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Love In A Duffel Coat - Ian McEwan's 'On Chesil Beach'

Published: Fri 31 Aug 2018 03:09 PM
Love In A Duffel Coat - Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach
“Those who love to pursue fleeting forms of pleasure, in the end find only leaves and bitter berries in their hands.” - Cardinal Mafeo Barberini (later Pope Urban VIII).
I recently rewatched Francis Ford Coppola's Godfather trilogy and was struck by how the pace gradually slowed down to a glacial crawl as each installment recapitulated the one before. The first was sedate, the second lethargic, and the third turgid. Coppola played around with time frames, but in a manner that seems pedestrian and laboured when compared to the early cinematic experiments of Christopher Nolan and Bryan Singer. Such narrative inertia cannot be blamed on his choice of editors - he hired veteran Bill Reynolds (winner of eight Oscars) to cut Part One and promoted the visionary genius Walter Murch from sound designer to co-editor for Part Three. Nevertheless Coppola's repetitive structural motif remained intact throughout - brief scenes of brutal carnage are intercut with the formality of some 'sacred' Catholic ritual (whether wedding, christening, funeral, or operatic performance), while dolorous and doomed Micheal Corleone desperately tries to escape from the family business. Like some prehistoric insect trapped in amber, however, the more violently he struggles the sooner he gets sucked back in. Sadly, film adaptations of Ian McEwan's novels seem to suffer the same sort of fate. A cast of exemplary actors, arranged in front of handsomely appointed period backdrops, attempt to bring their frigid, marmoreal characters to life, while battling against increasingly convoluted narratives that have become excessively languorous and etiolated.
McEwan’s early short stories were pitch-perfect exercises in narrative concision - occasionally macabre, often unresolved, and always unsettling tales of the unexpected. Since turning to writing novels, Hollywood has proved unable to resist his product, producing screen versions ofThe Cement Garden,The Comfort of Strangers,The Innocent, Enduring Love, andAtonement. Such cinematic success is striking, especially considering his stock among literary critics has fallen in proportion. None of his last four novels made the Man Booker long list and in a recent Times Literary Supplement poll of the 'Best British and Irish Novelists Today' McEwan’s name was strangely nowhere to be seen, given his canonical status. BothEnduring Love andAtonement have been staples of English Literature syllabi since they were first published and few novelists have more teasingly exposed the machinery of narrative, or more expertly made it the essence of the entertainment. For many literary adolescents, Atonement provided a paradigm for the way in which a novel’s narrative viewpoint determines our experience of the truth. It seems that McEwan’s unpardonable transgression is to have opened up his box of narrative tricks to the general reader.
Nevertheless, the incisive quality of his stories is extraordinary. They often conclude with a stifling crisis: the panicky attempt to dispose of the body inThe Innocent; the escalating confrontation after a minor traffic accident inSaturday; the loss of the child in a supermarket inThe Child in Time; and the balloon inEnduring Love. McEwan always manages to wind up these slow-motion catastrophes, in which terror erupts into the ordinary world like clockwork, with seamless precision. As John Mullan has pointed out, complaints about the bourgeois sensibility, unfailing good taste, and smugness of his leading characters remain as pointless as criticising Emma Woodhouse for being a self-satisfied prig. McEwan’s novels insist that achieving a sense of well-being is a constantly precarious condition, with seemingly safe suburban lives constantly teetering on the edge of irreparable damage, attempted homicide, or death.
McEwan shares Muriel Spark's gift for chilly narrative control that simultaneously compels the reader's attention, while also repelling our sympathy. Sweet Tooth even includes an argument between the novel-reading heroine and her novel-writing lover about Spark’s more postmodern experiments. Few novelists have employed prolepsis more efficaciously. Letting the reader glimpse the narrative future before it has arrived immediately captures us in the opening chapter ofEnduring Love - the dramatic hook not only of those men trying to hold down the untethered balloon with a child in the basket, but also of the narrator’s belated efforts to make sense of his memories. “Knowing what I now know … ,” says Joe, in a classic McEwan opening to a sentence. In Amsterdam (a typically acidic fable that may have missed out on critical acclaim because it did win the Booker prize), it is not until page 149 that we discover the two main characters, male friends who are becoming bitter enemies, are both travelling there. We vaguely realise that their story is somehow involved with euthanasia and a Dutch medical scandal that is mentioned briefly. Their mutual resentment, hidden behind a mask of surface congeniality, supplies their narrative downfall. The outcome precedes the telling, as we slowly become aware that McEwan knows precisely where he is leading us and has meticulously mapped everything out before writing down a single sentence. Apprehension supplants surprise. The reader is simply required to applaud the clever manipulation.
Like a professional magician breaking the Magic Circle's founding principle, McEwan’s method is to make accessible, even enjoyable, the knowledge that we are being set up. He deliberately plants clues about this dextrous legerdemain within the novels themselves. At one point in Solar, theoretical physicist Michael Beard ruminates, “People who kept on about narrative tended to have a squiffy view of reality, believing all versions of it to be of equal value.” Some critics have suggested that McEwan features so many scientists in his novels because he is bedazzled by science, but Mullan observes that he is much more fascinated by postmodern narrative techniques of exploring self-consciousness. Many of his protagonists are professional explicators. Writers like Stephen inThe Child in Time and Briony inAtonement as much as scientific rationalists like Joe inEnduring Love and Henry Perowne inSaturday are dedicated to turning their experience into some form of structured diegesis.
This self-reflexive investigation of the narrative process itself constantly demonstrates how time is the currency in which all novelists trade. EM Forster observed, “The allegiance to time is imperative … in a novel there is always a clock.” Alongside his pals Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, and Julian Barnes, McEwan is fascinated by ways to play with chronology. The first and longest section ofAtonement (during which Briony’s 'crime' of misidentifying Lola’s rapist is staged) is fastidiously divided into numbered chapters involving a series of almost unnoticeable backward shifts in time. In a dazzling shattering of the illusion of narrative truth worthy of Rashomon, we keep witnessing or hearing about the same events from different points of view.
Film-makers are equally beguiled by such elegant trickery. Although such a talented hack as Christopher Hampton managed to negotiate successfully one ofAtonement’s major time-jolts (the scene in which Cecilia plunges into the fountain is given twice, first from Briony’s mystified perspective, then with the accompanying explanation of Robbie and Cecilia’s dialogue), all the other chronological shifts proved to be beyond him. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that McEwan himself would be tempted to adapt his own stories for the big screen. It is a highly complex task to recreate the weird ways in which individuals construct stories in their heads. Briony Tallis confusedly fantasises a story of her sister’s lover as a maniac, while Joe Rose builds the case history of his stalker without ever realising it is precisely his obsessive and overheated imagination which will eventually alienate his wife. This is also the key to understanding the tidal tug ofOn Chesil Beach, the last pages of which describe the hero's desultory existence after the disaster of his wedding night. It is narrated in a sequence of bleakly contracting time: a paragraph for a week, then for a year, then for a decade.
Even with McEwan himself writing the dialogue, however, On Chesil Beach cannot do justice to the accelerating pace of his own novella’s final pages. It was shot by Steve McQueen’s regular cinematographer, Sean Bobbitt, with the kind of impeccable attention to period detail we have come to expect, and directed with scrupulous sensitivity by stage director Dominic Cooke, making his feature film debut. As a team, they display a shrewd sense of how naive and pompous we sound in our early twenties - and how tragically misinformed. It tells the relatively simple tale of two university graduates getting married in 1962. Both have first-class degrees, inflated opinions of themselves, and no experience of pre-marital sex in a manner that may have been common back then, but is unimaginable now. The setting is a hotel on the Dorset coast, whose wild and windblown expanse grimly complements their corseted timidity and ignorance. This atmosphere of bleak and chilly isolation matches the movie's mood perfectly and Cooke contrives a climactic scene that suggests the couple have been marooned on the shingle, as though washed up after some mid-Atlantic shipping disaster. Their hotel wedding dinner turns into a painfully humiliating fiasco with devastating consequences, its failure foreshadowed in a grim visual metaphor by the matching maraschino cherries impaled with toothpicks on top of their pre-sliced cantaloupes.
The book's epilogue, in which McEwan condenses the rest of Edward’s life into just a few pages, is a brisk procession of events which reveal just how momentously significant that single evening was to their divergent destinies. Aided by an adroit score (music continues to be a crucial component in the lives of both Edward and Florence), On Chesil Beach is undeniably tender, sad, and very well-acted. Like previous McEwan adaptations, however, it is also constrained by flashbacks, literary good taste, and an abiding aura of cultural prestige. Even when the anger finally boils over, it never really explodes into raw life, although this may be explained by Britain's pervasive duffel-coated dullness at the time. I can still remember walking to school shrouded in thick pea-souper fogs - an aptly atmospheric analogy for that morally muffled and hypocritically cloud-covered era. On Chesil Beach reveals the absurdity of the virgin-wedding nonsense and how disturbing sex was for a generation whose prudish parents withheld vital information. It is a muted elegy of emotional frustration, amplified by ironic hints that a new era of sexual freedom was just around the corner. It is no accident that the movie is set in the same year as the Profumo affair, when the Technicolor revolution of acid-fueled 'free love' and easy access to birth control were just a couple of condoms away.
All this is revealed (like everything else) in a flashback from the central scene - the newlyweds’ hotel bedroom, where Edward and Florence endure their excruciatingly attenuated attempts to consummate their marriage. Opening up like a stage play, every flashback poignantly reveals how joyful they were together before their wedding day. There are even flashbacks-within-flashbacks, as Florence recalls submissively page-turning for a famous pianist at Wigmore Hall, then remembers her dominating father criticising her for failing to wind up ropes correctly on his yacht. The flashbacks, though fraught with significance, keep impeding narrative momentum by shifting the emotional weight away from what is actually happening in the present.
Playing a similar character to his role in Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending, Billy Howle's Edward is a smart, hardworking stiff with a violent streak. After a couple of beers to celebrate his exam results, he stumbles into a CND meeting, where he falls heavily for Saoirse Ronan's cleverly-fabricated chirrup of an upper-class accent. Both come from difficult family backgrounds that eventually prove their undoing. In an amusing cameo by Emily Watson, Florence’s mother Violet is an arrogant Oxford don who thinks nothing of a phone call from Iris Murdoch. The family patriarch Geoffrey, played with admirable panache by Samuel West, is an equally snobbish engineer with a tendency toward anger which he shares with Edward, whose own father Lionel is a much more sensitive and down-to earth soul, sympathetically portrayed by Adrian Scarborough. Edward's mother, embodied courageously by Anne-Marie Duff, is an artist suffering from severe psychological distress due to a horrifying accident at a train station. That defining moment in Edward's early childhood is deftly staged and provides the one real shock in the movie, explaining not only his earnest and over-compensating demeanour, but also the real reason for his repressed rage.
The courtship scenes are ripe with teenage awkwardness, so it is hardly a surprise that the newlyweds repeatedly struggle for intimacy when they finally hit the sack. Each hurdle is treated as another opportunity for renewed intimacy, as they slowly inch closer and closer together, until a very brief flashback suggests the underlying cause of Florence's overwhelming anxiety. McEwan's compassionate screenplay nicely elides sexual dysfunction with the lasting effects of childhood trauma, but for fans of Joseph Losey's The Go-Between this is already familiar territory. By the time the highly sentimental third act wrenches the action into the present, Ronan and Howle are swathed in layers of prosthesis that give even Gary Oldman's Churchill a run for his money. In a tremulous tone comparable to Al Pacino's fateful demise (itself an echo of Marlon Brando collapsing amid his tomato vines), the ending is both melancholy and maudlin, tinged with a desolate sense of remorse for what might have been. In many respects, the lover's tramp along Chesil Beach is equally plodding and predictable, but nonetheless chilling in its reserved and stony silence.
Howard Davis
Scoop Arts Editor
Educated at Cambridge and UCLA; worked on several major Hollywood feature films and as a Kundalini Yoga instructor in Los Angeles; currently enjoying life in Wellington.
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