On Chesil Beach
Author: Ian McEwan
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
In a world that celebrates everything that has to do with the erotic — whether it be models staring down at us from billboards, or ‘sex surveys’ that the media insists that readers can’t get enough of, or those not-too-irregular familial inquiries about ‘when is the good news?’ — it can be difficult for many of us to entertain the notion of someone young being horrified and disgusted at the prospect of conducting the sexual act with a loved one. In his latest book, Ian McEwan not only entertains this idea but he also takes it to a place that seems as disturbing as it is familiar.
On Chesil Beach is set in an England that existed only a year before the one described by Philip Larkin in his Annus
Mirabilis: “Sexual intercourse began/ In nineteen sixty-three/ (which was rather late for me) —/ Between the end of the Chatterley ban/ And the Beatles’ first LP.)” This was a time when, as McEwan tells us in scattered lines throughout the book, “being childlike was not yet honourable, or in fashion”, no particular region was mentioned on the labels of wine bottles from France, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were known as bands which did covers of Chuck Berry songs, and yoghurt was still “a glamorous substance [one] knew only from a James Bond novel”.<b1>
But most importantly, the day that McEwan’s two protagonists Edward and Florence are married, July 1962, is firmly in a time-zone in which intercourse is still an 11-letter word. The novella is hinged around the young couple’s wedding night, the narrative starting at the dinner table in their hotel room where the air crackles with pre-coital anxiety.
“They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible. But it is never easy.” These are the opening two lines of the novella and one can only marvel at the way McEwan uses the commas in the first sentence as fulcrums to present the picture. The punctuation between the end of the first sentence and the beginning of the next one sounds like the whole passing of a chapter.
But McEwan welds his Jane Austenish ‘tragedy of manners’ setting to an almost H P Lovecraftian terrifying zone reminiscent of his early works like The Cement Garden and The Child In Time to show us how repellent sex is for Florence. She loves Edward; she is in love with Edward; she treasures his physical closeness. But the Cartesian whip comes down on her every moment her mind is occupied by what is to inevitably follow after dinner.
“For much of the time, through all the months of merry wedding preparation, she managed to ignore this stain on her happiness, but whenever her thoughts turned towards a close embrace — she preferred no other term — her stomach tightened dryly, she was nauseous at the back of her throat.”
Edward’s only worry before conjugal consummation, “based on one unfortunate experience, was of overexcitement, of what he had heard someone describe as ‘arriving too soon’.” And yet, his situation is equally tragic — if not more — because he has no control, no influence over what makes him an object of disgust to the wife he loves and desires:
his desire for his wife.
<b2>The wedding night and its ‘climactic’ scene lie at the core of this slim book. But it is around this terrible ‘non-act’ that the lives of Edward and Florence are depicted by McEwan. This is is done through elegiac flashbacks and wadings through an English cultural swamp that would be unrecognisable only a few months later.
On Chesil Beach finds McEwan at the height of his pointillistic powers. He pecks out words from each and every blank page to make the reader confront and follow two people tightly bound by love and who implode because they vehemently disagree on why they can’t get satisfaction from each other — a trope that, with some modification, will become a hit pop song in the same country that Edward and Florece will live in three years after that fateful night at the Dorset hotel.