Where do I begin? Finally, a Booker that has me firmly under its spell! Read and re-read this book this week and it’s been years since I did that! What can I say? It’s that kind of book. Again, McEwan is a new discovery and there’s no excuse really, no one and nothing to blame, except my own reluctance to read ‘serious literature’ (read award-winning), that I feared (with good reason), would sail right over my head. Still, better late than never, and I happily accept both guilt and blame in the face of such a prize 🙂
To the book then – it packs a powerful punch given that it’s just 178 pages long. A story almost exclusively about men – the absence of women in the narrative (the only one that matters is dead), was not something that struck me until the second reading. It’s rather unusual but surprisingly I didn’t miss their presence or should I say notice their absence, it seemed so natural. Again, during the second reading, I began to underline phrases and passages that left a deep impact, an exercise I had to eventually abandon as entire pages fell to the pencil! I will include a few here, but you’ll just have to read the book to fully experience McEwan’s genius with the English language, especially when he’s describing music and the ‘music-making’ process. Extraordinary eloquence and in-depth knowledge combine to make for some excellent reading, and the aura they create transported me straight into Clive’s world, while he laboured over his masterpiece. It’s so real, it’s almost physical – I could feel his changing moods, participate in his triumphs and mourn his sorrow. I felt I understood him, indeed I felt I was him, while he was on the page and long after. Both the men is this story infuriated me no-end while simultaneously invoking a sense of pity that I found hard to accept and yet impossible to ignore. Brilliant writing!
And so to the tale – two men – joined and ultimately undone by friendship and their grief over the loss of a common lover. Clive Linley & Vernon Halliday, the former a renowned composer, in the throes of composing the ‘Millennial Symphony’, a work he considers his Life’s masterpiece and a representation of his “genius”, a word that hovers in his psyche but stops short of full emergence. He is also in the throes of grief over Molly’s loss – a loss that is much more real and life-altering than he and I realized at first. He’s a self-absorbed, self-indulgent, even cruel man, in the way that a coward might be cruel. Halliday is the same sort of man but manifests differently. Where Clive comes across as the ‘sensitive, secluded genius’, Halliday is more a ‘man of the world’, the editor of a sinking newspaper, a position most people feel he stumbled into for lack of better alternatives and one he doesn’t really deserve and hasn’t earned. He’s brash as only an insecure man can be. McEwan knows his men and he’s brilliant when it comes to putting them down on paper, fleshing out minute details of character, in a layered text that is peppered with subtle nuggets of information. Here is how he describes why Vernon became editor, “He was widely known as a man without edges, without faults or virtues, as a man who did not fully exist. Within his profession Vernon was revered as a nonentity.” How’s that for a gut-wrenching portrait? Much is implied through an invisible subtext (read between the lines) and his ‘timing’ is impeccable. He’s taught me the pleasurable mystique that accompanies the slow revelation of hidden truths 🙂
His powers of description when it comes to concepts and emotions are no less extraordinary. In one instance, he describes ‘Civilization’ as “a raucous dinner party the morning after!” and “…roads, new roads probing endlessly, shamelessly, as though all that mattered was to be elsewhere.” In another, he describes the “unease of outdoor solitude”, a feeling I know I’ve felt many times, thus, “A sense of scale habituated to the daily perspectives of rooms and streets was suddenly affronted by a colossal emptiness.” And here’s how he describes the ‘human condition’ in general and a moment of insight gained, “We know so little about each other. We lie mostly submerged, like ice floes, with our visible social selves projecting only cool and white. Here was a rare sight below the waves, of a man’s privacy and turmoil, of his dignity upended by the overpowering necessity of pure fantasy, pure thought, by the irreducible human element – mind.”
Without revealing the plot, suffice it to say, that even by Page 160 of a 178-page novel, I was uncertain of what would happen next! I had a clue of course and was fairly certain but never sure! Again I say, it’s that kind of book 🙂 As an added bonus, this book introduced me to Fragonard and The Ode of Joy by Beethoven…the latter, a piece of music that I knew but didn’t know I knew, if you get my meaning! I discovered it used to be the Anthem of my school in Japan way back when I was a kid! Such nostalgia 🙂
Fragonard on the other hand is a new discovery – an 18th century French painter and printmaker whose late Rococo manner was distinguished by remarkable facility, exuberance, and hedonism, according to Wikipedia! I’m no art critic but I can tell you I quite liked his work, especially ‘The Swing’, which I include here.
But I digress. Here are a few passages from the book that touched a nerve. Some are obviously better understood in context, just another reason to read the book, if you need one after this rather gushy review 😛
“There wasn’t really much else to do. Make something, and die.”
“Understanding a line f melody was a complex mental act, but it was one which even an infant could perform; we were born into an inheritance, we were Homo musicus…”
“He had reached the core, and felt burdened.”
“The air felt close and damp as though it had been breathed many times.”
“Nothing sprang free in its own idiom, with its own authority, to offer the element of surprise that would be the guarantee of originality.”
“…a silence that towered like redwoods…”
“It can happen sometimes with those who brood on an injustice, that a taste for revenge can usefully combine with a sense of obligation.”
And this last, my favourite and one I totally identify with as a multi-tasking, harangued mother…
“It seemed to Vernon that he was infinitely diluted; he was simply the sum of all the people who had listened to him, and when he was alone, he was nothing at all. When he reached, in solitude, for a thought, there was no one there to think it.”
And so there it is a riveting read, with unforgettable characters, intriguing plot and exemplary writing! If that’s not a sign of a great writer, I don’t know what is! This is a book that I will be re-reading ever so often for the pleasure of the writing and with the certainty that it will never disappoint 🙂 In my literary universe, it comes pretty close to “To Kill a Mockingbird”, my favourite book of all time, which is saying a lot!
Read it. Read it now!