Excursions Of A Bibliophile

What are u reading these days?

Amsterdam — By Ian McEwan — A book review

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on June 19, 2008

It has been my unresearched perception that the contemporary literary landscape of English (rightly or wrongly I am also including Irish and Scottish into this) is a fascinating place brimming with activity, talent and creativity. I guess to a certain extent this view is fueled by a superficial brush with the books and reviews of writers like Kazuo Ishiguro, Anne Donovan, Zadie Smith, Martin Amis coupled with the annual commotion that one gets to witness during the Booker Season – I mean where in the world does one get to see bookies betting on writers the way one bets on footballers and horses? — I am not sure if that is an indication of the popularity of books and writers in UK or the capability of people to reduce any event with probabilities to a betting opportunity.  It is with this perception in mind, I thought, I will explore a couple of new writers from UK and chose “Amsterdam” by Ian McEwan and “Arthur & George” by Julian Barnes for this purpose

I am mid way through “Arthur & George” — which I shall dwell on in the next posting and so focus on “Amsterdam” in this one

“Amsterdam” is a dark book on ambition, assumed loyalties, fear of death and the destruction of relationships and people on account of intermingling of all of these drivers in the characters that populate this book. The main characters are Clive – a brilliant music composer and Vernon – the managing editor of a newspaper which is witnessing a serious decline in its fortunes. Both have been ex-lovers of Molly who is dead and wife to George – a rich businessman — with minor interests in “The Judge”, the paper that Vernon is managing. Vernon has a friendship with Clive that is parasitic in nature.   Both have divergent personalities and a common belief in euthanasia and desire for a painless death. When alive, Molly, was given to living life on her own terms and has had multiple relationships — some serious and some temporary. Chief among her other relationships are with Julian who is the current foreign secretary of UK and with a burning desire of being the PM. Julian is percieved to be a right winger with extreme views on human rights, National Health Service and UK’s role and involvement within EU. The story begins with the death of Molly and the selling of some revelatory photographs of Julian by Geroge to Vernon. Vernon wants to use this as a lever to turn around the position of his newspaper and also drive away the potential contenders for his job: Cassisus is hungry, Vernon thought. He’ll head his department, then he’ll want my job. The paper itself is steeped in tradition of reporting news from the fringes and many employees are against using the tactics of Vernon. The character of the paper and George are depicted brilliantly by McEwan when he writes: “These things take time to turn around.” Vernon tasted his port and protected himself with the recollection that Geroge owned a mere one and half percent of “The Judge” and knew nothing about the business. It was also useful to remember that his fortune, his publishing ’empire’was rooted in the energetic exploitation of the weak-headed: hidden numerical codes in the Bible foretold the future, the Incas hailed from the outer space, the Holy Grail, the Ark of the Covenant, the Second Coming, the Third Eye, the Seventh Seal, Hitler was alive and well in Peru. It was not easy to be lectured by George on the ways of the world

On the other hand Clive has a champion in Julian who supports the nomination of Clive to compose the millenial symphony and Clive feels that Vernon is betraying the trust and memory of Molly by deciding to expose Julian. The two friends differ on the morality of the approach. Clive is also under duress to get his symphony composed in time to get the recognition he longs for. He packs off to the Lake district to get on with his work. During his brief stay there Clive comes across a confrontation between a man and a woman and does not get involved despite the merit of the situation as he is after that inspirational moment that will enable the completion of work. It turns out that the man Clive encountered was a serial molester whom the police is looking for. Clive narrates this to Vernon who promptly informs the Scotland Yard about Clive’s role in the whole incident. Vernon feels that this is a form of revenge for Clive’s non acceptance of Vernon’s means of rising to fame. Clive is interviewed by police but is left free to travel to Amsterdam to present his symphony and make the final corrections. Things go completely awry for Vernon and he not only fails in indicting Julian but also fails in reading the public mood on the issue of Julian and fails to whip the needed frenzy. The rise in circulation numbers of his paper are temporary. In the process Vernon is utterly ruined and loses his job. While Clive appears calm outwards there is a seething rage against Vernon and also a feeling of being betrayed by Vernon especially with respect to the photographs and his approach to making use of them. Both Clive and Vernon make an appointment at Amsterdam under the pretension of a rapproachement and poison each other to death. Julian comes out unscathed supported by his family and friends. That in sum is the plot of the novel

So did I like the book? I did enjoy parts of the book but not in its totality. However, that is not to say that there are no aspects of the book that I am not impressed with. Ian McEwan’s control of language and accute observation powers stand out superbly. His psychological sketches of some aspects of people’s behaviour are breathtaking. For example consider the following where Clive thinks of the behaviour of high and mighty towards appointments: It would have been possible to back out of his engagements by assuming license of the free artistic spirit, but he loathed such arrogance. He had a number of friends who played the genious card when it suited, failing to show up to this or that in the belief that whatever local upset it caused, it could only increase respect for the compelling nature of their high calling. These types — novelists were by far the worst — managed to convince friends and families that not only their working hours, but every nap and stroll, every, fit of silence, depression or drunkenness bore the exculpatory ticket of high intent. A mask of mediocrity was Clive’s view. He did’nt doubt the calling was high, but bad behaviour was not part of it. Perhaps every century there was an exception or two to be made; Beethoven, yes; Dylan Thomas, most certainly not

Secondly, the situation building too is that of an accomplished writer. One only has to see his portrayal of the editorial meetings in a newspaper office –very realistic and very near to the innards of what a modern day paper would look like. The slow and gradual falling out of the friendship is also depicted brilliantly when Clive says this to himself: Put most crudely, what did he, Clive, really derive from this friendship? He had given, but what had he ever received? What bound them? They had Molly in common. There were accumulated years and the habits of friendship, but there was really nothing at its center, nothing for Clive. A generous explanation for the imbalance might have evoked Vernon’s passivity and self absorption. Now, after last night, Clive was inclined to see these as merely elements of larger fact — Vernon’s lack of principle. And with this the drift starts gaining momentum and reaches an uncompromising situation towards the end of the book

Time and again through the book one gets to see McEwan’s ability to delineate his characters with amazing clarity and locate them in a context with ease: In his corner of West London, and in his self-preoccupied daily round, it was easy for Clive to think of civilisation as the sum of all the arts, along with design, cuisine, good wine and the like. But now it appeared that this was what it really was — square miles of meagre modern houses whose principle purpose was the support of TV aeriels and dishes; factories producing worthless junk to be advertised on the televisions and, in dismal lots, lorries queuing up to distribute it; and everywhere else, roads and the tyranny of the traffic. It looked like a raucous dinner party the morning after. No one would have wished it this way, but no one has been asked. Nobody planned it, nobody wanted it, but most people had to live in it. To watch it mile after mile, who would have guessed that kindness or the imagination, that Purcell or Britten, Shakespeare or Milton, had ever existed or

Both men accepted that the nature of the request, its intimacy and self conscious reflection on their friendship, had created, for the moment, an uncomfortable emotional proximity which was best dealt with by their parting without another word. I can’t say why but this sentence reminded me of Chekov’s brilliant short story called Enemies

Knowing a little bit of the behaviour of the fourth estate world over, I am not sure if Julian would have been allowed to escape as harmlessly as was portrayed in the book. That to me appeared a little removed from day to day reality

I was also a little surprised to learn that “Amsterdam” won a Booker. The other 2 Booker winners that I read are “The Remains of the Day” and “Vernon, God Little“. “Amsterdam” in my view is not in this league (Now you know why it is easy to get into a bookie mentality !). Having said that I still feel that Ian McEwan is a wonderful writer that I have discovered for myself and have lined up his books “Atonement” and “The Innocent” as my next reads

As a one liner preface to his book, Ian McEwan quotes from W.H.Auden: “The friends who met here and embraced are gone, Each to his own mistake“. “Amsterdam” simply put is a larger version of this theme. For anybody interested in getting a taste of Ian McEwan’s writing “Amsterdam” is a sure starting point

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