A small tale of literary spite

One of the (shamefully few) novels I read last year was Ian McEwen’s Saturday. It’s about a day in the life of Henry Perowne, a successful, London-based neurosurgeon whose life is briefly threatened by a brush with the violent underworld of his chosen city.

I read it on holiday, in more or less a single sitting (one night when I had trouble sleeping), and thought it excellent. I had bought it on the recommendation of a philosopher friend, who has good taste in fiction. In an email exchange about the book, he wrote:

In class, I happened to be discussing Epicurus, a Greek philosopher, when I read the McEwan book. Epicurus’ ethics is basically very simple:

1. the most important thing that keeps us from living a good life is fear;
2. the best antidote against fear is knowledge.

So to live a good life, the first thing we have to do is to learn about the world. For example, we are afraid of the thunder, but when we know what a thunderstorm is (Epicurus suggests an explanation – he was one of the atomists) we lose that fear; we are afraid of death, but when we understand what death is…, etc.

I think McEwan’s Saturday basically articulates a modern version of Epicurean ethics. The science is not Epicurus’ atomistic physics, but neuroscience. The fear is provoked not by thunder, but by an airplane in trouble at night, by an intruder (with a neurological disorder), the neurologist knows what the disorder is, etc.

Which seems to me to be spot on. In the first encounter with the violent thug Baxter, for example, Perowne is saved from a serious beating because he recognises that the thug is displaying symptoms of a serious degenerative disease — Huntington’s chorea — and fraudulently raises the possibility that he might be able to help his assailant.

The novel has a somewhat pat ending with the hero living happily ever after and the baddie in even more trouble than he was before, but up to then I had found it an intriguing read.

What took me aback was the vehemence of people’s responses to the book. Whenever I mentioned it to friends, the reactions were very sharply polarised. People either admired the novel, or loathed it. There seemed to be no middle ground. And when they loathed it, it was with a special kind of intensity, the product (I inferred) or moral disapproval. They thought that the book reeked of complacency, ostentatiousness and self-indulgence of a particularly despicable kind.

Many critics mentioned a savage review of the book by John Banville in the New York Review of Books. I’m an NYRB subscriber, but I couldn’t find the issue in which the review appeared (May 26, 2005) in the chaos of my study. And, annoyingly, the review was not available online at the NYRB website. I made a resolution to dig it out in the University Library one day, but you know what these resolutions are like…

This morning, however, I began to sort out some of the chaos in my room and came on the missing issue, hidden in some papers I had taken with me on holiday. So I sat down and read Banville’s review. It is indeed very critical. Saturday, he writes,

is a dismayingly bad book. The numerous set pieces — brain operations, the squash game, the encounters with Baxter, etc. — are hinged together with the subtlety of a child’s Erector Set. The characters too, for all the nuzzling and cuddling and punching and manhandling in which they are made to indulge, drift in their separate spheres, together but never touching, like the dim stars of a lost galaxy. The politics of the book is [sic] banal, of the sort that is to be heard at any middle-class Saturday-night dinner party before the talk moves on to property prices and recipes for fish stew…

Miaow! Lots more in the same vein.

It’s a very hostile review. So what? Isn’t this what highbrow magazines are for? Well, yes. But there is a nice twist to this case. Shortly after the review was published, Banville and McEwen were both shortlisted for the 2005 Man Booker Prize — and Banville’s novel, The Sea was declared the winner the following month. I’m sure the eminent judges were not, er, swayed in any way by his savaging of McEwen. But it does show what a snake-pit the literary life can be.