A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Thursday, December 27, 2012

What I'm Reading

Ian McEwan, Sweet Tooth

The narrator of McEwan's latest novel is a young woman (in my mind's eye she's played by Romola Garai) who goes to work for British intelligence in the 1970s. I was feeling quite smug about having identified her voice as that familiar one of ironic self-deprecation so characteristic of British first-person narratives.

But then I realized that McEwan is smarter than me, when he homed in on how typical his narrator's voice is, and how his own novel both exemplifies and transcends a particular type of British fiction. His protagonist reads Doris Lessing, Margaret Drabble, and Iris Murdoch in search of herself, but finds the women in them "too educated or too clever, or not quite lonely enough in the world to be me."
I suppose I would not have been satisfied until I had in my hands a novel about a girl in a Camden bedsit who occupied a lowly position in MI5 and was without a man. 
I craved a form of naive realism. I paid special attention, I craned my readerly neck whenever a London street I knew was mentioned, or a style of frock, a real public person, even a make of car. Then, I thought, I had a measure, I could gauge the quality of the writing by its accuracy, by the extent to which it aligned with my own impressions, or improved upon them. I was fortunate that most English writing of the time was in the form of undemanding social documentary. I wasn't impressed by those writers (they were spread between South and North America) who infiltrated their own pages as part of the cast, determined to remind the poor reader that all the characters and even they themselves were pure inventions and that there was a difference between fiction and life. Or, to the contrary, to insist that life was a fiction anyway. Only writers, I thought, were ever in danger of confusing the two. I was a born empiricist. I believed that writers were paid to pretend, and where appropriate should make use of the real world, the one we all shared, to give plausibility to whatever they had made up. So, no tricksy haggling over the limits of their art, no showing disloyalty to the reader by appearing to cross and recross in disguise the borders of the imaginary. No room in the books I liked for the double agent. That year I tried and discarded the authors that sophisticated friends in Cambridge had pressed on me -- Borges and Barth, Pynchon and Cortázar and Gaddis. Not an Englishman among them, I noted, and no women of any race. I was rather like people of my parents' generation who not only disliked the taste and smell of garlic, but distrusted all those who consumed it.