January 19, 2007
Ian McEwan, Saturday
I approached Saturday with caution because of its rave reviews, but I found this novel entirely engrossing, genuinely interesting, original, and moving. Part of the surprise it held for me was Henry Perowne's cautiously supportive attitude towards the war in Iraq. I've become so accustomed to anti-war perorations from literary luminaries that I had no expectation that McEwan would offer anything different (I should have known better); the enormous uncertainty, the high stakes, the intolerable complacency of a pacifism that is content to leave Saddam in power, the difficulty of separating ends from means when responding to the call to arms made by leaders whose real motivations are surely mixed...I think McEwan did justice to the complexity of the judgments--the mental and moral balancing acts--called for by these circumstances. I thought the use of "Dover Beach" as a frame and model was brilliant: I can't believe I didn't recognize Perowne's situation at the beginning as analogous to that of Arnold's speaker until the poem appeared directly in the action. I'm curious about how or whether the initial encounter between Perowne and Baxter stands as its own analogue to the international situation: surely it does, and so Perowne's feelings of responsibility for the violent consequences also have some application to the wider issues, including perhaps his stance towards the invasion of Iraq. Why is he a neurosurgeon? At what level is the fascinating issue of the relationship between physical and mental states raised by Perowne's work on the brain also part of either the problem or the solution he posits for the world that lacks 'certitude' or 'help from pain'? The turn from the window to the lover in "Dover Beach" has been criticized as an objectification of the companion, sought not as an individual but as solace, as a solution to the ignorant clash of armies. Has McEwan avoided that solipsistic impulse on the part of his protagonist? Does his family have the solidity Arnold's love lacks? It is not credible in a simple realistic way that Baxter should be turned aside from violence by poetry, but how far is McEwan appealing to us to see some poetic essence (yearning, as Henry considers it?) as the saving grace in a world racked with 'confused alarms of struggle and of flight'? The novel seems far too political to be satisfied with an aesthetic turn away from the clash itself. McEwan's writing here seemed flawless to me, with all the richness of detail that made Atonement dazzling in its own way, but without the tendency I felt in that novel to abstraction or aesthetic self-indulgence: this book reads as if all of its details are necessary, and as if it is equally necessary that they be clear and concrete.