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About this book

Ian McEwan is one of Britain's most established, and controversial, writers. This book introduces students to a range of critical approaches to McEwan's fiction. Criticism is drawn from selections in academic essays and articles, and reviews in newspapers, journals, magazines and websites, with editorial comment providing context, drawing attention to key points and identifying differences in critical perspectives. The book features selections from published interviews with Ian McEwan and covers all of the writer's novels to date, including his latest novel Saturday.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Abstract
At the start of his career, Ian McEwan appeared to reviewers to be one of the enfants terribles of a new kind of writing that was emerging in the 1970s. He took this title along with Martin Amis (born 1949), who was himself one of the rebellious sons of the old guard. McEwan has said of the literary climate in the UK when he began writing:
The published writers then seemed a sort of postwar generation — Kingsley Amis [1922–95], Angus Wilson [1913–91] — the latter I came to know and respect enormously. They showed me a world that seemed to be too tied to a form of social documentary. Too concerned with those things that the English novel has often done well — the nuances of class, the perils and attractions of social mobility, the furniture well-described. I think I was trying to make a strength out of my ignorance. I didn’t know that world. I was a very déclassé sort of young man. I’d been tucked away in a country boarding school where most of the boys were from a working-class background in central London, but the idea was to give them the kind of education that wealthier kids would have had. I was there because there was a small intake of army brat kids. (Dwight Garner, ‘Salon Interview’, 1998)1
Though the postwar generation that McEwan mentions had opened up literary fiction to a new breed of writers — lower middle-class, provincial, and socially disaffected — twenty years later those novelists inevitably appeared to be backward-looking, addressing issues that were primarily of historical interest to a succeeding post-imperial generation that grew up with a sense of new youth movements, Americanisation, and popular culture.
Peter Childs, Nicolas Tredell

Chapter One. The Fleshly Grail: First Love, Last Rites (1975)

Abstract
As well as winning him the 1976 Somerset Maugham Award, Ian McEwan’s short stories in First Love, Last Rites earned him the reputation of a macabre writer of ‘literature of shock’; this was not least because the title itself plays menacingly on the famous 1860 autobiographical story by Turgenev (1818–83), ‘First Love’ (Pervaya lyubov).1 Yet several reviewers were also able to discern the importance of the author’s style and humour. On its publication in the summer of 1975, First Love, Last Rites was enthusiastically received by John Mellors in the London Magazine as ‘a brilliant and devastating début’ because of its blend of comedy and perversity, its paradoxically absurd yet logical plots, and its style, observation and grotesque detail.2 In the New York Review of Books, Robert Towers went further when he reviewed McEwan’s work up to 1979, by concluding that over the previous thirty years, First Love, Last Rites was perhaps the most ‘brilliantly perverse’ and ‘sinister’ short-story collection to emerge from England.3
Peter Childs, Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Two. Underworld: In Between the Sheets (1978)

Abstract
McEwan’s second collection of stories, which came out in the same year as his first novel, met with a similar reaction to his first. For Julian Moynahan, in the New York Times Book Review, the tales were derivative and sensationalist.1 For Hermione Lee, by contrast, they were ‘elegantly gruesome accounts’ that she found ‘grew in depth’,2 and for Caroline Blackwood McEwan showed himself to be an original writer even though the stories themselves might seem contrived.3 Overall, reviews were favourable, finding merit in McEwan’s style and control of his material while expressing distaste if not horror at his subject matter.
Peter Childs, Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Three. A Lovely Sleep: The Cement Garden (1978)

Abstract
McEwan’s first novel was considered shocking, morbid and repellent, but also ‘just about perfect’.1 For Anne Tyler, by contrast, the problem with the novel is that the reader can’t identify with or believe in such bitter and unpleasant children.2 Yet, for many readers it is precisely the sober, unsentimental way in which the children are portrayed, warts and all, that makes the novel so refreshing, and indeed believable. For Blake Morrison The Cement Garden confirmed McEwan as one of the best British novelists of his generation.3
Peter Childs, Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Four. The Desire to be a Victim: The Comfort of Strangers (1981)

Abstract
The Comfort of Strangers, despite its mixed reviews, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. It was variously considered ‘diseased’, a ‘disappointment’, ‘arbitrary and implausible’, and ‘hateful’.2 Yet, in several ways, McEwan’s second novel seems to follow on from his first. The central couple of lovers, Colin and Mary, are so close they could almost be brother and sister: ‘They often said they found it difficult to remember that the other was a separate person’ (p. 17). They sleep in the afternoon, communicate without talking, and do not even have the energy or motivation to tidy their hotel room. They revert to a childlike state, reliant on their hotel maid: ‘they came to depend on her and grew lazy with their possessions. They became incapable of looking after one another …. One late morning, they returned to their room to find it as they had left it, simply uninhabitable, and they had no choice but to go out again and wait until it had been dealt with’ (p. 12). Where Jack and Julie in The Cement Garden are adolescents who prematurely become adults in the familiar family home, Colin and Mary are holidaying adults (she divorced with children) who revert to an earlier childlike stage of life in the unfamiliar temporary home of a hotel in what appears to be Venice. In both books there is an almost solipsistic feel to people, a family and a couple, into whose midst strangers come in search of sex and power. In each novel, too great an intimacy (Colin and Mary ‘knew each other much as they knew themselves, and their intimacy … was a matter of perpetual concern’ p. 13) creates its own problems for the protagonists, and they come under threat from others who will expose the vulnerabilities and dangers of their closeness.
Peter Childs, Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Five. True Maturity: The Child in Time (1987)

Abstract
Or Shall We Die? was performed at London’s Royal Festival Hall, with a score by Michael Berkeley, in 1983. It was Berkeley who also introduced McEwan to Michael Tippett’s (1905–98) oratorio A Child of Our Time (1938), which influenced not only McEwan’s writing of or Shall We Die?, but also the title of his next novel. The Child in Time was met with general critical approval but also with a certain surprise that McEwan had broadened out from the somewhat claustrophobic concerns of the short stories and of his first two novels.2 McEwan describes its genesis in A Move Abroad (1989):
Peter Childs, Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Six. No Different From You: The Innocent (1990)

Abstract
The Innocent (1990) is in some ways an uncomplicated spy novel, a thriller written in straightforward prose. However, it also met with almost universal praise from critics who felt that McEwan had taken the staple ingredients of the Cold War thriller and fashioned them into a psychological tour de force.1 As well as a critical trumph, it was McEwan’s most commercially successful novel to date. The narrative setting is postwar Berlin at the time of a British-American attempt to tunnel into the Soviet sector in 1955–56. A stereotypical Cold War enterprise, the aim of ‘Operation Gold’ was to infiltrate communist communication systems. In this novel, as well as focusing on the actual Berlin Tunnel built by MI6 and the CIA, McEwan also breaks the fictional frame of the narrative by introducing the real figure of George Blake, the double agent who betrayed ‘Operation Gold’ before it even started. The book is concerned with the postwar world (also that of McEwan’s childhood) which had bifurcated into mutual suspicion between East and West. It is also a story about the end of empire, and England’s eclipse by the USA as a major world power, together with the rise of global American cultural dominance. Set in the watershed years of the mid-1950s, The Innocent is in part about the loss of Britain’s international role and the dawn of its new position as a naive, old-fashioned figure in the world order. This is epitomized in the central character, the innocent Leonard Marnham: ‘He had spent the war with his granny in a Welsh village over which no enemy aircraft had ever flown. He had never touched a gun, or heard one go off outside a rifle range; despite this, and the fact that it had been the Russians who had liberated the city, he made his way through [Berlin …] with a certain proprietorial swagger, as though his feet beat out the rhythms of a speech by Mr. Churchill’ (p. 5).
Peter Childs, Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Seven. Ça Suffit: Black Dogs (1992)

Abstract
Reviews of Black Dogs drew comparisons between McEwan and some of the most influential twentieth-century British novelists, such as E. M. Forster (1879–1970) and William Golding;1 but overall critics were once more divided. Some declared it his finest achievement to date, while others condemned it as contrived and melodramatic. Considered by some to be an excellent novel of ideas and also McEwan’s most humane work, for others it was an unhappy mixture of polemic and farce.2
Peter Childs, Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Eight. Rationality Is Its Own Kind of Innocence: Enduring Love (1997)

Abstract
As noted in the Introduction, after the publication of Amsterdam, McEwan said that he thought the novels he’d written over the last ten years all belonged together: ‘beginning with The Child in Time and really ending with Enduring Love: novels of a sort of crisis and transformation, rites of passage of great intensity for characters’.1 This was indeed how Enduring Love was received, as another macabre story of obsession and suspense, opening with one of the most compelling beginnings in recent British fiction: a height from which it could only descend in the rest of the narrative. Merritt Moseley thought it one of the best novels of 1997, Anita Brookner (born 1928) called it a ‘brilliant novel’ and ‘marvellous fiction’, while Amanda Craig bemoaned its reliance on popular science — ‘half-baked ideas’ — and Jason Cowley thought it overdetermined and overly schematic.2 A. S. Byatt (born 1936), however, has placed this careful structure in the context of the novel’s thematic concerns: ‘it juxtaposes a mad version of the plottedness of human relations, the divine design, the instant recognition of the beloved and destiny, with a human love which is vulnerable, can be destroyed by madness and certainty’.3 While both Joe and Clarissa at points in the novel say that they had always believed their love would endure, it is Jed Parry’s love that is the most impervious to time and change and that reveals Joe and Clarissa’s own love as indeed human, and therefore vulnerable.
Peter Childs, Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Nine. Their Reasonable Laws: Amsterdam (1998)

Abstract
Though it won the Booker Prize, Amsterdam is usually considered one of McEwan’s lesser novels. The book has been called a fable, a psychological thriller, and a morality tale, but it only begins to cohere when it is seen as McEwan’s first sustained foray into comedy. Divided into five sections, or acts, it has the rhythm of a play and the feel of a film script in the making. The novel takes its epigraph from Auden’s ‘The Crossroads’: ‘The friends who met here and embraced are gone, \ Each to his own mistake’. The meeting this alludes to is that between four men at the funeral of Molly Lane, who has died after a long illness: the composer Clive Linley, the newspaper editor Vernon Halliday, the Foreign Secretary Julian Garmony, and Molly’s overprotective husband George. The four have all been Molly’s lovers and the storyline rests on their jealousy and their veiled contempt for each other, fuelled by the selfish weaknesses and hubris that undercut their pompous, high-minded beliefs.
Peter Childs, Nicolas Tredell

Chapter Ten. Storytelling as Self-justification: Atonement (2001)

Abstract
Near the end of Enduring Love, Jean Logan asks ‘who’s going to forgive me? The only person who can is dead’ (p. 230). This is a question at the heart of Atonement, but it is given a further dimension by McEwan’s decision to make it also central to Briony Tallis’s act of writing the novel.
Peter Childs, Nicolas Tredell

Conclusion

And Now, What Days Are These?: Saturday (2005)
Abstract
With Atonement McEwan cemented his claim to be the foremost British novelist of his generation. While his novels have received mixed responses, every one of them has been hailed by some reviewers and has provoked in-depth analyses from critics. As a body of work, his fiction to date has been a remarkably consistent series of stories and novels concerned with many of the foremost issues and events of modern times: from gender relations to post-imperial nationalism, the politics of Britain’s elite to extended philosophical and social comment, the history of postwar Europe to the genealogy of the English novel. His fictions have been considered extreme in their depiction of violence and sexuality but have been repeatedly praised for their sensitive treatment of individual lives and the human condition. The present Guide began in 1975 with McEwan’s debut collection First Love, Last Rites and now concludes in 2005 with his novel Saturday.
Peter Childs, Nicolas Tredell
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