Category Archives: Lit Crit

Doomed from the Beginning: a review of On Chesil Beach (5/15/2007)

On Chesil Beach Ian McEwan

Jonathan Cape, 166 pp

Ian McEwan is the gothic poet of British class anxiety. Over an arc of novels including The Innocent, Black Dogs, Enduring Love, and Atonement, McEwan has polished a talent for giving his readers nasty and sometimes bloody surprises when the classes interact on too intimate a level. His most recent, On Chesil Beach, however, is both a perfect specimen of McEwan’s hardening suavity as a prose stylist and the latest example of an ongoing renunciation of his greater gift. As Saturday did before it, this novella-length book promises much, initially, but ends up being deeply unsatisfying before its conclusion. A necessary catharsis has been frustrated for the sake of a decorous treatise on the grim predestinies of class.

The book’s unhurried narrative anchors to the first few hours of a marriage between Edward Mayhew and Florence Ponting, shuttling between the “now” of their honeymoon supper (and its aftermath) and earlier points in their lives and their relationship. The presiding metaphor is on view from the French windows of their honeymoon suite: the “infinite shingle” of Chesil Beach, on which “thousands of years of pounding storms ha(ve) sifted and graded the size of pebbles…with the bigger stones at the eastern end.” Edward, a lower-class rustic educated above his station and faintly embarrassed about his background, is, in practically every way, Florence’s inferior. He’s even a chronic masturbator.

Florence’s upper-middle class parents are a neurasthenically haughty Oxford don and a prosperous businessman so competitive that he’s nearly an anachronism (or an American). Florence is a chaste, disciplined and accomplished violinist in possession of an IQ 17 points higher than Edward’s, as he discovers by having a “peep” into her school report folder; even this peep indicates a moral inferiority on Edward’s part. As if his congenital disadvantages weren’t enough, an accident during his childhood has left his mother brain-damaged and the Mayhew household dark and filthy as a consequence, in schematic contrast to the Ponting’s Victorian villa, sterile with the hard light of eminence. While Florence’s mother is friends with Iris Murdoch, Edward’s mother is friendless. Clearly, Edward and Florence are like the pebbles on Chesil Beach, widely separated by the work of thousands of years of merciless grading.

McEwan’s schematic stacks the deck with the force of stereotypes so entrenched they feel like empirical laws of a natural science. Making the upper class female love-object in this novel superior in almost every way may feel like an expression of the author’s (unconscious? Self-hating?) class prejudice, but it’s also the de rigeur chivalry of the post-feminist celebrity, as it would be difficult to imagine a writer with McEwan’s following getting away with making any of the males in his couples more intelligent than their invariably attractive wives or lovers. Hewing obediently to this unspoken stricture is a minor failure of nerve that doesn’t, on its own, threaten the integrity of the work. But as McEwan ages and his stature grows and he devolves towards the artistic cul-de-sac of Elder Statesmanship, other strictures…other obediences to the sensibilities of his auditors…undermine his mastery. A certain squeamishness sets in.

In the disappointing Saturday, the bloodletting centers on a broken nose for a prig and a tumble down stone stairsteps for a bad man of the lower class variety. Even in Enduring Love, the beginning of McEwan’s spiral descent from the previous heights of his Grand Guignol, the virtuoso set-piece is dispensed with in the first chapter of the book, as if to step clear of childish things before getting to the mature business of the rest of the story, which being a report on the dangerously unhinged behaviour of a lower-class person and the effect of said behaviour on his betters.

On Chesil Beach consists chiefly of interlocking character studies of fair nuance; as ever, with McEwan, we are privy not only to dossiers of the telling vignette for the folksier players on the page but rifle through papers written, curricula mastered, books planned and theories mused upon in the service of fleshing out the rich interiors of the brainier players as well. Edward’s and Florence’s story (and the story of their story) is about ideas when it isn’t about sex, and most of the sex is a phantom dreaded or a vision longed-for but not a physical fact. Tension accumulates as the mounting effect of preparatory exposition indicates the McEwanesque relief of a shocking twist, foreshadowed in carefully-seeded references to Edwards’s potential for violence.

The narrative tension created by putting this poorly-matched couple in the wedding night’s bed is further amplified by the tamped-down sexual hysteria of the era; it’s 1962, after all, and Kenneth Tynan hasn’t said “fuck” on television yet. The explosive pressure of the era’s sexual tension is recapitulated in Edward’s having “saved himself” for the big night by an unprecedented fortnight of autoerotic chastity. He’s fit to burst and, as it turns out, his brand new bride is frigid as a fjord. His legal right to Florence’s body can’t even guarantee him a sensual kiss, so something has to give.

In classic McEwan, the build-up always resolves to a horror, a corpse, some blood-letting…the uncanny moment around which the rest of the book swirls as towards a sucking drain. The horror revealed will be a set-piece of cinematic power; a short, sharp shock to cure the abiding malaise that has crept with the pace of a wasting disease into the mind of the reader for the duration of the book: the proletariat German corpse rolled up in a baklava of glue and carpet, then sliced, in The Innocent; the (perhaps apocryphal) rape of a French beauty by Nazi-trained Alsatiens in Black Dogs; the “head on a thickened stick” of the good samaritan who fell to his death in Enduring Love; the rotting extremities of parents exposed in their cracking tombs by the slack workmanship of their children in The Cement Garden.

With On Chesil Beach, however, we climax with an anti-climax…with nothing more shocking than a flesh-crawling joke as McEwan exerts his superb technique to alienate the reader from something only slightly more dramatic, and only slightly less common, than a sneeze.

In the perfectly functioning McEwan novel, the suffocating horror of class is just the beginning; we are made to suffer it to the limits of our readerly tolerance (knowing how far to stretch this limit, which veers dangerously near to boredom, is the mark of mastery), at which point McEwan saves the day by producing and then describing with rejuvenating relish a human corpse, for Death trumps class every time. There are no upper or lower class corpses. In On Chesil Beach, however, McEwan provides the reader with no such twist or violent redemption. McEwan’s novella reveals itself as a monograph on socio-economic kismet in the United Kingdom.

The final movement of this book is a queerly compressed postmortem that violates the pace of all that came before it; roughly ten pages for the next forty years of the life Edward has tossed away merely by blowing his chance to remain married to a disciplined, ambitious, upper class girl. Edward, it seems, was doomed from the beginning, but not in the way a loyal reader of McEwan’s might have hoped.

Roth’s Everyman vs Banville’s The Sea (9/2006)

The Sea John Banville, 264 pp Picador

Everyman Philip Roth, 182 pp Jonathan Cape

Philip Roth’s Everyman and John Banville’s The Sea are both essentially death-preoccupied works which manage to tread the same narrow territory via paths that never touch. They reach conclusions that, while clearly foregone and ending in the obvious place (the end of life), seem worlds apart. Still, they are strangely twinned works the connection between which wouldn’t have been apparent, ironically, if not for Banville’s harsh review of Everyman from April of this year. It was in October of the previous year, of course, that Banville won the Booker for The Sea.

Banville’s assault on Roth begins in a register not difficult to interpret as outrage: “It takes a Philip Roth to have the nerve to give the resonant title Everyman to a small novel about a retired advertising executive turned amateur artist who dies prematurely while undergoing a heart operation. Of course, the book is about more than that – though not much more – and, of course, anything from Roth in this late stage of his writing life deserves and, indeed, compels our attention.” Later in the review, attacking Roth’s choice of a pared-back language for Everyman, Banville pleads, “…nobody, surely, could write this flatly and not think to compensate us with a few fireworks?”

Everyman begins with the following line, in a monastic version of Roth’s identifiable rhythm and melody, commencing at once with the patient accretion of quotidian detail that will work the magic of persuading the reader not only to believe but to empathize:

“Around The Grave in the rundown cemetery were a few of his former advertizing colleagues from New York, who recalled his energy and originality and told his daughter, Nancy, what a pleasure it had been to work with him.”

The Sea, with terse distance, opens with: “They departed, the gods, on the day of the strange tide.”

The opening paragraph of The Sea goes on to describe in painterly (or filmic) detail a bay and its rising waters, as it was fifty years earlier, from the perspective of a first person narrator, Max Morden (with death itself hidden in his name), who some reviewers have referred to as a kind of everyman. If Banville indeed conceived of his Morden as an everyman recollecting two tragedies and musing on Death and the particularities of Life’s trivial miracles, one could see how Roth coming along with a book on the same general theme, with parallel motifs, titled Everyman (branding his work as the definitive product), would put Banville in a tetchy state.

The Sea has been so lauded that Banville has a kind of mandate to chastise writers who do not write as he writes. His critical dismissal of Everyman is a case in point, in that the gist of Banville’s complaint against this book is that Banville himself didn’t write it; that Everyman isn’t, essentially, The Sea. But is The Sea as good as Banville believes and its praise suggests?

“When art historian Max Morden returns to the seaside village where he once spent a childhood holiday, he is both escaping from a recent loss and confronting a distant trauma.” That’s part of the teaser appearing on the back cover of the paperback edition of the book. The “recent loss” that Morden is escaping is his wife’s cancer death, and the “distant trauma” he’s confronting is centered on an upper-class family his semi-unrequited crush connected him to for the tragic pubescent summer the book recalls. The greater part of the book is a fiendishly passive construction: the narrator’s discurssive reflections on fading memories of minute boyhood observations… as if, from the outset, Banville had dared himself to sap us of the will to read.

From the aspect of literary mechanics, Banville’s use of a first person narration is a questionable choice in a book that spans, along with Everyman, most of a man’s generally uneventful life from the end point of the beginning of his seventh decade. As we rely on the protagonist’s thoughts for our information, we are trapped behind his eyes and stuck with his judgements: Max Morden’s sour view of existence is all we have to go on. Even worse, there is key information withheld during the course of The Sea which Morden can only be witholding from himself as he muses along, an awkward device indeed. Roth’s choice of a broader angle from which to narrate bespeaks his greater technical competence as a novelist.

Whereas Roth’s third person omniscient allows him to speak with the plain confidence of God about precisely what happened and when, fifty years prior or yesterday, Banville blurs the picture and stresses credulity with minute descriptions of setting and action from the well of his narrator’s memory. A good part of The Sea, in fact, deals with events that are fifty years gone. Banville’s memory savant, unlike plausibly endowed humans, recalls not just jumbled, blurred and iffy snatches of all but the most momentous occasions, but replays hours-long scenes remarkable both in detail and banality.

The difference in P.O.V. underscores the difference in character between the two protagonists: Banville’s Morden (an art historian/critic) is as self-obsessed and hypochondriacal as a first person narrator with obsessive-compulsive endowments of recall can be, whereas Roth’s everyman (a retired ad man who takes up the brush), as we track him through the eyes of his god, suffers his many dates with the surgeon, and the setbacks (often self-inflicted) in his personal life with a stoical terror that earns our empathy and moves us in a way that Morden’s fussy scold fails to. The stylistic genetics of each book is its respective Fate, and one can’t help feeling that Banville couldn’t possibly have meant to fall so short in moving us, and the very ‘plain’ style, lacking ‘fireworks,’ that Banville chides Roth over, is the crafty choice that ensures that Roth’s Everyman works in many regards in which The Sea fails.

On a superficial level, Everyman is one man’s medical history (‘The Life and Death of a Male Body’ as the protagonist muses, mordantly, he’d name his autobiography), but a closer reading reveals that Everyman is full of acts and words of kindness, good manners, old world civility and grace. One reading of Roth’s novel is that it celebrates all that we humans ever had in a cold, vast universe of incomprehensible physical processes indifferent to our fate: each other. The book is full of people with words of praise for each other; comfort and reassurances given; love registered and deaths very deeply mourned. Everyman is warm with decency and the plain style is a clear lens through which the warmth is magnified. Another reading is that Everyman is an elegy to the courtliness and decency, and primacy of the family unit, of another era, fading into the lost paradise of Everyman’s idyllic seaside boyhood.

The boyhood which The Sea revisits is interior and isolated and finds its brief, fraught pleasures in puberty’s animal drama. It is ironic that Roth is considered the pornographer of the two writers but that Banville’s The Sea is the more selfishly sexual of the two books. The denseness of the style and enamelled quality of its metaphors don’t disguise the low level at which its passions lie: a pubertal boy conceives a lust for first a mother and then the mother’s daughter. The boy then ages into the narrator who ends up regretting his own daughter’s homeliness: “What age is she now, twenty-something, I am not sure. She is very bright…[but] Not beautiful, however, I admitted that to myself long ago. I cannot pretend this is not a disappointment…”

Contrast that with Roth’s Everyman’s feelings towards his own daughter Nancy: “Sometimes it seemed that everything was a mistake except Nancy. So he worried about her, and he still never passed a women’s clothing shop without thinking of her and going in to find something she’d like, and he thought, I’m very lucky, and he thought, Some good has to come out somewhere, and it has in her.”

It’s difficult to like a character who judges his daughter’s lack of beauty harshly, and likewise difficult not to be charmed by one grateful for his grown daughter’s existence; it may well be Banville’s intention to make Morden unsympathetic to the reader, but if so it’s a peculiar tactic, locking us in the mind of his character with so little by way of charm or creature comfort in that particularly Spartan room.

The Sea is a tough slog for such a slim vol. To invert the hack reviewer’s catch phrase: ‘I couldn’t pick it up’. Upon finishing it this reader was astonished to realize that he had spent two off-and-on weeks reading a Douglas Sirk film. A Douglas Sirk film gussied up with a dozen ten-dollar words of which ‘convolvulus’ (in place of ‘morning glory’) and ‘velutinous’ (instead of ‘velvety’) were the standard-bearers and ‘twelvemonth’ (rather than ‘year’) brought up the rear on its clowny tricycle. Not to mention ‘strangury’ and ‘flocculent’ (which you are free to look up for yourself).

Banville’s is a book that hopes to redeem in its finer details the sins of its fundamental construction, like rococo mirrors on the walls of a pebble-dashed semi-detached. In his review of Everyman, of a scene in which Roth has an estranged son eulogizing his waked father in a strange tone, Banville quotes and then lambasts this sentence: ” ‘…any note of tenderness, grief, love, or loss was terrifyingly absent from his voice’. That overblown and redundant ‘terrifyingly’ -who is it that is terrified? – is an early example of a recurring slackness in the writing,” he writes, as though he himself weren’t responsible for the following overblown sentences:

“….are there coincidences in Pluto’s realm, amidst the trackless wastes of which I wander lost, a lyreless Orpheus?” (pg. 24*)

“I must have seemed like a moth throbbing before a candle-flame, or like the flame itself, shivering in its own consuming heat.” (pg. 86)

“After the funeral, when people came back in the house… that was awful, almost unbearable… I gripped a wine glass so hard it shattered in my fist.” (pg. 125)

“The little waves before me at the water’s edge speak with an animate voice, whispering eagerly of some ancient catastrophe, the sack of Troy, perhaps, or the sinking of Atlantis.’ (pg. 132)

“You cunt, you fucking cunt, how could you go and leave me like this, floundering in my own foulness, with no one to save me from myself.” (pg. 196, with apologies to Brando and/or Bertolucci, perhaps?)

“She was the Sphinx and we her seated priests.’ (pg. 237)

Boil these sentences down to poetic essentials… Orpheus; moths and their candle-flames; Troy, Atlantis, a Sphinx and… (Xanadu! Why no Xanadu?)…and you’ve got the basis for a pretty good sophomore sonnet. Couldn’t really use ‘cunt’ though… but rest assured that when Banville writes ‘cunt’ he means ‘exudative, turgor-thickened rose.’

The Sea’s big treat is meant to be the revelation, a few pages shy of the ‘fini,’ that a main character in the narrator’s present was a key figure of the tragic boyhood romance he spends the book recalling. This twist is kept from us for as long as it is through the simple yet unbelievable convenience of the narrator not once thinking this key character’s first name during the two hundred fifty-plus pages he thinks the book for us… until making us ‘gasp’ not only by finally thinking it, but in the thinking of it loosening up all kinds of clogged exposition, igniting the damp firecracker of a second ‘twist.’ Just as Banville’s narrator keeps the first ‘secret’ from us with a shoddy gimmick of omission, Banville keeps the second ‘secret’ from his narrator with an even shoddier trick, or B-movie edit: a puff of smoke from a locomotive, thank you very much, obscures a specific kind of illicit kiss and thereby ensures that the tragedy proceed apace.

To the implausibility of the narrator’s pointillist recall of events fifty years gone, add Banville’s implausibly plausibles from the cast… the kimono-wearing spinster landlady; the harumphing, feebly macho old boarder called, of course, ‘The Colonel’; the sinister, blonde, upper-class twins…Banville doesn’t miss a trick. There’s even a gorilla-armed ‘Pecker Devereux,’ who ‘used to be a deep-sea sailor’ and is ‘said to have killed a man.’ What we’re getting here are bits and pieces of Banville’s adolescence…Thesaurus-masked appropriations from formative cinema-going experiences. I wasn’t so much seeing word-pictures at Banville’s behest as revisiting stock imagery despite his best efforts. Deeper meditations on grief, death, memory and the essential unknowability of other lives were conceived and lost before they could survive the copy-of-a-copy imprecision of their constituent cliches.

To paraphrase a torpedo from Banville’s denunciation of Roth’s ‘Everyman’: all of The Sea could be contained within a few pages of late Roth.

*page numbers refer to the paperback edition

James Wood vs the Gifted Amateur

There’s no question that James Wood is one of the best at what he does. The question is: what does he do? He’s a professional literary critic whose angstrom-close readings sometimes seem to be the work of a team of researchers at Bell Laboratories, yes, but what does a professional literary critic, in a modernly modern sense, do? The ‘critic’ is the Artist’s vestigial twin, and the adjective ‘professional’ is the shibboleth of modern modernity. You’re nothing these days if you’re not a professional, a judgment pertaining to the Arts as pitilessly as to the Trades, and James Wood is no nothing. As a critic he gives advice, and as a professional critic he gives his publishers, his audience and his subjects their money’s worth. The advice he gives isn’t cheap, simple, or to be confused with the efforts of a gifted amateur.

Just as today’s Professional Sports dwarf the gifted amateurism of their antecedents and lose in purity, community and grace what they gain in technology, ubiquity and spectacle, the professionalized Arts, along with such dependent trades as Arts Criticism, often lose in meaning and purpose what they gain in… professionalism. Mr. Wood’s professionalism comes at the expense of his purpose, unless his purpose is merely to give authoritarian advice to the reader who reads him about what to read and how to read it while advising the other writers his readers read and who read him what to write and how to write it.

While the amateur critics of bygone eras allowed the unreliable impulses of inspiration and passion to move them to write about books about which they were from time to time feeling enchanted, incensed or merely curious, modernly modern professionalism demands a level and consistency of output that renders such rationed, interest-motivated production impossible. Modernly modern professionalism, with any success or longevity, inevitably engenders a Brand. The gifted amateur can only offer the stumbled-upon epiphany where the modernly modern professional promises the security of the Brand.

Modern modernity mandates a scientifically maximalized, Brand-based professionalism that systematically excludes the amateur touch from every good and service that it maximalizes, with one result being that the once marginally professional Fine Arts, Entertainment and Team Sports nexus has become an epiphany-free product cluster. James Wood is emblematic of the pitfalls of applying scientifically maximalized professionalism to a field that is the natural preserve of the gifted amateur.

Scientifically maximalized Professionalism is stringently systematic, tends toward gigantism and presents a deliberately intimidating façade; this is as true of Major League Baseball as it is of the global Fast Food Chain or James Wood’s literary criticism. The deliberately intimidating façade functions as both symbol and filter: a symbol that the touch of the amateur has been filtered from the premises and a filter to the amateur’s touch. Mr. Wood’s intimidating façade is the depth, breadth and esotericism of the knowledge he employs in the literary advice it is his job to produce. The gigantism his modernly modern professionalism suffers from is exemplified in his tendency to advise against the reading and enjoyment (as well as the writing) of whole categories of novel, rather than, as would be likely in the case of a gifted amateur of Mr. Wood’s learning and sanity, producing strictures against the weaker aspects of weaker examples of work from these categories.

Wood’s famous attack on ‘Hysterical Realists’ (Don DeLillo, Zadie Smith, Jonathan Franzen, et al) immediately after 9/11, exploiting the confusion in its wake for the sake of an attempted paradigmatic coup, was, in fact, an attack of his scientific professionalism upon whatever vestiges of the gifted amateur still lurk in the works of these professionalized writers. The ‘empty’ stylistic double-talk he seems to think these writers use as a smokescreen to obscure (like murders to cover a fraud) failures of intent and execution regarding his systematized definition of proper novel-writing are really nothing more sinister than manifestations of the semi-systematic, highly personal, inspiration-based signature of gifted amateurism.

Wood (who often writes like a TV critic who started as a TV repairman and can’t write a review without mentioning RCA tubes) the modernly modern professional advises his readers not merely to be skeptical of certain aspects of this ‘Hysterical Realist’ canon but to dismiss it altogether; he advises writers such as DeLillo and Franzen and Smith not merely to be wary of certain tics and tendencies on the next outing…he advises them to not be themselves at all: to stop writing, essentially. To clear the way, presumably, for far more modernly modern professional novelists who would be a tighter fit to his criticism.

What professionalized professionalism demands (that gifted amateurism is at liberty to slack on) is constant, regular output…the curse of the assembly line. The necessity of regular output minimizes the primacy of inspiration as a spur to production. Whereas the gifted amateur critic is free to write when and about what and to the extent that his or her (often capricious) passions move her/him, the professionalized professional (hereafter to be referred to as the Professionalist) critic is bound at some point to ignore or disappoint the state of his or her passion for the sake of the level of her/his output.

Further, to the extent that a Professionalist approach must polish the fingerprint of the amateurist touch from the product’s finish, Professionalist criticism often employs intimidatingly heavy, expensive equipment where the amateur most often relied on eccentric, handmade tools…with no measurable improvement in the quality of the product.