Ian McEwan has been recognized as an arresting new talent in the youngest generation of English short story writers. His subject matter is often squalid and sickening; his imagination has a painful preoccupation with the adolescent secrets of sexual aberration and fantasy. But in his accomplishment as a story writer he is an immediate master of styles and structures, his writing transfigures, and he can command variety in subject and feeling. His intellectual resources enable him—and the reader—to open windows in a claustrophobia which otherwise would have left us flinching and no more. Invention, irony, humor, a gift for satirical parody and curiosity give him the artist’s initiative. We do recognize an underworld—for that is what it is—and it is natural that he has evoked an, albeit distant, connection with Beckett and Kafka. His limitation is that his range of felt experience is confined to his love of his disgusts.
Two stories in his new collection, In Between the Sheets, suggest a new direction. I’ll come to those later. The book opens with “Pornography,” which begins as a comical account of what goes on between two brothers in a Soho porn shop where customers are nervously trying to get a free furtive glance at the glossy porn. The elder brother is hysterically trying to make a fortune out of his sexual peep show; the younger is crudely dedicated to cunt. He is itching and smells of “clap” and he is having it off with two nurses on alternate days. So far, obsessive observation of Soho grubbiness, cheap lodgings, filthy baths, sulky macho manners, nasty smells, bad food, cheap drink. Unhappily, Mr. McEwan surrenders to a well-known fantasy from the world of schoolboy smut. When they discover the young man is deceiving and infecting them, the nurses enact the fantasy of the tart who castrates her man. We leave them at this sadistic feast after one of them has raped the young macho, screaming out the war cries of Women’s Lib as she jumps him. The melodrama ruins a story whose strength lay in fact, not fantasy. One simply laughs off the schoolboy legend.
In “Reflections of a Kept Ape” McEwan is more subtle. It is a droll tale. A pet monkey has been briefly seduced by a young woman who has written a bestseller, and in his eager, lonely, animal way he tells the story of a lust that has faded. Surely his gibbering, his nit-catching, the fact that the affair has given her thrush and the itch, are not enough to justify the refusal of tenderness and love? From Cervantes to Kafka, now how many writers have tried the puzzled reflections of animals, though not their greedy sexuality; here we notice the change of prose style and especially the notes on the deceits of art. These will recur in McEwan’s work.
The ape reflects on the girl’s frantic virginal typing of her difficult next book:
Was art then nothing more than a wish to appear busy? Was it nothing more than a fear of silence, of boredom, which the merely reiterative rattle of the typewriter’s keys was enough to allay? In short, having crafted one novel, would it suffice to write it again, type it out with care, page by page? (Gloomily I recycled nits from torso to mouth.) Deep in my heart I knew it would suffice and, knowing that, seemed to know less than I had ever known before.
I must say I object to the new cliché “crafted.” But then comes a parody of George Sand-ish self-love when the ape knows she is tired of him:
Why should I not be seen and be taken account of in this household? Am I invisible? Do I not deserve for my quiet, self-effacing removal to another room a simple acknowledgment, the curt exchange of nods and sighs and smiles between two who have known both suffering and loss?… My eyes stray to the front door and fix there. To leave, yes, regain my independence and dignity, to set out on the City Ring Road, my possessions clasped to my chest, the infinite stars towering above me and the songs of nightingales ringing in my ears. Sally Klee receding ever farther behind me, she caring nothing for me, no, nor I for her, to lope carefree towards the orange dawn and on into the next day and again into the following night, crossing rivers and penetrating woods, to search for and find a new love, a new post, a new function, a new life.
The ape is an out-of-date Romantic. Ian McEwan is being very clever about the temptations of “literature.” That “orange dawn” will reappear in more solemn circumstances: the author is fighting hidden literary tendencies.
“Dead as They Come” is another familiar fable: its merits, as always with Ian McEwan, lie in the half-vulgar elegance in the detail. A rich man falls in love with a beautiful female dummy in a shop window. In a very funny scene he buys her, carries her home; he seduces her, the perfect passive beauty of daydream. Soon he is cuckolded by his chauffeur, who is well drawn. But the point of the story is that it is an attack on the corrupting influence of connoisseur tastes: they turn one into a voyeur. The boss has really been deceived by a juvenile masturbator’s tastes for “dead” works of art—for Vermeer, Blake, Richard Dadd, Paul Nash, Rothko. In his jealousy he spits on them, urinates on them, and destroys them. (There is a lot of urination—why not pissing?—in McEwan’s stories.) In “In Between the Sheets” a divorced man, after a chilly scene with his ex-wife, is allowed to take his very young daughter and her child friend back to his house to stay the night. The little child friend is a dwarf-like horror and no sexual innocent. In “To and Fro” the style changes again and the story becomes a prose poem. A man and his mistress lie in bed, half asleep after making love. His mind wanders between what went on at the office and night thoughts:
Sometimes I look at her and wonder who will die first…face to face, wintering in the mess of down and patchwork, she places a hand over each of my ears, takes my head between her palms, regards me with thick, black eyes and pursed smile that does not show her teeth…then I think, It’s me, I shall die first, and you might live forever.
A little later:
A voice breaks the stillness, a brilliant red flower dropped on the snow, one of her daughters calls out in a dream. A bear!…the sound indistinct from its sense. Silence, and then again, A bear, softer this time, with a falling tone of disappointment…now, a silence dramatic for its absence of the succinct voice…now imperceptibly…now, habitual silence, no expectations, the weight of stillness, the luminous after-image of bears in fading orange.
An exercise for the artist’s notebook: an experiment, but probably wasted? You notice that “orange” again.
There are two encouraging breaks with “mean” writing—“mean” in the sense of James Joyce’s Dubliners—in two long pieces: “Two Fragments: March 199-” and “Psychopolis.” They enlarge his scene. The first is an evocation of a possible London in twenty years time, half-destroyed by war or revolution. The narrative dodges the conventional melodramatic picture of catastrophe. It concentrates on the aftermath of decay. Government offices are still smoldering in a deteriorating wilderness; there is no transport, there is almost no light or heating, food has to be scrounged. People are reduced to living on what fish can be got out of the polluted Thames, and sit around bonfires in the streets or traipse on foot on pointless journeys across the city. Good. The skills of the machine age have gone. Such a fragmented life is simply and exactly suggested and far less sensationally than, say, in Orwell’s 1984—though politics are almost missing—and with far greater sense of physical and emotional dissolution. The lovers fall back on memories of things in the happier past; an incurably arty girl thinks that Art Deco may start people learning how to make things again. She is a contemporary bore.
It was growing colder. We got between the sheets, me with my plans and clean feet, she with her fish. “The point is,” I said referring to Marie’s age [his child’s age], “that you cannot survive now without a plan.” I lay with my head on Diane’s arm and she drew me towards her breast. “I know someone,” she began, and I knew she was introducing a lover, “who wants to start a radio station. He doesn’t know how to generate electricity. He doesn’t know anyone who could build a transmitter or repair an old one. And even if he did, he knows there are no radios to pick up his signal. He talks vaguely about repairing old ones, of finding a book that will tell him how to do it.”
They remember bits of things, like driving a car or taking children to the zoo, forgotten football matches. But cars are now rubbish and the zoo had become a closed ruin years before. The bits are good: catastrophe will be as it was in 1940—bitty. One is struck by McEwan’s gift of clarity. It moves easily from fragments of cold reality to fragments of fantasy, from the comic to the threatening. He is moving out of the sexual ennui into one more devastating.
“Psychopolis” takes his traveling mind to Los Angeles, and here we find him amusing himself with the collision of English and American boastings and opinions as they are thrown out. The finale is excellent. His impressionism is intelligent and he is still a fabulist who keeps clear of journalism. He is always the restless storyteller; every voice or incident moves forward as he follows the interplay of reality and fancy, the inner and the outer, the tender and violent, the banal and the grotesque. The voice (as it must be in the short story) is absolutely distinctive and the means are controlled.
McEwan is concerned with the displaced person. In Mavis Gallant, also an experienced impressionist but of an older generation, we are among the victims of the wars in Europe which have left behind pockets of feckless exiles and expatriates. History has got its teeth into them and has regurgitated them and left them bizarre and perplexed. Her stories come dangerously close to being shredded novels. There are the English, Russians, and Americans of the pre-1940 French Riviera, living on the cheap, sticking to their out-of-date manners, until war scatters them; the later refugees live by what is left of their past: mothers don’t know where their sons are; the old sink into memories that are no support; the young, perforce “a stony generation,” dead to feeling, vanish into opportunity.
Miss Gallant is a sardonic visual writer and in the short story she has to struggle against the drift into reminiscence, against sliding back before she moves forward. Aware of this, she is very adroit in moving in and out of people and back and forward in time and is acute in her moral insight. She catches the flux of manners. She notices odd things: the children of English expatriates, apparently, take to speaking in strained, high-pitched voices which would be quieter at home. One story, “Remission,” is really a novella. It is a caustic impression of forty years of bored Riviera life but, for my taste, flattish: a social “water color.” Yet on every page there are sentences of the “glimpse through” so vital to the short story, especially of her Chekhovian drift; the sense of time dissolving and then crystallizing again.
The central subject is the long illness and death of a dull English civil servant, and we glide from the feeling of one mourner after another at his “bracing English funeral,” never dwelling too long, pausing long enough (as Katherine Mansfield used to do) to make the ironic point. As the coffin is lifted into the concrete cell in which bodies are stored (because the cemetery is full), everyone knows that the wife had taken a lover while her husband lay dying, but pretends not to know it. The “colony” has to keep up its double life. The lover—the standard British phony—had been innocently introduced into the family by a daughter, Molly, who therefore thinks she has betrayed her father. But, she stoically reflects, “Disaster, the usual daily development, had to have a beginning.” She is only fourteen and emotion will harden, and perhaps she already knows it:
She would love her brothers when they had stopped thinking much about her: women’s fidelity. This would not keep her from fighting them, inch by inch, over money, property, remnants of the past: women’s insecurity. She would hound them and pester them about Alec’s grave and Barbara’s old age and where they were to be buried: women’s sense of order.
Miss Gallant’s central interest as a circling storyteller is human self-deception and its pathos. If she is brittle, that either solidifies or turns into something that has to be endured. Her world is one of failing fortunes inborn or imposed, of polyglot comi-tragedies. At the core of each story there is a clinching sense of the central moral dilemma in which the characters find themselves. In “Baum, Gabriel 1935-( )” a feckless young man from Potsdam feels he is
haunted, or inhabited, by a child whose mauled pride he was called on to salve.
His peculiar case is that he is a bastard boy, puzzled by his lack of biography. He somehow survives the war and the Occupation in Paris, tries journalism, and ends as a small-part actor in television serials which are replaying the war: he is always hired for the parts of German soldiers. History has turned into dressing up. He exists simply as a suit of clothes. Unreal in life, he has become a public fiction. This sense of unreality and thoughts of death nibble at all these exiles as they manage to live from day to day. Perhaps if they die something or someone will justify them?
No answer! But in the title story, certain mad people who have died come back to complain that they are haunted by the living: “Mrs. Carlotte Essling, née Holmquist, complains of being haunted by her husband, Professor Augustus Essling,” who was writing a lifelong study of Malebranche; he was a widower, she brought up his children, slaved for him for thirty-six years, and then died. She complains after her death that her husband haunts her with proof of her goodness. She constantly meets him in the streets.
He tells people that Mrs. Essling was born an angel, lived like an angel, and is an angel in eternity. Mrs. Essling would like relief from this charge. “Angel” is a loose way of speaking. She is astonished that the Professor cannot be more precise. Angels are created, not born…. Some are merely messengers; others have a paramilitary function. All are stupid.
Philosophy, she says, has made him afraid of dying. The police ought to put “the fear of the Devil in him.” A nice point. The story is, of course, a macabre jeu d’esprit. But Miss Gallant’s normal people are also flustered by the sensations we sometimes have of being haunted by the protests of our right to be ourselves—especially in a society that leaves us without the old bourgeois props.
In “Potter,” a Polish poet who has known political imprisonment and is weary of the tears of Polish women is confused by a Canadian woman in Paris who is a restless liar. Her attraction is that she never cries: she explains herself away. He is relieved to be ordered back to Poland where, at any rate, his sufferings will be familiar. In “His Mother,” an old Hungarian woman, reduced to poverty by revolution, joins the circle of aging émigrés in Budapest. They meet once a week at a once fashionable café in which the mothers boast of the letters they have had from their children who have managed to get abroad. There are rituals of status among the bereft. To her son in Glasgow she writes streams of letters from the cramped room she has been granted, pretending that the good life still goes on. In fact she is tormented by lower-class lodgers. She will never see her son again; he will send her presents of Scottish scarves and jerseys—that gives her rank—but he will never return. She will never see his wife.
In “Irina”—once Miss Gallant’s leaning to reminiscence has been allowed its introduction—there is the story of a bewildered grandmother dealing with her bored little grandson. The tale has the startling minute-to-minute quality that enables Miss Gallant to bring out again the singed edges of experience only half-remembered, the way in which the years have burned one’s fingers. Poignant, private play-acting keeps memory and a little wisdom jogging along. If her comedy is sharp and very clever, Miss Gallant has compassion.
January 24, 1980