Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach has a June United States publication date, but Amazon.co.uk sent a British copy of this thin novel—novella would be more accurate if less marketable—which manages to be both understated and vibrant. It has an abstract, ethereal feel about a practical, seldom-discussed subject explored without euphemism or pretension, sort of like a fable for hard-eyed adults. Concrete problems of the real world and the ideas underlying those problems come together in prose that, like all of the McEwan I’ve read so far, perfectly walks the wavering line between simplicity and complexity; his sentences always feel as easily understood as they can be and not forced one bit more.
The story follows two young people, who had just been through their marriage ceremony as the first chapter starts, but whose preceding courtship is told in subsequent chapters and interspersed with their present day. “Courting” describes the relationship—they are on the verge of the cultural revolution of the 60’s that would make “dating” more appropriate, and they reflect their elders’ ideals propriety in a way that, say, Kingsley Amis does not. The juxtaposition of this novel and the recently flurry of pieces on Martin and Kingsley is quite interesting, as the novel chronicles the 50’s culture that Kingsley killed and Martin, as far as I could tell, never really had to fight. It’s a world almost as alien to me as that of the Victorians, as prim and proper as a stately matron out of Jane Austen.
Yet Edward and Florence do not share my perception of their zeitgeist, and identify themselves with the spirit of change. Dramatic irony fills the novel, as the reader understands the young marrieds: they do not generate the winds of change so much as they are blown by them. The irony is particularly thick when Edward and Florence mock the staid old people listening to the telly downstairs from their room, even though the values of those old people bind the younger people far tighter than either will verbally or intellectually acknowledge. The names Edward and Florence have an old-fashioned ring to my ears (though perhaps not to British ones), and I can think of only one person, a distant acquaintance, my age named Edward (though he goes by Eddie) and no one named Florence. The pair are as mired in the Nineteenth Century as the burghers they mock and the word “burghers” itself.
I feel sympathy for the two, as well as some empathy I wish I didn’t feel, because one point On Chesil Beach makes is that things change, but maybe not so much as we’d like to imagine, and at some point nearly everyone is in a situation as awkward as that of Edward and Florence, whether it comes earlier or later in life. Today most, but not all, remedy it earlier, and as a result may scorn Edward and Florence. But we cannot judge the past purely by today’s standards; The Scarlet Letter only looks old-fashioned today because it helped changed the climate it describes, as do all forms of cultural production.
The sexual factor can also be read as a metaphor for other feelings of confinement or torpor: “[Edward] was simply impatient for his life, the real story, to start[…]” Yet we are reading his story, and while Edward waits for his “real story” to begin, it is evident to us if not to him that it already has. His failure to recognize the way his story is happening all the time is his own fault, and it is not clear that the epiphany I hoped and expected he would have actually occurs: that “real” life is happening wherever you are and whatever you are doing, and that it is your reality whether you accept it or not. The same is true of Florence, who seems to be waiting to do what her parents tell her to. Yet once the two creatures of their time come together, their expectations are a wide chasm apart and their ability to communicate those expectations stunted.
Their ability to communication is stunted because they have none of the light and heat they need to grow. On Chesil Beach demonstrates the dueling realities and sensibilities of Edward and Florence, although with slightly more sympathy for Edward. His vision is myopic, however, and he confuses the story of his sexual life with the story of the rest of his life; though the former is certainly an important part of the latter, it is not necessarily the most important part, and the strength of its importance seems more important before it begins than afterward. The anticipation makes the beginning of the latter harder to confront: “[Edward] felt trapped between the pressure of his excitement and the burden of his ignorance.” We only learn about it through the narrator, and Edward cannot or will not say it to Florence, who cannot speak of her own fear and dread to Edward. They are caught, and caught by themselves.
The idea of the trap is always there, as is the laughable idea of them as a modern couple. Take this description of Florence’s reality: “As [Florence] understood it, there were no words to name what had happened, there existed no shared language language in which two sane adults could describe such events to each other.” In other words, she is still mired in an ignorance as profound if not moreso than those telly watchers she and Edward looked down on. Nor is she better than Edward, and combined they represent the product of a society valuing propriety above all else—and they buy into that society. Florence cannot discuss the events the unnamed narrator describes with a mixture of medical precision and human compassion, neither of which the main characters can summon, and the appropriateness of a distant voice of knowledge becomes apparent when it slips into the characters’ thoughts with more dexterity than novelist of the Nineteenth Century.
The comparisons to the Nineteenth Century are deserved, as the larger swirls of how history develop are a macrocosm of the way those swirls affect people’s lives. McEwan has long been concerned with how past implicates present. On Chesil Beach shares the concerns with the past and one’s relationship to time that haunt McEwan’s Atonement, a meaty novel I discussed briefly in conjunction with John Banville’s The Sea. The Great Gatsby also examines the way we construct the past and the way it remains with us; for On Chesil Beach’s Edward, the past was a time of ignorance he could not fully overcome, while Jay Gatsby idealizes the past and hopes to bring himself back to the golden age with Daisy Buchanan. Despite the divergence of views of Gatsby and Edward, that lost early time drives them. Something about these retrospective books lends themselves to awesomely lyrical writing at the end; though I won’t reveal the last page of On Chesil Beach, the last two paragraphs of Gatsby are worth rereading:
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning—
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
On Chesil Beach does not have the hint of wistful, rueful optimism present in the penultimate paragraph of Gatsby, but I could hear Nick Carraway in Edward’s reminisces about the blurring of memory over time. The scope of On Chesil Beach widens at the end, and as it does so it also shows the way Edward’s early feelings of shame deaden as time lengthens. The same technique is used, and is slightly disorienting and equally appropriate, in Atonement, and the brief sensation of disorientation, like the changing perspective that happens in a fast glass elevator, gives way to enhanced understanding and the realization that life, regardless of the petty indignities of the moment, goes on.
The power of On Chesil Beach comes McEwan’s aesthetic command in telling a story of misunderstanding as old as time but infrequently chronicled, at least as far and as wide as my reading goes. His narrative technique employs a clever variation on the omniscient viewpoint in a way similar to but different from the way he wrote Atonement, and it conveys the uncertainty of the characters while informing and clarifying for the reader. We are left with a central scene from a life, but not a still life, for the motion of the characters’ minds and the aftermath of their encounter reverberates through time. Their encounter is symbolic of the inchoate changes in the larger society and Western world. The time and place stultifies Edward and Florence, but like Edward, society is on the brink of change, and as the narrative viewpoint undergoes a reverse telescope, we see Edward moving toward a reality bigger in some ways but still very small in others. On the scales of time, how heavily does an awkward night made so by circumstance weigh? To Edward, it would appear the answer is “not too heavily,” unlike Gatsby. Too bad Edward and Florence could not even form or consider the thoughts behind my question. If they could, perhaps they could move toward understanding.
This post is intentionally written in a style that should recall On Chesil Beach while still being more opaque than the book because I don’t want to describe exactly what happens: the unfolding of the story should be the privilege of the author. I describe some aspects of On Chesil Beach, but I do not want to be so clear as to give a synopsis. The framework underlying the story is partially described here but should not detract from the finished product of the story. Call this a commentary on the commentary.