Wednesday, January 12, 2011


I think I intended to read Ian McEwan's novel Saturday when it first appeared in 2005 and then confused the intention with the act. I could always talk about it in general terms (perhaps from reading reviews), but when I picked it up at a book sale not long ago and began reading, "Some hours before dawn Henry Perowne, a neurosurgeon, wakes to find himself already in motion, pushing back the covers from a sitting position, and then rising to his feet..." it was not familiar. Now that I've read it and found it so vivid, so powerful I have to believe I would have recalled it had I read it before. Still, it is worth reading again.

I've read most of McEwan's novels, including On Chesil Beach. Atonement, Amsterdam (which has one of the best depictions of musical composition I've ever read), Enduring Love, and Black Dogs. I found Saturday particularly interesting because of the limitations McEwan set himself: He tells the story from only the point of view of Henry Perowne, and all the action takes place on a specific day in history—Saturday, February 15, 2003—in London. I am entirely convinced that this character could have had these experiences and these thoughts on that day.

In a sense, not much happens. Henry, waking in the night and staring out his bedroom window, sees a plane on fire, but it turns out be a cargo jet that lands safely at Heathrow. Henry makes love to his wife, has breakfast with his musician son, has a minor car accident on his way to his weekly squash game (and a confrontation with three roughnecks in the other car), the squash game with an associate from the hospital, an afternoon visit to his Alzheimer-stricken mother, and a return home to greet his poet father-in-law and his poet daughter who is returning from six months in Paris.

The day is extraordinary for London because thousands of demonstrators gathered to protest the impending war in Iraq. The day is extraordinary for Henry because the accumulated events change him (I do not want to spoil the story for someone who has not read it). The day is extraordinary for the reader for Henry's (or McEwan's) thoughts, insights, observations about brain surgery, war, violence, poetry, music, competition, aging, death, and much, much more.

A few more things I like about the book: Henry is—generally—happy and successful, a skilled surgeon in a loving marriage. Do you know how hard it must be to make someone like that interesting to a reader? Henry has two children, a famous father-in-law, and a dying mother, and we learn who they are, what they want, what they're like. He has associates at the hospital where he practices, one of whom is an American with whom Henry plays squash. And he has an antagonist who is more than a plot device. If you haven't read it, I recommend it.

1 comment:

  1. Your post on Ian McEwan's "Saturday" reminded me, too, of how much I enjoyed it, a deeply rewarding and challenging experience. McEwan is a challenging writer of fiction, ie, he challenges the reader, the very idea of fiction, the tropes and forms and expectations of fiction. He is among the closest thing we may have in this age to what the original "Modernists" were about. Of course, as is well known, "Saturday" is an homage to Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway", itself a great work of Modernism. In "Atonement", he ultimately undercut the very idea making stories, or of being a maker of stories, a writer, in an effort to challenge the reader, I think, to challenge his expectations of story, of narrative, of truth and falsehood. In "Saturday", I found myself pleasantly astonished as the highly rational, scientific male protagnist, Dr. Perowne, is caught in the novel's cultimating denouement, in a powerless, hopeless and incapable a moment that evokes the eotions I recall most of us havingat in the wake of 9/11, which is a key background element in his story. What I had not expeted was the edgy and creative way in which he demonstrated this, in a moment of "terrorism", in which his daughter, and her grandfather, both artists, poets, are demonstrably better able to deal with the incoherence and violence of that moment, able even overcome it in some way by virtue of their intutive understanding of an intruder's emotional state. I had the strangest sense that McEwan was suggesting that the irrational and threatening moment in which we now live, historically, will not necessarily be dealt with constructively by the post-modernist, rationalist, "male" persona. That persona invaded Iraq pointlessly--another background element in the story. In "Saturday" we are subtly reminded of the civilizing power of feminity, represented here as humanity and art. What threatens to be a horrible moment of terror, is overtaken by the effect of a human female power that ancient priestesses and poets had evoked, which true art today still evokes, and which McEwan evokes in his surprising novel.