On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan
Reading On Chesil Beach consoled me. Despite its presentation as ‘another masterwork from Ian McEwan’ and his credentials from Atonement, which I really enjoyed, when I finished this 166-page novel I saw it as a controversial work, a book rightfully open to doubt and criticism. I apologise for my resulting sentiments, but having just come from a frustrating discussion with an agent and a publisher about one of my novels, I couldn’t help but think, “Ian McEwan’s great pen can also be questionable if not unsuccessful sometimes”. At the least, it is sometimes possible to swap roles and find concrete reasons for a discontented reading of an acclaimed author. We are all human eventually when we write and review.
Therefore, I would like to start by saying that I praise Ian McEwan. I like his prose and his polite way of considering and respecting his readers. His writing mostly resembles a conversation, a British one actually, which pulls me into his explanations. After spending three hours immersed in On Chesil Beach, I was left with a strong sense of Great Britain itself, including its atmospheres and tastes. Ian McEwan guided and instructed me, which is not a bad thing.
“This was not a good moment in the history of English cuisine, but no one much minded at the time, except visitors from abroad. The formal meal began, as so many did then, with a slice of melon decorated by a single glazed cherry …”
At the same time, this politeness is also the limit of the book. The story doesn’t require a detached account that is at odds with the plot (or the main event of the entire story, which involves Edward the groom’s premature ejaculation all over his bride, Florence, on their wedding night). Instead, it calls for a form of subtle humour or different involvement of or passion from the narrator. However, the story is told from the perspective of Edward and Florence, who don’t think it is funny or humoristic at all.
First, let’s explore some background. Ian McEwan (1948) is an English novelist and screenwriter. After publishing several works that were gothic and macabre (which may explain why his style now is so polite), he eventually began publishing good books, such as Enduring Love, the first of his works to be adapted into a film; Amsterdam, which won the Man Booker Prize in 1998; and Atonement, 2001, his most famous work, which was adapted into the film with the same evocative name, starring Keira Knightley and James McAvoy. His other books are Saturday, Solar, Sweet Tooth, and The Children Act.
On Chesil Beach was published in 2007. It is set in 1962 in an imaginary Georgian hotel on the Dorset coast overlooking the well-known Chesil Beach, which is sometimes called Chesil Bank or Tombolo because it connects the mainland with the isle of Portland. The beach has been the location of many shipwrecks. The plot of this novel focuses on a human shipwreck, specifically that of Edward and Florence, who “were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible …”
Ian McEwan describes three climatic moments: the meal held the evening of the wedding, the bride and groom’s clumsily fumbling towards the feared consummation, and the discussion on the Chesil Beach, to which Florence has escaped after the unexpected conclusion of their sexual attempt. These three main scenes are intermingled with flashbacks and memories, which give a detailed account of the lives of the two newlyweds and the development of their relationship.
However, the characters of Edward and Florence are not fully fleshed out. Moreover, they are not nice, not even in relief. I’m left with a sense of dislike and antipathy that doesn’t help during a reading. The characters seem to have to recite their dialogue tediously in the theatre known as Great Britain between the fanfare and pride of the Empire and the sudden squalor brought on by the awareness of the fall.
“Every year the Empire shrank as another few countries took their rightful independence. Now there was almost nothing left, and the world belonged to the Americans and the Russians. Britain, England, was a minor power – saying this gave a certain blasphemous pleasure …”
“Some of the men would be filling their pipes for one last time that day. Gathering around the wireless for the main bulletin was a wartime habit they would never break …”
This novel illustrates a time of passage, it is true, between the old traditions and the exploding new fashions and movements, between the Victorian era that still persists and the emerging Beatles, Mary Quant, etc. However, everything in the story seems rigid and, in a certain sense, forced.
“This was still the era – it would end later in that famous decade – when to be young was a social encumbrance, a mark of irrelevance, a faintly embarrassing condition for which marriage was the beginning of a cure …”
“Even when Edward and Florence were alone, a thousand unacknowledged rules still applied. It was precisely because they were adults that they did not do childish things like walk away from a meal that others had taken pains to prepare. It was dinner time, after all. And being childlike was not yet honourable, or in fashion …”
If the story is about how life can be changed by a single, possibly irrelevant, episode, a premature ejaculation could be a good yet weird example of such an episode. However, at the end of the novel, the only drama comes from the breakdown of a never-consumed marriage between two young, unprepared and boring individuals – so where is the tragedy?
If the book is supposed to be about the intersection of sex and class in England, it is not well investigated. The topic remains in the background, linked only with the concept of frigidity that sometimes seems to be part of a specific social belonging.
“Between Edward and Florence, nothing happened quickly. Important advances, permissions wordlessly granted to extend what he was allowed to see or caress, were attained only gradually. The day in October he first saw her naked breast long preceded the day he could touch them – December 19. He kissed them in February, though not her nipples, which he grazed with his lips once, in May…”
The last chapter is but a device, a sort of a synopsis of the rest of Edward and Florence’s lives after their divorce, before reaching the final phrases of the book:
“On Chesil Beach he could have called out to Florence, he could have gone after her. He did not know, or would not have cared to know, that as she ran away from him, certain in her distress that she was about to lose him, she had never loved him more, or more hopelessly, and that the sound of his voice would have been a deliverance, and she would have turned back. Instead, he stood in cold and righteous silence in the summer’s dusk, watching her hurry along the shore, the sound of her difficult progress lost to the breaking of small waves, until she was a blurred, receding point against the immense straight road of shingle gleaming in the pallid light.”
The pleasure of reading On Chesil Beach comes from McEwan’s style, which is plain and, some might say, scientific in sex scenes, not relying on complicated sentences. This British style can be used to create a peculiar atmosphere of distance. Here, the idea of distance is fully achieved.