Riffing With Words

In addition, to the empirical temperament of Ian McEwan’s literary works, there is a subtle appreciation of music lurking the background. I am occasionally reminded of a jazz musician riffing when I read some of the long reveries in his novels. He remarks in Zalewski’s New Yorker (February 23, 2009) profile that “…in terms of the pulse of a sentence I care as much as anyone.”

This is clearly illustrated in Saturday when Perowne takes off on one of the many daydreams that McEwan sprinkles throughout the novel. In the unforgettable early morning scene that begins the novel Perowne falls into such a state as he observes his own mood:

“It is not clear to him when exactly he became conscious, nor does it seem relevant…It’s as if, standing there in the darkness, he’s materialized out of nothing, fully formed, unencumbered….Henry thinks the city is a success, a brilliant invention, a biological masterpiece—millions teeming around the accumulated and layered achievements of the centuries, as though around a coral reef, sleeping, working, entertaining themselves, harmonious for the most part, nearly everyone wanting it to be work.”

Zalewski quotes the ending of McEwan’s 1992 novel Black Dogs as further example of his tendency to drift into a meditative trace-like mood which is this case becomes almost poetic:

“She was delivered into herself, she was changed. This, now, here. Surely this was what existence strained to be, and so rarely had the chance: to savor itself fully in the present……the smooth darkening summer air, the scent of thyme crushed underfoot, her hunger, her slaked thirst, the warm stone she could feel through her shirt, the aftertaste of peach, the stickiness on her hand, her tired legs, her sweaty, sunny, dusty fatigue.”

While writers often describe how hard it is to write well, rarely do they speak about how enjoyable it can be. McEwan is an exception. He notes: “One thing that’s missing from the discussion of literature in the academy is the pleasure principle. Not only the pleasure of the reader but also of the writer. Writing is a self-pleasuring act.”

One of the several passages in Saturday where Perowne enters into a recollection of an operation he had earlier performed also illustrates the great pleasure McEwan finds in his “love of sculpting prose:”

"For the past two hours he’s been in a dream of absorption that has dissolved all sense of time, and all awareness of the other parts of his life. Even his awareness of his own existence has vanished. He’s been delivered into a pure present, free of the weight of the past the past or any anxieties about the future. In retrospect, though never at the time, it feels like profound happiness. It’s a little like sex, in that he feels himself in another medium, but it’s less obviously pleasurable, and clearly not sensual. This state of mind brings a contentment he never finds with any passive form of entertainment. Books, cinema, even music can’t bring him to this…This benevolent dissociation seems to require difficulty, prolonged demands on concentration and skills, pressure, problems to be solved, even danger. He feels calm, and spacious, fully qualified to exist. It’s a feeling of clarified emptiness, of deep muted job."

McEwan’s obvious pleasure in riffing with words leads me to wonder if he might secretly wish to be a musician. I do know from Zalewski’s profile that he likes live music and that recently he wrote the libretto for a new opera. And in Saturday while ruminating about his son’s rock musical career, Perowne admits

“There’s nothing in his own life that contains this inventiveness, this style of being free. The music speaks to unexpressed longing or frustration, a sense that he’s being denied himself an open road, the life of the heart celebrated in the songs. There has to be more to life than merely saving lives.”

It was a treat for me to learn about McEwan’s life, his many friends and many talents. He is one of those authors whose next novel I look forward to reading and will inevitably purchase a copy the moment it becomes available.