I. Henry Perowne Doesn’t Get Literature
It’s pretty obvious that the good doctor’s thoughts on literature are not entirely McEwan’s, otherwise our humble author would be puttering away in a lab somewhere and I wouldn’t be doing this. Emphasis on “entirely.” There’s still a little bit of McEwan in here, though, which, with the help of Daniel Zalewski’s New Yorker profile on the man, hopefully shouldn’t be too hard to tease out.
For starters, while somehow doubt McEwan thinks of Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary as “fairy stories,” (p. 65) I can’t say the same for this:
They had the virtue, at least, of representing a recognizable physical reality, which could not be said for the so-called magical realists she opted to study in her final year. What were these authors of reputation doing—grown men and women of the twentieth century—granting supernatural powers to their characters? He never made it all the way through a single one of those irksome confessions. And written for adults, not children. (p. 66)
As it happens, our humble author is a staunch realist. Zalewski?
McEwan said that one of his rules for the opera [for which he wrote a libretto] was that it be anchored in psychological realism. “So many are supernatural fairy tales,” he said.
As McEwan has grown more outspoken in his rationalism, his books have become fully anchored in old-fashioned realism. “It’s enough to try and make some plausible version of what we’ve got, rather than have characters sprout wings and fly out the window,” he says.
I don’t think McEwan’s allusion to his own The Child in Time—a book Perowne dislikes—softens or contradicts the good doctor’s criticism, considering our humble author seems slightly embarrassed by the book’s magical realism elements himself. To wit:
McEwan said that the moment [referenced in Saturday] was meant to be akin to a wormhole: “It was my toe in the water of magical realism. I thought I could do it behind the fig leaf of a rather loose interpretation of quantum mechanics.”
Another thing Perowne doesn’t (and doesn’t care to) understand about literature:
This reading list persuaded Perowne that the supernatural was the recourse of an insufficient imagination, a dereliction of duty, a childish evasion of the difficulties and wonders of the real, of the demanding re-enactment of the plausible. (p. 66)
I want to say this isn’t McEwan talking, but I keep flashing back to “supernatural fairy tales.”
Either way, this is completely nonsensical. Daisy needs to get Perowne on some Discworld, stat, to see if the good doctor can peel back the layers of magic and fantasy and discover the books’ soft, fruity, humanistic center. Discworld may not be set in our world, and the series may have supernatural elements throughout, but no one can accuse Pratchett of a “childish evasion of the difficulties and wonders of the real.”
More to the point, I don’t expect the stuff I read to have a “demanding re-enactment of the plausible.” There are worthier goals. But then, I’m not a brain surgeon.
This next sequence is cute.
“No more magic midget drummers,” he pleaded with her by post, after setting out his tirade. “Please, no more ghosts, angels, satans or metamorphoses. When anything can happen, nothing much matters. It’s all kitsch to me.” (p. 66-67)
Perowne doesn’t get suspension of disbelief, or this little thing called “internal consistency.”
“You ninny,” she reproved him on a postcard, “you Gradgrind. It’s literature, not physics!”
They had never conducted one of their frequent arguments by post before. He wrote back: “Tell that to your Flaubert and Tolstoy. Not a single winged human between them!”
She replied by return of post, “Look at your Mme Bovary again”—there followed a set of page references. “He was warning the world against people just like you,”—last three words heavily underscored. (p. 67)
I’m surprised they elected to have this conversation the old-fashioned way. You’d think a rapid-fire back-and-forth like this would be better executed through e-mail.
So far, Daisy’s reading lists have persuaded him that fiction is too humanly flawed, too sprawling and hit-and-miss to inspire uncomplicated wonder at the magnificence of human ingenuity, of the impossible dazzlingly achieved. (p. 67)
Even fiction strongly anchored in realist traditions? Or Discworld, where that’s the whole point? This definitely is not McEwan.
One trope that really annoys me in fiction is when someone is presented as having opinions that are obviously, demonstrably wrong, where the audience is meant to point and say, “Look at this dope, they believe all this stupid stuff!” It’s especially annoying when something happens to this character that motivates him or her to “convert” to the correct opinion. The atheist has a spiritual experience. The hippie peacenik gets kidnapped by terrorists. Later in Saturday, our literature-dismissing brain surgeon will get an eyeful of what the art form he so despises can really do, and I fear it will have similar results.
II. Henry Perowne Doesn’t Get Politics
Sixty-seven pages in and the good doctor has finally stepped outside, if only to pick up the paper. Then he returns to the kitchen whilst reading the headlines:
The Prime Minister is expected to emphasise in a speech in Glasgow today the humanitarian reasons for war. In Perowne’s view, the only case worth making. (p. 68)
So Perowne’s ambivalence is an awful lot like McEwan’s; no surprise there. Our humble author spent a little less than half of his aforesaid 2003 Democracy Now article thrashing the anti-war folks, saying “the peace movement does not have a monopoly of the humanitarian arguments.” He concludes with “the hawks have my head, the doves my heart,” a sentiment the good doctor evidently shares. Moving on, we find this:
What simple accretions have brought the humble kettle to the peak of refinement: jug-shaped for efficiency, plastic for safety, wide spout for ease of filling, and clunky little platform to pick up the power. He never complained about the old style—the sticking tin lid, the thick black feminine socket waiting to electrocute wet hands seemed in the nature of things. But someone had thought about this carefully, and now there’s no going back. The world should take note: not everything is getting worse. (p. 68)
If it wasn’t for the well-documented bourgeois liberal devotion to the myth of human progress, I’d say this was self-parody. If you wanted to show that “not everything is getting worse,” you’d probably be better off citing an example more consequential than tea kettles. The news comes on.
Then a reporter down among an early gathering of demonstrators by the Embankment. All this happiness on display is suspect. Everyone is thrilled to be together our on the streets—people are hugging themselves, it seems, as well as each other. If they think—and they could be right—that continued torture and summary executions, ethnic cleansing and occasional genocide are preferable to an invasion, they should be sombre in their view. (p. 68-69)
Our enlightened, rational upper-class man of science is tut-tutting the dotty rabble. No, sir, no classism here, move along, nothing to see here.
One final thought. Seymour?
Since I was there, and since I recall it with great clarity, I feel like making one thing clear. It was not just the cheerful, loud, bouyant event that was depicted in the newspapers – not, as David Aaronovitch angrily put it, one long Coca-Cola advert. It was not just the suspiciously festive occasion depicted in Ian McEwan’s snide novel, Saturday (if keeping Saddam and all his evil works is better than removing him, the hero muses, isn’t this joyous exuberance out of place?). […] It was exultant, and it was what democracy looks like. But for my money it was also tense.
(Answer: demonstrations often have a carnival aspect, full of creative and witty forms of protest. But one of my most enduring memories of that march is trudging slowly along Piccadilly, crushed by the biggest, slowest-moving crowd I’d ever been in in my life, IN TOTAL SILENCE. On the approach to Hyde Park the mood wasn’t jolly, but sombre. But maybe McEwan wasn’t there to witness it.)
It’s enough to try and make some plausible version of what we’ve got, rather than have characters sprout wings and fly out the window.