Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009, 160 pp., $22
On Chesil Beach
Nan A. Talese, 2007, 208 pp., $22
How do I love thee, and thou me? In spurts, it would seem: spurts of language on Twitter and Blackberry, of bodily fluids on the Showtime series Californication, of arterial spray in the vampire shows that have besotted the nation’s high-school girls (and more than a few of their mothers).
As a theme, though, love requires the longer look that only a film or play or novel can provide. As it happens, love is one of three top literary themes, the others being death, and what, if anything, happens after death. Yet death can be handled pretty quickly. As maestro Lorin Maazel once said, “The idea of dying is like a joke or a literary device. It’s not all that bad. So you fall into eternal sleep. So what?” As for the afterlife, you’re either fer it or agin’ it, so there’s no point arguing with the idiots who don’t have the same grasp on truth that you do. Ah, but love is the ultimate roller coaster in life as well as literature. You make eye contact with someone, and zoom!—up you go. Months or years later, you have a tiff about money or religion or the in-laws, and zap!—down you fall. Eventually you end up back where you started, and then the ride begins again. But this takes time, and hence a certain quantity of ink. Love can’t be grasped in its entirety in the 140 characters of a tweet or even in the 14 lines of a sonnet, though Lord knows many a tweeter and sonneteer has tried. You need at least a couple hundred pages to talk about love—800 pages if you’re Russian. You need the novel, or what D.H. Lawrence called “the one bright book of life.”
Two great contemporary English-language writers, one on this side of the Atlantic and one on the other, have novels of recent vintage that promise to tell us something we don’t already know about love. Let us look at Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach and Philip Roth’s The Humbling, then, and let us see them not only in the context of these authors’ other many and varied writings, but also in terms of what we ourselves know about human beings and the ways in which they adore and despise and exalt and destroy each other. Because a novel isn’t an instruction manual for life; a novel is your life. It toddles along beside you long after you’ve finished it, and it does all the things you can’t do, not to mention many things you can. And it is in that gap between the familiar and the new, and between the should and the shouldn’t, that we live most intensely. Sure, I like movies and operas and 1950s pop songs and Keats’s odes and even Californication, for that matter, but there’s no better, more intimate companion than a novel.
No better artistic companion, I should say, because once our basic needs are met, it’s clear that we are hardwired to connect with other people. Fairy tales end “and they lived happily ever after” not because all marriages turn out that way but because that’s how we want them to turn out. A union with one other person is the only compact that “takes the sting out of life”, as Bruno Bettelheim says in his magisterial study of classic fairy tales, The Uses of Enchantment. After a certain point, though, “happily ever after” loses its box-office draw. Success only takes you so far in art. As consumers, we love our misery: our car wrecks, gunshot wounds, heartbreaks, comeuppances, and why-me-god twists of fate. The greatest artists traffic in misery in a way that makes us want to be miserable, makes us want to be one of Chekhov’s lovelorn intellectuals or O’Neill’s consumptive alcoholics, a foolish king in Shakespeare or even a murderous one. There’s a joy in pain I’ll say more about later, but for the moment, let’s go to the two books by two authors who love to make us squirm in delighted anguish about love.
Together, The Humbling and On Chesil Beach bracket a period in history in which we see a new manner of being human rise and then change in a way that could not possibly have been foreseen. So whereas The Humbling takes place in the present, when gay marriage and abortion are openly debated and pornography has been mainstreamed, On Chesil Beach begins at the birth of that creature who has had so much influence over the past half-century: the Young Person.
Teen culture is actually a product of the Fifties, but in 1962, when Ian McEwan’s novel begins, young people are just beginning to define themselves as a separate cultural species. Newlyweds Florence and Edward are celebrating the start of their new life in a hotel on the Dorset coast, yet the honeymoon lunch seems to be from a bygone era. “This was not a good moment in the history of English cuisine”, McEwan says ominously, and then adds some dreary particulars. “The formal meal began, as so many did then, with a slice of melon decorated by a single glazed cherry. Out in the corridor, in silver dishes on candle-heated plate warmers, waited slices of long-ago roasted beef in a thickened gravy, soft-boiled vegetables, and potatoes of a bluish hue.”
Though they think they are on the brink of everything new, Florence and Edward unquestioningly take on the old ways, like children playing dress-up in their parents’ clothes. Rather than setting up for himself, Edward works for Florence’s father; they even drive to the hotel in her mother’s car. “This was still the era”, notes McEwan, “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.”
First, though, they have to get through that ghastly meal. Outside their window, the beach calls, and they might have grabbed a bottle of wine, kicked off their shoes, and gone for a romp in the surf, because
there was no one in the hotel who would have wanted to stop them. They were adults at last, on holiday, free to do as they chose. In just a few years’ time, that would be the kind of thing quite ordinary young people would do. But for now, the times held them.
And so they go on “eating the dinner they had no appetite for.”
And then they have to deal with the next appetite that all honeymooners are expected to satisfy. The meal is unappetizing, but the account of the kiss that follows it reads like a torture scene. (The time it takes to read the first few dozen pages of a new book is a probationary period, and if the reader is looking for an excuse to drop On Chesil Beach and flip through an issue of National Geographic or watch a rerun of Scrubs on Comedy Central, this scene is it.) Florence is the victim here: Words like “claustrophobia” and “breathlessness” appear, followed by “struggling”, “gagging”, “panicking”, and, yes, “sick.” On and on goes the description, adjective after stomach-churning adjective: “pinioned”, “smothered”, “suffocating”, “nauseous.”
What comes as a surprise, then, is how deeply Florence loves Edward, how intent she is on pleasing him, on acting the part of the sexually aroused, even eager bride. It is she who takes his hand and pulls him toward the bed. From this point on, it can only get worse. And it does.
Edward’s fear is that he will “arrive too soon”, and when he empties himself before he even enters her, Florence’s high-minded resolve to please him disappears before her visceral disgust. She wipes her body with a pillowcase, dresses hurriedly and rushes out. Edward follows her, and in the conversation following the mishap, they find themselves saying things unintended and often the opposite of what they meant to say. McEwan is at his best (not just here but in all his books) when he charts that mysterious passage that emotions make when they rise somewhere in the brain and then take the form of an utterance that surprises the speaker as much as the listener. What happens is that unfamiliar feelings prompt us to be hateful, to wound someone and, at the same time, destroy our own happiness in a way that is perversely satisfying.
McEwan knows that the key to destroying others is to accuse them of some fault they already think they have. When Edward speaks to Florence, he tells her:
You tricked me. Actually, you’re a fraud. And I know exactly what else you are. Do you know what you are? You’re frigid, that’s what. Completely frigid. But you thought you needed a husband, and I was the first bloody idiot who came along.
Not much else happens in the few remaining hours of Florence and Edward’s doomed marriage, but McEwan keeps On Chesil Beach from being an extended short story by means of a trick that he uses elsewhere to superb effect, notably in his best novel, Atonement. In a word, he fast-forwards: One minute we’re there on the beach with the spent, miserable couple, and before we know it, it’s decades later, and at last a sixty-ish Edward can “admit to himself that he had never met anyone he loved as much” and that “it rather amazed him” that he had let her go when “all she had needed was the certainty of his love, and his reassurance that there was no hurry when a lifetime lay ahead of them.” But that lifetime is behind them now. That boat has sailed, and the youngsters who should have sailed with it are stranded on Chesil Beach.
If only they had waited a year! McEwan’s novel begins in 1962, and as Philip Larkin famously wrote in his poem “Annus Mirabilis”,
Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me)—
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.
Up to then there’d only been
A sort of bargaining
A wrangle for the ring
A shame that started at sixteen
And spread to everything.
Those last five lines are On Chesil Beach in a nutshell.
But it’s one year later, 1963, in his essay “Writing About Jews” that Philip Roth suggests that his topic is a “world which tempts all our promiscuous instincts.” Boy, does it ever. The biggest problem McEwan’s male character faces is that he might “arrive too soon”, but Roth’s guys “arrive” at every conceivable moment: too soon, too late, on time, too many times; only rarely not at all. Along with his goyishe counterpart John Updike, Roth has looked at male sexuality from every angle, and the sight, though certainly as American as McEwan’s is British, isn’t always pretty.
In its use of the present participle so popular in horror movie titles (The Shining, The Howling), The Humbling suggests mortal dread and plenty of it. On Chesil Beach is about a struggle between two people, but Roth’s is about a much fiercer fight: the one that takes place inside each of us as the mind remains its cheery, 16-year-old self and the body gets steadily older. Roth’s protagonist, Simon Axler, one of “the last of the best of the classical American stage actors”, hears Time sharpening his scythe when he discovers at age 65 that he can’t act anymore. He flops as Macbeth at the Kennedy Center, turns down prestigious offers and becomes a recluse. Yet he’s been an actor all his life, so, as he tells his agent, “I can’t act onstage and I can’t find a plot for myself to live offstage.”
So Axler checks into a psychiatric hospital, though nothing there helps much. But at least he’s shocked into awareness that his own case isn’t so bad when a fellow resident offers to hire him to kill her husband, whom she caught molesting her child—yet who still got away with it. Wisely, Axler turns down the role of hit man, even though it looks as though the curtain on his future is just about to come down. Except that it doesn’t, because Pegeen Stapleford, the adult child of actor friends of his, enters stage left. Now forty years old, Pegeen is pretty in a tomboyish way. In fact, she has been a lesbian up to this point in her life, but now she’s ready to start batting for the other team. She and Axler get physical and reach a point of no return before they realize it. As McEwan has already demonstrated, our bodies get there first, for better or worse, and our emotions have no choice but to follow, or try to, at least.
As stories do, this one takes an unexpected turn. Sex toys appear, including a green dildo. Okay, it’s a free country, and at this point people have probably found a way to make a green dildo as much a part of romance as a bottle of Dom Perignon and a Barry White CD, but here it comes off as grotesque. That is not all; with Roth it never is. Pegeen and Axler pick up a stranger in a bar and proceed to have a threesome that, as sex scenes go, is as unsexy as that vomitous kiss in On Chesil Beach. No wonder Axler pours himself a cup of tea in his kitchen the next day and feels “a need for the matter-of-fact.” Thinking to “put their audacity back into its domestic container”, he even imagines having a child with Pegeen. She, as it turns out, has rather different plans, ones that don’t include Simon Axler.
While the two lovers’ drama takes center stage, the cast of The Humbling also includes Pegeen’s parents, an ex-lover of hers who confronts Axler, and the woman who tried to hire him to kill her husband and who, in a shocking reappearance in the final pages, ends up doing the job herself. Roth’s genius as a writer (and McEwan has this quality, too) is that none of his characters is wrong. They may do stupid things, but their actions make sense, at least in the moment.
The novelist and playwright Michael Frayn, explaining in a New Yorker profile why he eschews judgment of his characters, said,
The German playwright Friedrich Hebbel said that in a good play everyone is right. . . . I don’t suppose he meant that you had to morally approve everyone, but I take it he meant that drama is people presenting themselves with the same force as they do in life, and feeling as justified about themselves as they do in life.1
The sexual casualties notwithstanding, both of these novels are about people simply relating to one another, and “everyone is right.”
Yet both stories end unhappily. Why, if everyone in them is right? An earlier McEwan novel, The Innocent, gives an explanation. Again, there are two lovers. Again, each plays a role in the tragedy. Here the man, Leonard, a British army officer in Cold War Berlin, gets it into his head that it’s okay for him to get rough with his new lover, Maria, who is repulsed. She breaks with him. There is later an attempt at rapprochement, but the chemistry, such as it was, is gone. Years later (remember, McEwan loves to take that long and instructive look backward) Maria writes to him to say, “In my experience, men and women don’t ever really get to understand each other.” Notice those two little words “get to”, which suggest the passage of time. You’re right, and I’m right, too, but unless we’re willing to put in the time, our both being right is nearly as useless as our both being wrong.
In study after study, researchers have established something called the 10,000 Hours Rule, which says that that’s how long it takes to get really good at something. Cello-playing, archery, poetry, safecracking, chess—you name it, and you can expect to put in about twenty hours a week over a period of ten years before you’re an expert. In a negative way, On Chesil Beach and The Humbling say that’s true as far as love goes, too—a common insistence that, for all the differences between McEwan and Roth, flies directly in the face of our high-pulsed, instant hook-up popular Western culture.
One of these books ends in a suicide, by the way, which is not only a terrible ending to a life but to a novel as well. Suicide is a one-way street, whereas, as Albert Rothenberg observes in The Emerging Goddess, his book about the creative process, literary tragedies tend to traffic in
antithetical elements, such as freedom in slavery, pride in humility, or triumph in defeat. When these antithetical elements are revealed and elaborated as a tragic novel or play unfolds, there is always an element of surprise, the culmination and overall impact of the suspenseful journey the creator has given us.
Kill yourself, though, and the trip’s over. The best plots linger in the mind, but that’s because they retain the surprise and suspense that are integral to our every living moment.
In a September 2009 post on Books Blog, on The Guardian’s website, a high school student is quoted as saying, “We need to read Dickens’s novels because they tell us, in the grandest way possible, why we are what we are.” On Chesil Beach and The Humbling teach that same lesson, albeit in a less grand, unflattering way. But they give tongue to a truth Dickens avoids with his tidy endings. Roth comes pretty close to equating love and lust; McEwan avoids that easy formula, but lust in his work is often a croquet mallet that knocks love for a loop. In Victorian times, human sexuality was depicted as almost spiritual; the marriages and big, happy families with which Dickens often ends his novels are more a triumph of ethics than desire. And while it would be nice if babies fell from heaven, they are born of desire, and desire is messy.
All well-wrought fiction is a triumph of one kind or another. No single novel tells us what to do. But what novels as a whole tell us, by both positive and negative example, is that we must live our lives as though they are novels. We can’t help trying to understand, but it’s more important that we seek to enjoy more than anything else. Be slow to anger and tolerant of others. Practice the golden rule, or if you want to give it a classier name, the categorical imperative. Remember, as Henry James said, there are three important things in life: Be kind, be kind, be kind. That’s why, for all its unhappiness, On Chesil Beach is the better novel. Roth’s American characters spend their time scratching what itches, whereas McEwan’s British ones break our hearts by trying so hard, even if they fail. Especially when they fail.
Oh, and one more thing: If real or fictional beings start talking about suicide, for God’s sake, get rid of the guns before it’s too late.
1Larissa MacFarquhar, “A Dry Soul Is Best”, New Yorker, October 25, 2004.