McEwan, Ian: On Chesil Beach

Alas the regular scribe was in Australia, and the poor apprentice arrived late, having gone to the ‘Avenue’ instead of the ‘Gardens’. He caught his breath, poured and took a sip of Black Sheep Ale (wot, no claret?), recovered his poise and tried to catch the ongoing discussion. Fortunately, this had focused on the venue and menu for the upcoming fifth anniversary dinner in March. What was most important, the location, the food or the wine? Should the menu have literary associations? Suggestions of the popular previous reads, ‘Hunger’ and last month’s austerity cooking of ‘Nella Last’s War’ did not find favour among the gourmet subset. The decision was made, and we proceeded to Chesil beach.

The proposer introduced Ian Russell McEwan, born in 1948 and a contemporary of some of the group. Much of his childhood was spent abroad, before studying at Sussex under Malcolm Bradbury and Angus Wilson, among others. Married twice, he had received many literary fellowships, was awarded the CBE in 2000. The proposer recounted many family anecdotes, including a reunion with an unknown (till 2002) elder brother, a bricklayer, who was handed over for adoption in 1942 in a ‘brief encounter’ with another adopting family.

McEwan’s works have earned him worldwide critical acclaim, since his first book of short stories, ‘First Love, Last Rites’ (1975). Many short stories and novels have followed with recurring themes dealing with family life, childhood, deviant sexuality, disjointed family life, and the consequences of seemingly insignificant actions.

The proposer considered McEwan to be among the first rank of contemporary British authors of literary fiction. His favourite was ‘Saturday’, but as there were several medical allusions including the name of the neurosurgeon which made reference to a bent penis, he decided that the medically challenged audience might not appreciate the subtleties entailed. Turning specifically to Chesil Beach, a book that concentrates two lifetimes into a single night of sexual dysfunction, the proposer recalled how he had first listened to the book on an audio tape while driving through Spain and France with his wife. He found the book amusing and captivating. Then, a first for the book group! He played the first few sentences of the audio recording; the phrasing was impressive, and one commented how well it sounded, a book that was meant to be read aloud.

To open the discussion of the read text, one said that the book was painfully reminiscent of his own first sexual experience. The others examined their shoes, tried to recall their own first experience, ‘old age doesn’t come on its own’. Continuing the travel theme, of young courtship and thwarted love, another described a trip to Switzerland, arrival at the hotel at 3am, and the discovery that the anticipated room was occupied. The less than happy couple had to drink coffee in the lounge till breakfast the next morning. Did this save them from similar embarrassment to Edward and Florence? We daren’t ask.

Gradually turning from personal experiences another speaker discussed the charming way the meeting and courtship of the couple were described, leading to the problems of the virginal wedding night. The structure of the book was universally admired, describing the pivotal anti-climax, or climax, in the context of all that come before, and the subsequent development of the couple’s lives following the debacle. Was it a missed opportunity for a less conventional marriage?

How relevant was the book, written in 2007, but describing events in 1962, to today? One of the group doubted that many married as virgins, even in 1962. In one sense the year may have been pivotal as the pill became available in 1963. Was a reluctance to engage in premarital sex a matter of religion, a matter of shyness, or a matter of practicality? Philip Larkin was quoted.

 ‘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’

 As Florence never said in the book,

‘Please please me, whoa yeah,

 Like I please you’

 Again, the company reminisced.

Perhaps uncomfortable with such thoughts, a member suggested a historical inaccuracy. The idea that an Englsh hotel would have a good selection of malts in 1962 was preposterous. There was brief discussion of the relative merits of ‘Laphroaig’ and ‘Springbank’. Your scribe is not sure of the majority verdict. He was too young in 1962 to sample malts, and inhabited B&Bs rather than hotels, so the matter is unresolved. The group turned away from the discussion of malts to the sexual themes of the book.

Florence’s relationship with her father was considered a key factor in her sexual frigidity. Quoting from the text: ‘Perhaps what I really need to do is kill my mother and marry my father’. Someone who is sexually abused often has a fear of intimate sex. At one stage, during the initial stages of the virginal fumbling, she seemed to experience sexual arousal, but the moment was lost. What further evidence exists of sexual abuse? The father poured lots of favours on her daughter, and took her on business trips, which was considered rather odd. Again quoting from the text:

‘father and daughter rarely spoke, except in company, and then inconsequentially, he thought they were intensely aware of each other though, and had the impression they exchanged glances when other people were talking , although sharing a secure criticism’.

There are several oblique references to probable father-daughter sexual experience on pages 49 and 50 in the paperback edition.

As the inevitable moment approaches, the author builds the scene:

‘The two waiters disappear, they were on their own. Difficulties are anticipated’.

These are two children, of middle class families, intelligent, apparently well matched, though with different incomes and mores. At last Edward thinks that maybe he never had anyone whom he loved as much, with so much seriousness. There is also the sense of a Hardy-like coincidence; if only he had called her back on the eponymous beach it may well have been different. They had such wonderful shared experiences. Alas, these platonic moments were destroyed by the basic desire.

There was some disagreement on how well-matched the couple was. One referred to the hints of danger throughout the story. Edward had a previous history of fights and brawls, and he may not yet have fully put this behind him in spite of the previous loss of friendship when defending a friend. Latterly:

He walked up and down on the exhausting shingle, hurling stones at the sea and shouting obscenities’.

He still retained the violent streak. Yet, all had felt sympathy for the two characters.

We concluded that the book was well crafted. There was discussion of the beauty of the prose. We wondered whether this was effortless, or the result of considerable re-writing. Was it pornographic? No, but painfully true. One attendee had to admit a sense of wishing the couple would ‘just get on with it’, and another confessed to experiencing certain longeurs in the mid section. The tone was lowered; reference was made to knickers and gravitational force. Ooh! Aah! Missus!

One key aspect of the book was the history-induced attitude of Florence to sexual words which were considered by the group to be male-dominated, e.g. ‘penetration’. The significance of the music was discussed. Was it an escape from love, from sex, and a protective mechanism? On page 80, Florence uses the music as a distraction to take her mind off the sex to come. On page 162, there is an almost sexual intensity in the criticism of the quartet’s playing. However, as another stated, it was not really fear on Flo’s part – rather disgust and shame of the animal instinct. The contractual issues were discussed, ‘in deciding to be married she had agreed to exactly this.’ Reference was made to the ‘droit de seigneur’ implied in the marriage contract, and of course this marriage was never consummated.

Considering the author is male, a member thought that he had a very good grasp of the female psyche, credible to a male-dominated book group at least. The characterisations of both Edward and Florence were equally convincing. Many books deal with the coming of age and have descriptions of a first sexual encounter. To the audience, this treatment was original in focusing so exclusively on the sexual act, working backward and forward to explain the reasons and consequences of the act. Their whole lives were encompassed in that moment. That is the strength of the book’s structure.

The group thought about love, communication between the couple, and the act of sex. Did they communicate, or not? Did they understand the other’s point of view? She acknowledges her failures, she agrees she is frigid, she suggests the compromise that Edward could go with other women. Edward is appalled; he suggests it is contrary to the wedding vows. He loses it, he calls her a bitch. A man is scorned.

At last one of the company read or recalled his own instruction manual. Take it gently, don’t jump in, he had been advised. Maybe Edward should not have stopped masturbating for a week with the inevitable result, however well meant. Another talked of a book picked up (I think) from a dodgy bookshop in Nairn, or maybe just published in Nairn in the 1900’s. Then at least, masturbation made you blind. Yet another quoted from his Encyclopedia of Sexual Knowledge, hidden in the linen cupboard in his youth, where presumably it came in handy for Nairn activities. Yet another talked of the Kama Sutra and his father in the Indian army. Apparently it was not to be read by Indians, according to army instructions. Your scribe wondered why he read Ian Fleming as a teenager.

So far all had been very complimentary. What was the weakest thing about the book? There is a lot of loss of face, the premature ejaculation, the frigid reaction, but surely the public admission of failure is actually more serious. All the wedding presents were returned. Is this plausible? How do they bear the humiliation? Edward does not explain himself and his family quietly dissolves the marriage. The scribe thought Florence wholly unconventional, not at all concerned about what others think – her disgust should not be interpreted as worry about ‘what people think’.

The conversation turned back to the thoughts of Florence as the moment approached. She thinks of her shoes, her dress as Edward struggles to remove it. The discussion went off at a tangent, from women’s shoes to handbags, to sexual objects, to Margaret Thatcher. Was she sexually attractive? Alan Clark, whom dedicated readers will recall was the author of a previous selection, ‘Barbarossa’, thought so. Florence’s concentration on shoes and dresses displaced the thoughts of the sexual act. Extrapolating further from shoes and handbags, the description of the food on pages 119 and 120 suggests a wealth of new experiences including not just the food but the subsequent musical ecstasy – ‘they came to a ragged halt and let the music swirl around them as they embraced’.

Suddenly the conversation changed to cappuccino makers, tampers, thermometers, the need to make a perfect cup of coffee. Oh how sexual encounters are replaced by prosaic activities. At this point there was another tangential foray into cappuccino makers and coffee plungers. Do keep up! 

Why are Ian McEwan’s books generally short? One who had heard him interviewed pondered that he likes to make the point with brevity. He considers many other books padded with too much waffle, concentrating on quantity rather than quality. He made reference to the fact that the author liked books to be read as a whole in one sitting, the length of time of a film of a play or a film for example. One member thought that £7.99 was a bit steep for such a short book. War and Peace, anyone?

It was getting late, and your scribe had to be awake at 5.45am the next day. We concluded. Unusually, there was unanimous agreement on the excellence of the book, which had generated excellent discussion. Often diverging opinions create the most interesting discussions, but not this time. The book was superbly structured, painfully accurate, and the writing of such a high standard. McEwan is popular; he deals with subjects that everyone can identify with.

We thanked the host and walked into the night, reflecting.