British novelist Ian McEwan appeared before a large and appreciative group of students and literary New Yorkers at Hunter College on the Upper East Side this evening. He read an amusing and touching selection from his upcoming novel, On Chesil Beach, which will be published in the U.K. in April 2007 and in the U.S.A. two months later.
I have been a McEwan fan since reading his Atonement, but I had no idea how popular he was until I found myself at the very back of a crowded room where at least 150 New Yorkers, mostly eclectically-dressed Hunter College students, sat and listened attentively to the author’s every word.
He picked a great passage for this crowd: a sex scene in separate male and female voices featuring a British couple on their wedding night. It’s 1962 and both Edward and Florence are nervous virgins. They struggle to get their clothes off, and then finally reach a small sensual epiphany together, even if it’s not exactly sex. McEwan first presents her side of the story, then his. Their private metaphors cross and complement each other: as they caress each other she hears Mozart quartets, while he has a vision of farming equipment.
The audience loved the piece, and I enjoyed it too. McEwan answered a few questions after the reading, and mentioned that the nuclear crisis of October 1962 was an underlying theme in the sex scene with Florence and Edward. He also spoke of Atonement‘s upcoming film interpretation, which will star Keira Knightley and James McAvoy. He mentioned that filming was finished, and said that he’d found his participation difficult because the medium of film does not capture the interior worlds of its characters as easily as fiction.
This was the first time I’d seen McEwan in person, and he made a very good impression on me. His demeanor is polite, detached and rather coolly droll, as when he answered a student’s long, convoluted question about the process of writing about sex in literary fiction with a single sentence: “Well, there are many positions to take”. That was McEwan’s whole answer, and a pretty clever one at that.