Now, at a time when the British novel is an all-singing, all-dancing thing—as likely to be written in Glaswegian as in Standard English, to take place in Zanzibar as in Hampstead, to be set during the first Afghan war as during the last general election—it is hard to remember just how boring British fiction used to seem. When I was growing up (I’m thirty-nine) it was axiomatic in Britain that interesting novels came from somewhere else—usually America. British fiction was domestic realism, often about adultery; as for the prose, the rule was that you could have any color you wanted, so long as it was gray. American English had a relationship with the vernacular, a strength and flexibility and vividness, which British English, in its literary form, simply could not match, and made no attempt to match. A sentence by Bellow or Roth or Updike—any sentence—had a range and ambition and sheer aliveness that made sentences by their British contemporaries look dead.
Credit for this state of affairs having changed is usually given to the writers who were first published in London, but who came from further afield, some of whose names—Naipaul, Rushdie, Ishiguro—are now world-famous. This phenomenon has been given many names, one of them being “The Empire Strikes Back”; I prefer the term “Nesbian,” a characteristically lively piece of Australian English denoting writers of a non-English-speaking background. And it is undeniable that the Nesbians have done a lot for British English. But there was another group of writers whose work had a big impact on the literary language of Britain, a group whose first work was published in The New Review and the New Statesman, and whose central fictional talents were, and indeed still are, Martin Amis (b. 1949), Julian Barnes (b. 1946), and Ian McEwan (b. 1948). To young readers, they were the people who helped make British English seem alive again as a literary medium, principally because they wrote British English sentences at full stretch. They acted on the self-fulfilling assumption that literary language could be pushed as hard in British English as it could in American. If it now seems ridiculous that British fiction should have had an inferiority complex vis-à-vis American fiction, this group of writers must get a large share of the credit.
This is why McEwan is a key figure in British writing, and has been for a quarter of a century—a long time, for a man in his early fifties, but he started young, with the publication of First Love, Last Rites, a volume of stories, in 1975. The first sentences of the first story, “Solid Geometry,” struck a new note in British fiction:
In Melton Mowbray in 1875 at an auction of articles of “curiosity and worth,” my great-grandfather, in the company of M his friend, bid for the penis of Captain Nicholls who died in Horsemonger jail in 1873.…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.