Sunday, July 8, 2007

On Chesil Beach

Nudged by Rob's review, I've finally read Ian McEwan's 'On Chesil Beach'. Out of force of habit I bought a signed 1st/1st, an item which is probably less rare than pebbles on the 'infinite shingle' of Chesil Beach itself. (There is a very nice limited edition in a slipcase, also signed, for collectors/aesthetes/suckers (tick all that apply) which may well appreciate in value by, say, the heat death of the universe - maybe if my Postal Order arrives I'll get one..)

Reading the first printing means that the tiny anachronisms reported in the press are still there. So the Stones and Beatles are still covering Chuck Berry in 1962. I also wondered if a 'rocker' would be likely to have a 'studded leather jacket' in that period. And surely an iPod of that vintage would be made of Bakelite, not 'beige plastic, like a hearing aid'.

(I made one of these up.)

McEwan helpfully indicates that the hotel in the story has a precise location but does not exist. This will save coachloads of tourists descending on the area, seeking to relive that 'ruining-your-life-through-sexual-misunderstanding-on-the-cusp-of-a-new-era' experience. But hopefully kind-hearted Dorset hoteliers will place copies of the book on the nightstands of their honeymoon suites.

Chesil Beach itself is a somewhat uncanny location, liminal as a bastard, deftly chosen as the focus of this powerful short novel.

The novel creates a powerful sense of the 'situatedness' of the characters, as the trajectories of their intertwined personal lives and the historical moment they live in bring about a kind of inexorable force of circumstance, played out with McEwan's trademark 'impending doom'. However, I think we're being encouraged to do more than pity the characters as benighted dwellers in a less liberated time. Rather, we're gently nudged to speculate as to what similar forces of ignorance might encapsulate us, now. The 'nudges' for me are: the discussion about the qualitative equivalence of medieval millenarian cults and CND (a complex but specific exploration of the concept that the unenlightened 'then' may share qualities with 'now'); the insertion of a news item from Bagdhad into the BBC news (with countless other possibilities to choose from, an item that momentarily jerks us into the present); more tenuously, the mange-tout-munching philosopher-mother character whose modern lifestyle acts as a kind of bridge between eras. Just my £0.02 worth...


Rob Spence said...

Bastards are liminal??
I think you are right about the nudges- as someone said, historical novels are twinned with the present.
Not sure about the mother though - isn't she just a kind of other-wordly Oxford type?

Anonymous said...

You would like this Blog , a conversation with Ian McEwan and Ken Alexander , Editor of The Walrus about Chesil Beach. You will find two shows on this: