“Most novel readers,” the critic John Bayley observes, “are less interested in life itself than in its happenings, money-making, love-making, committee-sitting, being young, growing old”—in other words, stories. In all of us there persists the child who longs to snuggle down and draw the covers close and hear a fairy tale, the scarier the better, so long as it ends with the promise that the good people in it will live happily ever after while the bad perish in misery and in pain.
In a fine essay printed in these pages in 1989, Bayley noted how during the Second World War “bus drivers and brigadiers” rediscovered the pleasures of reading Anthony Trollope. “The atmosphere of crisis and boredom in the Battle of Britain made a red-letter day for the classic novelists, offering the comfort and relaxation of a complete and credible alternative world.” Among contemporary novelists, Ian McEwan would have seemed the unlikeliest to take on the role of bedtime storyteller to our own time of “crisis and boredom.” Since the marvelous stories in his early books, First Love, Last Rites and In Between the Sheets, he has been the least consoling chronicler of life’s perils and difficulties. A master of the ironic title, he offered us, in novels such as The Comfort of Strangers and The Innocent, precious little comfort and no innocence at all. Even in the superb pastoral idyll which is the first half of Atonement we are constantly aware of the glint of the knife blade partway out of its sheath.
If we all have a novel in us, nowadays it is likely to be a September 11 novel. It would have seemed that McEwan was one of the few who might profitably bring his out. Surely he would find a form in which to express the lingering horror of that sunlit morning when mass murder came winging out of the blue upon an unsuspecting city. He is a connoisseur of catastrophe, of the sudden irruption of violence and bloodletting into the drawing room or the shopping mall. Indeed, the destruction of the Twin Towers is just the kind of enormity McEwan might have invented as an opening to one of his more chilling tales, although even an imagination as dark as his might have balked at the murderous scale of the attacks.
In fact, McEwan in his recent work has shown a disturbing tendency toward mellowness. It would seem that, like one of the characters in Atonement, he has been “thinking of the nineteenth-century novel. Broad tolerance and the long view, an inconspicuously warm heart and cool judgment….” This is a fairly accurate description of the methods and aims of his latest novel, Saturday, an account of one day in the life of Henry Perowne, a London neurosurgeon and quintessential homme moyen sensuel, decent, hard-working, moderately and at a distance engagé in the politicsof his, and our,…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.