MY CITY SQUARE - Happiness is a hard nut to crack

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  • Published 18.03.05

By Ian McEwan,
Jonathan Cape, Rs 795

French windows have been opened often enough over city squares in the modern English novel. What waits outside is usually London ? Westminster or Fitzrovia. A little squeak of the hinges and then the hum of the city, a new day, and brooding over the prospect, a modern consciousness. From Henry James to Virginia Woolf, the Ververs, Dalloways and Pargiters have all looked down from their high windows: ?chill and sharp and yet?solemn, feeling as she did, standing at the open window, that something awful was about to happen.? This is Mrs Dalloway. But Ian McEwan?s Henry Perowne, neurosurgeon, is in much the same position and state of mind at the beginning of Saturday. The ?strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead? which Clarissa can hear is there for Henry too ? except that, in his case, the plane is trailing fire and seeming, rapidly and ominously, to descend on his city. In Woolf?s novel written in the early Twenties, the Great War is just over. In McEwan?s novel ? all of which takes place on Saturday, February 15, 2003 ? Britain is about to pitch into another war that will, however, be fought far away.

Saturday follows the ?second-by-second wash? of Henry Perowne?s thoughts in the course of a single day in order to get a sense of ?what it means to be a man. In a city. In a century? ? as the epigraph from Saul Bellow?s Herzog puts it. From Woolf?s century to McEwan?s, the Imperium has shifted base, and the novel?s implied historical signpost is, of course, that other fateful day in September 2001. Perowne?s Saturday also happens to be the day on which an unprecedented number of protesters had gathered in London to protest against the Iraq war. And this rally works its way, quite as fatefully, into the novel?s sequence of inner and outer events. As his silver Mercedes 5500 gets stuck in the chaos on the streets, Perowne?s response to the protest is ambivalent: ?people gathering to express their preference for peace and torture?. As evidence of this torture, McEwan conjures up an Iraqi professor of ancient history, one of Perowne?s patients, who spent months in several of Saddam?s prisons. Perowne also watches, with ?visceral distaste?, three figures in black burkhas emerging from a taxi on Devonshire Place. One is never quite sure whether this is a liberal distaste for Muslim women walking around ?so entirely obliterated?, or something darker.

This ambivalence is at the heart of the novel?s exploration of what Perowne calls the ?growing complication of the modern condition?. Surrounded by the ?commercial well-being? of Marylebone, while stopping to buy fish for dinner, he links this complication with the ?expanding circle of moral sympathy?: ?not only distant peoples are our brothers and sisters, but foxes too, and laboratory mice?. Because British troops might soon be involved in the lives of some of these ?distant peoples?, and because these people, in turn, could do terrible things to London, ?moral sympathy? is now in the English air, and its pressures, embodied by the protesters on the streets, are what Perowne finds himself resisting. He feels that the ?humanitarian? case for war, as he explains later to his outraged daughter, is a case worth making.

His circle of sympathy is made up of this daughter, a poet visiting from Paris, his blues-singing, guitar-playing teenage son, his successful lawyer-wife and ex-patient, his demented mother in an old-age home (?I put sap in the clock to make it moist,? she tells him, lyrical in her dementia), and his father-in-law, a difficult and venerable English poet. The other focus of his life is his work and workplace, a private nursing home where he is head of neurosurgery, working with a multi-ethnic team.

McEwan?s forte has always been intellectually adroit thriller-writing. But each book comes not only with a plot that dust-jackets call ?compelling?, but also with its own web of literary allusions and mastery of a special expertise ? anything from electronic engineering to genetics, psychiatry and music. Saturday ? with two poets in it and with its research into brain surgery ? is no exception. At one level, a purely chance event changes, in a single day, Perowne?s relationship with human brutality, his perception of how the question of ?terror? could be relevant to him too, and relevant where he feels happiest and most invulnerable, among his family, his colleagues, his work and his possessions. Happening in parallel to global terror, this terror is ?domesticated? in every way ? arising from elements within his own society and entering his home, his most inward responses and imaginings, and making him examine the ?uses? of his medical expertise in an entirely unexpected ethical light.

But the real point of writing this book, apart from the neurosurgical challenges, is to write about happy, contented, affluent people ? because happiness is ?a harder nut to crack? than misery, and because terror may be vanquished by happiness and love and material progress. (What had struck McEwan about 9/11 were cell-phones and love: people in the twin towers were using their phones to talk to their loved ones before dying.) So, while ?London, his small part of it, lies wide open, impossible to defend, waiting for its bomb?, there is also, in this book, ?a celebration of cooking, wine, sex, love, children, work?, as McEwan says elsewhere. There are purple passages, thick with adjectives, on the sweetness of being a car-owner, on wearing expensive squash gear, on waking up in grandly furnished bedrooms, reading in Knole sofas, and frequent evocations of conjugal bliss that would put Milton?s Adam and Eve (before the Fall) to shame. The abyss of brutality that opens up underneath all this turns out to be not that much of an abyss after all, and the celebration of cornucopian affluence, in a suitably cornucopian prose, is really all that is needed to keep the terror at bay. Even when this affluence is seen through the eyes of a violent, lower-middle-class breaker-in, the prose is too absorbed in its own self-conscious yumminess, helplessly celebrating the opulence of its textures, to sustain any radical unsettling of the novel?s deeply ingrained notion of ?happiness?: ?the two bottles of champagne, the gin and the bowls of lemon and ice, the belittlingly high ceiling and its mouldings, the Bridget Riley prints flanking the Hodgkin, the muted lamps, the cherry wood floor beneath the Persian rugs, the careless piles of serious books....?

The ?best? passages in this book ?showcase? the writer?s style ? like Knightsbridge shop windows, with their ever-changing inventions that are a tribute to the marriage of modernity, art and the market, to the pleasures of acquisition. All this makes for highly accomplished art-writing, food-writing, wine-writing, travel-writing and interiors-writing. But such feats of prose, even when replete with literariness, render a novel strangely hollow and often unbearably self-indulgent and full of self-regard. And most dangerously, Perowne?s ambivalence regarding the war and the ?new enemy? gets taken up into these unabashedly consumerist epiphanies ? ?a gentle, swooning joy of possession? ? to create a rather obscene sense of smugness, which then becomes indistinguishable from the novel?s vision of happiness and orderliness, and even of kindness, warmth and love, of everything that might be used to shore up the fabric of life against terror.