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.