Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach

Belles-lettres is a French phrase meaning "beautiful" or "fine" writing. In this sense, therefore, it includes all literary works — especially fiction, poetry, drama, or essays — valued for their aesthetic qualities and originality of style and tone.*

Every once in a while during my regular visits to the public library I stop to skim titles on the discard rack near the returns window. For pocket change you can find some fairly interesting volumes. This past month I picked up Ian McEwan's short novel (or long novella, depending) On Chesil Beach.

From the aesthetic beauty of its opening lines I sensed the story would be worth my investment of time. McEwan is an old school stylist who composes his work with beautifully crafted sentences, woven into a masterful picture that packs volumes. The opening sentence tells all. "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." Crack open this kernel and you will unfold the entire story of these two young people's lives.

One critical reviewer on Amazon.com described the book this way: If you are easily seduced by beautiful sentences, you'll feel On Chesil Beach is a five-star book. If you love exploring inner dialogue, you'll be even more pleased with this book.

I happen to be one who is seduced by beautiful sentences. Norman MacLean's A River Runs Through It grabbed me from its opening lines. Likewise The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby. Another favorite, and all of these I have read several times, is Andre Gide's masterfully exquisite Isabelle.

McEwan has already proven he is a capable writer and On Chesil Beach is a worthy 13th novel. Even the afterword is written with an amusing carefulness, a comic remark to help relieve the tension: The characters in this novel are inventions and bear no resemblance to people living or dead. Edward and Florence's hotel--just over a mile south of Abbotsbury, Dorset, occupying an elevated position in a field behind the beach parking lot--does not exist.

The story is set in 1962 England. The characters are two, Edward and Florence, and the name selection could not have been more suggestive. These were names from an era that was soon passing. 1962 would be a cultural turning point in England, as well as America, forever altered by a sea-swell of events.

The name of the beach is also noteworthy. Chesil was the name of an Old Testament town in south Judah. The word means ungodly. (Josh. 15:30)

On Chesil Beach is essentially an intimate, detailed portrait of three fateful hours in the lives of two people, told in the form of a five-part play. The first act takes place in the living room area of the honeymoon suite as the newlyweds are served a catered meal one course at a time. The reader follows their interior monologues as they kill time, constantly aware of the four-poster bed in the other room, visible through the open door.

I couldn't help but think of Dorothy Parker's treatment of the same theme in her hilarious short story "Here We Are" depicting newlyweds in those fateful hours before their first undress. McEwan's story is far weightier with its bleakness foreshadowed throughout.

The second act shows us how they met. They do love each other. Part three depicts the events that occurred in the bedroom. Part four details their courtship and the final act is what happened afterwards, a short summation of the rest of their lives.

Quotes that pop into my head at this point include this piece of advice we've all heard in various configurations: "It's not what happens to you, but how you react to it that determines who you are." Certainly this might well be at the center of this story, because had Edward and Florence responded differently this would not have been the tragedy it became.

I found the book thought-provoking, though the graphic nature of the central event will make squeamish readers uncomfortable. McEwan writes with mastery. I may have to find more of his work.

*The Free Dictionary

No comments: