On Chesil Beach
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.
Edward isn't by design a political animal, though we're told in a brief epilogue that he'll be caught up in the erotic and musical emancipations of the crashing decade. His interest in the "great man" theory of history and medieval millenarian cults can hardly be described as a calling, just as his passive affiliation with Cold War concerns stems more from the desire to appear serious and sophisticated, the better to shed his identity as an underprivileged rube. Edward embodies the best hopes of the postwar English scholarship system. His wayward masculinity may be most pronounced in the connubial chamber, but he betrays his threatening physical nature as a street brawler, albeit one who's bright and ambitious enough to notice how such ill-bred activity won't endear him to his urbane friends, let alone a cerebral violinist.
McEwan has a fondness for making his tormented wives players of this instrument--Julie Lewis in The Child in Time was a violinist, even though copulation was her and her estranged husband Stephen's saving grace: "No governments or publicity firms or research departments, but biology, existence, matter itself had dreamed this up for its own pleasure and perpetuity, and this was exactly what you were meant to do, it wanted you to like it."
Florence couldn't disagree more with this assessment. She views coitus, dire clinical manuals aside, as a cosmic joke--not just awkward and disgusting, but sinister. Her frigidity brings out the worst aspects of her cleverness ("She had to do everything she could to begin to lower his expectations") and threatens to overrun her sincere affection for Edward. Is it strictly wifely charity, then, or a calculated hypocrisy that causes her to finally propose that he take other lovers while allowing her to retain the outward status of his only lawful one? Whatever the case, it's only accidentally prescient and not at all rebellious of her to suggest an "arrangement." She's got ideological sympathies of her own, and they go well with her nullity below the waist: "Florence knew in her heart that the Soviet Union, for all its mistakes--clumsiness, inefficiency, defensiveness surely, rather than evil design--was essentially a beneficial force in the world." But it's bourgeois breaks while she and Edward are planning a life together:
He loved her, but he wanted to shake her awake, or slap her out of her straight-backed music-stand poise, her North Oxford proprieties, and make her see how really simple it was: here was a boundless sensual freedom, theirs for the taking, even blessed by the vicar--with my body I thee worship--a dirty, joyous, bare-limbed freedom, which rose in his imagination like a vast airy cathedral, ruined perhaps, roofless, fan-vaulted to the skies, where they would weightlessly drift upward in a powerful embrace and have each other, drown each other in waves of breathless, mindless ecstasy. It was so simple!
There's an authorial hint in that archaic vow, which McEwan used to more devastating effect in Atonement, set 30 years earlier than On Chesil Beach: "How flagrantly, sensually, it reverberated before the altar when [the vicar] said, 'With my body I thee worship'" just as the fatuous Lola Quincey is bound before church and state to her former rapist, the millionaire chocolatier Paul Marshall. We're led obliquely to understand that Florence also has been the victim of a childhood violation by a wealthy perpetrator: her father. So the dam-break of the sixties may offset her nuptial chaos, but it's a more timeless problem that blights with plague the marriage hearse.
Michael Weiss is associate editor of Jewcy magazine.