Tuesday, November 18, 2014

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Amsterdam

Despite having around six Ian McEwan books at home this is the first I have tackled. My interest in him would never have been stirred had it not been for an appearance he once made in a documentary by Richard Dawkins. Being atheistic is not a solid criterion for judging the work of a novelist, but interests take off for reasons that are often inexplicable. I like GK Chesterton’s Father Brown stuff, at least in its televised form.


Although titled Amsterdam, the Dutch capital is not mentioned until over 100 pages into the novel, which is more than half way through. The city is the site of the climax rather than the narrative. The opening scene is a London crematorium where the corpse of Molly Lane is being turned into ash, the furnace heat in sharp contrast with the cold February weather outside. In attendance were her husband George and three of her lovers. There is a resentment on the part of her lovers that because of the illness that both ravished and debilitated her, her husband managed to obtain in her dying what he never could during her living – Molly all to himself. He could control her every move, even when illness limited her ability to move. His love rivals saw it as her falling into his clutches.

Only the language now seems archaic, the most useful description for the life style described in this novel is bourgeois. The travails of the less wealthy don’t figure here while those with a bit of dosh indulge their petty spites and vices. It adds to the obnoxiousness of some of the main characters.

Vernon Halliday is the editor of The Judge, a magazine that has seen better days. He is friends with Clive Linley, a top composer, and both hate the Foreign Secretary, the vainglorious Julian Garmony, another lover. 

Then Vernon has to make an editorial decision that will strain friendships. The Judge must judge and risk being considered sanctimoniously judgmental if it all goes awry. Public interest against privacy rights, the polar opposites under the scope. The ambitious Garmony wants to be Prime Minister but his right wing sentiment alarms Vernon who feels that in an industry where no one wanted to stand up and be shot down first he is:

capable of standing alone, against the current, seeing over the heads of his contemporaries, knowing that he was about to shape the destiny of his country and that he could bear the responsibility.
A sensationalist scoop might just cause rain to fall on the Garmony parade and force it into a chicane. Clive disagrees with the course of action his friend is pursuing, arguing that Molly would never have countenanced Vernon's plan which involves using one of the photos she had taken.  Animosity mounts, Vernon Halliday becomes Vermin Halliday, while the power denied him as a husband suddenly accrues to George as a widower.

As so often in life when things look on the up suddenly defeat can be cruelly snatched from the jaws of victory. Something from left field comes in with a tackle that takes the player holding the ball out of the game. 

It is a bleak grey setting, the type of East Berlin image conjured up in a Len Deighton novel. Too often the descriptive language opens the door to allow that most unwelcome novel character across the portal, ennui. I am not sure if I lost my way or the novel did before picking up again as Clive walked through the mountains, pulling the story up with him as he ascended. Along the route he opted not to help a distressed woman, which amplified the selfish darkness at the heart of his character.

The ending, plausible but unlikely, was situated in Amsterdam and came with its own twist. The tensions between Clive and Vernon erupt in their own managed but underhand way, wholly consistent with the character of the two.

Although slow, and at times plodding, there was something to the narrative that drew me in, without doing anything to lessen the sense that even the mundane can make the grade for a Booker Prize.

Ian McEwan, Amsterdam, 1988. Vintage: London. ISBN 0-09--027277-6

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