Excursions Of A Bibliophile

What are u reading these days?

Saturday – Ian McEwan — A Review

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on January 23, 2009

To deride the hopes of progress is ultimate fatuity, the last word in poverty of spirit and meanness of mind — Sir Peter Brian Medawar – Co-winner of Nobel for Medicine in 1960

In matters of books learned advice can be disproportionately rewarding. A Mrs. H who had kind words for me on my blog advised me to read Ian McEwan‘s “Saturday” and Alan Bennett‘s “The Uncommon Reader“. I am grateful to her for her advise. For I was vacillating in my views about McEwan‘s writing even after having read his two well known books “Amsterdam” and “On Chesil Beach“. For me “Amsterdam” was good style over good substance and “On Chesil Beach” was great substance over a difficult style (I enjoyed both though). It is this variation that left me a little confused. However, McEwan‘s “Saturday” has clearly defogged me — It in my eyes is a culmination of breathtaking style and wonderful substance. I think I am beginning to understand why McEwan is rated so very high on the present literary scene.

Set in London in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, “Saturday” is a contemporary story of a unique day of happenings in the life of Henry Perowne –  an accomplished neurosurgeon.  “Forty- eight years old, profoundly asleep at nine thirty on a Friday night – this is modern professional life” – that is how successful he is! Henry is looking forward to his saturday for a good game of squash with his colleague, a visit to his ailing mother, a trip to the rehearsals of his son (Theo) who is an upcoming blues singer and above all an important family reunion which includes a visit from his poetess daughter (Daisy) and father-in-law (John Grammaticus) who is an accomplished man of letters. Daisy is on the verge of publishing her first collection of poems. On the way to his game and to avoid the anti-war marchers, Henry drives through a blocked road only to crash mildly into a BMW. The BMW is being driven by a Baxter and his two hooligan chums – “The car is a five series BMW, a vehicle he associates for no good reason with criminality, drug dealing“. While Henry manages to extricate himself without a major altercation, he also notices that Baxter is a victim of Huntington’s disorder and he also hints of his awareness of the affliction to Baxter along with vague hints of help. As the gaiety of the  family reunion is about to pick up momentum, Baxter makes a forceful entry into Henry’s house with the idea of revenge and holds Henry’s wife, Rosalind at knife point. The harmonious and high achievers family of Perowne is not only an ideal but is in many ways aspirational and it is this blessed thing that gets rattled and tarnished. The descent gets humiliating when Baxter forces Daisy to strip in front of the family and the element of deliberateness adds to the horror. Baxter makes Daisy recite a poem from her collection and is strangely moved by it. He demands proof from Henry of the new techniques for cure of his affliction and in the pretext of showing those proofs, Henry and Theo manage to overpower Baxter and throw him off the staircase injuring Baxter quite seriously. Baxter gets admitted in the same hospital where Henry is employed and Henry successfully operates on him and saves his life. The stripping also reveals that Daisy is on her way to motherhood. Henry is in some ways overcome by a sort of compassion for Baxter and his condition and decides to forgive him…..”It is a dim fate, to be the sort of person who can’t earn a living, or resist another drink, or remember today what he resolved to do yesterday. No amount of social justice will cure or disperse this enfeebled  army haunting the public places of every town. So, what then?… You have to recognise bad luck when you see it, you have to look out for these people. Some you can prise from their addictions, others – all you can do is make them comfortable somehow, minimise their miseries” . More than anything else he and Rosalind look forward to the arrival of a new addition to their family in the form of a grandchild and it is on this hopeful note of reverting to the bliss of a contented family life the turbulent day ends

Other than Solzhenitsyn‘s “One day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich“, I do not know of  many brilliant novels like “Saturday” that are limited to the happenings in a day. It is a dazzling and thoroughly enjoyable novel. Language can be a very seductive implement and McEwan demonstrates that in no uncertain terms. Unlike the other two books of his I read, out here the control is flawless, sustained and definitely elevated. The book has some of the most beautiful passages that I’ve ever read — all depicted as fleeting thoughts of Henry. Henry is bi-polar in his views to war on Iraq and here is what he feels about Saddam “But even despotic kings, even ancient gods, couldn’t always dream the world to their convenience. It’s only children, in fact, only infants who feel a wish and its fulfilment as one, perhaps this is what gives tyrants their childish air. They reach back for what they can’t have. When they reach frustration, the man-slaying tantrum is never far away.” To my mind this is succinct and brilliant at the same time…. or Henry’s views on the perils of air travel … “Flung across the Atlantic at five hundred feet a second, you submit to the folly because everyone else does. Your fellow passengers are reassured because you and the others around you appear calm. Looked at a certain way – deaths per passenger mile – the statistics are consoling. And how else attend a conference in southern California? Air travel is a stock market, a trick of mirrored perceptions, a fragile alliance of pooled belief; so long as nerves hold steady and no bombs or wreckers are on board, everybody prospers. When there’s a failure, there will be no half measures. Seen another way – deaths per journey – the figures aren’t so good. The market could plunge.”

From a style perspective, what is unique and also what I am coming to believe is a trademark of McEwan is his extraordinary ability to look into matters with a clarity so vivid that there is an element of surprise and mild shock as recognition dawns on the reader of the significance of what is being said. McEwan is able to grasp and depict human thoughts so very well that my respect for him as a writer started to take a new hue. Consider the simple but falsified rationale that demagogues everywhere employ …………….” the pursuit of utopia ends up licensing every form of excess, all ruthless means of its realisation. If everyone is sure to end up happy for ever, what crime can it be to slaughter a million or two now?” – a superb articulation… or Henry’s views on material progress and its strength to save the world …. “Such prosperity, whole emporia dedicated to cheeses, ribbons, Shaker furniture, is a protection of sort. This commercial well being is robust and will defend itself to the last. It isn’t rationalism that will overcome the religious zealots, but ordinary shopping and all that it entails – jobs for a start, and peace and some commitment to realisable pleasures, the promise of appetites sated in this world, not the next. Rather shop than pray.”  – the typical bread and circuses argument but so very nicely articluated

The characters are sharply delineated but the coincidence in the plot appears a little stretched. However this never comes in the way of enjoying the book. Henry’s character has an extra independence which other characters don’t have. As I read the book I was left with the feeling that Henry and McEwan make their distinctive voices heard through the book. I especially liked Hnery’s thoughts on fiction ……… ” So far, Daisy’s reading lists have persuaded him that fiction is too humanly flawed, too sprawling and hit-and-miss to inspire uncomplicated wonder at the magnificence of human ingenuity, of the impossible dazzlingly achieved. Perhaps only music has such purity” ( a very similar thought is expressed vis-a-vis the capacity of music over words by Chekov in his short story “Enemies”) … Or…. “Novels and movies, being restlessly modern, propel you forwards or backwards through time, through days, years or even generations. But to do its noticing and judging, poetry balances itself on the pinprick of the moment. Slowing down, stopping youself completely, to read and understand a poem is like trying to acquire and old fashioned skill like drystone walling or trout tickling“…. a marvelous opinion which I wholeheartedly agree to

To me one of the signs of mastery of a writer is his/her ability to handle diversity of subjects and be comfortable about it. From the books that I have read so far, I think McEwan has this wonderful ease around the subject he is dealing with. “Saturday” is a superb demonstration of McEwan’s standing as a writer and for anyone interested in a meaningful introduction to McEwan, it can be a nice starting point. I am told McEwan also has written a collections of short stories called “First Love, Last Rites“, “In Between The Sheets”  “The Day Dreamer” – I would definitely want to see how he fares as a short story writer

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