Friday, 24 August 2007

Ian McEwan: On Chesil Beach.

I just finished reading On Chesil Beach and also place it quite highly in the McEwan canon. not with Atonement perhaps, but certainly ahead of Saturday.It's insightful and wise. Early in my reading, I wanted to write that it is one of those rare books that could have been longer but for reasons I will explain, I do think after all that it is just the perfect length. The background sections into which readers are suddenly plunged in the second chapter to me aren't extraneous although they did seem to lack the vivid life of the honeymoon sections -- but then the quick summation of Florence and Edward's later lives in the final chapter do act as a kind of balance. After all, this is the story of what happens On Chesil Beach, on the night that is the pivot around which their lives turn. To me, McEwan is the Master of the Moment, by which I mean that central to his fiction is the critical juncture at which tragedy strikes (the child goes missing, the untruth is told) after which life can never be the same. To that extent this book is a distillation of the work of his that has gone before.I loved it.

Other thoughts:
After some discussion about whether Florence had been abused by her father, I had another look at thenovel and came up with this;

I considered sexual abuse as a possible explanation for Florence’s behaviour quite early in the novel although some suggestions only became more apparent in retrospect. Florence’s father is involved in their experience of their wedding; Edward has never been at a hotel but "Florence, after many trips as a child with her father, was an old hand". Something mentioned on the first page of a text is almost bound to have repercussions for what follows, as this does. The text abounds with suggestions that Florence has repressed memories. For instance, she experiences nausea and an inaudible voice ‘on the verge of telling her something’ (and what else could this subconscious message be?) and McEwan tells us that ‘sometimes, in a surge of protective feeling and guilty love, (Florence) would come up behind (her father) where he sat and entwine her arms around his neck and kiss the top of his head and nuzzle him... and loathe herself for it later’ this, to the father who ‘aroused in her conflicting emotions’. It’ seems very odd for a daughter to find her father ‘physically repellent’.

What’s gone on, either on her father's boat or in the expensive hotels they travelled to seems made almost explicit in the crisis moment of the novel and of Edwards and Florence's failed intercourse: in bed with her new husband, Florence tries to think of courtly love (that medieval, notably asexual ideal) but the sound of Edward undressing and 'the smell of the sea' summon 'the past and a trip at 12 with her father. He's undressing and she's trying to think of a tune she liked. Or any tune ...she was usually sick many times on the crossing, and of no use to her father as a sailor, and that surely was the source of her shame'. The word surely interrupts the thought and introduces doubt. There is or could be another source of her shame, as now, she may be ashamed because she finds sex distasteful or because Edward may discover she is not a virgin. Then McEwan delivers a clever surprise, in case we’re reading too much -- or not enough (I love the ambiguity) -- into this. He seems to invite an alternative reading when Florence is unfamiliar with human testicles until we realise her barely explored memories of the moments with her father are in non-visual senses (e.g. sounds) and she may well have been abused without seeing anything. The most significant suggestion of the nature of her repressed memories follows almost immediately; Edward, out of control, ejaculates. It’s a catastrophe and not only because he so feared ‘arriving too soon’. The experience finds Florence 'summoning memories she had long ago decided were not really hers she was incapable of repressing her primal disgust ...(at its )... intimate starchy odour, which dragged with it the stench of a shameful secret'. Now, we could read this as Florence realising Edward feels shame, but shame and secret are already words we associate with her, since she offered to tell him a ‘secret’ and says she's scared though its "not strictly accurate". Florence, she thinks, ‘has two selves' this perhaps stemming from her deepest problem being that "she could not have named the matter to herself", although in her subconscious, she knows. Of Edward, she thinks that she ‘sometimes loves him like a daughter’ and considers his penis, when seeing it, as sinister ( -- as an aside -- don’t most girls, seeing one for the first time, actually find it a little comical??) which is a significant word choice for McEwan to have made and in any other reading makes little sense.

Florence’s escape is into music where emotions are expressed without words) a defence mechanism important to the plot which will hinge on the need to put words to her experience -- something she can’t do; we are told she is adept at concealing her emotions and trapped into silence since those boat trips with her father, which were never discussed 'and she was glad’ but her relief at not having to discuss these trips with her father spills into her marriage when she can’t discuss it with Edward either; 'all there years she hid lived in isolation within herself... her problems with Edward were already present in those first few seconds, in their first exchange of looks’.

There are specific word choices from her perspective that allow us to guess what she herself would deny; although Edwards has first night nerves, her troubles are 'unutterable';. Also, she thinksthe word 'stain' suggestive of the ancient correlation of cleanliness with virginal purity. Following this are a couple of religious references; Florence considers Jesus’ mother without using word virgin ( and decides that she herself is ‘no lamb to be uncomplainingly knifed’ (this is religious in terms of its choice as metaphor, Jesus being the lamb of God sacrificed by his father). The sound of a bleating lamb is ominously echoed in the creaking of bedsprings. What Florence contemplates offering to her husband really is a sacrifice in a physical sense because the word 'penetration' to her means only pain.

We see Florence’s current relationship with her father largely through Edward’s eyes. His aggression in a sporting match is notable yet 'she seemed to be able to get her rather frightening father to do what she wanted' There is something not quite natural in the way father and daughter rarely speak but seem to exchange secret glances, and in his keenness to give his daughter away, but the most revealing passage is where McEwan indulges in that no-no that in creative writing classes we call ‘head-hopping’ (and he does so in such a successful way that I’ll add it to my list of evidence that in writing there are no rules except to do it well, anyway --) writing that Edward ‘was a little frightened of his girlfriend's father, worried that (he) thought (Edward) was an intruder, an impostor, intending an assault on his daughters virginity, and then disappearing -- only one part of which was true'. The final part of sentence takes us out of Edward’s perspective and into the father’s. Which in turn makes us wonder, which part is true? His having offered Edward a job with his company and making him so welcome at his house make it unlikely he considers him a possible impostor, although he might be worried Edward will run. It seems extremely unlikely he thinks Edward might make an assault on his daughter’s virginity. (Why? Because it is already lost.

In this reading, Edward is singularly inadequate to deal with Florence’s problems: his proposal itself was inspired by a misreading of her sexual signals and he's unfamiliar with psychological ideas Perhaps this might be expected at the time, but she has read Freud ('Perhaps what I really need to do is to kill my mother and marry my father', she says) although perhaps she hasn’t thought enough about the subconscious to consider that we sometimes in jest say what we really mean.

It is not only women who might marry their fathers but men who might marry their mothers and Edward’s tragedy is compounded because of the possibility that not only has he misread Florence’s sexual signals but that he is attracted to her precisely because she is the sort of damaged woman who might behave in this ambiguous way. One of Edward’s significant early memories is realising there is something wrong with his mother. One of the gestures that he most loves in Florence, brushing a hair from her face, is something he first sees in his mother(and we witness his mother’s connection to music when she ‘fumbles’ through piano pieces. She is ineffective yet her actions ‘felt like love’ and this is almost identical to the way he misreads Florence’s physical signals. The conclusion I come to is that Edward’s mother and Florence are similar because they are both damaged. In an example of the intricate patterning that is one of this novel’s real strengths, Edward copes much better with his mother once he realises there is a name for what is wrong with her in the expression ‘brain-damaged’, acknowledging ‘the power of words to make the unseen visible'. Florence, as noted above, remains unable to name her problem and thus to communicate it with her husband.

There is other evidence of abuse too, some of which I’m happy to concede might be too much of a stretch. For instance, there are intertextual nods to ‘the new Nabokov’, which in 1962 would have been Pale Fire -- but the first film version of Lolita was made in 1962. And on the same page as this reference, Edward’s desire for Florence is described as ‘inseparable’ from her setting, which is so reminiscent of the way Gatsby loves Daisy (also while conscious of his lower social standing) and of the way Dick Diver loves the wealthy Nicole whose father explicitly abused her (who can forget the horror of reading we were like lovers.. and then we were lovers) and who in her insanity seems based on the probably abused Zelda). (Gatsby is also explicitly, though falsely, called an Oggsford man ...okay, I’ll stop pursuing this line, but McEwan and Fitzgerald are favourites of mine...)

As far as I can tell from one quick check, this is the evidence that I was aware of as a possible reading while first perusing the book. The more I consider it, the more I’m convinced. (And the more I’m convinced that this is another great McEwan book.)


Bruno said...

wow, that's the best thing i've read about mcewan!! it's the first time i read a book of his autorship in the original version (i'm brazilian, so i read most books translated to portuguese). i was afraid of not getting everything or not really feeling the book due to words i didn't know, but it was worth the experience. it is incredible the subtlety and the depth with which he builds his characters. thanks for making 'on chesil beach' even greater to me!

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Anonymous said...

I agree; thanks for such an insightful review Kimberley; it's very refreshing to find such an intelligent blogger, thankyou; keep the reviews coming...

Dascha said...

Hi there,
really good comment on "On Chesil Beach". I had the same impression about Florence while reading the novel and was googleing for "sexual abuse of Florence by her father." I share the observations you made. It's good to know some one else observed that as well.

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