I had to look up this poem after reading about it in Ian McEwan’s novel, Sweet Tooth. Adlestrop, a poem by Edward Thomas, comes up in a moment of intimacy between the heroine, Serena Frome, and her lover, Tom Haley, a writer.
Ian McEwan, author of Atonement and Amsterdam, which won the Booker prize in 1998, knows how to begin a story. Sweet Tooth has your attention from the get-go:
Here’s September 1 one day late: September 1, 1939, written by WH Auden in New York when Germany invaded Poland, starting the Second World War.
The war produced epic novels and movies. Casablanca was made in 1942, the year America joined the war after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. Brief Encounter was made in 1945, From Here to Eternity in 1953.
On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan.
A relationship formalised when her stroking his penis elicits a marriage proposal from him ends on wedding night when her grasping his penis again makes him come all over her, sending her fleeing in revulsion first to the bathroom and then out of the hotel. She is frigid, Edward tells Florence, running after her. And when she tells him she loves him and that if he really wanted –- she doesn’t say what -– she would never be jealous as long as she knew he loved her, he spits out in cold fury: “You want me to go out with other women!…
“Do you realise how disgusting and ridiculous your idea is?”
Humiliated, Florence leaves the hotel the same night — and Edward doesn’t try to make up with her. Her parents set in motion a divorce on the grounds of non-consummation of marriage.
Unusual as it sounds, Ian McEwan brings this short novel to life with his exquisite prose, which verges on music and photography. He describes scenes and feelings vividly from the act of “self-pleasuring” — “a self-made spoonful, leaping clear of his body” — to the virgin Florence’s dread of any kind of physical intrusion. She does not like even French kissing, so when out of a sense of duty she starts foreplay with her newly-married husband, it ends in disaster. They have been engaged and fondled and kissed before, but they have never had sex.
This is England in 1962, memorably described by Philip Larkin in the poem Annus Horribilis:
Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) –
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP
Edward adores his beautiful wife, and she loves him too -– but she is not prepared for this. She has other interests. As a trained classical musician, she is engrossed in her music and her career and has had girlfriends, not boyfriends, before.
McEwan portrays the differences in class and background between Edward and Florence. He is a schoolmaster’s son, a grammar school boy, she is a businessman’s daughter who has had all the privileges.
Starting with the dinner the newlyweds have before they retire to bed with disastrous consequences, the author tells the story flashing back and forth between the past and the present showing the differences between the couple. In the process one gets a picture of early 1960s England.
A day in the life
The story is set almost entirely in a single day, jumping 40 years to the noughties -– the present decade -– in the last pages.
Edward, now in his 60s, looks back on his life and misses Florence, who has become a famous violinist leading her own quartet.
He has changed since he was shocked by her suggestion that he could go out with other women. He absorbed the spirit of sexual liberation that came in the late 1960s, had affairs with other women and went through another short-lived marriage. But he feels his life would have been far more rewarding had he listened to Florence and stuck with her.
The last two pages of the novel, filled with Edward’s regrets, are a meditation on the choices we make and their consequences, success and failure. The story ends on an elegiac note in McEwan’s beautiful prose:
Atonement is a brilliant novel. Ian McEwan performs literary magic playing with appearance and reality. But he also probes character and morality and ends with an expose of how the law can hinder justice.
Even when Briony Trallis realises who the perpetrator is of the crime she witnessed as a girl, she cannot expose him for fear of legal action. He is rich and powerful, quick to sue anyone who casts a slur on him.
Though a successful author, Briony knows her book about him will not be published in her lifetime.
Even if he dies, she could still be sued by his wife. For she was the girl he raped and yet she let an innocent man go to prison, falsely implicated for the crime. A crime for which Briony must share the blame, for it was she mistook who the culprit was and gave the evidence that sent an innocent man to prison.
Young Robbie Turner cannot convince the authorities he is innocent. Though an Oxford graduate, he is still the housekeeper’s son while Briony, only 13, is his mother’s rich, influential employer’s daughter. Her evidence counts more than his, but she in turn is powerless against someone richer and more influential than her.
I know this is not how one reads the novel, which is far more rich and complex to be read as a tract on class war. But the tensions and inequities are there, plainly stated in the novel.
Atonement is that rare novel, mixing romance, appearance and reality and social commentary in a gripping story as murky as a political drama. There are the starcrossed lovers who helped the book become a Hollywwood blockbuster. But not having seen the movie, I consider the story to be essentially about Briony. And that is what makes it so complex, for she is no angel — far from it. We start by being amused and impressed by her precocity and literary aspirations only to be horrified by the damage she does when she imagines Robbie to be a sex maniac. Her power of imagination which makes her a budding writer also helps to send an innocent man to prison.
Saturday by Ian McEwan
Seldom have I read a better book. It’s about a day in a man’s life. Forty-eight-year-old neurosurgeon Henry Perowne wakes up in the middle of the night in his posh London home, sees a plane in the sky and fears it is going down in flames. But there’s nothing he can do.
Morning comes. There’s no news of the plane. Perowne goes for his usual Saturday game of squash, gets caught up in an anti-war demonstration — it is February 15, 2003, people are protesting against the coming Iraq war — and, trying to escape the gridlock, has a minor collision with another car. But it has major consequences. The other car’s occupants barge into his home in the middle of a family reunion.
Yes, it’s a domestic drama, and the way I have told it, it doesn’t sound anything much.
Ah, but the language. McEwan’s vivid descriptions of scenes and relationships, his empathy for Perowne and his happy, successful family — the wife is a newspaper lawyer, the son a talented blues guitarist, the daughter an award-winning poet — and even for the hooligans who burst into their world, lift the story to another dimension. It’s a touching story of people in the post-9/11 world. Perowne is Everyman. For all his professional success, he is an ordinary man — a loving husband, a loving father, but helpless when danger threatens his wife and daughter.
McEwan paints a moving portrait of a man vulnerable in his love for his family and his awareness of his physical powers diminishing with age. He is portrayed beautifully:
“His head hair, though thinning, is still reddish brown. Only on his pubes are the first scattered coils of silver.”
McEwan’s command of language and powers of description are extraordinary. He describes how Perowne met his wife as an intern when she came to the hospital. She had a brain tumour which had to be removed to save her from blindness. McEwan describes the procedure eloquently:
“To go right into the face, remove the tumour through the nose, to deliver the patient back into her life, without pain or infection, with her vision restored was a miracle of human ingenuity.”
McEwan has a way with words, and it’s only fitting that when danger threatens his wife and daughter, they are saved by a poem: Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach. One of the hooligans taunts the daughter when he discovers she is a poet and commands her to read a poem. She reads Dover Beach. “You wrote that,” he says excitedly. Ignorant and ill-educated, he is moved by the poem though he doesn’t know who the author is.
That may seem extraordinary here in prosperous Singapore where young government “scholars” are sent for undergraduate studies to top British and American universities, where ministers earn million-dollar salaries and school students were not encouraged until recently to read English literature for their school-leaving examinations. Bright students were — and still are — encouraged to read law or take up medicine or engineering. Perowne himself could be a role model for them. A successful surgeon with a loving family who has no time for literature.
But I recall places where poetry and literature, music and drama, flourished, where people loved quoting writers. Dover Beach is a favourite poem of mine and my wife’s.
I am not surprised that words can move even a young hooligan. I am not spoiling the story by revealing this: it doesn’t end there. This anyway isn’t a book to be read just for the story’s sake. One may dip into it even after reading the story for the pleasure of words. McEwan gives voice to our innermost feelings which we don’t have the words to express. What could be more beautiful than this scene, where Perowne joins his wife in bed:
“He fits himself around her, her silk pyjamas, her scent, her warmth, her beloved form, and draws closer to her. Blindly, he kisses her nape. There’s always this, is one of his remaining thoughts. And then: there’s only this. And, at last, faintly, falling: this day’s over.”