"Murray is the best kind of literary biographer" – The Financial Times.
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Winner of the 2015 Basil Bunting Award for poetry

Monday, 3 September 2007

No, no, no: the McEwan problem that isn't

In an article in Sunday's Independent on Sunday John Sutherland swung to the defence of Ian McEwan whom he described as the best living English novelist (discuss). Sutherland's argument was that the circus surrounding McEwan's new film Atonement (that's funny, I thought it had been written by Keira Knightley) had been the occasion of an outburst of resentment against McEwan based simply and solely on envy. Managing to misrepresent a very perceptive review by John Banville in the New York Review of Books some time ago of his earlier novel Saturday, Sutherland lambasted those who had been attacking the novelist for being too rich, too successful etc etc. With friends like Sutherland, McEwan needs no enemies. They would do well to pipe down. The film (which I don't doubt will prove to be excellent) is being mercilessly over-hyped and if I were McEwan I'd quietly stand back and let it make its way. The debate about whether the short novella Chesil Beach, which I seem to have liked more than other literary bloggers, should win the Booker (it shouldn't, for reasons to numerous to go into here) is one thing but this familiar newspaper column obsession with stroking the bruised egos of those whose pain is to be insufficently loved at the moment of their triumph is another. Knock it on the head, is my advice to the North London literary gents. As Ms Winehouse observed on the question of rehab: "I ain't got the time, and if my Daddy says I'm fine." There isn't a problem here.

But excuse me, that's Amazon at the door with the new Coetzee...


Andrew said...

I have to confess my couple of looks at Mc Ewan has had me give up after roughly on two pages, describing him somewhat negatively as "awful Mills & Boon of the mind shite."
I confess though to not being Coetzee's biggest admirer finding him quite joyless, very unlike the Dostoevsky whom he admires so much. However, I wouldn't deny the esential substance of his work.
As a sliver of positivity have you read the Russian writer Victor Pelevin whom could not too misleadingly as a kind of contemporary Aldous Huxley figure in certain respects?

Nicholas Murray said...

Well, who would stand up to comparison with Dostoevsky! I agree that Coetzee (whom I'll say something about when I've read the new one) is bleak in some respects but so is much of great literature and art. "Man must suffer to be wise," Aeschylus observed and maybe we have to stare into the abyss sometimes in order to appreciate the wonder of things a little better. I don't know. But thanks for the tip about Victor Pelevin. I'll look out for him.

Andrew said...

I read quite recently though an early book of Coetzee's, Youth, & there seemed no release from the bleakness- no room for catharsis. The final lines were, "One of these days the ambulance men will call at Ganapathy's flat & bring him out on a stretcher with a sheet over his face. When they have fetched Ganapathy they might as well come & fetch him(our hero) too."
And from very early on this seemed the irrevocable direction of the novel. It seemed to me to be an inherently bleak feeling for reality, the one other's of Coetzee's I've read being The MAster of Petersburg, & a much finer work but still essentially bleak.

Andrew said...

Just to copy & paste a bit of Pelevin that encapsulates a little of what makes him at his best so exciting:

Watching the hot sunlight falling on the tablecloth covered with sticky blotches & crumbs, Andrei was struck by the thought of what a genuine tragedy it was for millions of light rays to set out on their journey from the surface of the sun, go hurtling through the infinite void of space & pierce the kilometres thick sky of Earth, only to be extinguished in the revolting remains of yesterday's soup. Maybe these yellow arrows slanting in through the window were conscious, hoped for something better- and realised their hope was groundless, giving them all the necessary ingredients for suffering.