Without intending to immerse myself in a novel that takes
place in contemporary London, I suddenly found myself reading one: Ian McEwan’s
Saturday. A lover of 19th
century novels, I was deep in Anthony Trollope’s The Warden, when I became sidetracked by Saturday, and since I recently
moved to London, I decided to temporarily set aside clerical disputes in
Victorian England and focus on a family living in London in 2003.
Saturday explores one day in the life of a British neurosurgeon, Henry Perowne, who navigates the complex confusions of contemporary western urban life as the specters of terrorism and a potential war against Iraq hangs over the city. The novel also explores the doctor’s thoughts on his own marriage— monogamous, peaceful, and passionate—as well as his attempts to understand the romantic lives of his grown children.
Perowne’s son is a talented, ambitious, and successful blues artist. He lives with his parents who enjoy attending his concerts and rehearsals and with whom he has a close and warm relationship. Perowne makes the following observation about his son’s affairs with women:
He dismissed his last girlfriend in that way he has with girls, of saying nothing much and letting them fade, without drama. Saying little, minimalism in the matter of salutations, introductions, farewells, even thanks, is contemporary etiquette.
The doctor is keenly observing, with detached surprise, this new “etiquette,” where polite break-up behavior involves a lack of discussion, emotion, or “drama.” The father is absorbing the fact that the new generation, no matter how “normal,” healthy, and secure they are in their own families, often de-intensify their own romances by not acknowledging their importance when a relationship ends.
Perowne’s daughter is a spritely intellectual and young poet in her mid-twenties. To her father’s chagrin, her romantic life is chaotic, and she apparently conducts intimate liaisons with quite a number men each year. Perowne asks, after pondering his daughters’ affairs with men:
Don’t some liberal-minded women now argue for the power and value of reticence? Is it only fatherly soft-headedness that makes him suspect that a girl who sleeps around too earnestly has an improved chance of ending up with a lower-grade male, an inadequate loser?
McEwan seems to be interested in a father’s struggle to grasp and accept not just the surprising nature of his daughter and son’s lifestyles but the normality of it. This father attempts to absorb and consent to his children's choices because he knows that their approach to relationships is not only completely appropriate in the context of contemporary dating but also expected; any other approach might be considered abnormal, even strange. However, he does resist his daughter’s behavior in his own mind as he envisions women supporting “the power of reticence;” he seems to suggest here that modesty can muscle away “inadequate” partners and perhaps even usher in committed and responsible men like himself.
At this point my thoughts turned to The Warden and many of the 19th century British novels I have enjoyed, where cads appear and affairs take place and characters sometimes conduct their relationships as the Perowne children do. The difference is that the behavior is considered to be an anomaly and cause of concern, and the omniscient narrator and other characters do not attempt to justify the behavior.
Reading a novel is like entering a world. It’s hard to imagine wanting to live in the world of the 19th century novel forever with the authority of the church and a stifling patriarchy hanging over every flutter of an eyelid; yet it’s also hard to imagine living in the world of a 21st century novel (which reflects our world!), where chaos rules. Which world would you rather live in?
While I seem to argue here that the times we live in now are vastly different from the Victoria era, McEwan challenges this assumption by ending his novel with "Dover Beach" by the 19th century British poet Matthew Arnold, a poem which seems to unite the 19th and 21st centuries in their shared melancholies, confusing wars, and longings for human connection. Here is the poem below.
The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand;
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.
Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Agaean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.