Cut to the chaste
IT is a truism that the sexual revolution changed everything dramatically: relations between men and women, the role and timing of marriage and, of course, sexual behavior itself. If there is no better medium than the novel for bringing that truism to life, for understanding its human dimensions, then there can be no one better than Ian McEwan to write such a novel -- making of it a small, perfect, haunting work of art.
It sounds so simple. “On Chesil Beach,” McEwan’s 10th novel, observes two virgins -- Edward Mayhew, 23, who has recently completed a degree in history, and Florence Ponting, 22, a talented violinist -- in painfully exquisite detail on their wedding night. He watches them over long minutes during and after dinner, in their Dorset hotel room overlooking rocky Chesil Beach and the English Channel, as they inexorably approach the consummation of their marriage in July, 1962. Alternating between Edward’s perspective and Florence’s, McEwan draws a humane, touching, sometimes comic portrait of marital misunderstanding in an era when so much less was sayable, or said.
The worst and simplest truth of this union is that the meaning of the act that will complete the marriage is so profoundly different for these two sympathetic characters. For Edward, sexual intercourse is the great reward for months of patience and perseverance. McEwan describes Edward’s campaign in strategic terms: “Between Edward and Florence, nothing happened quickly. Important advances, permissions wordlessly granted to extend what he was allowed to see or caress, were attained only gradually.... Sudden moves or radical suggestions on his part could undo months of good work.”
Because, as McEwan reminds us, this is still an era in which such matters are unbroachable in conversation. Edward can only guess, haplessly, the meanings of Florence’s gestures and disappointments, rerouting his approaches accordingly.
For Florence, who is captured with equal grace and economy (and humor), the act she knows full well to expect this night fills her with distress and revulsion. Florence views intercourse with Edward as the price she must pay for having such a wonderful, intelligent lover, a man she adores -- if not perhaps quite in the way she should. "[S]he loved Edward, not with the hot, moist passion she had read about, but warmly, deeply, sometimes like a daughter, sometimes almost maternally.” The incestuous undertone here has dark echoes throughout the novel’s short arc.
Such is McEwan’s empathy with both sexual impatience and sexual dread that it is possible to pity Edward and Florence for their predicaments. There are occasional hints of an earlier trauma that may explain Florence’s peculiarly heightened fear of sexual congress, but the author is too discreet to give us any direct account of earlier abuse, leaving whatever is in Florence’s past obscure and shrouded, as it is in her own memory. Suffice it to say that her relationship with her father, Geoffrey, a businessman whose successes funded Florence’s privileged Oxford upbringing, seems to contain elements of some discomfort.
Because this is a work by McEwan, who in earlier novels has written of dismemberment, murder, incest, obsession and rape, a reader crouches internally, awaiting some gothic element. In his previous novella-length fictions -- “The Cement Garden” and “The Comfort of Strangers,” which have been wittily referred to as “nasty, British and short” -- there has generally been a short concluding crescendo to something gruesome, something hidden, something shocking.
Only gradually does one accept that a gentler, more subtle McEwan is at work here. In its reticence, “On Chesil Beach” marks a departure for a writer who with every novel seems to deepen some aspect of his talent, to mine some new territory. (“Atonement” proved him capable of richly textured historical fiction; “Saturday,” of the most nuanced observations of contemporary urban life.) Certainly he has shown a wry tenderness toward couples and their intimacies -- even in “The Innocent,” before things turn violent, there are wonderful descriptions of eager sexual awakening in a bitterly cold Berlin flat. But a distinctive sadness hovers at the edges of Florence and Edward’s story. The chasm between their desires and experiences are often played for comedy (in one passage, Edward focuses on a mental image of Prime Minister Harold Macmillan to forestall premature ejaculation), but as with any story exploring the failure of two people to communicate, there is finally a melancholy that is captured with lovely simplicity.
Along the way, “On Chesil Beach” is replete with pleasures: keen observations of family dynamics, of English life, of fortune’s randomness. A moving, underplayed side story is that of Edward’s mother, who lives at home in a mentally compromised state whose contours slowly emerge. If there is an obtrusive note, it is that of the cool narrator, who enters occasionally to put the habits and mores of the early 1960s in perspective. “This was not a good moment in the history of English cuisine,” the narrator notes, describing the couple’s dismal hotel dinner, though we learn that in the Pontings’ well-heeled and progressive Oxford home, Edward has been introduced to such exotic food items as zucchini, olives “and, at breakfast, yogurt -- a glamorous substance he knew only from a James Bond novel.”
Some of this social meta-commentary seems unnecessary, because we get so much within the perspectives of Florence and Edward themselves. (Also, that distant authorial voice can sound a trifle smug.) This paradox -- so much conveyed yet so little said -- is reflected in Edward’s and Florence’s awkward, anguished progress toward union. If only these two knew how to speak to each other, their marriage might be so different! Later in that decade, such conversations would become, McEwan reminds us, not just possible but commonplace; in the meantime, real human misunderstandings, like those captured brilliantly in “On Chesil Beach,” leave their dark and painful marks.