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About this book

This introduction to the work of Ian McEwan places his fiction in historical and theoretical context. It explores his biography, literary techniques and the issues of ethics and representation. Including a timeline of key dates and an interview with the author it also offers an overview of the critical reception McEwan's work has provoked.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Frontmatter

Timeline

Abstract
1960 Harold Macmillan “Winds of Change” speech, Cape Town, South Africa
Lynn Wells

1. Introduction

Abstract
It is hard to dispute that Ian McEwan has evolved as a writer, adopting different styles and genres to suit the ideas and situations he finds most urgently in need of expression; becoming more openly sophisticated about the power of narrative to communicate, to reconcile and at times to deceive; and writing prose that gains him international respect for its technical beauty, emotional timbre and intellectual depth. Once considered, along with his friend Martin Amis, one of the enfants terribles of the British literary scene, he is now touted by many, such as this reviewer, as the best writer of contemporary fiction in English in the world: “McEwan is not only the greatest living writer in England; now that Bellow has stopped writing, and now that Roth’s mastery of le mot juste has exploded … McEwan is writing better English prose than anybody. The Nobel Prize committee could start making itself respectable by giving him the nod” (Siegel 4).
Lynn Wells

2. A Biographical Reading

Abstract
McEwan’s biography, known to us from various interviews he has given and biographical pieces he has written, is in many respects an unremarkable one, and can only illuminate in part the wide array of characters, issues, historical contexts and aesthetic forms that he presents in his works. Certainly, McEwan’s life story from his birth in 1948 to the present coincides with a period covering some of the major political and social changes in England and around the world over the past half century, and his intense interest in historical research, particularly into the Second World War and ensuing Cold War, broadens his available subject matter. In his recent book on McEwan, Dominic Head lists some of the key shifting cultural contexts that have bordered the author’s life as “fading colonialism; the dissolution of the British class structure; educational reform; the transformation of family life; and the second wave of feminism” (5). As the following chapters will show, we can add to that list the rise and fall of British neo-Conservative politics and nationalism, the divisive effects of late capitalism, the threat of international terrorism and the creation of new models of masculinity.
Lynn Wells

Major Works

Frontmatter

3. The Cement Garden and the Comfort of Strangers

Abstract
As early as 1980, V.S. Pritchett wrote in the New York Review of Books that McEwan’s “subject matter is often squalid and sickening; his imagination has a painful preoccupation with the adolescent secrets of sexual aberration and fantasy” (31). Like the stories in his first two collections, his first two novels—The Cement Garden (1978) and The Comfort of Strangers (1981)—abound with scenes of incest, sexual abuse, sadomasochism, dismemberment and murder, yet their sensational aspects are complemented with a surprisingly mature style and thematic seriousness. The “moral dimension” (Head 46) of this early work has often been difficult for critics to discern behind the dead-pan narration and the apparent nonchalance with which gruesome details are reported. Yet, as Jack Slay, Jr. notes, the moral effect of these texts results from McEwan’s “conscious desire to shock readers, forcing them to gaze directly into the horrors of contemporary society” (6). We come to see the incestuous, violent, twisted and psychopathic characters of McEwan’s early work as “the embodiments of our neighbors, our acquaintances, ourselves” (7), products of a modern urbanized culture that breeds alienation, isolation, selfishness and exploitation of others.
Lynn Wells

4. The Child in Time

Abstract
After a break from writing fiction in the mid-1980s during which McEwan concentrated on writing in other genres (see Chapter 11), he returned to the novel in 1987 with the critically successful The Child in Time. In this text, he draws on a more contemporary political context, the right-wing government of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (1979–1990), to create a textual world characterized by oppression of the poor, rampant commercial greed, political corruption and environmental degradation. As Ben Knights points out, this text, set in a futuristic 1996 when Thatcherite policies such as state-licensed begging are so entrenched as to be taken for granted, is a “millenarian” novel with an “apocalyptic weight” (207-8) on its plot, which includes the looming possibility of nuclear devastation and catastrophic weather patterns. The Child in Time depicts a late twentieth-century London society in which any form of innocence seems to have been irrevocably lost, and morality and genuine communication have been replaced by heartless self-interest.
Lynn Wells

5. The Innocent and Black Dogs

Abstract
While The Child in Time confronts the moral failings of contemporary Britain, McEwan’s next two novels, The Innocent (1990) and Black Dogs (1992) engage with the large-scale social and historical effects in the aftermath of military conflict in Europe during the Second World War. The first of these two more historically oriented novels, The Innocent, set in Berlin during the reconstruction of that city in the 1950s, is a Cold War spy thriller in which the lingering violence of the Nazi era is exacerbated by Germany’s post-war political masters, the British and the Americans, with both groups imposing their imperialistic power. Black Dogs, though partly set in the present, is largely retrospective, exploring the collapse of that power with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, but also recalling the ruthless repression by the Gestapo in France during the War. In both these texts, the domination of the state apparatus over its citizens, whether historical or actual, mirrors the unequal, and often detrimental, power of one person over another.
Lynn Wells

6. Enduring Love

Abstract
While The Innocent and Black Dogs demonstrate respectively the urge towards self-absorption and a willingness to help others, Enduring Love begins by staging the conflict between those two impulses in highly dramatic form. The novel’s opening scene, vividly portrayed in the film made of the book in 2004, involves a hot-air balloon accident in which a young boy is being carried away by high winds while his grandfather and five other men, including the narrator Joe Rose, attempt to save him. When the decision needs to be made between risking death by continuing to hang onto the ropes or letting go, all of the men except one, John Logan, a doctor who is also a father, decide to save themselves. As Joe later reflects, this incident exposes the primal impulses behind human society:
Co-operation—the basis of our earliest hunting successes, the force behind our evolving capacity for language, the glue of our social cohesion … But letting go was in our nature too. Selfishness is also written on our hearts. This is our mammalian conflict—what to give to the others, and what to keep for yourself. … Hanging a few feet above the Chilterns escarpment, our crew enacted morality’s ancient, irresolvable dilemma: us, or me. (14–5)
Lynn Wells

7. Amsterdam and on Chesil Beach

Abstract
Written almost a decade apart, these two short novels— Amsterdam (1998) and On Chesil Beach (2007)—have a number of things in common despite their very different subjects and generic styles. Both focus on a small number of characters engaged in tightly formed relationships that lead to intense dramatic action and climactic endings; in fact, each is constructed in five clear sections or “acts”, with, as Peter Childs notes about Amsterdam, “the rhythm of a play and the feel of a script in the making” (2006: 118). In an interview, McEwan said that he hoped his readers would enjoy “almost a kind of theatrical experience” (Bold Type Interview), a statement that could easily be extended to On Chesil Beach, which has also been described as being like a musical composition in five movements (Out of the Book). Amsterdam, “part psychological novel and part social satire” (Malcolm 194), centers on an escalating conflict between two friends who reunite at the funeral of mutual former lover and end up murdering one another: Clive Linley, a composer, and Vernon Halliday, a tabloid editor, both of whom are ruthlessly self-promoting. In a scene rife with allusions to the Romantic period with its reverence for the male poetic genius, Clive puts his own artistic success above human life by ignoring a woman about to be raped.
Lynn Wells

8. Atonement

Abstract
“There were horrors enough, but it was the unexpected detail that threw him and afterwards would not let him go” (Atonement 191). This is the opening sentence of Part Two of McEwan’s best-selling novel Atonement, the section in which Corporal Robbie Turner’s grueling experiences during the retreat to Dunkirk are recounted. But it also captures my response to McEwan’s treatment of war in the text: despite the convincing depictions of violence and suffering in Parts Two and Three, the latter dealing with Briony Tallis’ wartime service as a nurse in a London hospital, I was frequently struck by “unexpected details” that suggested that McEwan’s agenda in including these scenes went well beyond an urge to depict the Second World War in a historically realistic way. Notwithstanding the author’s careful acknowledgement of historical source material, including soldiers’ and nurses’ reminiscences, the portions of the novel set during the War have distinct elements of literary fantasy and self-conscious construction. These graphic sections are oddly shot through with seemingly extraneous details repeated from Part One, which relates the events of one day on the Tallis estate in 1935, when the adolescent Briony persuades her visiting cousins to perform in a melodrama she has written; the emphasis on theatrical production in the opening underscores the artificially dream-like repetitions that pervade the novel from beginning to end, moving across a number of narrative levels.
Lynn Wells

9. Saturday

Abstract
Looking out over London early one morning, Henry Perowne, the main character in Saturday, thinks that “the city is a success, a brilliant invention, a biological masterpiece—millions teeming around the accumulated and layered achievements of the centuries, as though around a coral reef, sleeping, working, entertaining themselves, harmonious for the most part, nearly everyone wanting it to work” (5). This positive view of contemporary urban life is reinforced by the epigraph from Herzog, in which Saul Bellow’s character celebrates the city as a kind of “beautiful super machinery opening a new life for innumerable mankind” (n.p.). Herzog’s image, like Perowne’s, is reminiscent of Le Corbusier’s modernist vision of a “radiant city,” intended to serve as the answer to the question: “What kind of a life should a machine age man really lead?” (Radiant City, 105). Certainly, with its praise of the vast technological resources of modern urban living, from traffic circulation to humble inventions such as the electric tea kettle, McEwan’s rendition of contemporary London life, conveyed by a third-person narrator but virtually exclusively focalized through Perowne’s privileged perspective, verges on the Utopian.
Lynn Wells

Criticism and Contexts

Frontmatter

10. Author Interview

Abstract
LW: The book I’m writing will be focusing on the issue of ethics, particularly ethical encounters between characters. When I started spending a lot of time with your work, something that really struck me was how often there are encounters between particularly two individuals that create a kind of ethical dilemma. But I’m also interested in representational issues, particularly around self-conscious textuality. The rest of my questions will come out of other interviews, things I’ve heard you talk about before and wanted to hear more of what you have to say about those particular issues.
Lynn Wells

11. Other Writings

Abstract
In the Preface to A Move Abroad, McEwan conveys the surprise he felt in 1987 when reviewers responded to the publication of The Child in Time by saying that he was “breaking a six year silence” in writing since The Comfort of Strangers: “From my point of view there was no silence, only a tactical evasion, a move abroad; the novel is a capacious form, but not everything is appropriate to it” (xxvi). During that hiatus, McEwan had continued to write, particularly screenplays for television and the cinema. In 1981, he published together three television plays—Jack Flea’s Birthday Celebration (1976), Solid Geometry (1978, based on the story of the same name, originally written in 1973, from First Love, Last Rites), and The Imitation Game (1978)—as The Imitation Game and Other Plays. The Imitation Game, which McEwan characterizes as “a polemic about gender and power” (MA xxiv), is set in England during the Second World War in the intelligence community, a secretive world that exposes the systematic exclusion of women from full participation in society outside the domestic sphere. McEwan felt that the dramatic form made possible a “more mimetic, a more narrowly accurate representation of the surface of social existence than that afforded by the novel with all its conventional freedoms of, for example, authorial intrusion and the highly artificial depiction of the inner life” (MA xxiv).
Lynn Wells

12. Critical Reception

Abstract
Since he began publishing, McEwan has been the focus of considerable attention from critics and reviewers alike, and their responses to his work have increased in proportion to his fame. The well-maintained website http://​www.​ianmcewan.​com has an exhaustive listing of McEwan’s primary texts, as well as of critical books, articles and reviews, including translations and secondary sources in languages other than English, many of which are hyper-linked. In this chapter, I present a selected list of sources that have been helpful to me in my work on McEwan and recommend some texts for further reading.
Lynn Wells
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