Tuesday, July 12, 2005


Such prosperity, whole emporia dedicated to cheeses, ribbons, Shaker furniture, is protection of a sort. This commercial wellbeing is robust and will defend itself to the last. It isn't rationalism that will overcome the religious zealots, but ordinary shopping and all that it entails — jobs for a start, and peace, and some commitment to realisable pleasures, the promise of appetites sated in this world, not the next. Rather shop than pray.

Saturday I rose early after a restless night, feeling a little drunk still, and started to read about Henry, who was just getting up from a very restless night.

Saturday, by Ian McEwan.

On the cover, an alarm clock, or a time bomb.

(Helena had gone to her grandmother's house Friday night. J-F and I had been looking forward to a day of some final unpacking — installing ourselves, towel racks, and curtains. The rain inspired instead a lazy day, drinking coffee, lounging, reading. Such days are so rare now. I love them.

Saturday had arrived in my mailbox by accident. I'd heard wonderful things about it, and, while I hadn't been sufficiently motivated to procure myself a copy, its immediate presence demanded I take a closer look.

I meant to skim it, for a slightly fuller taste than what the reviews had offered. Then I'd pack it back in its box and return it. But I feel, now, that would stealing. The book is a keeper, even if it's eating up a budget I'd intended for other books.)

I had trouble settling into the novel at first. I was highly distractible — my surrounding, cats, world events were invading my focus. I'm not used to having the luxury of reading for a whole morning at a stretch. Even so, I could recognize the book had merit.

Wonderful descriptions.
The surgeon's fingers: "the tips of which are flat and broad, like the suckers on a a salamander."

A turn of phrase:
"The sea of neural misery is wide and deep."

Poignant observations, expressed with economy:
"The square's public aspect grants privacy to these intimate dramas."

"...the babel of various gods..."

The novel follows a day in the life of neurosurgeon Henry Perowne on a day off — February 15, 2003, a day of antiwar demonstrations in London.

(A day in the life — a difficult conceit to pull off. For example, Don DeLillo comes to mind, but by contrast, Cosmopolis feels contrived. McEwan's Henry is ordinary, if educated and of a certain class. The characters are psychologically consistent, believable.)

The story is punctuated by new reports and casual conversations with family about current events, primarily the impending war with Iraq.
And how luxurious, to work it all out at home in the kitchen, the geopolitical moves and military strategy, and not be held to account, by voters, newspapers, friends, history. When there are no consequences, being wrong is simply an interesting diversion.

Saturday morning Henry has an altercation with a thug (whom Henry perceives to be afflicted by Huntington’s disease), the effects of which follow him throughout his day.

The encounter is a metaphor. It's an act of terrorism against Henry and, later, his family. The perpetrator is volatile.
Until now, Henry suddenly sees, he’s been in a fog. Astonished, even cautious, but not properly, usefully frightened. . . . The truth, now demonstrated, is that Baxter is a special case — a man who believe he has no future and is therefore free of consequences. . . . It is written. No amount of love, drugs, Bible classes or prison sentencing can cure Baxter or shift him from his course. It's spelled out in fragile proteins, but it could be carved in stone, or tempered steel.
But for all the reductive argument, Perowne can't convince himself that molecules and faulty genes alone are terrorising his family. . . Perowne himself is also responsible. He humiliated Baxter.

McEwan meditates on art. Henry doesn't read much, doesn't have time for literature, doesn't see the sense in imagining a world other than our own, but he is confronted with literature — Henry the scientist spawned a poet daughter.
So far, Daisy's reading lists have persuaded him that fiction is too humanly flawed, too sprawling and hit-and-miss to inspire uncomplicated wonder at the magnificence of human ingenuity, of the impossible dazzlingly achieved. Perhaps only music has such purity.

Science and art are, of course, windows to the same soul.
There is much in human affairs that can be accounted for at the level of the complex molecule. Who could ever reckon up the damage done to love and friendship and all hopes of happiness by a surfeit or depletion of this or that neurotransmitter? And who will ever find a morality, an ethics down among the enzymes and amino acids when the general taste is for looking in the other direction?

Schrodinger is invoked early on. Henry can't make any sense of parallel universes, but he demonstrates a sympathetic, fatalist streak: "Whatever the score, it is already chalked up."

For all his rational, clinical detachment — "He doesn't have the lyric gift to see beyond it [traffic] — he's a realist, and can never escape." — Henry commends the poet's gift of compression while grappling with the impossibility of describing the slow-motion perception of a split-second event. He's thrown off his game when "everything that's happened to him recently occurs to him at once. He's no longer in the present." He's the cat, while trying to run the experiment.

Henry recalls the biography of Darwin he's reading: "There is grandeur in this view of life."
Kindly, driven, infirm Charles in all his humility, bringing on the earthworms and planetary cycles to assist him with a farewell bow. To soften the message, he also summoned up the Creator, but his heart wasn't in it and he ditched Him in later editions. Those five hundred pages deserved only one conclusion: endless and beautiful forms of life, such as you see in a common hedgerow, including exalted beings like ourselves, arose from physical laws, from war of nature, famine and death. This is the grandeur. And a bracing kind of consolation in the brief privilege of consciousness.


Because music's been on my mind lately:
There are these rare moments when musicians together touch something sweeter than they've ever found before in rehearsals or performance, beyond the merely collaborative or technically proficient, when their expression becomes as easy and graceful as friendship or love. This is when they give us a glimpse of what we might be, of our best selves, and of an impossible world in which you give everything you have to others, but lose nothing of yourself. Out in the real world there exist detailed plans, visionary projects for peaceable realms, all conflicts resolved, happiness for everyone, for ever — mirages for which people are prepared to die and kill. Christ's kingdom on earth, the workers' paradise, the ideal Islamic state. But only in music, and only on rare occasions, does the curtain actually lift on this dream of community, and it's tantalisingly conjured, before fading away with the last notes.

In the end, it's poetry that disarms the villain.

Henry dares not imagine. We dare not imagine, but we must. In literature, and in life.

1 comment:

Suzanne said...

Did you catch Ian McEwan discussing Saturday with Rachel Giese on Word This Week (BookTelevision channel) this afternoon...?