[Marxism] Ian McEwan

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Mar 25 09:13:43 MST 2005

This is an excerpt from an interesting review in the Nation Magazine of Ian 
McEwan's latest novel titled "Saturday," which has been viewed as a sort of 
justification for the invasion of Iraq. The comments below suggest 
otherwise. I will probably buy and read the novel, since I am a big fan of 
Ian McEwan and have read just about everything he has ever written. 
McEwan's novels are not really political, but have more to do with 
individuals in extreme crisis or danger and how they react to that. As a 
prose stylist and story-teller, he cannot be matched. There is one work by 
McEwan, however, that is explicitly political. That is the 1983 film 
"Ploughman's Lunch," whose caustic script was written by McEwan. Here's 
what the 10/26/1998 Austin Chronicle has to say about the film. It would 
appear that there is quite a disjunction between the sensibility of 
somebody who could have crafted a screenplay like that and somebody who 
would write a cruise missile leftist novel. Of course, time and commercial 
success can change just about anything.

The Ploughman's Lunch
Austin Chronicle

DIRECTED BY: Richard Eyre
REVIEWED: 10-26-98

Borrowing its title from the popular British meal which consists of beer, 
bread, cheese, and a pickled egg, The Ploughman's Lunch sets its table 
dressing upon the bourgeois strata of England's media makers and academic 
elite. With the Falklands War raging in the background, we find emotionally 
detached journalist/historian James Penfield (Jonathan Pryce) thirsting 
after prestige and literary immortality. To attain his goals, and bury his 
low-class heritage, Penfield shovels his professional integrity into the 
furnace as he pens a politically agreeable account of the 1956 Suez Canal 
crisis. To add to his cause, he also pursues a professional colleague 
(Charlie Dore) in hopes of borrowing upon her family's reputation and 
stature. Gracefully, Pryce plays this role not as a misguided hero, nor 
anti-hero, but rather for what Penfield really is -- a paper boat which 
turns its rudder in conformity with political gales. And while the story 
manages to stay afloat to a royal end sequence, the real interest here is 
watching director Richard Eyre poke a camera at the British establishment 
and its dry, rigid social mores. Amidst this sometimes cold, restrained 
environment, story lines and heartaches cross into an intricate pattern of 
deception and intrigue, all the while waving a banner which broadcasts that 
most appropriate axiom: All is fair in love and war.


 From the Nation:

McEwan seems to craft Henry as a kind of Western Everyman of the privileged 
variety. He is rational, capable, cultured, happy and good--he is more 
decent than most people, despite his upper-class complacency. He is 
faithful to his wife, whom he deeply loves, archly wondering at one point 
if his lack of interest in acquiring a younger mistress is the result of 
some kind of character defect. He deeply loves his children--McEwan's 
sympathetic inhabiting of Theo, Henry's teenage son, a blues guitarist, 
beautifully alive and tender, and his account of Theo's playing is, like 
his evocation of music in Amsterdam, as uncannily intuitive as his 
breathtaking descriptions of Henry operating on the brain. McEwan is not 
only the greatest living writer in England; now that Bellow has stopped 
writing, and now that Roth's mastery of le mot juste has exploded into a 
brilliant but often undisciplined torrent of mots, McEwan is writing better 
English prose than anybody. The Nobel Prize committee could start making 
itself respectable again by giving him the nod.

Given Henry's self-knowledge, his gifts and his humanity, you're tempted to 
identify his views with the narrator's. His reasons for supporting an Iraq 
invasion are conscientious, anguished, half-hearted and based mostly on 
accounts of Saddam Hussein's atrocities that he's heard from an Iraqi exile 
named Professor Taleb, one of Saddam's victims and Henry's patient (though 
Henry is something of a dove in reaction to the hawkish Strauss). Henry is 
an admirable man, and you smile when you learn that he has no intention of 
reading the unnamed fiction by Joseph Conrad his daughter has given him. 
Henry's salvation lies in his self-forgetful work ("work--the ultimate 
badge of health") the concrete unambiguity of surgery; in Heart of 
Darkness, the only sanctuary from nothingness is skeptical, decent Marlow's 
self-forgetful labors on the concrete unambiguity of his boat's engine.

But it would be a mistake to confuse Henry with the narrator, or with the 
novel's essential meaning, or with the author himself. McEwan always 
surrounds his main characters with a space of gentle irony; Atonement is 
where his detachment shows its hand. In Saturday, he meticulously qualifies 
Henry's perspective, first by giving Daisy's arguments against the war 
greater prescience, then by having Henry's intellectual outlook ride 
volatilely on his emotions. In the novel's opening pages Henry, spooked by 
the burning plane, recalls with alarm the British political scientist Fred 
Halliday's prediction (Saturday has numerous references to real people, so 
light-handedly done that the novel gains a type of fictional fourth 
dimension) that 9/11 began a world crisis that would "take a hundred years 
to resolve." Later, driving his new Mercedes, feeling confident and 
prosperous, Henry remembers a statement by the famous British immunologist, 
Peter Medawar, who also happened to be of Arab descent: "To deride the 
hopes of progress is the ultimate fatuity." Halliday's lugubrious forecast 
is nonsense, Henry reassures himself. But hours afterward, when he promises 
Baxter that treatment is available for his disease, a note of hope that is 
an echo of Medawar's "hopes of progress," Baxter reacts with contemptuous 
disbelief, and Henry thinks to himself that Baxter "is right to pick up on 
the fatuity, the feebleness of the idea." Not only does Henry abandon his 
optimism about progress--the reversal turns stunningly on the word 
"fatuity"--he tries to use the illusion of progress to trick a man whom 
society has left behind.

full: http://www.thenation.com/doc.mhtml?i=20050411&c=4&s=siegel

Louis Proyect
Marxism list: www.marxmail.org 

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