First Love, Last Rites
Ian McEwan is an English writer with a Scottish name courtesy of his father, who was a Scotsman from a working-class background who went on to become an Army Major. McEwan was born in 1942 in that very English and very militaristic town, Aldershot, and he identifies very strongly as an English writer. Speaking to the then Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond, at the Edinburgh International Book festival in 2012, McEwan said: "I put it to you that there are no British poets, there are no British novelists. I have heard myself described as one, but I think really I'm an English novelist; there are Scottish poets and Scottish novelists." (Guardian) He was one of the most famous, and the first, of many well-known names who passed through the creative writing course at the University of East Anglia, and if McEwan's writing does turn away from the specifics of Englishness, it is towards Europe. The Comfort of Strangers was set in Venice, we have the Normandy Coast during WWII in Atonement, and there is the nod towards the Netherlands in the very title of Amsterdam.
Yet what is this Englishness McEwan talks about, how might we find it in the short story upon which we will focus, 'First Love, Last Rites', and does it fit into what is surely the central aspect of the story, a despondent decay? Set along the River Ouse, with a teenager and his girlfriend Sissel living in a flat four floors up from the Quayside, the narrator, with his girlfriend's father, gets involved in a scheme to make money: capturing eels from the river bed and taking them live down to London. The father is out of work, his marriage has failed, and he speaks to the narrator about various schemes. He also discusses how he used to be an international salesman and about colleagues who made money fraudulently and now had knighthoods. His remarks give texture to the sense of failure that permeates the story, but there is also a sense of disgust that the eels may exemplify. It is clear early on there isn't much money to be made out of the eel adventure: the fishermen tell the narrator that "there are eels down ...and you'll catch a few but you won't make a living on it. The tide'll lose your nets as fast as you make them." But they become part of a general image structure pushing towards a clammy disgust, a vivid vulgarity, a rank wretchedness.
The story opens at the beginning of summer but "by mid-July...there was a growing dishevelment and unease. The narrator and Sissel begin to make love less often and "our rubbish gathered around us, milk bottles we could not bring ourselves to carry away, grey sweating cheese, butter wrappers, yogurt cartons, overripe salami." Even when Sissel gets a job in a factory this doesn't much improve things: it just makes them a young couple appearing no more distinctive than anyone else; only more inclined to live in a midden. Their miserable existence made partly out of their own lethargy is matched by Sissel's job which offers a different type of despair. "For ten hours a day she was to sit in the roar of machines by a moving conveyor belt, talk to no one and pick out the rotten carrots before they were canned."
When we put together Sissel's father's disheartening, the flat's messiness and the factory's clamorous drudgery, we have a story that registers the state of England as England in a state. Though the year isn't named, we might assume this is a post-68, even post-Opec-crisis world where the age has lost its optimism, whether it is the teenagers with nothing much to live for (including the narrator's "anguished" friends), or the father with little to live off. McEwan may have been known for the weirdness of his early stories in his first two collections (First Love, Last Rites and In Between the Sheets) but the morbidity seems also to capture a moment in time when England wasn't so great. Whether it is incest as a teenager looks to lose his virginity with his ten-year-old sister in 'Homemade', or a solitary figure that persuades a young girl to join him at the canal and who after she touches his penis he throws in the river ('Butterflies'), there is a desire to shock. But it might be that McEwan wanted to exaggerate his case all the better to make a bigger one: to see how England in the seventies was a very different country from the England in which he was born. Clearly, murder, incest, filthy apartments and teenagers endlessly fornicating weren't elements unknown before the seventies, but there were limited means to express them aesthetically.
The permissive culture that the seventies was seen to be wasn't only allowing people to have free love but also allowing writers to express it. Just fifteen years before McEwan's publication, there was an important court case over whether Lady Chatterley's Lover constituted moral debasement or was a work of art. 'First Love, Last Rites' proposes it needn't be an either/or, and could be published in an age when that victory had been won. For this and numerous other reasons, England in the 70s was a great time for McEwan: "It was very easy not to have a job, to live the life of a full-time writer. I had a huge apartment in south London and it cost me 3 a week. The occasional review for the TLS, the occasional piece for Radio Times, and I could very easily pay my rent, buy a few books, make a weekly trip to the launderette." (Guardian) But it was also no less good because the sense of a society collapsing was great for his prose. When the interviewer says how could he be happy in a time when there was in London and elsewhere rubbish piling up, bodies left unburied and power strikes, McEwan replies: "I loved the idea of a city in chaos." (Guardian)
McEwan may say too that this was because "the crises didn't trouble me at all. I didn't own anything; I had no stake. I was restless, excited and a touch reckless" (Guardian). But it also suited his creative interests. In 'First Love, Last Rites', he shows the collapse on a microcosmic level, seeing it in the rancidity of butter, in the splattering of a rodent, in a stained coat smelling of machine oil. Near the end of the story, we aren't surprised when the characters come across a rat and indeed will smell a rat too, and in time the narrator manages to kill it. He doesn't do this with the aid of poison, which wouldn't leave much an impression as an image. He does it with a poker, standing over it, as McEwan says, like a cricketer with his bat, ready to take a swing. "With both hands I swung the poker down, caught it clean and whole smack under its belly, and it lifted clear off the ground...it dropped to the ground, legs in the air, split from end to end like a ripe fruit." McEwan then goes on to describe the smell ("like the smell of Sissel's monthly blood), observes Sissel's brother farting, and then shows Sissel parting the rat's stomach where she pushes back a translucent purple bag containing five "pale, crouching shapes, their knees drawn up against their chins."
If England is falling apart, then rather than show a broad, collapsing economy, a social world in decay, McEwan tries to find in extreme imagery manifestations of this malaise. McEwan's story may have been written before 1975, and the rubbish piling up in Leicester Square was during the Winter of Discontent in 1978-79, but if any decade has been squeezed into a set of images and assumptions it has probably been England in the 1970s. From unions holding the government to ransom, in common parlance, to three-day weeks because there wasn't enough power available to keep the lights on, the impression many people have of the decade is as a left-wing dystopia in need of Thatcherite reform to get the country moving again. It isn't our place to get into the politics of such an interpretation of the era but the facts reveal that both the Conservatives and Labour were in power during the period - and that the three-day week was under a Tory administration while the Winter of Discontent was under a Labour one.
A fiction writer needn't attend to the facts; their purpose is to reflect a mood, a permeating atmosphere in imagery that captures the times both broadly and specifically. Broadly, in feeling no need to be socio-politically precise, and specifically in the desire to find in a series of images a reflection of a time, a despondent, decaying one in this instance. A sense of an England dying. In a later novel Saturday, McEwan may have been very specific indeed but not necessarily more precise, and perhaps he was never going to be as good at capturing Blairite Britain (not quite English enough, maybe, with Blair and Brown both Scots, after all). He set the novel on the day millions marched against the Iraq war on February 15th, 2003, but it no more, and perhaps less imagistically, captures the mood than the short stories that are socio-politically vaguer, yet closer to understanding the zeitgeist in stories that sums up a country whose prior ostensible greatness now seems tawdry and corrupt. How can we forget here those knighthoods that Sissel's father was maybe not quite unscrupulous enough to bag?
In contrast, Saturday turns into a novel about a wealthy family whose beautiful house gets invaded by a couple of strangers. Not only potentially has the moment in time become too specific but plot becomes prominent as well. Critic James Wood has noted McEwan's interest in what the novelist calls "narrative hunger" and says, interestingly, that the sort of conventions McEwan uses in his later work remove something of the work's possible complexity: "One definition of a narrative convention might precisely be a secret that has finally confessed itself." (The Fun Stuff) There is no such secret as narrative mystery in 'First Love, Last Rites'. There is instead a pervading revulsion, one constantly alluding to a world disintegrating. But the story doesn't fall into categorical representation that allows us to say what is creating it, either on a personal or social level. If a fictional work too assertively presents a problem or too clearly reveals a set of facts, it is in danger of falling into the generic or the fashionable: it becomes a work of narrative convention that offers plot twists and clear denouements, or a work speaking to its time but which may not transcend it. Saturday offers those twists and that denouement; First Love, Last Rites escapes both problems.
This needn't mean the story is formless, as plot can often be only one way to give something shape externally rather than internally: it can give a work a more logical through-line rather than an imagistic consistency. McEwan in 'First Love, Last Rites' goes for the imagistic. He ends his story as he begins it: with a mattress. At the beginning, the narrator and Sissel lift it onto the heavy oak table so they can take advantage of the breeze by the window while they make love. At the end of the story, they do it again but now it is autumn as they decide to clean the place up and go for a long walk. The narrator puts the flat of his palm against her warm belly and we might think of the pregnant rat the narrator has only recently killed, and that Sissel too might be pregnant as McEwan has hinted at its likelihood throughout the story. Yet it remains part of the tale's image structure more than its story structure, a moment of ambiguous possible birth in dark times.
© Tony McKibbin