No Sex, Please, We're British
By Daphne Merkin
New York Sun, May 30, 2007
Edited by Andy Ross
On Chesil Beach
By Ian McEwan
Jonathan Cape, 166 pages
Ian McEwan has set his
latest novel in 1962. On Chesil Beach takes us back into an England of
muffled urges and inedible cuisine, an age when marriage generally preceded
— or immediately followed — sexual intercourse.
We are introduced in
Part I to a young couple, Edward and Florence, on their wedding night.
Rather, we enter the narrative smack in the lead-up to their wedding night,
as, preparatory to tying the carnal knot, they eat dinner served off a
trolley by two flustered "youths in dinner jackets" in their hotel suite on
the Dorset coast.
Edward, notwithstanding the "conventional first
night nerves" that assail him, can't wait to get himself and his bride
hurtling forward on "the path to pleasure," having daydreamed of this moment
throughout the months of their cautious and impeded courting.
Florence's "beautiful light brown eyes" are incandescent with fear: "Her
problem, she thought, was greater, deeper than straightforward physical
disgust; her whole being was in revolt against a prospect of entanglement
and flesh; her composure and essential happiness were about to be violated."
We discover what actually transpires after they repair to "lie down
together on the four-poster bed and reveal themselves fully to each other."
I balk at the way the author implicitly sets up the caricatured attitude
of one mythologized era (abounding in sexual repression) against the other
(abounding in sexual license) and expects sparks of recognition to fly. Ah
yes, that's how it was, back when emotions were tightly wound and morals
even tighter. But do couples, even experienced ones, ever "reveal themselves
fully to each other"?
I would guess that the clamorous praise this
novel has received from the other side of the Atlantic has something to do
with the fact that McEwan is taking up the buried — or merely conveniently
disavowed — notion that some of us quail before the demands of fleshly
engagement, that not all of us fly free of the impediments to carnal bliss.
The ghost of Philip Larkin haunts these pages.
AR I enjoyed reading the
novel and found its evocation of life in 1962, which I recall with mixed
feelings, sharp and vivid. That sex was so, and, in a very different style
now, is and always will be so, is sobering to recall and reflect upon. The
perils of sex are not banished by a social and sexual revolution. They are
part of the human condition. McEwan is a supremely skilled novelist and this
book is a minor classic. Not nice, but nicely done nevertheless.