I’ve just been reading the extract printed in today’s Guardian from the new Ian McEwan novel, to be published next month, and it seems to confirm a tendency that first became evident in Atonement and, alas, all too explicit in Saturday. What looked like the attractive, even accomplished pastiche of a certain kind of genteel English fiction in the first section of Atonement, a tone reminiscent of the novels of, say, Elizabeth Taylor or Rosamund Lehmann, developed into the cumbersome and mannered gravitas of Saturday. In both cases, the choice of style might be justified: in the former by period setting; in the latter by voice. But already it was beginning to grate in the second novel, regardless of its inappropriateness, for its arch and slightly pompous monotony.
Things look even worse in the new novel. In this passage, the heroine is taking off her shoes:
When Florence reached the bedroom, she released Edward’s hand and, steadying herself against one of the oak posts that supported the bed’s canopy, she dipped first to her right, then to her left, dropping a shoulder prettily each time, in order to remove her shoes. These were going-away shoes she had bought with her mother one quarrelsome rainy afternoon in Debenhams – it was unusual and stressful for Violet to enter a shop. They were of soft pale blue leather, with low heels and a tiny bow at the front, artfully twisted in leather of darker blue. The bride was not hurried in her movements – this was yet another of those delaying tactics that also committed her further.
Who is supposed to be watching this laboured over-detailed scene? Florence, who sees herself as “dropping a shoulder prettily”? Her new husband, presumably a shoe fetishist (“artfully twisted in leather of darker blue”!)? Or maybe it’s just the novelist, intent on dragging the moment out for as long as possible. Amusingly, the moment is later recalled as “she was the one who had […] removed her shoes with such abandon”, suggesting that McEwan hasn’t even bothered to read himself. Abandon? Delaying tactics?
In the writing’s attempt to be exhaustively attentive to the characters and the situation, what comes across most strongly is the dreadful awkwardness of it, as it lapses from long-winded to precious to, unwittingly, ludicrous. There are numerous examples:
Edward’s face was still unusually pink, his pupils dilated, his lips still parted, his breathing as before: shallow, irregular, rapid. His week of wedding preparation, of crazed restraint, was bearing down hard on his body’s young chemistry.
“Bearing down hard on his body’s young chemistry”? What kind of mixed register is this? It strikes me as ‘fine writing’ of the worst sort. It ought to be young body, of course, not young chemistry, but McEwan presumably thinks his version sounds more literary. It’s a pity he didn’t think harder, then, before using clichés like “a trapped moth” (yes, it flutters) and “a startled gazelle” (that’s right, it leaps). And then there are repetitions of structure and form that should have been picked up, if not by McEwan himself, by his editor.
For example, in this passage, the grammatical echo may have been desired. But I doubt it:
Edward’s hand did not advance – he may have been unnerved by what he had unleashed – and instead rocked lightly in place, gently kneading her inner thigh. This may have been why the spasm was fading, but she was no longer paying attention.
Hmm. I’m not surprised.