Ian McEwan

Great profile of Ian McEwan in The Observer today.

His early work conjured up a neo-gothic world of pornography, infanticide and incest. Today he is a much-loved member of the establishment – and his new novel is certain to be a bestseller. But why is Ian McEwan so far ahead of the pack?

In Saturday’s Guardian, Mark Lawson reviewed McEwan’s new novel, Saturday:

It’s odd now to think that Ian McEwan once lacked confidence as a novelist. His first two attempts at the longer form – The Cement Garden and The Comfort of Strangers – felt like the work of a born short-story writer being stretched on a rack by his publisher and literary tradition, needing help from typeface and spacing to qualify even as novellas. But with his last but one novel ( Amsterdam ) having won the Booker Prize and the last ( Atonement ) out-selling John Grisham and Tom Clancy in some weeks’ book charts, McEwan has the swagger – the literary equivalent of a tennis player in the first tournament after winning Wimbledon – of a novelist who could do almost anything.

What he has done is Saturday, which resembles Amsterdam in sardonically examining the interior life of the contemporary middle classes but departs starkly from the century-long focus of Atonement by taking place over 24 hours, on what is supposed to be the day off of Henry Perowne, a noted London neurosurgeon.

A recent edition of Granta carried an extract from Saturday, in which Perowne drives out of Oxford in the morning to visit his brain-hazed mother. I had assumed that this was the beginning of the novel but it turns out to be page 152 of a book of less than 300 pages. It’s a measure of the level of incident in Henry’s day – and the meticulous close-stitching of McEwan’s work as a word-surgeon – that, before his Mercedes S500 reaches the Westway, en route to his mother, he has already witnessed a potential terrorist attack, discussed the Iraq war with his son, made love with his wife, come close to murder on a central London street, lost a game of squash and shopped for a fish stew.

Yet, while the novel is clearly an attempt to set down the textures of everyday life – close reading could improve your cooking, your squash game and even tip you off about what sort of kettle to buy – McEwan has larger concerns than, say, Nicholson Baker in the close auditing of The Mezzanine and Room Temperature . Saturday catalogues the local only in order to focus on the global.

For the day on which we take account of Henry is Saturday 15 February 2003. As the neuro-surgeon tries to mind his own business, hundreds of thousands of marchers are gathering in London to protest against Tony Blair’s support for the American attack on Iraq. As the background tramping and shouting begins to intrude on the quiet order of Henry’s life, it becomes clear that, if Saturday were to have another eight-letter S-word as its title, it would be Security .

By recording with such loving care the elements of one rich Englishman’s life, Saturday explores the question of to what extent it is possible to insulate yourself against the world’s concerns. Centrally heated, pension-planned, air-bag protected, permanently loved and frequently fucked by his wife, healthy and even able to give health to others, Henry lives within a protective sac of satisfaction and achievement. But, as Henry knows from his profession, such sacs are not always enough to protect against disastrous impact and, on this day of rest, he takes his hit.

The most recurrent theme in McEwan’s 10 novels is the sudden ambush of the safe and smug. Go shopping and you’ll never see your kid again ( The Child in Time ). Take a hike and the hounds of hell are just around the corner ( Black Dogs ). Fall in love and the next thing you know you’re carving up a cadaver ( The Innocent ). Go for a picnic and one man dies while a nutter claims you as his soul-mate ( Enduring Love ).

A similar external menace is pushing at Henry’s bubble. Between his uxorious love-making and his squash game, he bumps into Baxter, an aggressive driver who believes that Henry shouldn’t have been where he was. We’d think, colloquially, that Baxter needs his head seeing to and has a funny look. Neurosurgeon Perowne immediately understands the eruptions happening in the man’s skull. As Saturday (like Enduring Love ) is in part a story of suspense, a summary needs to be protective, but Baxter comes to challenge both the surgeon’s domestic instincts and his professional skills.

Most of the fictions provoked by post-9/11 politics have taken up positions as clearly as a party spokesman. But Saturday , in common with Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America , is subtle enough to be taken as a warning against either intervention or against isolationism. Is the foreign policy of Henry’s government exposing him to danger, or is his moneyed, bouillabaisse-eating existence a self-delusion in a threatening world? As in the best political novels, the evidence and arguments are distributed with careful ambiguity.

The novel is inevitably and properly clearer about its position on another internal debate. Perowne, although an exemplar of the civilised upper middle classes, doesn’t believe in literature. He has no time to read and even becomes confused when his daughter Daisy, about to have her first poems published by Faber & Faber, uses the tricky jargon word “stanza”. The surgeon especially can’t see the point of novels which tell you about someone’s life in great detail. Surely it’s quite easy to note these things down and then type them out. McEwan gives Henry an even chance of victory on the squash court but, in this bit of sport about whether novels have a point, the novelist thrashes his hero in every line. In giving his central character not only a poet daughter and a father-in-law who writes verse but a wife who works at a newspaper, the writer could be accused of locating the story on home turf. But a considerable technical achievement of Saturday is that it succeeds in going inside the mind of a brain surgeon. In the early stages, there is a certain nervousness about whether the author is simply transcribing research notes – “Then he let Rodney take the lead in another burr hole for a chronic subdural” – but, by the end, there is no doubt that Perowne has the hands, eyes and thoughts of a neurosurgeon rather than a novelist.

Medical language, though, is only one of the registers in the prose. McEwan is one of the least flashy stylists of his generation, less quotable than Martin Amis or Julian Barnes, but, especially in Atonement and now this book, his voice has settled into scrupulous, sensual rhythms in which even something as simple as a 24-hour news bulletin is subject to careful choices of adjective and noun: “The synthesised bleeps, the sleepless anchor and his dependable jaw.”

In a novel of great sureness at the level of both action and language, McEwan makes one curious choice: the quotations from Daisy Perowne’s debut volume of poetry are actually published lines by Craig Raine, giving the book an additional subplot in which, beyond the plot’s call on various sections of the Metropolitan police, you expect the literary cops to arrive and arrest Daisy for plagiarism. It’s a matter of debate whether it’s the reader or the writer who is being too clever here.

For the rest of its length, though, Saturday gives no sense of McEwan’s talent taking a day off. One of the most oblique but also most serious contributions to the post-9/11, post-Iraq war literature, it succeeds in ridiculing on every page the view of its hero that fiction is useless to the modern world. The only consolation for McEwan’s contemporaries, I suppose, is that they could taunt him that he can’t seem to write short stories any more.

Brighton 0 – 0 Forest

From the BBC Football site:

Brighton 0-0 Nottm Forest

Paul Gerrard’s first-half penalty save earned Nottingham Forest a point in their relegation tussle with Brighton.

Gerrard brought down Leon Knight after 10 minutes but pulled off a stunning one-handed stop to deny him a goal.

Brighton created the early chances as Richard Carpenter shot wide and Gerrard saved from Knight and Kerry Mayo.

But Forest improved and Andy Reid twice tested Michel Kuipers, Kris Commons diverted Marlon King’s cross wide and Kuipers saved from King’s snap-shot.

# Brighton boss Mark McGhee:
“It was important not to lose to Forest, regardless of how it looked. I’m happy with the draw.

“If we take a point a game from now on we should stay up. What was really important was that we denied Forest three points which they badly needed.

“This was not our best passing game of our unbeaten sequence of matches, but the pitch was a bit bumpy.”

# Forest boss Gary Megson:
“It gives us something to build on, and this was a slight improvement to get a point.

“It’s a huge task and it doesn’t get any easier. But there are 16 games to go and a lot of points to play for.

“We need to get better technically in both boxes. We made a hesitant start but created chance after chance.”

Brighton: Kuipers (May 85), Mayo, El-Abd, Hinshelwood, Butters, Harding, Reid, Carpenter, Oatway, Knight, Hart (Jones 88).
Subs Not Used: Nicolas, Molango, Hammond.

Booked: Oatway, El-Abd.

Nottm Forest: Gerrard, Louis-Jean, Rogers, Morgan, Doig, Evans, Reid, Commons, Derry, Taylor, King (Johnson 90).
Subs Not Used: Doyle, Thompson, Impey, Folly.

Booked: Gerrard, Reid.

Att: 6,704.

Ref: P Taylor (Hertfordshire).

Brighton v Forest

A tough one today. I understand that Megson is likely to play 3-5-2 again, with Wes Morgan and Andy Reid back from injury: Gerrard; Doig, Morgan, Dawson; Louis-Jean, Derry, Reid, Commons, Rogers; King, Taylor.

Hopefully he won’t be playing David Johnson.

My prediction? 0-1 to Forest. I gotta be optimistic!

Internet Restrictions

Melissa at Boris Johnson’s blog pointed out this article on the BBC News site:

“A large part of the attraction of the internet is that it goes below the radar,” he said. “Generally it’s more difficult for the government to be able to control it.

“Its real value is as an open window onto what’s happening elsewhere in the world,” he said.

This set me thinking about how the internet is (ab)used in other repressed countries. After a couple of Google searches, I finally came across this page, from Reporters Without Borders. Plenty to be going on there, I feel.

Bush Reads Dostoevsky!

Burning Bush brandishes Dostoevsky

Given the Biblical language in which George Bush and his speechwriters are steeped, it is not surprising that the US president should invoke the imagery of fire, writes James Meek

One of the models of American leadership is that of Moses, leading God’s chosen people – then the Jews, now the Americans – towards a promised land, following a pillar of fire. At one point, according to the Bible, Moses was shown a sign: “Behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed.”
But the key fire passage in the Burning Bush speech – “We have lit a fire as well; a fire in the minds of men” – actually has its origins in a novel by the 19th century Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Devils, about a group of terrorists’ ineffectual struggle to bring down the tyrannical Tsarist regime.

One of the characters declares that it is pointless to try to put out a fire started by terrorists: “The fire is in the minds of men and not in the roofs of houses,” he says.

The novel belongs to a period in Dostoevsky’s life which the White House might find attractive, after he had been sent by the Tsar to a kind of Russian Guantánamo and emerged a deeply religious conservative.

Nonetheless, it is not clear whether Bush is identifying here with the terrorists – or the tyrants.

Booker 2005 Controversy pt. 2

‘Indiscreet’ Sutherland’s Booker role appals advisers

Members of the hallowed Man Booker advisory committee, the body responsible for appointing the prize’s judges, are spitting blood at the appointment of John Sutherland to chair the award panel this year, claiming not to have been informed until hearing of it “quite accidentally” after the event.
A committee member, who preferred not to be named, said: “We were stunned when Sutherland was appointed. His name hadn’t been mentioned in meetings.”

The member said that the Man Booker administrator, Martin Goff, had made the appointment without consulting his committee colleagues, who include the broadcaster Mark Harrison and the bookseller James Heneage.

“He is an appalling choice, because of what happened last time round,” added the committee member.

“Last time round”, when Professor Sutherland was a judge in 1999, he wrote a piece for the Guardian in which he described the judging process.

His analysis was thunderously denied by two fellow judges, who accused him of a “breach of trust”.

The committee member said: “Last time he was incredibly indiscreet, and I think other judges felt betrayed. That kind of gossip, turning it into a circus, diminishes the stature of the Booker.”

Mr Goff said: “If the person concerned had gone through the minutes of the committee meetings, they would find that Sutherland was one of those people originally suggested.

“Then, when I had some turn-downs from other people I went to him and asked him to do it. The committee is an advisory committee – I don’t want to push it down, and we would never go against a majority decision, but almost no appointment of judges has ever been unanimous.”

Asked if Prof Sutherland was a potential liability, Mr Goff said: “That’s the very word I have used to him tonight. I have laid down certain rules.”

But he said Prof Sutherland was a “brilliant man”, adding: “Have you seen his CV?”

On the 1999 judging (when Prof Sutherland claimed that the winning book, JM Coetzee’s Disgrace, was “admired” but not “passionately liked” by the panel), Mr Goff said: “I was present in the whole meeting, as I have been for 33 years.

“There was a strong discussion, but no more than that. There was enthusiasm for Disgrace. It wasn’t a compromise.”

John Irving

John Irving, who wrote A Prayer for Owen Meany, which is looking like it is going to be my next read, gets a brilliant write-up from the incomparable John Self here.

If I like APfOM, it looks like I’ll have to invest in The World According to Garp and The Cider House Rules as well.


Top ‘eCouncils’

From The Guardian‘s Online supplement:

Top eCouncils

Oldham Borough Council’s website is the best-performing local government site, according to automated testing by SiteMorse. The result is an average of tests based on the Web Accessibility Initiative, including responsiveness, error-free operation, HTML standards compliance and accessibility. Oldham attributes its success to Steria’s fine tuning of its website, following an analysis by the company’s Content Solutions Practice. Previously, Steria raised Spelthorne Council 297 places up the list in a similar exercise. The fastest downloading site is Scilly, while Chiltern has the fastest response time.

See here for more.

Will update with links to those Council websites later. No doubt our current one wouldn’t even deserve the wooden spoon…