I’ve found a new novel to love, a slim volume called On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan.
This is a psychological novel in the classic tradition, like Washington Square by Henry James or The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot. McEwan walks us through the forbidden thoughts, logical formulas and (often) utter delusions that fill the minds of his characters, two forlorn young British virgins named Edward and Florence, as they approach each other in dread and excitement on their wedding night. They come together and blow apart in a cataclysm of fear that is, in McEwan’s telling, terribly sad but also sweetly wistful.
I admire the tight focus of this small book, and I enjoy the warmly funny interludes with waiters and remembered family members as the nervous star-crossed lovers attempt (unsuccessfully) to avoid a spectacular disaster on their long-awaited night of love. I thought of Henry James and John Updike often as I turned these poignant pages, but mostly I felt the spectre of T. S. Eliot and his doppelganger J. Alfred Prufrock in every word of this book. On Chesil Beach is, in fact, almost a novelization of that great poem, though the era is transposed and the gender roles are different (here, the woman is much more frightened than the man). What reminds me most of Eliot’s Prufrock is the concept of sexuality as a spiritual and psychological explosive, a cosmic trigger. Prufrock is a young virgin (I disagree with those who think Prufrock is middle-aged) who daydreams of sex and wonders if he could have the nerve:
to have squeezed the universe into a ball
Edward kisses his bride and:
As he looked into her eyes, he had an impression of toppling toward her in constant giddy motion. He felt trapped between the pressure of his excitement and the burden of his ignorance.
I’m not exactly sure why, but I’m fascinated by that conflation of sexual dread and existential wonder, that high-pitched keening yearning for the (impossible) ecstasy of contented togetherness, that drives both Eliot’s poem and McEwan’s novel.
T. S. Eliot liked to contrast the sexual anxieties of his characters with the political anxieties of his age, and Ian McEwan plays on the same equations here, making much of the Cold War/nuclear age furor that was the hottest global issue in the summer of 1962. McEwan maintains a stately pace throughout this book, introducing his themes and symbols in a neat sequence, one after another: an analysis of Florence’s identification with classical music, a chronicle of Edward’s parental trauma, a whole lot of gentle comedy involving unwanted plates of roast beef in the honeymoon suite. It’s a delicious and simple story, though it will not appeal to anybody who doesn’t like this kind of thing. If you can’t stand Henry James and John Updike, there’s no reason for you to even look at this book.
I had been treated to an early look at this book last year, but when I wrote that summary I had no idea how much I’d be impressed by the whole work. The only other McEwan book I’ve read is Atonement (which is rather similar to On Chesil Beach in its essential plot, though it has many more characters, not to mention the battle of Dunkirk), but I’ve just been told I need to discover Black Dogs, and I know I’ll be reading much more from this quaintly classical but thoroughly modern writer very soon.