At the beginning of Beckett’s Molloy, the reader finds a narrator atop a hill, from which the narrator can view the travelers below simultaneously from afar, from above and from very near. While Beckett plays with the omniscient and omnipresent perch of the narrator, the problem of perspective has provided ample fodder for the struggles of many a novelist and her narrator, back to Ford’s cuckolded husband in The Good Soldier and beyond. Ian McEwan has made a career in fiction in this line, dissecting the flesh of the moment in which competing narratives clash, as well as its subsequent ossification in memory.
McEwan’s novels give us repeated examples of the elevated perspective brought low – Briony Tallis’ misinterpretation of the fountain scene from a nursery window in Atonement; Henry Perowne’s inspection of London’s skyline and a comet that becomes a burning plane piloted by terrorists in Saturday (until he finds it was merely a cargo plane with engine trouble); Clive’s view, while perched on a Lake District cliff, of what could be an argument or a prelude to rape in Amsterdam. While acknowledging the problems of perspective has become almost a requirement in a post-foundational literary world (if it ever wasn’t) few writers do so with McEwan’s urgency and skill.
McEwan’s latest work, On Chesil Beach, revisits these problems in a much smaller universe – the fragile world of two newlyweds attempting to forge a common narrative without the ability to express either of their own. While the Cold War and vague plans of musical fame and academic authorship weigh on Edward and
While set mainly in the early Sixties, ostensibly a period in which polite English society prevented frank discussion of the physical realities of marriage, an exploration of the times is subordinate to a greater conception of the individual’s movement between poles of internal/personal narrative, extrapersonal/communal narrative, and heteronormative pressures to be “normal.” These pressures are such that
As critical to McEwan’s novelization of the problems in expressing perspective is memory’s place in narrative. Edward’s recollection of a walk with
Edward’s confident assertions of the nature of the past in the final pages acknowledge the mistakes he could have forestalled with a more perfect reading of the present. Considering the difficulties he and