Charlotte Reads Classics

Slowly, slowly, she sipped a sentence.

Tag: Ian McEwan

Antiquity? Modernity.

These reviews should perhaps be subtitled Why didn’t I read more classics? I feel guilty sometimes for never reading new writing, so this month I tried to even the balance. But really new books are much more hit and miss than classics: A sentence that once written seems incredibly self-evident. The two books I absolutely loved were A Change of Climate and On Chesil Beach. Maybe not surprising if you’ve read either of my previous thoughts about Hilary Mantel or Ian McEwan. Most disappointing was definitely John Saturnall’s Feast, the book not for me was NW and the one that was OK was The Greatcoat.

A Change of Climate

Yes, Hilary Mantel can do no wrong. Yes, I will now be endeavouring to read her non-historical novels. A Change of Climate is set in Norfolk, South Africa and Botswana (then Bechuanaland) and tells the story of Ralph and Anna, two non religious missionaries. Professional do-gooders are not something I’ve come across in real life, although I think more people do it than I had thought before reading this book. They begin their married life travelling from one mission post to another, eventually raising a family in a gigantic, temperamental, ramshackled old house in Norfolk. Really what the book boils down to is whether or not you can lead a good life: Can one man or woman make any real difference? Can you ever know what goes on behind closed doors? Are secrets ever worth keeping?

I can’t talk about the secret in the book because to know it before you read it would (in my opinion) completely ruin the story. But what made this book for me was what Mantel manages to achieve in all of her novels: characters. She can write characters like Tolstoy. Complete, three-dimensional, real, never unconvincing, human characters. And she doesn’t judge them. Secondly: setting. Perhaps a stupid comment to make but I’m making it nontheless: I’ve never been to South Africa or Botswana, but they felt real to me. I never read Mantel and feel like she is trying to show off how much research she has done (although there must be a lot, I think) and nor do I read it and think she’s just making stuff up. The landscapes here were amazing – and what a great contrast between Norfolk and Africa.

I’d really recommend this book because it is so original and so thought-provoking. I will think about it for a long time to come.

On Chesil Beach

This was my third Ian McEwan novel, I’ve loved all three so far, the other two being Enduring Love and Atonement. A very short novel, only five chapters, which alternate between back story and the present. It is a story about two young people on their wedding night and almost solely surrounds their inability to accurately read the other person. I agree with Nish’s review:

This book is much, much more than the sum of its parts.

Even though the book did not heavily rely on plot I didn’t expect the outcome of the story to be exactly what it was. It was kind of heart breaking in a very subtle sort of way – as I suppose any story centered around a misunderstanding is bound to be. The characters seemed true to life because in a relationship I think we do suppose the other person to understand us. Perhaps this is too modern a reading as couples in the past would maybe just not know each other as well before marrying. I think McEwan’s decision to set the novel in the 1960s is interesting because it forces him to qualify to the reader that this all before the swinging part of the sixties! He could have set it earlier just as easily, but I suppose this is to contrast with the attitudes that were about to change.

I won’t spend as long talking about the books I didn’t enjoy as much because whilst I personally didn’t like them, I wouldn’t want to deter people from reading them.

  • NW was a bit disappointing because I really like Zadie Smith. I enjoyed White Teeth and On Beauty and think she is a very intelligent woman and a talented writer. However, NW left me cold. Being a reader of the classics persuasion I often think about which new novels will be classics in the future. Whilst I think White Teeth would make a good one, being an honest portrayal of the tensions in multicultural Britain today, I think NW would be an embarrassing legacy. I thought the book was really depressing and about a culture I can neither identify with or feel any warmth for. I’m not really a city girl and I suppose I don’t agree with or value modern morality (or lack of). Whilst I think the Internet is an amazing thing, I don’t view my mobile phone as an object of intrinsic worth. So this novel about London, adultery, drugs and technology wasn’t for me. The writing however, was really good. And quite experimental – I bet she’s read Ulysses.
  • John Saturnall’s Feast should be really good. It is historical fiction set in the 1600s, has a bit of mysticism, a bit of royalty and a lot about food. Really, I like all of these things. However, I thought this book was rubbish. None of the characters are realistic, most of them are stupid, the book starts with a proper plot and then descends into predictable yet poorly executed chick-lit style romance. I’m sure this could have been really good, it just… isn’t.
  • The Greatcoat was alright – an RAF themed ghost story. The Hammer Horror label was slightly confusing because for a ghost story this was not at all scary. Not even a bit. And the comparisons to The Woman in Black were pushing it. As a short story, it is good and I was quite entertained. But I don’t think it is quite the story is markets itself as. I would, however, read more by Helen Dunmore because I think her writing might be more suited to full length novels.

In a Parade’s End update I am now onto the last of the four volumes: The Last Post. And then – where next? Definitely more classics.

The Modern Writer Needs Neither Characters Nor Plot

The age of clear answers was over. So was the age of characters and plots. Despite her journal sketches, she no longer really believed in characters. They were quaint devices that belonged to the nineteenth century. The very concept of character was founded on errors that modern psychology had exposed. Plots too were like rusted machinery whose wheels could no longer turn. A modern novelist could no more write characters and plots than a modern composer could a Mozart symphony. It was thought, perception, sensations that interested her, the conscious mind as a river through time, and how to represent its onward roll, as well as all the tributaries that would swell it, and the obstacles that would divert it.

There is a joke between my friends about readers splitting into two camps: reading for plot or reading for people. I confess that most of the time when deciding to read a book, I don’t really consider the plot. I’ve started many famous novels with no idea what they are about but they have passed my first line test regardless. I won’t ever buy a book without reading the first line. My plot driven friends have decided that the books I like to read are ‘full of people chatting in drawing rooms’. So, when I read this passage in Atonement, there was no way I could let it pass without comment. The novelist in the paragraph above is Briony Tallis, the narrator, the younger sister, the one who needs to atone.

Virginia Woolf and her stream of consciousness novels influence Briony’s writing, and  Ian McEwan may be following his own advice. This is the second of his novels that I have read (the other being Enduring Love) and there are similar methods of writing in each: Plot and characters come second place to impression and small unusual events. In Atonement it is a play, a broken vase, a fountain. In Enduring Love it is  a hot air balloon, a picnic, a child. The writer picks out a detail of life that wouldn’t feature in the lives of characters in any other novel. Ignoring an outright description of character makes for the strongest impressions. I think you can never truly know how you would react in certain situations unless you are in them, but the way you react tells you more about yourself than any mundane description could. McEwan uses this idea to his advantage and creates truly real characters. Without seeming to strive to create them at all.

Now having said that plot isn’t an issue, Atonement is a fabulous story. It manages to explain broad concepts in humanity like love and war through a concentrated set of characters. There is childhood, there is a war, there is the home left afterwards. I really enjoyed the constructed nature of Atonement. All the references to Briony’s writing, as well as being told from the start about her ‘crime’ makes the purpose of the story clear, but it never unfolded the way I would have predicted.

The problem these fifty-nine years has been this: how can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God?

The ending, perfect fiction. In a few words, the meaning of the novel changes. It is the cleverest thing I have read in ages. (I remember the very same effect in Enduring Love!) The story is a brilliant one and as clichéd as it may sound I feel like I’ve come full circle with the people in it.

The edition I have is part of the Vintage 21st birthday series. Each novel is a different colour, Atonement is much more green than my photo makes it look: it is exactly the colour of Cecelia’s dress worn that evening in the library…

I am now reading The Report by Jessica Francis Kane. It is about the events at Bethnal Green tube station during the blitz, ever so slightly (sob) linked to Atonement.