 23, 2007

Ian McEwan is the Vermeer of modern fiction, explains David Womersley: On Chesil Beach - Ian McEwan

Posted by David Womersley

On Chesil Beach
by Ian McEwan
Pp. 166. London: Jonathan Cape, 2007
Hardback, 12.99

Two tendencies in McEwan's recent fiction come together in his new novella On Chesil Beach. The first is his interest in the turning point of a life, the hinge or the fork in the path which sends a whole existence in one direction rather than another. In the final paragraph of the book, in which the consequences of the fiasco that was the wedding night of the two main characters, Edward and Florence, are made clear, the narrator underlines the co-existence in such heavily-charged moments of both determinism and a tantalising (because once available and now impossible) alternative reality (p. 166):

This is how the entire course of a life can be changed - by doing nothing. On Chesil Beach he could have called out to Florence, he could have gone after her. He did not know, or would not have cared to know, that as she ran away from him, certain in her distress that she was about to lose him, she had never loved him more, or more hopelessly, and that the sound of his voice would have been a deliverance, and she would have turned back.
Chesil Beach - an extraordinary spit of pebbles on the south coast, the result of the unceasing action of millennia of tides - is transformed from a geographical marvel and the setting for Edward and Florence's honeymoon into a symbolic embodiment of what is, according to McEwan, humanity's moral predicament. Its weird formation exemplifies his severe understanding of what the economists call "path-dependency".

The small, random, unscrutinisable beginnings of the spit - the presence of an unusually large rock, an underlying formation of sand propitious to immobility - grew into the massive, freakish feature on which we now walk. So it is with geology: so it is, according to McEwan, with human life. In McEwan's imagination, the existence of each of us is a kind of Chesil Beach, built up in a straight line by the silting accumulation of consequences which flow, in gargantuan and unfair disproportion, from an infinitesimal, perhaps accidental, certainly blind, origin.

The second tendency is McEwan's fascination with what we might call, following the recent interest in slowness, "slow description": that is to say, the meticulous description of actuality, so that the writing becomes that thing, both fabulous and futile, a map the same size as the territory it describes (it takes about as long to read On Chesil Beach as the events of Edward's and Florence's wedding night would have taken to occur, if we take as our end-points the serving of dinner and the sexual mishap which triggers the rupture between them). McEwan is the Vermeer of modern fiction. Clearly, these two aspects of his technique reinforce and legitimise one another: the premise of the momentous turning point justifies the microscopic scrutiny of it. Where did McEwan's superstition of detail come from? One possibility is that it derives from the growth in popularity of genre fiction, such as the crime novel. In terms of McEwan's own trajectory, it can be thought of as the transfer into the realm of the metaphysical of the fascination with the macabre which marked his early short stories.

The plot of On Chesil Beach has been much described in the press, and so needs only the most cursory rehearsal here. It is set on the wedding night of Edward and Florence, he the historian son of a rural teacher and brain-damaged mother, she the musician daughter of an Oxford don and a businessman.

During their courtship, Florence realises that, although she loves Edward, she has a terrible fear of sex, and so by the time they find themselves on their honeymoon the physical side of their relationship has not progressed beyond the most preliminary fumblings. The year is 1962, and so problems which today might be sorted out by a bit of counselling, or even simple conversation, are not aired, and in consequence assume a massive and needless significance. Their attempt at intercourse is a debacle, the marriage ends before it has begun, and each of them begins the lonely walk along the length of their own particular shingly, solitary spit of life.

One might ask two questions of this vision of human life: is it believable, and if so what should we do about it? I suppose that, whether or not you embrace McEwan's world and recognise it as your own is in part a matter of temperament. However, it's worth remembering that McEwan is not the only author to have set a novel on Chesil Beach. It is also the backdrop to John Meade Falkner's Moonfleet (1898), an extraordinary novel of adventure in the manner of Stevenson, but with additional subtlety and depth. The determinism of On Chesil Beach is vigorously repudiated by Moonfleet, which draws quite different connotations from the same landscape.

This is not, of course, to say that McEwan is wrong and Falkner right. But it is to be reminded that there are different ways of writing a novel, and that McEwan's moral vision is perhaps as much the product of his technique, as a set of convictions arrived at as a result of ethical reflection. After reading On Chesil Beach, why not read something by a novelist who would have found McEwan's "slow description" incomprehensible? Try Balzac's La Rabouilleuse, a marvellous story of Parisian and provincial life after the fall of Napoleon. It is brisker, harder, and less agonising than On Chesil Beach; but it would be a mistake therefore to conclude that it was less thoughtful, or even less moral.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford. His previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.

To read Lilian Pizzichini's take on On Chesil Beach, see: On Chesil Beach shows McEwan to be at the height of his powers.


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In Thomas Hardy's strange novel "The Well-Beloved" hero meets heroine on Chesil Beach in a storm.

"The sea rolled and rose so high on their left, and was so near them on their right, that it seemed as if they were traversing its bottom like the Children of Israel. Nothing but the frail bank of pebbles divided them from the raging gulf without, and at every bang of the tide against it the ground shook, the shingle clashed, the spray rose vertically, and was blown over their heads. Quantities of sea- water trickled through the pebble wall, and ran in rivulets across their path to join the sea within. The 'Island' was an island still."

Posted by: Laban Tall at April 23, 2007 11:53 PM
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