Thursday, May 05, 2005


I finished McEwan’s Saturday last week and loved it.

That’s saying a lot. I have been quite peeved with him for consistently discounting any connection to Virginia Woolf—even to the point of fabricating a quotation (something about character being dead in modern fiction) on the Op-Ed page of the Times in his appreciation of Saul Bellow.

Still, I felt like the biggest lesson I learned from Woolf about reading was the lesson she imbibed from her father, from her discipline of reviewing: to read widely and generously, judging works on their own terms. This does not mean being only a gentle reader; it does mean reading without prejudice. I felt that, whatever wrong McEwan may have done to Woolf’s generosity (not that she—or her legacy—cannot bear it), I owed it to myself and to Woolf to read Saturday with an open mind.

True enough, it owes much on the thematic level to Mrs. Dalloway: as I surmised, as Katie Roiphe (who read it before me and wrote about it on Salon indicated, this novel about an upper-middle class doctor who spends a day planning a party only to be interrupted by war must call Clarissa Dalloway to mind.

However, in the end, reading it is not at all like reading Mrs. Dalloway. It’s its own book, full of medical arcana and with the surprising reliance on genre fiction for the climax (here, crime) that surprised last time in Atonement. The way McEwan turns to genre fiction seems an interesting and very promising, rich development out of a long British tradition of writers switching from high- to middlebrow works. (Woolf did it when she wrote Orlando but Graham Greene, with his “entertainments” is the most celebrated of many examples.) There were things, however, that I loved. For example, I found myself remembering my own confusion through his daring descriptions of the political confusion of the mainstream liberal in the days before this horrible Iraq war. His protagonist has treated a victim of Saddam Hussein’s torturing goons and, on the strength of that, is more willing than he wants to be to listen to Tony Blair; yet, as a neurologist, he finds himself checking Blair’s face for signs of deception. And, in a very different vein, I found it incredibly moving and interesting to read a novel about the professionally successful husband of a professionally successful woman in which the disintegration of their marriage is not a plot point. Instead, we see them happy together in many different registers over the course of the day—passionate, tender, interested in each other, proud of their children, worried about their children, turning to each other for comfort. (And this, of course, is a loud revision of the functioning but basically celibate Dalloway marriage.)

I am still unsettled by his desire to distance himself from Woolf and interested in his desire to connect himself to Bellow and other Americans. Is it as simple as the fear of being perceived as an effete Brit? Is there any more to it than that?


lucy tartan said...

Now I really will have to read Saturday ASAP.
Offhand it's hard to think of a more squarely and solidly English novelist than McEwan: maybe disowning Woolf has to do with class prejudice or perhaps with a knot of circumstantial things around The Hours... Who knows why writers claim one influence rather than another? Perhaps they simply get tired of answering the same journalists' question over and over again.

Sarahlynn said...

Isn't it possible there's some sexism in there too? Lit professors still talk openly in classrooms about how men write all the important stuff and women come in with their fluffy writing and clutter up the market, diverting energy, attention, and money away from the (male) serious writers who actually deserve them.

It could be that things have magically changed since I graduated from college 8 years ago, but I doubt it, especially in light of Jonathan Franzen's unabashed insults to women readers everywhere with his desire not to be in the Oprah book club because he was afraid it would "scare off male readers."

Unknown said...

Laura & Sarahlynn, I fear you're right--women writers, especially those perceived as upper class (Woolf was from an elite intellectual family but she lived on money she made from writing, so it seems grossly inaccurate and unfair to call her upper class), are still not perceived as appropriate models for men.


There may be something to fatigue with answering the same questions, but why go to the trouble to fabricate a quotation by Woolf in order to dissociate from her. That seems like anxious sexism to me.

coolie said...

There is another novel that was recently published which took place over a single day in London, examining the lives of a middle class married couple, culminating in a dinner part. It's a book called One Day by Ardashir Vakil. I wrote a post about it here:

But I just pointed to a similarity and reference at the ending of the novel, like Saturday, to the conclusion of James Joyce's The Dead, and didnt really suggest any reasons for the Mrs Dalloway template appearing twice in a few years.

In a later post linked to Pankaj Mishra's An End To Suffering I suggest what the significance of this reference to Joyce's The Dead at the end of Saturday may be, particularly in relation to the whole question of post 9/11 fear and its pressure upon Henry Perowne's consciousness.