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It Happened One Night

Ian McEwan first tackled the problem of virginity and how to lose it in “Homemade,” the first story in his brilliant first book, First Love, Last Rites, published in 1975. When the adolescent narrator is introduced to the “simple, inexpensive” pleasure of masturbation, he wonders “if I could not dedicate my whole life to this glorious sensation—and I suppose looking back now that in many respects I have.” That was more than thirty years ago and in one way or another McEwan has kept his word.

McEwan was still one of Malcolm Bradbury’s creative writing students at the University of East Anglia when “Homemade” was published in the New American Review, and he could not have chosen a more appropriate place for his American debut. Four years earlier the magazine had introduced Portnoy to the world, and McEwan, like a host of other young writers, was greatly indebted to Philip Roth for opening the gate to what had previously been forbidden territory: that promised land where anything goes, given the necessary talent and confidence, where talking dirty and writing well are not mutually exclusive, and it is possible to make high art even out of shamelessness.

In sensibility, however, Roth and McEwan are very different. Roth is urgent and immediate, all voice and presence, and Portnoy’s Complaint is exactly what it says on the cover—one long outraged tirade against the injustice of lust, the relentlessness of it, and the endless trouble it brings. Roth writes in such a way as to make you think Portnoy is right there in the room with you, and, unlike the zipper-mouthed Freudian behind the couch, you and he are face-to-face. It is an unnerving experience but an ambiguous one, and part of Roth’s genius is in the ambiguity: without ever quite mentioning it or soft-pedaling the man’s rage, Roth makes it clear that Portnoy himself is secretly appalled by his own behavior; he is less outraged by his appetites than by his virtue. He can’t help being a good boy however much he wants to be bad.

Being bad was never a problem for the young McEwan and his prose was cooler, more beady-eyed than Roth’s, even back then when he was starting out and relishing his flair for talking dirty with style. This, for example, from “Homemade,” is one of several rococo variations on the schoolboy fantasy of losing his virginity to anyone—literally, anyone—willing to take it:

Lulu Slim—but how my mind reels—whose physical enormity was matched only by the enormity of her reputed sexual appetite and prowess, her grossness only by the grossness she inspired, the legend only by the reality. Zulu Lulu! who—so fame had it—had laid a trail across north London of frothing idiots, a desolation of broken minds and pricks spanning Shepherds Bush to Holloway, Ongar to Islington. Lulu! Her wobbling girth and laughing piggy’s eyes, blooming thighs and dimpled finger-joints, this heaving, steaming leg-load of schoolgirl flesh who had, so reputation insisted, had it with a giraffe, a humming-bird, a man in an iron lung (who subsequently died), a yak, Cassius Clay, a marmoset, a Mars Bar and the gear stick of her grandfather’s Morris Minor (and subsequently a traffic warden).*

And so on for three pages, a wild comic riff made more comic by the precise, almost pedantic tone of voice. Thirty years ago, though, it seemed an exhilaratingly shocking performance from a student at a stuffy British university, and the story’s end was distinctly more shocking. Before he even gets a glimpse of Lulu and her fabled pudenda, the narrator manages to lose his tiresome virginity to his little sister. But unlike Portnoy’s conquests, there is no pleasure in it for either of them. “This may have been one of the most desolate couplings known to copulating mankind, involving lies, deceit, humiliation, incest,” he says. Not that it matters. When virginity is at stake, desolation and the rest are beside the point:

I felt proud, proud to be fucking, even if it were only Connie, my ten-year-old sister, even if it had been a crippled mountain goat I would have been proud to be lying there in that manly position, proud in advance of being able to say “I have fucked,” of belonging intimately and irrevocably to that superior half of humanity who had known coitus, and fertilized the world with it.

Between lost virginity and death, first love and last rites, lay a whole world of trouble and what one of his characters calls “crimes in my head”—torture, castration, cross-dressing, pedophilia, murder, dismemberment, as well as incest—and McEwan went on to explore them all in his early work, icily and from a distance, and in an increasingly spare, dispassionate prose. Love had nothing to do with any of it, nor did the simple physical pleasures of lovemaking. The pleasure was in the taboos and in the cold-blooded way he went about breaking them. At the core of his books there was always some striking moment of nastiness, as self-contained as a short story, that stopped the reader short. The most shocking of all was the dismemberment of the murdered husband in The Innocent:

The upper leg was oozing almost black, covering the saw. The handle was slippery. He was through, there was only skin below, and he could not get at it without sawing the table. He took the lino knife and tried to scour it with one stroke, but it puckered under the blade. He had to get in there, he had to put his hand into the chasm of the joint, into the cold mess of dark, ragged flesh and saw at the skin with the blade of the knife.

There is a whole chapter of this, ten long pages of butchery in slow motion and meticulous detail, a horror story made more horrifying by the way it is told—deadpan and from a distance, as though daring the reader to react or, worse still, to wonder where and how the author had done his research.

Nightmares no longer figure in McEwan’s work. He will be sixty next year and has put away childish things, including his unruly fantasies. Or rather, he is revisiting them from the point of view of an older, wiser man. In Atonement, for example, the budding young author, Briony Tallis, has “a strange mind and a facility with words” and one of her first discoveries is that “beauty…occupied a narrow band. Ugliness, on the other hand, had infinite variation.” From this insight everything else follows: the literary imagination is fatally attracted to ugliness and when Briony’s is let loose on an unprepared adolescent it does great harm: her florid imaginings send an innocent man to prison and break her sister’s heart.

So too can innocence, ignorance, virginity, and all the other youthful torments McEwan no longer has the heart to mock. On Chesil Beach begins:

They 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. But it is never easy.

Sexual difficulties may still be hard to talk about, even now when everyone confesses to everything, but how can a writer explain this reticence to younger readers—the children and grandchildren of the generation first liberated by the contraceptive pill—to whom loss of virginity is taken for granted and to bother about it is merely an eccentricity, as odd and antiquated as taking snuff?

McEwan’s answer is to stage the drama as a period piece. The date is 1962, just before London began to swing and civilization as we thought we knew it succumbed gratefully to sex and drugs and rock and roll. The year 1962 was also around the time when the adolescent narrator of “Homemade” was panting to get laid, but the young newlyweds, Edward and Florence, are ten years older and far more inhibited. They are typical children of the 1950s—well behaved, withheld, obedient, class-conscious—members of what Joan Didion called “the last generation to identify with adults.” Marching peacefully against the Bomb is the closest they come to disrespect for their elders, and they accept without complaint the dreariness and constraint of life in England as it recovered from the age of austerity. “This was still the era,” McEwan writes, “…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.”

McEwan recreates the atmosphere with his usual scrupulous accuracy. Comforts are few and the food is dreadful—“slices of long-ago roasted beef in a thickened gravy, soft boiled vegetables, and potatoes of a bluish hue”—but not as dreadful as the throttling inhibition: Edward “firmly believed that to make love—and for the very first time—merely by unzipping his fly was unsensual and gross. And impolite.”

Politeness matters to him a great deal, not least because he is a country lad, the clever son of a schoolmaster, with an excellent degree in history, who has married, as they used to say, “above himself.” He is also haunted by sudden bouts of violence which, he fears, prove he is not really a gent. Added to that, Edward’s mother is brain-damaged, a gently dotty, fragile creature who lives in a world of make-believe and has to be protected. So Edward’s young wife’s feelings matter to him intensely, almost as intensely as he wants her physically.

Florence is equally besotted, but with a difference. She loves him passionately, but only with her eyes: “her whole being was in revolt against a prospect of entanglement and flesh…. She simply did not want to be ‘entered’ or ‘penetrated.’” She loves him and needs him, but with an “excruciating physical reticence”—which of course makes her even more desirable to him.

Her reticence, like his protective instincts, are part of her upbringing. Her mother is an Oxford philosopher, sophisticated and trendy, a friend of Iris Murdoch and Elizabeth David, but self-absorbed and physically distant: “She had never kissed or embraced Florence, even when she was small. Violet had barely even touched her at all. Perhaps it was just as well.” Florence is closer to her entrepreneur father, but there are hints of something kinky in their relationship—the sound of Edward undressing reminds her of a similar episode when she was alone with her father on his yacht—and she protects herself from them by withdrawing into the safe, abstract world of music.

With those monkeys on their backs, neither of them has a chance. His erotic expectations and her physical dread turn the wedding night into a catastrophe. He comes prematurely all over her, “filling her navel, coating her belly, thighs and even a portion of her chin and kneecap in tepid, viscous fluid”—as always, McEwan is clinically precise when he describes horrors—and she reacts with almost Victorian disgust: “Nothing in her nature could have held back her instant cry of revulsion.” She flees from the honeymoon suite and the marriage, like the novel, ends in shame, humiliation, mutual recrimination, and “a divorce on the grounds of nonconsummation.”

Since On Chesil Beach is a historical novel, McEwan prefers to blame their plight mostly on the period:

And what stood in their way? Their personalities and pasts, their ignorance and fear, timidity, squeamishness, lack of entitlement or experience or easy manners, then on the tail end of a religious prohibition, their Englishness and class, and history itself. Nothing much at all.

This the mature, forgiving McEwan echoing W.B. Yeats: “Bodily decrepitude is wisdom; young/We loved each other and were ignorant.”

Well, maybe. Myself, I think he is underestimating the power of psychopathology, the crooked desires of the heart. In plot and setting On Chesil Beach has much in common with Jude the Obscure. Most of the action takes place in Oxford, where Jude longs to study, and Edward, like Jude, is a country boy with academic aspirations. More importantly, the theme of both books is frustration. For Jude, the frustration is twofold; he is as frustrated by Sue Brideshead, his ideal shining woman, as he is by Oxford, his equally shining ideal of the intellectual life. For Edward a century later, education is not a problem and the frustration is simpler: like Sue, Florence is frigid. She may think she loves him—indeed, she loves him passionately in her head—but she can’t bear to be touched. And that is not a defect you can blame on history.

You also can’t blame it on the 1950s. As a product of that drab decade (born 1929), I am here to attest that it was nothing like as inhibited as McEwan makes out. Practical experience may have been difficult to acquire before the Pill, but sexual ignorance as profound as that of Edward and Florence seems hard to credit in an era when most college students, even those who weren’t literary, worshiped D.H. Lawrence, believed in his cult of orgasm, and measured themselves accordingly. In those innocent days, marriage was not just a way of settling down and legitimizing our sex life, it was a heroic act, a moral duty, a rite of passage into the maturity we solemnly yearned for. Though we may not have actually fucked, we were ambitious to belong, as the young McEwan put it, “intimately and irrevocably to that superior half of humanity who had known coitus.” Serious young people like Edward and Florence would have studied their sexual shortcomings—in theory, if not in practice—and worked to overcome them as diligently as she would have rehearsed a Beethoven quartet, as naturally as they both marched for peace.

On Chesil Beach is brief and carefully plotted, the writing is measured, the tone of voice is forgiving and nostalgic. In other words, it is a fine example of emotion recollected in tranquillity. Even so, I couldn’t help regretting the fun McEwan might have had with these sad fumbling innocents when he was younger, less mellow, and a great deal less forbearing.

Letters

The Birth of Portnoy October 25, 2007

Correction August 16, 2007

  1. *

    First Love, Last Rites (Vintage, 1975), p. 14.

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