Talk about books

A fortnightly newsletter by Art Kavanagh about things I’ve read

No. 11; 11 April 2021

On “Dover Beach”: Ian McEwan’s Saturday

Techniques of conflict avoidance, some successful

The protagonist of Ian McEwan’s 2005 novel, Saturday, is a neurosurgeon named Henry Perowne. Henry is the father of one poet, Daisy, and the son-in-law of a more established one, John Grammaticus. His wife Rosalind (the biological link between the two poets) is a media lawyer; and his son Theo a blues guitarist.

Henry, Rosalind and Theo live in a large house, inherited from Rosalind’s family, on a square in central London, near to the BT Tower. They lead privileged, fortunate lives.

The action of the novel takes place on Saturday 15 February 2003 — the day of a huge protest in London against the imminent war on Iraq. Daisy and her grandfather John are expected to arrive from different parts of France, she from Paris, he from his home in Ariège. Rosalind is not home, busy trying to have an injunction lifted, so that her employer can publish a story. Henry is not working that day. He plans to play squash against his anaesthetist colleague, to buy the ingredients for a fish stew, visit his mother (who will not remember who he is) in a care home west of London, listen to Theo’s rehearsal of a new song that he cowrote, go home and make his fish stew and finally serve it as dinner to the family.

On his way to play squash, Henry is involved in a minor vehicular collision. The occupants of the other car aren’t interested in exchanging insurance details and Henry is not willing to go to the nearby ATM and pay them £750 on the spot. He narrowly avoids being given a severe beating because he notices that Baxter, the leader of the three people from the other car, has Huntington’s Chorea. He diverts Baxter by engaging him in conversation about possible new treatments that don’t exist. Henry has invented these treatments on the spur of the moment. In other words, he uses his medical knowledge to trick his adversary. He wonders at various points during the day, whether this behaviour is ethical.

Later that evening, after Baxter and his hanger-on Nigel have invaded the Perowne home, and Baxter has sustained a skull fracture for his trouble, Rosalind the lawyer assures her husband that of course he hasn’t abused his authority. But “authority” isn’t exactly what’s at issue. Arguably, Henry has abused his knowledge and skill, his medical expertise. Few people would think his deception inexcusable. Almost nobody would be willing to submit to a beating — more likely a kicking, probably disabling and possibly fatal — rather than be guilty of an ethical lapse. The fact remains that Henry has taken advantage of Baxter’s vulnerability, from a position of superiority. You’d have done the same (wouldn’t you?) in the same circumstances.

Henry isn’t the only member of the Perowne family to trick Baxter. Daisy does so perhaps even more effectively than her father. Baxter and Nigel, having forced their way into the house, confiscate everybody’s phones, break Grammaticus’s nose, and tell Daisy to take her clothes off. Later, she describes this experience:

“I tried to pretend that I was ten years old, at school, getting changed for hockey. I disliked the games mistress, and hated taking my clothes off when she was there. But remembering her helped me.” (Saturday, Vintage paperback edition, 2005, p. 229)

Daisy’s nakedness reveals to family and intruders alike what only she had known up to that point: she is about 3 months pregnant. Her condition removes the immediate threat of rape by Nigel and Baxter, but perhaps leaves her exposed to the danger of a less predictable violence, which she averts by using poetry.

Daisy has with her the proof copy of her first book of poems, which is on the verge of publication. Baxter spots it and tells her to read from it. At Grammaticus’s prompting, she recites “Dover Beach” from memory, pretending to read, and allowing Baxter to think it’s her own work. For a poet (or a writer of fiction) to pass another author’s work off as her own would normally be considered beyond the pale, but clearly nobody would think that Daisy is in the wrong in these circumstances.

Henry is no less deceived than Baxter is by Daisy’s performance. He doesn’t know who Matthew Arnold was, and doesn’t see that the style, theme or diction is noticeably different from hers. For all his naiveté, though, his response to the poem is acute:

… he sees Baxter standing alone, elbows propped against the sill, listening to the waves “bring the eternal note of sadness in”. It’s not all of antiquity, but only Sophocles who associated this sound with the “turbid ebb and flow of human misery”. Even in his state, Henry balks at the mention of a “sea of faith” and a glittering paradise of wholeness lost in the distant past. Then once again, it’s through Baxter’s ears that he hears the sea’s “melancholy, long, wthdrawing roar, retreating, to the breath of the night wind, down the vast edges drear and naked shingles of the world.” It rings like a musical curse. The plea to be true to one another sounds hopeless in the absence of joy or love or light or peace or “help for pain”. Even in a world “where ignorant armies clash by night”, Henry discovers on second hearing no mention of a desert. The poem’s melodiousness, he decides, is at odds with its pessimism. (pp. 221–2)

This is surely why Grammaticus suggested Arnold’s poem to his granddaughter: its theme is wholly separate from the sound the words make, so he and Daisy can hope that the sound will have a calming effect on Baxter quite independent of what those words are saying. Because of this dissociation of sound from meaning, it’s actually very difficult to say precisely what the poem’s “theme” is, though Henry does a good job of it: it’s something like the loss of faith and civilized values and behaviour through growing ignorance. But, as Henry notes, the bleak despair is contradicted by the melody.

Henry’s rationalism informs his thoughts about literature. He dutifully attempts to work his way through the reading lists that Daisy prescribes for him, and thinks cogently about what he has read. He describes the works of Tolstoy and Flaubert as “sophisticated fairy stories”.

They had the virtue, at least, of representing a recognisable physical reality, which could not be said for the so-called magical realists she opted to study in her final year. … In more than one, heroes and heroines were born with or sprouted wings — a symbol, in Daisy’s term, of their liminality; naturally, learning to fly became a metaphor for bold aspiration. Others were granted a magical sense of smell, or tumbled unharmed out of high-flying aircraft. One visionary saw through a pub window his parents as they had been some weeks after his conception, discussing the possibility of aborting him. (p. 67; ellipsis added)

(The last book mentioned in this passage is McEwan’s own The Child in Time. The two immediately before it are Patrick Süskind’s Perfume and Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses.) Henry’s personal experience of “repairing brains” has left him in no doubt that:

… the actual, not the magical should be the challenge. This reading list persuaded Perowne that the supernatural was the recourse of an insufficient imagination, a dereliction of duty, a childish evasion of the difficulties and wonders of the real, of the demanding re-enactment of the plausible.
“No more midget drummers,” he pleaded with her by post, after setting out his tirade. … When anything can happen, nothing much matters.” (pp. 67–8; ellipsis added). 

Daisy responds by calling him a “ninny”, and telling him that Flaubert was “warning the world against people just like you”.

All this notwithstanding, it would be a mistake to label Henry as radically indifferent to the arts and humanities. Mark Lawson is unfair to the character in his Guardian review, in which he says that Perowne “has no time to read”. For a start, Henry likes and appreciates music, from Bach via Schubert and Bill Evans to Coltrane and his own son’s blues. He likes to have Bach’s piano works play while he operates (p. 22), delicately moving things around inside a patient’s skull. He also has a taste for the visual arts, notably Cézanne.

And the fact is that he does take time read, and has a sharp though (as we’ve seen) naive critical faculty. That naiveté may eventually lead readers like Henry to clearer insights, even as it blocks the shortcuts to them. Whatever about Flaubert, McEwan is not “warning the world against people like” his protagonist. No doubt Henry has plenty to learn about the various kinds of realism, including the “magical” variety. But he is learning while we watch, as we can see from his developing response to the Arnold poem.

While the relationship of literature to “the real” is an important theme, what the novel is centrally concerned with are the methods we use to avoid violent conflict. Daisy and Henry both rely on deceptive trickery to disarm the threat posed by Baxter. Each of them has a foot in a (different) other camp, too. The protesters whose march forms the background to Henry’s Saturday are hoping to avoid a global conflict, an attack on Iraq aimed at regime change, and at weakening the United Nations by establishing a precedent for unilateral aggression. Henry is sceptical, not just about the marchers’ effectiveness but also about their seriousness, their commitment.

Placards not yet on duty are held at a slope, at rakish angles over shoulders. Not in My Name goes past a dozen times. Its cloying self-regard suggests a bright new world of protest, with the fussy consumers of shampoos and soft drinks demanding to feel good, or nice. Henry prefers the languid, Down With this Sort of Thing. (p. 72)

But it isn’t just the cloying self-regard that puts Henry off taking part in the protest. He had operated on a professor named Miri Taleb, who had been a victim of Saddam Hussein’s torture.

“Everyone hates it,” Taleb told Perowne. “You see, it’s only terror that holds the nation together, the whole system runs on fear, and no one knows how to stop it. Now, the Americans are coming, perhaps for bad reasons. But Saddam and the Ba’athists will go. And then, my doctor friend, I will buy you a meal in a good Iraqi restaurant in London. (p. 64)

Henry isn’t really in any doubt that there’s no “perhaps” about the Americans having bad motives, but that in itself isn’t enough to decide the question:

Perowne knows that when a powerful imperium — Assyrian, Roman, American — makes war and claims just cause, history will not be impressed. He also worries that the invasion or the occupation will be a mess. The marchers could be right. And he acknowledges the accidental nature of opinions; if he hadn’t met and admired the professor, he might have thought differently, less ambivalently, about the coming war. Opinions are a roll of the dice … (p. 73)

The “coming war”: Perowne believes (correctly, as the reader is all too aware) that the war is not going to be averted, by the chanting protesters or by any other means, so he goes to his squash game. That game, to which McEwan devotes 15 pages just before the novel’s centre point, may be the most aggressive episode in the story. Perowne and his opponent, an American anaesthetist who “works out for more than an hour each day and looks like a wrestler” (pp. 100–01) fiercely contest each point, suspect each other of gamesmanship and even of cheating, drive each other almost to the point of physical collapse, regard each other with disdain and and perhaps even hatred, and then go outside and exchange a few words about a patient who is not expected to survive.

Aware of the lowering light, a winter’s late-morning dusk, and not wanting to part on a bad note, a malediction, Perowne says, “I think we can help her.”
Understanding him, Strauss grimaces, raises a hand in farewell, and the two men go their separate ways. (pp. 116–7)

They have agreed to leave the aggression and ill feeling on the court. Something similar happens between Perowne and Daisy. She is, at first, horrified at her father’s dismissive attitude to the antiwar protest, and the argument between them becomes bitter. She suggests that he’s in favour of the war and he responds that, if that were true, she’d have to accept the imputation of being pro-Saddam. The dispute, the first time in six months they’ve met face-to-face, looks as if it might turn poisonous. They divert the crisis by making a £50 bet on how they will feel three months after the invasion: a tacit admission that neither of them knows what the outcome of the war will be.

So, McEwan’s novel suggests that, at the interpersonal level, conflict can generally be easy to resolve, even if it sometimes requires that we resort to subterfuge and deception. In contrast, on the international stage, where UN arms inspector Hans Blix can find himself confronted with the likes of Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, the situation is not nearly so reassuring.

I had intended to write about three novels in this issue: Saturday (obviously), Enduring Love (1997) and probably The Children Act (2014). Last week, I decided that I’d have to restrict myself to two; then yesterday morning, as I wrote the first draft of this issue, it became clear to me that I didn’t have time or space to deal with more than one. There are still things I want to say about Enduring Love but they don’t really fit with this discussion of Saturday, so I’ll probably write another issue on the subject of some McEwan’s novels, though not in the immediate future. Next issue, I’ll be writing about Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children.

Originally posted on Substack (Talk about books), 11–Apr-2021.