The Car in Literature

I return to the car for an additional comment. While automobiles play such a central role in the life of most individuals, as far as I know, they hardly play any role in contemporary literary fiction. However, there is one notable literary exception, It is in Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday. Henry Perowne, the neurosurgeon depicted in the novel, keeps a silver Mercedes S 500 parked in a nearby garage. McEwan describes what this car means to Henry who tries to see it, or feel it, in historical terms and in so doing makes it clear that there’s nothing about a car that cannot be the stuff of fiction:

“...this moment in the last decades of the petroleum age, when a nineteenth-century device [automobile] is brought to final perfection in the early years of the twenty-first…

Henry lives in a fashionable section of London where three and four story townhouses were built around a central square long before anyone ever heard of an automobile, let alone a garage in which to park it. So Henry must walk to down the way a bit to collect his car parked along with others inside a nearby building

He walks down a faint incline of greasy cobbles to where the owners of houses like his own once kept their horses. Now, those who can afford it cosset their cars here with off-street parking. Attached to his key ring is an infrared button which he presses to raise a clattering steel shutter. It’s revealed in mechanical jerks, the long nose and shining eyes at the stable door, chafing to be free. A silver Mercedes S 500 with cream upholstery— and he’s no longer embarrassed by it. He doesn’t even love it—it’s simply a sensual part of what he regards as his overgenerous share of the world’s goods. If he didn’t own it, he tries to tell himself, someone else would. He hasn’t driven it in a week, but in the gloom of the dry dustless garage the machine breathes an animal warmth of his own…

It’s Theo [Henry’s son] who disapproves most, saying it’s a doctor’s car, as if this were the final word in condemnation. Daisy, [Henry’s daughter] on the other hand, said she thought that Harold Pinter owned something like it, which made it all fine with her. Roslind [Henry’s wife] encouraged him to buy it. She thinks his life is too guiltily austere, and never buying clothes or good wine or a single painting is a touch pretentious. Still living like a postgraduate student. It was time for him to fill out.

Still Henry has mixed feelings about the car. Yes, he doesn’t drive it much. And at one time it embarrassed him to have such a fancy car. But he likes having it, owning it, having it there, much like a piece of jewelry or a Picasso on the wall. Then there are those days, when he takes the car out on the road and his ambivalence about the thing vanishes very quickly:

For months he drove it apologetically, rarely in fourth gear, reluctant to overtake, waving on right-turning traffic, punctilious in permitting cheaper cars their road space. He was cured at last by a fishing trip to north-west Scotland with Jay Strauss [Fellow physician]. Seduced by the open road and Jay’s exultant celebration of “Lutheran genius,” Henry finally accepted himself as the owner, the master, of his vehicle.…He and Jay fished the streams…One wet afternoon, glancing over his shoulder while casting, Henry saw his car…and felt for the first time a gentle, swooning joy of possession. It is, of course possible, permissible, to love an inanimate object. But this moment was the peak of the affair; since then his feelings have settled into mild , occasional pleasure. The car gives him vague satisfaction when he’s driving it; the rest of the time it rarely crosses his mind. As its makers intended and promised, it’s become part of him.”

Yes, I often felt that way about my car too. It became a part of me, an extension, another limb as it were. We were melded together as one. But it had to be that car and no other. Now that I look back upon that feeling, I realize how stupid I was, how much havoc and destruction the automobile has led to. Like Henry, I often felt embarrassed by my driving machine and I hardly drove it at all. I too was “addicted” to the thing, to both having it and using it. I know now that feeling this way is no long possible, that it is, in fact, untenable, that it must abandoned for good. Will a large segment of the population ever come to feel this way? Well, that is the 24 dollar question, isn’t it?