Amsterdam – Ian McEwan

31 October 2007
First half, roughly
Another of McEwan’s shorter novels. Sometimes I wonder whether he really only writes short stories, and fills them out with almost Nicholson Baker-like minutiae – wrong word… determination to unpick every thread of thought. It’s a tale of two mid-life crises: Vernon’s crowded days have almost robbed him of the ability to judge anything for himself on a human level, so he wants to publish the intimate photos and murder a psyche as well as a political career; Clive the near-hermit is so focused on his musical Art, so determined not to lose the ephemeral glimpse he’s had (he’s sure) of the theme that will bring him immortality, that he ignores a woman in distress he happens upon in the Lakeland fells.

There are at least two McEwan tricks operating in the Clive strand of the plot: the outlandish coincidence of the Muse’s flying visit occurs just as an assault is about to happen only yards away; and the way the reader is wrong-footed by Clive’s egotism. ‘His hesitation [to help her] had been a sham.’ Of course it had, we think: nobody would ignore a woman in need of help…. But Clive himself had known he would ignore her: the Muse has to come first. McEwan is having a laugh. A few pages earlier Clive had, in his head, condemned those ‘artists’ who use their higher calling to justify behaving badly – and he conjures up an image of typically boorish self-indulgence to validate his prissy condemnation. Only – who? – a Beethoven could possibly warrant such egotism…. And, as Clive spends precious moments deciding not to intervene, it’s the Ode to Joy he compares his work to; that’s what he will lose if he steps in to help. Later, having shown Clive abandoning the woman to her fate and scurrying off early from his hotel, McEwan lays it on thick: ‘surely it was excitement [at being ready at last to finish his magnum opus], not shame.’ This is half-way through the book – I mean, exactly half-way – and we know (don’t we?) he’s doomed.

1 November
For me, the McGuffin always gets in the way (and I’m not only talking about McEwan). Maybe I should be more realistic about the arthouse fiction I tend to read: I’m becoming more and more interested in teck-neek, which makes me a) admire novelists hugely and b) see the whole game as a craft. It isn’t: good fiction isn’t carpentry or pottery – but you can’t create the beautiful thing without a lot of sweat and a lot of practice.

For ‘practice’ read artfulness. I’m a bit further on, and I’m coming to believe that McEwan is simply an arthouse thriller-writer. The artfulness is there, and it’s awesome. He’s created the same kind of Metropolitan professional monde that we find in Saturday – shit, there’s even a surgeon in this novel too, an unflappable cipher (let’s face it) of a paediatrician at the top of her game, with nods and winks in the direction of Cherie Blair – and there’s the small cast of main characters at the even thicker edge of fame: top editor, top composer, top politician. I can’t think of it now as any more than a squib: instead of psychological insights we get reality-tv-style sensationalism as McEwan adds another little ingredient to make the bang a bit bigger. Clive not feeling guilty enough? Let’s make the man he didn’t tackle a serial rapist. Victor not feeling guilty enough? Let’s have him and his character assassination of the cross-dressing politician denounced on the tv news by the most heroic hero there is: a children’s surgeon for God’s sake. And, as Machiavellian as the character (B’stard?) played by Rik Mayall, the young pretender to the editorship pretending to be Vernon’s friend…. It’s about as subtle as those short stories McEwan made his reputation with, and as limited – despite the heavyweight targets – as a fairly cheap thriller. Clever books for the chattering classes: I’ve nearly had my fill of them. Is it time to read some Joseph Conrad again? Or (perish the thought) non-Western literature?

Ho-hum. Five pages later: Machiavelli’s the new editor. Straight after that Clive, in the throes of creation, decides – without using the word, of course – he’s probably a genius, the first Brit to gain Beethoven status. Ok, so he hasn’t finished and the deadline is approaching fast – as does, in 40 pages’ time, the end of the novel. My guess is that his simple little melody, the Ode to Joy-calibre final touch that will bring about his critical beatification, will be plagiarised. (But plagiarised from what? I can’t think of any particular references.) I’ll let you know.

2 November
Three-quarters of the way through (p 140)
Ok, it was clear half-way through that Clive was doomed. And why was it clear? Because he made the wrong moral choice, denying his own humanity, and McEwan has all along been setting him up for a fall. Now, , we’re seeing the same thing happening to Vernon. He’s out of a job

4 November
Another three pages
McEwan’s having a laugh: for the guilt-tainted Clive things come in threes as inspiration returns at last – to be interrupted again, this time finally (surely?) by a call from the cops. Fate has come crashing down on the man who tried to turn his back on his human responsibilities: Vernon’s got his own back on the smug bastard who tried to make him feel morally deficient.

Resolution: I’m not going to write any more about it until I’ve finished it. Except one last thing: surely, given the rules of this particular literary universe, they will have to kill each other.

To the end
How disappointing. I can remember feeling miffed at the end of Enduring Love by the sting in the tail that never came. Yes, Clive had plagiarised the last movement – and, after how many mentions of it (three? four?) we’re amazed that what it turns out to be is the Ode to Joy. (The teasing mention of Blake a couple of chapters from the end was a red herring: put your hands up everyone who thought it would be Jerusalem.) And they do kill each other, in a pair of episodes that are perfectly symmetrical. Tragedy is replaced by farce as we realise that these two success stories are no more than petty little shits. And aren’t we clever for having spotted their pretentiousness from the start?

Hmm. Is McEwan as in control as I earlier thought? Did he intend the plausibility of the early chapters – up to about a third or half-way through – to turn into this broad satire? And if so, did he intend it to be quite so broad and Martin Amis-like? I feel cheated. I feel I’ve wasted my time dissecting a rather crude trick. The ‘mutual murder’ of the end chapters would suit Roald Dahl – or very early McEwan. Both of whom wrote short stories not long, time-wasting ones.


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