Thursday, 14 June 2007

Dover Beach to Chesil Beach

L’Esprit de l’escalier is what the French call those brilliant thoughts you should have had earlier, but which come to you when the evening is over and you’re going up to bed. So it was last night. On the way home from the Atwater Library’s discussion pf Ian McEwan’s Saturday, I thought of a major point: McEwan is saying that literature can literally save the day.

Saturday's hero is Henry Perowne, a neurosurgeon who only reads to please his poet daughter Daisy. He and his family are threatened in their home by a small time hood who appears ready to kill Perowne’s wife. The man is diverted, though, when he discovers that lovely Daisy, whom he’s forced to strip, is a poet. He demands she read one of her creations, but she recites Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach instead. The classic poem captivates him long enough for Perowne and his son to make their move and overcome him. I can’t think of a neater demonstration of the power of words.

But of course none of us at the lively discussion (some loved the book, some hated it) thought of that then. An interesting aperçu that did come forward was the link between the Arnold poem and McEwan’s newest book, On Chesil Beach. In it a just-married couple have completely different expectations of marriage on their honeymoon: Chesil Beach clearly is a place where “innocent armies clash by night.”

To get a taste of both books, read excerpts in The New Yorker: The Diagnosis (from Saturday ) and On Chesil Beach

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