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Ian McEwan

Did anyone else see the South Bank Show last night, which was about Ian McEwan?  I am enjoying some of these SBS Revisited programmes, where we get to see earlier interviews interspersed through a contemporary interview, and can thus see the development of something or someone.

So there were interviews with McEwan from 1978, the 1980s, 2005, all wrapped up in a new interview.  I have not quite finished watching it yet (and I think the last 15 minutes will be missing, because of the football overrunning), but it's very interesting, especially to see how McEwan has mellowed as well as to trace the development of his writing, and how he writes, and to hear him talking about the ideas that influence him.

Good to see Melvyn's hair is as exciting as ever - I expect he dyes it! - in fact seeing him back in 1978 is a reminder that in fact it has got more flamboyant over the years rather than less!  It's quite flat and straight in the early programmes.

I love Ian McEwan's books, though have yet to read anything written earlier than The Child in Time.  I like his writerly interests and the way he infuses novels with ideas without them becoming anything less than novels.  I like the way he pushes literary and psychological boundaries a bit, and despite early misgivings, I like the way he often turns the run of his novels on a dime, using plot devices that are so desperately contrived that they seem at first too unbelievable, but become interesting and satisfying when seen as a self-conscious device, part of the exploration of ideas and the acknowledgement that fiction is artificial and is a place where you can make anything happen, if you do it skilfully enough.

The programme has made me very much want to read Solar, his latest novel - my heart sank a bit when I first read about it and saw that it was about climate change, as it sounded a bit worthy - but hearing about the book on the South Bank Show has given me quite a different idea of what the book is about.  I will wait for the paperback, but am looking forward to reading it.

Would love to hear what others think about Ian McEwan - does he deserve his reputation as one of Britain's most celebrated literary writers?  Do his novels work?  Is his earlier writing better than his later stuff?  etc, etc.  I must read the early books.

I like his early short stories, but haven't read much else. I do think he writes nice prose, though - carefully measured prose, with a good ear for rhythm.

The reviews of Solar make me think it's not a book I'd like, not because of 'worthiness', but because it seems rather a fudge to tackle the enormous and serious question of climate change by examining the microcosm of the marital infidelities and general selfishness and gluttony of a certain type of man. It's a bit like: "Right, how can we tackle this new, big topic in the novel form? I know - by using exactly the same framework we've always used to examine modern manners and morals." Of course, it's unfair to form too strong an opinion on the basis of reviews alone - but in reality, given limited time, one has to decide what to read and what not to read somehow.

Well, you know already I'm a lover of McEwan, at least most of the time. I've not yet encountered anyone who loves his books without reservation. Everyone seems to have at least one they have hated, normally Amsterdam but in my case his embarrassing children's book The Daydreamer. He's not a writer who has ever inspired me to rush out and buy a new book hot off the press, but then no living writer does that, most of my favourites being long dead, and it must be a measure of the esteem in which I hold him that I have read about half of the books he has produced.

Nothing he's written since The Child in Time, which is nearly 20 years old now, has impressed me as much as that book, and I love his early works perhaps the best of all - the short stories in First Love, Last Rites and his debut novel The Cement Garden. I found Atonement very impressive, though, particularly the clever final conceit, which didn't bother me nearly as much as it clearly does some others. I don't think I ever get caught up in a novel to the extent that I believe I am reading about actual people, and so I rather like knowing (cheeky?) authorial interventions like those one finds in Atonement or The French Lieutenant's Woman.

The little I've read about Solar makes it sound rather fun, though I'll probably wait for word of mouth from someone I trust before reading it myself.

I saw a bit of the programme last night while I was flicking in and out of Brian de Palma's Scarface and thought it looked interesting. If you've missed the end it may be available online. ITV has its own version of iPlayer called, imaginatively, ITV Player. I used it once and was irritated by its insistence that I not skip the adverts, but perhaps that has been remedied.

Yes, I have never bothered with the non-BBC versions of catch-up TV, but I should have a go.  I rarely even bother with iplayer - it's only TV after all - but at least that's all easy to use and advert-free and both the C4 and ITV ones I looked at ages ago didn't seem worth the effort.  And I hate watching TV on my computer, so that's another disincentive - I think I got enough out of the South Bank Show that I don't need the last 10 minutes.  

Good to see Melv still going strong, anyway, despite the fact that they have tried to pension him off.  Last I heard, he was in negotations with the BBC, which would be great.

As for the real purpose of this thread (!) - I too liked the conceit at the end of Atonement, which made up for some of the other longeurs of the book (for me) - the middle section I found disappointing.  You know my thoughts on Amsterdam, so I won't repeat them, though I may try the book again one day, in the light of your views!

Child in Time also remains the most impressive, for me, though I did love Saturday.

Oh, don't bother with Amsterdam again. You're probably right. I was callow, credulous and impressionable when I read it, not the grizzled, world-weary cynic you see today.

I'm new on here, so I hope it's OK just to plunge in.

McEwan is one of my favourites modern authors, and the book I enjoyed the most was Saturday, so I was surprised that it provoked such enormous controversy in our Readers/Writers Circle.  One member denied that it was even a novel!  McEwan's gift for me is in his straightforward storytelling.

Welcome to the board! I hope you'll feel at home here.

Thankyou Chibiabos (what a fascinating pseudonym!).

Just a Longfellow reference (I think Chibiabos is "Pliant as a wand of willow" among other things, which is not appropriate for me at all) and the year of my birth. Your own name seems more matter-of-fact Smile

Viv!  Hello!  How lovely to see you.

I loved Saturday too - and fail to see how it could be accused of not being a novel!  I know some people think he overresearches some of his novels, but I didn't think that was the case with Saturday, it was all intrinsic to the rest of the novel.  I loved Henry Perowne, and was really sad when the novel ended, as I wanted to follow him into the next day!

Though in terms of the South Bank Show interview, I could have lived without the film of the brain surgery, fascinating though it was!  I am a bit squeamish when it comes to people having their heads sawn open...

Hello Evie,
Perhaps I shouldn't admit this but I have had my head cut open for brain surgery!!! When I was in my mid-twenties I developed a brain tumour (benign) and had it successfully removed.  I can still feel the hollows where the trepanning was done. And sometimes even now, many years later, my left leg feels heavy and peculiar. But thank God for the medical team at Preston Royal Infirmary.  Ever since then I've been fascinated by the procedure and I'm not a bit squeamish about such things.  I even take the dentist in my stride.  But I have to admit that having had a serious illness that early in my life has made me, if not an absolute hypochondriac, something of a borderline case!!
Why was there film of brain surgery in the TV programme?

One presumes because TV producers believe discussion of brain surgery must be accompanied of film of brain surgery. I thought this kind of thinking had reached its apotheosis in this inspired news sequence from The Day Today:

Hello Mike - I assure you that I am not anti-brain surgery!  ;0)  I am very glad yours was successful.  I just don't like to watch it!

The reason it was shown was that in Ian McEwan's novel Saturday, the chief character, Henry Perowne, is a brain surgeon, and McEwan spent time with a brain surgeon, even standing by during operations, as research for the book.  So the brain surgeon he shadowed was interviewed, and part of an operation shown, with a description from the book of Perowne carrying out an operation.
Green Jay

I've been in discussions about McEwan before on this board, or maybe its predecessor, and have nothing new to say... but will chip in anyway.  Wink  I think I pretty much agree with Chib's comments most. I prefer his early work - think I have read it all except this latest one. I do find McEwan disappointingly inconsistent and often flawed. I find he can rarely pull off the dramatic set pieces when he tries them (they feel melodramatic to me, or just unconvincing) and is much better at the long slow detail. I do not warm to many of his characters, but then perhaps that is not important. I hated Daisy and her bloody poetry in Saturday (was her name Daisy? Poppy? I forget) I prefer them when they are being weird and interesting - like the children in The Cement Garden and everyone in his short stories. I think when I read those I took them as a slightly heightened or surreal moments or passages in real life, and accepted all that happened, whereas when it is portrayed as real real life and things do not convince me I am more likely to object.

Like several others I was not drawn to Solar as I dislike issue novels. I dare say I will get round to it. I was very moved by Atonement, even if all the sections did not work equally as well.  I liked most of Chesil Beach, but Enduring Love was a big disappointment, even the much-hyped opener. Amsterdam - nuff said. A Child In Time was good but it is so long since I read it that I can't recall much. Likewise The Comfort of Strangers - though I remember it as unpleasant and disturbing, but I was probably better at reading that kind of novel when I was younger !  Smile McEwan seems to get an excellent premiss for a novel - a child disappears in a supermarket, a balloon accident witnessed, - then does not always follow through at such a perfect level. I can't think of a single novel of his which I sat back from completely satisfied at the end. I always become aware of the technique of his writing, his choices, whereas when I am totally absorbed in an author I just slide along on it without being aware of how it is being done.

In a way I am not sure why he is quite so highly regarded when I feel he has flaws. What is the emoticon for ducking one's head rapidly?
Green Jay

Re-reading the above I sound much more negative than I really meant to. Because I have read almost all his work, so that must mean I am interested. One to watch, perhaps!! The boy may do good.

Re Solar - I don't like issues novels either, which is what put me off - but having watched the South Bank Show, I feel much more drawn to it, because it seems character-based rather than issue-based, and is allegedly a comic novel, at least at some level.

I agree that he is inconsistent, but I like the seriousness of his work and even when it doesn't quite convince me I feel he has an artistry that many contemporary novelists lack.  I have come to like the melodramatic twists - almost deus ex machina in some cases, and the poetry example in Saturday initially shocked me with how ridiculous it seemed, and then ultimately came to be something I admired for its very artificiality.  It brought me up short because most of the novel was clearly intended to be realistic - but as McEwan said on the SBS, he wasn't saying that if you recite a poem to a burglar he will turn round and leave, but that he was drawing attention to the deeper motivations in people's minds and lives - I haven't put that very well, and am aware that the anti-Saturdays will still not find his ploy convincing on that level!  But I love novels that show their artifice while still depicting an illusion of reality, and I think he does that in an interesting way.  Similarly in Enduring Love, where the same accusation of ludicrousness could be applied - I suppose I feel that he has earned, for me, the right to expect me to think about whether someone of his general skill and seriousness would consistently write such endings badly, or whether the melodrama is intentional, and I have - for better or worse - come down on the side of the latter.

It's partly a relative thing, his reputation, I think.  I can't think of many other British contemporary novelists who write such elegant prose, such intelligent stories, such thought-provoking characters, and use such interesting ideas.
Klara Z

I have very mixed feelings about Ian McEwan. I remember admiring his first book of short stories, First Loves, Last Rites, and I thought Atonement was brilliant. But then I read 'Saturday' a book I absolutely loathed, although, technically, the prose style was excellent. But the content of that book! I found it pretentious, unconvincing and tiresome. The awful squash game, the tedious descriptions, the silly, silly business about Matthew Arnold's Dover Beach...

I think, perhaps, I've said all this before on here somewhere---anyway, reading 'Saturday' and 'Amsterdam' has made me wary..

I have just finished reading Solar, and am not sure what to make of it really.  Apart from Amsterdam, it is my least favourite of the McEwan novels I have read - and as it's so long since I read Amsterdam, I can't be sure that Solar isn't even lower down my order of enjoyment of McEwan's novels!

I don't really get what McEwan is trying to do.  It seems promising - a black comedy, involving a Nobel-Prizewinning physicist working on solutions to climate change and living a personal life at odds with the image that evokes.  Michael Beard is a comic character, but also a very dark one, as the story unfolds; it is hard to imagine him as someone who took Einstein's research on light a step further, hence the Nobel Prize and an overexcited Richard Feynmann interrupting a conference to share Beard's achievements with the world.  His personal life is a shambles, he is hapless and seemingly friendless, he is overweight and undisciplined, and there is nothing scholarly about him, though every so often we get glimpses of the mind of a physicist.

The black comedy for me is what didn't work.  The book has very black moments, and very comic moments (and I think it was the first time McEwan has made me laugh out loud - there are some hilarious incidents on a trip to the Arctic Circle, and one involving a packet of crisps on a train) - but the two never quite work together.  McEwan has, as usual, done a lot of research into the required aspects of physics, and works this in well - he also uses the issue of climate change in subtle ways, so that we are never quite sure what his view is - he is not preaching, though there are times when cultural and political references are clearly intended to be ironic.  There are layers and interweavings of ideas but the 'issues' never override the characters and the plot, which is at least heartening, and the writing in that sense is very clever, the way he does weave things together, and sustains a level of complexity while keeping the surface fairly lighthearted.

The ending was, I imagine, meant to be funny, and the culmination of the basic thread of black comedy in the book, but it wasn't funny, and ultimately I was glad to get to the end (and also glad I had borrowed it from the library rather than spending money on it!).  McEwan's books seem to me to be better when he is doing something a bit more literary, in the sense of playing with literary devices or exploring the edges of morality - perhaps he is doing both here, but it just seemed a bit lame and, frankly, boring, which I haven't encountered with his books before.  I kept thinking all the way through that this is the sort of book that David Lodge does so much better!

I was disappointed, as I do like McEwan's writing very much, and will continue to look out for new novels - just didn't enjoy this one much. apart from a few of the funnier set pieces.

I took Amsterdam on holiday with me, and couldn't remember whether it was one people liked or loathed.  I shouldn't have checked!  

Most of the time I really liked it.  I found Vernon painful, but thought Clive was a sympathetic character, and the set-up of people involved with Molly engaged me.  Perhaps I liked it more than most of you was because much of it revolved round a media story and media ethics which interest me as someone who writes for newspapers and finds their ethics generally don't quite fit with mine.  The thought that you would take the letters of a loved friend and use them to discredit someone you didn't like was a little mind-boggling.  

Realism doesn't seem to bother McEwan.  I found the situation in On Chesil Beach stretched credibility and so did parts of Amsterdam. I don't think the tide would have turned for Vernon so quickly and nastily just because a politician's wife spoke well.  And the ending was just silly. That was what disappointed me a lot in the book.  It finished things off tidily but was unrealistic and not somehow satisfying aesthetically either to my way of thinking.  (If you've forgotten - and big SPOILER -

the two of them mutually kill each other off.)

But until the last thirty of so pages I liked it a lot.  But like someone above I don't quite understand McEwan's high reputation.  Is he really much better than, say, Maggie O'Farrell?  I haven't read (or really even heard of) any of his early works - In Between the Sheets, The Comfort of Strangers, Black Dogs and The Daydreamer mean little to me - so maybe would feel differently if I had.  

Cheers, Caro.

I am amazed to find that I have read Amsterdam - I don't recall anything about it, and even reading that last post didn't bring much light into my mind.

But I looked up McEwan because his latest book, The Children Act, was reviewed in our Listener.  It ended by saying, "McEwan's prose is as clear and compelling as ever, although the novel nods to its moral a little too explicitly and there are two surprisingly clunk point-of-view violationgs at the climax. The Children Act lurks somewhere between Saturday and On Chesil Beach, slight but meaty, provative, elegant, bloodless."

I wonder, can you be meaty and bloodless?  Surely all meat is full of blood? I do remember reading On Chesil Beach and finding it rather silly.

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