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Repressing the flesh

Ian McEwan doesn't shy at all from life's uncomfortable truths. Witness the wedding night in 'On Chesil Beach.'

June 17, 2007|Scott Timberg | Times Staff Writer

New York — WITH their unusual combination of verbal control and page-turning tension, Ian McEwan's books resemble the films of Alfred Hitchcock more than they do the work of any other author. McEwan's psychologically probing novels can be about the horror of a lie, the horror of personal isolation, the horror of friendship gone bad, and or, in his new book, the horror of the body. McEwan's latest novel, the compact "On Chesil Beach," is surely one of the least arousing books ever written about sex. McEwan, 58, calls it "a piece in a minor key of human encounter."

It recounts the wedding night of two virgins who head to a remote stone beach on the Dorset coast to confront the unknown -- in this case, each other. It's 1962, and England is still in a dreary postwar state, the psychedelic, guitar-blaring glories of "the '60s" still years away.

Without giving anything away, we can say that the slightly rustic, blues-loving groom is, though entirely lacking in experience, more eager than his classical-violinist bride. Repression, McEwan says, is always an attractive subject for the English writer.

Nan A. Talese, who has been publishing McEwan since his first novel, was drawn to his work right away. "It just seemed," she said, "like Ian could write about the kind of truth other people were uncomfortable with." She was apparently right: For more than a decade, despite great reviews, she couldn't sell his books to save her life.

The Booker Prize in 1998 for "Amsterdam," a slim, lethal novel that in some ways prefigures "On Chesil Beach," changed that: His work remained uncomfortable, but it was now popular as well. The metafictional "Atonement," set before and during World War II and probably the best-reviewed novel of 2001, made him even better known. And his 2005 Iraq-shadowed "Saturday" has been optioned by movie producer Scott Rudin.

McEwan's next project is the libretto for a Michael Berkeley opera called "For You." He sat recently at the Gramercy Park Hotel next to a pinyon-wood fire as a wedding party clamored behind him, discussing the roots of his spare, obsessive new book.

Question: The book came in part from your interest in the form of the short novel, and also in the pre-Beatles '60s ... ?

Answer: I like the self-contained, three- to four-hour read, something as unified as an opera or a play or a longish movie. I think the reader has, at that kind of length, a real sense of shape.

At the same time I was thinking the wedding night is a curiously attractive and rich subject. Because you're confined to those two to three hours, you have unity of time, unity of place -- just what the form allows.

Because of the peculiar nature of first-time sex, it penetrates deep into character, reveals who we really are. With opportunities for some comedy, some tragedy, some sadness.

I've been thinking about that period, which seems strangely overlooked these days. When we talk about the '60s we're not even talking about a decade anymore, but a range of attitudes, social outlooks and so on. For many people the '60s really started in the '70s.

So it was attractive to write about young people, just before that period -- when being young was not a blessed state, when being childlike was not honorable.

I was quite keen to not make them representatives of anything. But of course we all embody our time. We like to feel we have free will and are unique individuals, but if we were projected 500 years into the future, we'd look like typical examples of the early 21st century. Our actions are hedged, by time and history.

There seems to be music, especially classical music, in most of your books. What role does it play in your life and how does it illuminate your characters?

I enjoy it a great deal. It's become a part of my mental furniture. So when I'm living inside my characters, I project into their minds. It is the most puzzling art form -- it's so abstract, so difficult to understand what a particular bit of music 'means.' And yet it all seems to exist just on the edge of being said.

I like classical music. I don't think there's any musical tradition in the world that's so exacting, so in some senses full of denial of the personality. Even the great interpreters are submitting themselves to someone else.

Florence and Edward share a great deal of my own passions. I rather agree with Edward that the Beatles were nothing compared with what was happening in the south of England. We concentrated on Liverpool, but it was southwest London, hugely influenced by Chicago blues.... And Hendrix spent a lot of time in that milieu, and there were many south English guitarists who really saw that he was the future.

You attended Malcolm Bradbury's creative writing program, at the University of East Anglia, which also produced Kazuo Ishiguro...

I must've met [Bradbury] three times. He was a star, and always busy and on the television. I reckon I had no more than an hour of his time in the whole year.

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