Rattled through Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach over the weekend. Typical McEwan in that it is about the life-defining consequences of moments that seem both arbitrary and unavoidable; in this case, a row between newlyweds after their excruciatingly bodged attempt at consummation. There are some stylistic oddities. The forensic real-time descriptions of Edward and Florence’s tragicomic attempts at dinner and sex are interrupted by awkward authorial remarks along the lines of “This was not a good moment in the history of English cuisine” (it’s set in 1962, ie. the year before sexual intercourse began). These interjections are justified at the close of the book by an alarmingly brusque account of the lives of the protagonists over the next four decades – bringing us up to the 'all-knowing' present – but on first read they are a bit jarring. I could also have done without the flashback half-hints at incestuous abuse suffered by the juvenile Florence, offering an unnecessary Freudian explanation for her physical horror of sex.
But I quibble – mostly it is masterly. I loved the glimpses of Edward’s mother, left “brain-damaged” by a hit-and-run railway carriage door incident. The critical row on the beach is superbly done: two people who really don’t want to hurt each other striking ever more unforgivable blows purely because each insult seems to follow, with unavoidable logic, from the last. And in fact I also liked the brevity of the what-happened-next coda. Possibly we need fewer novels and more novellas from our big guns. In a normal-sized novel we’d have had chapters in which Florence and Edward meet again in later life, but the rapidity with which McEwan wraps up his story gives a much more powerful shock.
Which brings me at last to the point of this post. The intention of On Chesil Beach is, I assume, to tap into the universal horror of regret: those moments of opportunities blown and wounds unnecessarily inflicted which, while by no means defining us, can surprise us by lurching into our consciousness at 3am. If I had only been braver or smarter at that one instant, my whole life might have turned out so much better, and I only have one life, aaargh!
But for me, the central conceit only works because neither Edward nor Florence subsequently have children in their separate lives. Being a recent father I’m either biased towards thinking this or possibly just attuned to noticing its truth. Offspring are regret-killers (at least, of everything occuring before their appearance), even the nasty little buggers. If Edward had had children in one of his later relationships the structure of this novella would collapse, since upon contemplating his sprogs his overriding sentiment would most likely be: “Thank goodness we had that row on Chesil Beach, otherwise you would never have come into existence”, thus turning the thing on its head. In this respect, the lasting sensation for most readers will be pity for the characters rather than introspective horror, and I don’t know if that was McEwan’s purpose.