Talking in bed ought to be easiest,
lying together there goes back so far,
an emblem of two people being honest.
Yet more and more time passes silently.
Outside the wind’s incomplete unrest
builds and disperses clouds about the sky,
and dark towns heap up on the horizon.
None of this cares for us. Nothing shows why
at this unique distance from isolation
it becomes still more difficult to find
words at once true and kind,
or not untrue and not unkind.
On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan, struck me as a novella-length meditation on this poem. The book takes place in 1962, in a world that is gathering itself for the sexual revolution but has not fully arrived. Edward and Florence, the two protagonists, are newlyweds. Both of them are young, just 22. Both are university educated, Edward to history and Florence, much more ambitiously, to music. Each is deeply, tenderly in love with the other, planning for a future together. And both are paralyzed with fear about their first sexual experience.
For Edward, the fear is one of failure — of “arriving too soon.” The experience is one he longs for, rapture and terror of humiliation mixed together. For Florence, however, emotions are darker and more serious.
…she experienced a visceral dread, a helpless disgust as palpable as seasickness. For much of the time, through all the months of merry wedding preparation, she managed to ignore this stain on her happinesss, but whenever her thoughts turned towards a close embrace – she prefered no other term – her stomach tightened dryly, she was nauseous at the back of her throat.
The two are absolutely unable to discuss these apprehensions, mostly because they live in a time that has given them no vocabulary for it. They don’t want to disappoint each other, but they don’t have the faintest notion what disappointment — or, really, fulfillment — would look like, and they cannot ask.
The description of Edward and Florence’s wedding night — their ghastly, painful, almost-but-not-quite farcical wedding night — is interpolated with descriptions of their background and courtship. These bits I found less effective, if only because in comparison with the sheer reality of the couple’s pain and love in their wedding bed, their courtship seemed tiresomely lacquered. Edward comes from a messy, bumbling, but loving schoolmaster’s house; Florence from a stern, disapproving, wealthy background. Are we supposed to cry, No wonder they react to sex so differently!
Worse than that, though, was McEwan’s hint — or perhaps more than a hint — that Florence had been sexually abused by her father. I felt very strongly that this was a cop-out. Why hint this at all, as an explanation of Florence’s dislike of sex? There are complex questions here, not just about female desire (or the lack of it) in general, but about every couple: what happens when one partner, male or female, doesn’t match the other’s libido? Talking in bed should be easiest, but it’s not. Explaining this away with even the merest hint of abuse makes all that complexity unnecessary, and allows McEwan to swim in the shallow end. These questions are not limited to the 1960s.
I wondered, too, why McEwan chose to end the book only from Edward’s perspective. All along, the story is told from both points of view, though we hear less from Florence than from Edward. Then at the end, it is Edward’s story alone. Does this have something to do with the diminished complexity of Florence’s sexual story?
Still, even with that caveat, I thought this was a gem of a book. One of my favorite novels by McEwan is Amsterdam, which is also very brief; I think he works well in this short format, when he doesn’t have time for his ideas to be lost in the execution. The prose was brilliant, and, as I said, the relationship between the lovers was beautifully, painfully real. This is the story of two people who were unable to find words both true and kind, or not untrue and not unkind; actions not taken, movements not made. I’m grateful to have read it.