Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me)
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.
Philip Larkin’s lines from Annus Mirablis have a particular resonance for Ian McEwan’s short novel ‘On Chesil Beach’.
The year, crucially, is 1962 before the sixties began to swing and too early to resolve the predicament of Edward and Florence as the novel opens:
“They were young, educated, and both virgins on this their wedding night and they lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible“.
With his usual meticulous prose McEwan explores the consequences of their situation. He uses words in a manner which matches, what he refers to as the “forensic objectivity” of Florence’s language. The difficulty of finding the right words to describe the sexual act is crucial to understanding Florence’s fear, bordering on revulsion towards physical intimacy as the couple proceed towards consummating the marriage. She loathes the way intercourse is described in marriage guidance books as a process whereby the engorged penis enters or penetrates her body.
This does not mean that she is a woman without passion, only that her desires are both “precise and alien” and find expression in her practice as a brilliant young violinist. There’s a marvellous scene in which Edward is watching her practice where her sighs and lingering on notes are rendered by McEwan in unmistakably sexual terms.
On the fateful wedding night Edward is full of lust yet fears displaying this too forcefully and has to hold back his urge to “slap her out of her straight backed music stand poise“. Ultimately the lack of a shared language to discuss either music or sex has devastating consequences. As in Atonement, the hint of a class divide adds to the gulf in communication.
Bizarrely, passages from this book were nominated in the longlist for 2007’s Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction Award. This is wholly unmerited since it fails to recognise that what McEwan does in this novella is not to write badly about good sex , but to write supremely well about bad sex.
The achingly moving final pages of this superb novel reduced me to tears and confirmed for me that there is no living British writer who comes close to McEwan.