Tuesday, January 01, 2008

On Chesil Beach

George Eliot meets Nicholson Baker on "Dover Beach."

Oh, I would be such a better blogger if I could just leave it at that, but, alas, I have more to say. I do think Ian McEwan is a spectacular novelist, probably one of the best writing in English at this point. Atonement is pretty much a perfect novel, such that I pretty much refuse to see the movie. Saturday...what DID I think of Saturday? Looks like I did not blog it, but I recall finding it impressive but not as emotionally gripping as Atonement.

For the first 100 or so pages of On Chesil Beach, which is quite a small book, literally, and somewhat figuratively, I was once again impressed, even dazzled. McEwan just knows how to do it: create fully realized characters through the details, historicize the personal and personalize the historic, manipulate time in service of narrative, embody location, nuance emotion and intellect: really, he's got the novelistic toolkit down. But even then, I was a little wary of, well, how the toolkit showed. At a party this afternoon, I was saying to a friend that I just wanted to go home and read my novel--that was about 100 pages in--and I described the book to her as impeccable but cold.

That was the George Eliot paragraph. Next comes the Nicholson Baker paragraph.

I returned to the book in the evening, and most of the second half totally bogged down. Saturday is, inherently (it is about a single day in the life of a neurosurgeon), obsessively detailed. Joyce, of course, would be the other point of comparison, especially for On Chesil Beach, but perhaps it is the subject matter that recalls Baker, crossing The Mezzanine with Vox (sorry, just too lazy to link tonight), in one of the longest, most-detailed descriptions of failed sex in literary history. I mean, it's a virtuouso performance, but who needs it?

At the end, especially, thematically, on the final page, we get to "Dover Beach," sort of--the complexities of "Dover Beach" are such that I cannot parse the comparison sufficiently, but suffice to say there is love, being true, and the shingle, so we're definitely in the neighborhood--and really the novel is quite wonderful again, sketching 40 years, plausibly, in a few pages and pointing to the influence of a single moment's near-inadvertent choice (a hint of Prufrock?).

At any rate, I'm pleased to have begun the year by reading a novel in a day, which I can't remember when I did last--and I also went to yoga and a party, made risotto, and dealt with a problem, so I suppose that's a good first day of the year, though the problem not so much.

And so to bed.

Edited to add: OK, not quite to bed, but I also meant to say that the cause of Florence's issues was also of the look-how-subtle-I'm-being school of novelistic virtuosity, in that it is totally obvious, but would be totally easy to miss, in the same way that so many contemporary readers miss intimations of pregnancy in 19th-century novels.

Edited again to add: Lethem's review is quite great, making some similar points, but fully celebratory--I do remember reading it, and thinking, I want to read that book, though my desire was also whetted by the
New Yorker excerpt. Kakutani is positively vicious, unnecessarily, I would say. Yardley is the antithesis of Kakutani; as with Lethem, I find myself more in his camp in describing the novel, but not assessing it. OK, I could clearly do this for a while, but I doubt anyone cares, and really I must go to bed, because real life resumes tomorrow (8:10 for kids, 9:30 for me).

Edited once more to add: I think now I must go back to old McEwan of which, shamefully, I have read virtually nothing, though I did see the movie of
The Cement Garden. AND NOW TO BED.

1 comment:

jackie said...

I also loved Atonement and Saturday, but can raise no interest in Chesil Beach. Keep us posted on how the older books are!