The Magazine

Unconsummation

The sexual battleground before the Revolution.

Aug 20, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 46 • By MICHAEL WEISS
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On Chesil Beach

A Novel

by Ian McEwan

Talese, 208 pp., $22

If the male pursuit of sex suffers from a fatal impatience, I wonder how many women have actually been persuaded by Andrew Marvell's more farsighted and minatory argument:

Thy beauty shall no more be found,

Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound

My echoing song: then worms shall try

That long preserved virginity,

And your quaint honour turn to dust,

And into ashes all my lust . . .

Edward Mayhew, the protagonist of this burnished gem of a novel, has just been wed, in an England a few years shy of the sexual revolution, to Florence Ponting, a beautiful and cultured girl he met at a rally for nuclear disarmament. (The metaphysical poets never had the benefit of looming atomic armageddon to hasten their progress in the bedroom.) Man and wife are 23- and 22-year-old virgins, respectively, and despite the obvious associations with a prim and puritanical era about to be undone by the 1960s, theirs is not really a struggle against that coy mistress, time, but rather Florence's nonexistent libido. Her own echoing song, courtesy of her classical musical talent, is used as a mental distraction from the conjugal duty, which Edward eagerly yet anxiously anticipates. Indeed, his bride would like to preserve her virginity forever, or at least have it "lost" as quickly and perfunctorily as possible, with scarce encore performances.

This is a dilemma no poet in any age should ever have to face, which makes it especially satisfying that Ian McEwan's masterful prose is put to the task of describing an unconsummated marriage that's only a couple of hours old and already a complete failure. Here is how Florence thinks of sex:

In a modern, forward-looking handbook that was supposed to be helpful to young brides, with its cheery tones and exclamation marks and numbered illustrations, she came across certain phrases or words that almost made her gag: mucous membrane, and the sinister and glistening glans. Other phrases offended her intelligence, particularly those concerning entrances: Not long before he enters her . . . or, now at last he enters her, and, happily, soon after he has entered her . . . Was she obliged on the night to transform herself for Edward into a kind of portal or drawing room through which he might process? Almost as frequent was a word that suggested to her nothing but pain, flesh parted before a knife: penetration.

In different hands--say, those of Evelyn Waugh--a paragraph like this would retract the curtain on a domestic satire promising to spare no gruesome anatomical detail or limb-flaying embarrassment. There's some of that here, to be sure. McEwan may be forgiven the odd culinary pun or double entendre ("If only eating a sticky cherry was all that was required," is Florence's free association between the dinner plate and the boudoir) given his expert take on the depressing bill of fare of a cheap but pretentious seaside resort. A hasty grope during a screening of A Taste of Honey, we're twice informed, has Florence jumping like a stung bullock and setting Edward's otherwise careful forensic explorations back many weeks. And here's how the delicate matter of self-abuse is treated: "How extraordinary it was, that a self-made spoonful, leaping clear of his body, should instantly free his mind to confront afresh Nelson's decisiveness at Aboukir Bay."

It's in McEwan's sensitive nature to use body mechanics, easily the stuff of raw farce, as the centrifugal force that separates and layers two personal tragedies as subtly as the famed shingle of Chesil Beach. That's where Edward and Florence honeymoon: What should have been the site of their first act of licensed love in reality serves as a backdrop for the last rites of their ill-fated union. The climax, so to speak, of their unraveling occurs alongside the more complicated fabric of history, so it's helpful that Edward has made an attentive study of the subject (Nelson and Aboukir Bay was not a throwaway line): "He understood how constrained and meager lives could be, generation after generation. In the grand view of things, these peaceful, prosperous times England was experiencing now were rare, and within them his and Florence's joy was exceptional, even unique."

Also short-lived, for other epochal reasons: Ballistic brinkmanship in Cuba; the construction of the Berlin Wall; the Kennedy assassination; and the nightmarish war in Indochina are all not far off. The pill and rock 'n' roll are at this point whispered fantasies from America.