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On Chesil Beach

In book after book, Ian McEwan has demonstrated an unparalleled ability to represent the violence of the emotionally unacceptable situation. Dangerous bad guys are not unknown in his fiction, but they're not common, and certainly not necessary to Mr McEwan's trick of unsettling his readers so badly that they might even be said to be scared. On Chesil Beach ((Jonathan Cape, 2007) is no exception. A relatively short novel, it invites comparison with Amsterdam, but there is none of that book's black humor here. Rather it belongs with The Comfort of Strangers and Enduring Love, books in which happy and handsome young couples find that they can no longer continue together.

The handsome young couple of On Chesil Beach has only been married for a few hours, but Edward and Florence have been deeply in love for a year. We discover them about to dine in their hotel room. They are free "theoretically," the narrator tells us, to skip dinner for the things that they would rather do - stroll on the beach outside or, even better, in Edward's view, retire to the bed and terminate their virginity. But it is 1962 - the date is never given, but it can be worked out from Edward's year of birth, stated on page 20 (an obliquity that is also reminiscent of The Comfort of Strangers, which takes place in an obvious but unidentified Venice) - and the capricious dismissal of a laboriously prepared (if flavorless) dinner is just not done. Edward and Florence, whose engagement was a "pavane, a stately unfolding," are not whimsical people.

On Chesil Beach is itself somewhat stately, in the sense of being utterly unrushed. The book is elegantly constructed. The wedding night is spread over three chapters, each one separated from the others by narrations of the newlyweds' backgrounds and engagement respectively. Where the second chapter has the simplicity of a fairy tale, the fourth is a tissue of misunderstandings unfailingly resolved in favor of the engagement's viability. It ends with a "premature" return to the wedding night. In this essay, I shall limit my attention to the first chapter.

Edward and Florence may not be "spontaneous" types; nevertheless, they are only twenty-two years old.

And they had so many plans, giddy plans, heaped up before them in the misty future, as richly tangled as the summer flora of the Dorset coast, and as beautiful. Where and how they would live, who their close friends would be, his job with her father's firm, her musical career and what to do with the money her father had given her, and how they would not be like other people, at least, not inwardly. This was still the era - it would end later in that famous decade - when to be young was a social encumbrance, a mark of irrelevance, a faintly embarrassing condition for which marriage was the beginning of a cure. Almost strangers, they stood, strangely together, on a new pinnacle of existence, gleeful that their new status promised to promote them out of their endless youth - Edward and Florence, free at last! One of their favourite topics was their childhoods, not so much the pleasures as the fog of comical misconceptions from which they had emerged, and the various parental errors and outdated practices they could now forgive. 

This paragraph appears on pages 5 and 6 of the English edition of the novel. It is the novel's moment of greatest happiness. Then comes the Fall: We learn immediately afterward that Edward is worried about premature ejaculation, especially since he has refrained from masturbation for the preceding week. This news is dispatched in one brisk paragraph. Then the narrator turns to Florence.

Florence's anxieties were more serious, and there were moments during the journey from Oxford when she thought she was about to draw on all her courage to speak her mind. But what troubled her was unutterable, and she could barely frame it for herself.

On Chesil Beach is an exploration of the terrible and unnecessary damage that the English distaste for candid self-expression, still palpable if less forceful today, can wreak. It is that very special kind of historical novel, the one whose older readers remember the time in question. The problem for the writer of such fictions is to recreate the atmosphere with as few details as possible, so as not to bore readers who remember, while making those details convey a great deal of informative nuance to readers who don't. Mr McEwan's light touch is unerring. His control is manifest in the first sentence.

They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible. But it is never easy.

In other words, things may have been very different in 1962, but they were not absolutely different. Florence's problem is increasingly horrifying only partly because she hasn't been able to talk to anyone about it. She has, she concedes done something terribly wrong. She has assented to the marriage vows, "With this body I thee wed," in the teeth of a visceral unwillingness to do anything of the kind. She loves Edward, or so the narrator assures us. But it is a love that consists wholly of admiration. If Florence has any desire at all (other than to start up her own string quartet), then it is to pass into some future with her admirable husband (he has just taken a first in history at University College, London), surrounded by children, perhaps - but a future without physical intimacies, which repel her deeply. Mr McEwan takes four pages in which to flesh out Florence's truly awful prospects. By the time the newlyweds have finished their first course, on page 11, a cloud of black disaster hangs over the book, tempting the reader to spare himself by closing it.

A lesser writer would surely introduce at this point some suggestive information that Mr McEwan introduces in later chapters, hints about unpleasant sailing trips alone with her father, that might explain Florence's revulsion. But that's neither here nor there just now. Whatever the cause of Florence's sexual dysfunction, she has to get through her wedding night somehow - or die. Death, of course, is too highly unlikely to offer any hope of an alternative, unless of course Edward murders her, an outcome that can't be ruled out entirely. While Florence agonizes, Edward loses himself in the dazing but entirely reasonable delusion that Florence is about to yield to him at last. And yet, how reasonable is this delusion? He has marked her reserve, her unwillingness to embrace him. Their kisses have been chaste.

He had a fairly long history of engaging with Florence's shyness. He had come to respect it, even revere it, mistaking it for a form of coyness, a conventional veil for a richly sexual nature. In all, part of the intricate depth of her personality, and proof of her quality.

While Edward and Florence, who are anything but hungry for food, push their food around their plates, the sounds of the evening news drift up from a public room below. Although this is something of an annoyance to them, the reader embraces the distraction from unhappy prospects, and the author exploits this squeamishness to retail the news - Macmillan is the Prime Minister; the Empire is through; the Russians have turned East Berlin into a prison. We're told that Edward and Florence are looking forward to voting for the first time, and to voting for the Labour Party. They're looking forward, as young people did in those days (indeed, in all days prior to the end of the Sixties), to engaging with the world. But just now is not the time to hear about a conference in Baghdad. Edward sarcastically proposes that they go downstairs and "listen properly." Florence blurts out a counter-proposal: that they lie on the bed together.

Edward shoots up, and presently kisses Florence.

When they kissed she immediately felt his tongue, tensed and strong, pushing past her teeth, like some bully shouldering his way into a room. Entering her. Her own tongue folded and recoiled in automatic distaste, making even more space for Edward. He knew well enough that she did not like this kind of kissing, and he had never before been so assertive. With his lips clamped firmly onto hers, he probed the fleshy floor of her mouth, then moved round inside the teeth of her lower jaw to the empty place where three years ago a wisdom tooth had crookedly grown until removed under general anaesthesia. This cavity was where her own tongue usually strayed when she was lost in thought. By association, it was more like an idea than a location, a private, imaginary place rather than a hollow in her gum, and it seemed peculiar to her that another tongue should be able to go there too. It was the hard tapering tip of this alien muscle, quiveringly alive, that repelled her. His left hand was pressed flat above her shoulder blades, just below her neck, levering her head against his. Her claustrophobia and breathlessness grew even as she became more determined that she could not bear to offend him. He was under her tongue, pushing it up against the roof of her mouth, then on top, pushing down, then sliding smoothly along the sides and round, as though he thought he could tie a simple up-and-over knot. He wanted to engage her tongue in some activity of its own, coax it into a hideous mute duet, but she could only shrink and concentrate on not struggling, not gagging, not panicking. If she was sick into his mouth, was one wild thought, their marriage would be instantly over, and she would have to go home and explain herself to her parents. She understood perfectly that this business with tongues, this penetration, was a small scale enactment, a ritual tableau vivant, of what was still to come, like a prologue before an old play that tells you everything that must happen.

We are familiar, nowadays, with such brutal descriptions of unwanted sex, but they are always inflected by a lack of love or desire on one side. Florence's response to Edward's kiss is complicated, because she believes that she loves him, but Edward's assertiveness remains somewhat objectionable, and hints at how these "lovers" will wind up and why. He has been prepared to wait for marriage to gratify himself. It has not occurred to him that he must seek other permissions, notably from Florence herself. He knows that she does not like him to thrust his tongue into her mouth, and yet he does it anyway, because it's at long last his right to do so. Now Florence will desire what she shunned, he believes, but only on the strength of convention. It is impossible not to feel very sorry for both of these people. The chapter closes with Florence once again acting against her own inclinations and pulling Edward toward the bed.

On Chesil Beach is a love story set in a moment of awkward cultural transition - between traditions that would have ensured that Florence was ready for marriage and modern openness. But it is much more than a snapshot of bygone foolishness. If anything, the role of sex in marriage has become more problematic since 1962, not less. That's because true companionship has become more important to more married people. As On Chesil Beach shows so vividly, sex can dent and even destroy companionship. It would be foolish to think that the waters are less muddied now than they were a half century ago. By telling his story from a distant perspective, Ian McEwan obliges us be rigorous when we say that things are better now. Are they? Exactly how? (May 2007)

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