On occasion I read a novel that requires something in the way of immediate comment, not (necessarily) because it is a work of particular genius or poverty, but because it provokes something essential in me. A mental turn, if you like, either positive or negative. This happens less often now than I thought it would in the heady days of my early teens, when every book I read was a life-changing experience, every novel a revelation or an insult unto itself. Now I can whole-heartedly adore or hate something without it having this effect; for example, it happened only once last year, even though it was a year with reading highs and lows. (The catalyst then was Marilynne Robinson's Gilead.) And so I'm surprised to have read two novels, both short, in as many months that have tipped and challenged my literary equilibrium. The first was The Road by Cormac McCarthy, an extroadinary contemporary novel of undeniable powers (which I reviewed here); the second, finished only this week, was Ian McEwan's new little novel, On Chesil Beach.
It is by no means a perfect book; on finishing it I immediately thought of a problematic lacuna in its plot (from my point of view, at least) and I sometimes think that McEwan enjoys stating, rather than exploring, human emotion. And, unlike The Road, it didn't make me quiver and exclaim and extol its virtues loud and long. I don't think it will become a contemporary classic. But it worked for me, and convinced me, and touched something extroadinarily personal in me.
As regards prose, and like the other McEwan novels I've read (admittedly, only Atonement and Saturday), it was almost perfectly executed and controlled. It was beautifully understated while, at the same time, desperately frustrating, trading on fallibility and wretched misunderstanding. Like them, it did a masterful job of recreating the awkward comedy and melodrama of human relations, especially sexual relations, overlaid with a sense of their depth and meaning and playfulness. It handled the narrowness and frequent meanness of personal tragedy with characteristic aplomb. And it left me with a strong sense of both outrage and identification.
It is July, 1962. Edward and Florence - newly-wed; bristling with uncertainty and confusion - are spending their honeymoon at a hotel in Dorset, situated right on the shoreline of Chesil Beach. They're both young, only 22, and both university educated - Edward is a history graduate from University College London, while Florence is a violinist trained at the Royal College of Music. They're both ambitious, in their own ways (Edward, lazily, to write short historical biographies; Florence, desperately, to play the Wigmore Hall with her string quartet), and they're are deeply, deeply in love. For now though, on their wedding night, they're both consumed with thoughts of consummation: with sex. For Edward 'the matter was rarely out of his thoughts...his fear of failure was great, his eagerness - for rapture, for resolution - was far greater.' He hasn't masturbated for a whole week in preparation. He is determined to be in tip-top condition; he is:
'...mesmerised by the prospect that on the evening of a given date in July the most sensitive portion of himself would reside, however briefly, within a naturally formed cavity inside this cheerful, pretty, formidably intelligent woman.'
Florence's sensations are somewhat different; her anxieties are more serious:
'...she experienced a visceral dread, a helpless disgust as palpable as seasickness. For much of the time, through all the months of merry wedding preparation, she managed to ignore this stain on her happinesss, but whenever her thoughts turned towards a close embrace - she prefered no other term - her stomach tightened dryly, she was nauseous at the back of her throat.'
Neither of them knows how to express their sexual feelings or apprehensions, however, because: ' they lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible.' It is several years before the sexual revolution; the Pill is still 'a rumour in newspapers, a ridiculous promise', the only permissible sex still, by and large, occurs inside of marriage and sex education remains the province of euphemism and the bridal handbook. And so our couple eat their insipid wedding dinner - melon with a glace cherry; overcooked beef and watery vegetables - and begin the difficult matter of negotiating the middle way between sex and love.
Interspersed with these scenes of their wedding night, which are both discomforting and compelling, is the history of their meeting and of their chaste love affair. This, I think, is where McEwan's contruct fails him a little - Edward and Florence fumbling with each other on their wedding night is pathetic, gruesome and stickily real, but their early lives and love verges on caricature. He comes from an eccentric country idyll - the fruit of the loins of a bumbling headteacher and his brain-damanged wife - and has grown up in an atmosphere of gentile and messy poverty. As a result, he is at ease with himself and the world. She, on the contrary, has developed in an atmosphere of wealth and control - her mother, an academic; her father, a successful businessman - and suffered under the stern disapproval of both of her parents. It is possible, McEwan goes on to suggest, that she has been sexually abused by her father and that her mother, either consciously or unconsciously, resents her for it.
This dichotomy of upbringing is meant, I think, to go some way to explaining and exploring their different attitudes to sex and their different approaches to intimacy. But I find it problematical, not least because it seems to suggest that Florence is 'damaged' in an essential way and that her sexuality has consequently been stunted. Admittedly, McEwan is careful never to say outright that 'Florence abhors sex because her father raped her', but still, he intimates it. Why? For me it represents a failure to honestly engage with the narrative of women's sexuality that he has set for himself: child abuse, even the merest hint of it, is too obvious an answer to questions of feminine libido and lusts, or the lack of them. It feeds too clearly into stereotypes about 'frigidity', lesbianism and asexualism and into overtly Freudian diagnoses of feminine 'aberration'.
This failure as regards Florence is symptomatic of the novel's general bias towards Edward, his life and his longings; the flashbacks more frequently concern him than her, and the denouement of the book focuses almost entirely of his future life. What happens to Florence before or after the couple's difficult wedding night is never properly confronted or explored; her life is subject to a far more cursory exegesis than Edward's, and the resultant lacuna is daunting in a novella that has only two characters. If this was a function of the novel's narrator - if 'he' were an actor in the same era, predisposed to disregard women's experience - I would be more willing to except it, but McEwan's narrator has all the benefit of hindsight and speaks with a showy omnipotence that makes Florence's narrowness more difficult to explain.
Nevertheless, although I consider this denial of Florence to be a flaw in the narrative, I don't think that it necessarily disfigures the whole enterprise. Indeed, I can bring myself to argue that it makes the novella more interesting, that it forces us to think more carefully about sex and sexuality. I'm struck by the continued relevance of the 'conjugal debt' - in modern terms, the economy of sex that is considered inevitable and essential between men and women: the novel is a period piece certainly, but these same issues continue to dog our lives, perhaps even more so than they once did. It would be foolish to think that sexual liberation has freed women (or men) from feelings, reservations and horrors like those which Florence experiences in On Chesil Beach. Sexual difficulty is still virtually impossible to speak about and difficult for McEwan to approach: imagine a modern woman, facing the man (or woman) she loved, and declaring 'I do not like sex; I do not want to have sex with you.' It would still be unacceptable; even more unacceptable now in an age where sex is an act of independence and power, an act in which all but the most religious are encouraged to participate without qualm. If a woman says those things modern parlance determines that she is 'repressed' or in denial or psychologically damaged; her sexuality has been 'blocked' in some way, perhaps by abuse or a bad experience.
But what if none of that is true: what if her 'sexuality' is just radically different, what if her reluctance has nothing to do with fear or oppression and everything to do with preference and desire. It is this possibility that touches me most with On Chesil Beach: that both Florence and Edward are constrained and doomed not by their inability to have sex but by the narrowness of their sexual paradigm. Toward the end of the novel Edward allows himself to consider 'what if'; what if he had allowed Florence the freedom to accept and practise her peculiar form of conjugal love? Perhaps, he intimates, they didn't need to centralise sex after all. I find this a provocative and interesting idea.