Thursday, 23 August 2012

McEwan's Export

Hard on the heels of China Mieville's challenge to the parochialism of English literary fiction, Ian McEwan, in an interview with Alex Salmond in Edinburgh, has put the case for the defence, claiming loyally that he is an English not a British writer. McEwan sees national identity, at least in the case of writers, as an act of will, a choice of team colours, and believes that such identification is only possible at the provincial level. Thus "when TS Eliot wanted to become poet in these lands, it wasn't as an English poet, it was an Anglian poet he wanted to be" The unintended irony is that the American-born Eliot eventually became an Anglican, a very public form of choosing sides (the quoted sentence is so clumsy, I'm wondering if "Anglian" might be a typo). While no one would doubt the geographical rootedness of Eliot's later work, notably Four Quartets, his earlier work was international in style and scope. No one would call The Wasteland quintessentially English. Many see Eliot's life as the restless search for a satisfactory home, in terms of relationships, culture, spirituality and artistic style. He kept on choosing sides.

Despite his name, McEwan is resolute in his belief that the cultural stock of these islands shall not mix: "It struck me this is where poetry and football coalesce; Olympics apart, we've kept our football traditions separate, too". Not quite. The borders of football have tended to reflect the constraints of physical geography rather than culture or politics. For example, in 1872 Glasgow's Queens Park played in the first (English) FA Challenge Cup. The Scottish FA was subsequently formed to sponsor a separate competition largely because of the prohibitive travel costs. This same logistical imperative explains the regionalisation (North and South) of the English Third Division between 1921 and 1958, and the involvement of relatively accessible Welsh teams, such as Cardiff City and Swansea City, in the English leagues. McEwan confuses the anachronistic oddity of the "home nations" with football generally. Many British football fans happily put club before country because they don't identify with "Ingerlund", or are swayed by loyalty to family heritage (Irish, Scottish, Welsh etc). I don't think Ian is a footy fan himself.

Moving on to an area he knows something about, McEwan emphasises the specificity of great novels in time and space, quoting Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina as examples (though not the somewhat less specific War and Peace, which ranges over decades and huge areas). He even insists that James Joyce's Ulysses should be seen in this way: "what could be more local and provincial as it were and specific to a place and time than that, but it's the modernist bible, the central text". Saying that the book is about two blokes wandering around Dublin on the 16th of June, 1904, is monumentally missing the point. Joyce merely uses this solid grounding as the launchpad for a mental journey through time and space. Just as with Eliot, Joyce's writing life traces a clear trajectory. You may not find the ultimate destination congenial (Finnegans's Wake should be sampled sparingly), but the direction of travel is thrilling. In contrast, McEwan has proven a child of his time, a baby-boomer who published a genuinely arresting (even fantastic) collection of short stories and first novel in the late 70s (First Love, Last Rites and The Cement Garden), but then proceeded to carve a niche writing elegant novels about anguished middle-class Southerners.

McEwan's problem is not that he assumes his "parish" alone represents England, but that he doesn't recognise how others, like Salmond, can see Britishness as a component in a multi-layered identity. It is this lack of multiplicity that gives rise to the narrow perspectives of modern English "litfic" writers, in Mieville's estimation. Specificity looks like a search for depth among the shallows.

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