In this survey, Ian McEwan emerges as one of those rare writers whose works have received both popular and critical acclaim. His novels grace the bestseller lists, and he is well regarded by critics, both as a stylist and as a serious thinker about the function and capacities of narrative fiction. McEwan's novels treat issues that are central to our times: politics, and the promotion of vested interests; male violence and the problem of gender relations; science and the limits of rationality; nature and ecology; love and innocence; and the quest for an ethical worldview. Yet he is also an economical stylist: McEwan's readers are called upon to attend, not just to the grand themes, but also to the precision of his spare writing. Although McEwan's later works are more overtly political, more humane, and more ostentatiously literary than the early work, this book uncovers the continuity as well as the sense of evolution through the oeuvre. It makes the case for McEwan's prominence—pre-eminence, even—in the canon of contemporary British novelists.
IanMcEwan: below the waves
I will know the nature of the offence. Already I know this. I know
that it has to do with trash and shit, and that it is wrong in time.
(Amis, 1991, 73)
The presence of the grotesque, with its characteristic contradictory
elements, in IanMcEwan’s fiction is most easily visible in the author’s
use of grotesque images and scenarios. As my earlier discussions
of the concept of the grotesque have shown, the admixture of
contradictory elements, such as death and the comic, has traditionally
been described as grotesque. A good
points, beginning with the
observation that human continuity is clearly indicated in our ability to
engage with the literary representations of character from earlier
historical periods: for this to happen, ‘we must bring our own general
understanding of what it means to be a person.’ We rely on our ‘theory
of mind’, our ‘more-or-less automatic understanding of what it means
to be someone else.’ This is the kind of observation that marries with
the principles of narrative ethics, as discussed elsewhere in this book,
and which implies a necessary
‘single effect’, in Edgar Allan
Poe’s enduring formulation.6 The reason Hanson marks McEwan out
as a key practitioner of short fiction, however, is his subject matter:
It could be argued that McEwan’s adoption of the short fiction and novella
forms is bound up with [his] focus on our most private and usually wellguarded feelings. While short fiction does not deal exclusively with private
emotion – inevitably the sense of privacy and exclusion depends on an
implied social context – it can shed the weight of social commentary
which seems inherent in the
anachronistic understanding of literature’s importance.
In the case of IanMcEwan, his current standing, as one of the most
significant British writers since the 1970s, seems secure. More
problematic is the related claim I would wish to advance: that he is
possibly the most significant of a number of writers (including Martin
Amis, Kazuo Ishiguro and Graham Swift) who have resuscitated the
link between morality and the novel for a whole generation, in ways
that befit the historical pressures of their time. Implicit in such a
claim is the assumption that the novel is a
in startling ways. It is a misperception – and a force for suppression –
to suppose that this capacity should not be explored.
Paradoxically, then, the shock value of early McEwan serves as a
reminder of the range of the literary effect: it is a value that stands for
literariness, giving offence particularly to those who take a narrower
view of literature. In a further paradox, the more overtly ‘literary’
McEwan’s work has become, the more uncertain it has been about the
role of literature. Eventually, what we see in Atonement is a complex
reliability, thus tying in the
business of writing to the larger deliberation about ethics and
The Innocent represents a stylistic departure for McEwan, since its
mood and plot is directly influenced by the Cold War spy novel.
Malcolm Bradbury feels the presence of the spy novels of Len Deighton
and John Le Carré (and behind them the influence of Graham Greene),
and suggests that these writers have a bearing on McEwan’s treatment
of ‘the moral state of post-war Britain’, and the paranoia that a
corrupted Establishment invokes.2
in the aftermath of a nuclear attack: the
child, when found, is beyond help and is cradled by the mother until
she dies. The notes indicate that the woman’s words ‘are those of an
actual Hiroshima survivor who lost her family in the attack.’3 However,
aside from this section, and some choral elements where McEwan
draws on William Blake, the writing is blunt. This befits the urgency
of the topic, but is quite opposed to the non-partisan spirit that McEwan
sees as the vital ingredient of the aesthetic of the novel.
McEwan summarizes the libretto as
the most pointed
moment where behavioural codes of the 1940s clash memorably with
those of the 1970s or 1980s.
Escaping a court martial for assault, Cathy is demoted and sent to
work as a general skivvy at Bletchley Park. Here, however, she is closer
to the heart of the code-breaking process that fascinates her, and which
seems to represent genuinely important war work. She responds to
the advances of Turner, partly modelled on Alan Turing, the brilliant
mathematician who worked on the German Enigma codes at Bletchley.
Following an unsuccessful
(apparently) hostile political context; but McEwan’s real interest is in
the point where compromise becomes capitulation, where self-interest
finally ousts the shreds of social conviction that remain.
The author’s impression of this stratum of the intelligentsia is
conveyed through a detached narrative voice that vacillates between an
ironic mood and one that is less implicitly critical. This makes the
dissection of amorality in the two principals more complex than a
casual reading suggests.
These two, Vernon Halliday and Clive Linley, each