Once upon a time… I knew a girl who would buy at the supermarket, together with the usual things one buys in a supermarket, a new small volume of the so-called “bouquet series”. She considered this to be a weakness or perhaps a “compulsion” (a rather innocent compulsion, perhaps similar to the compulsion of Lucia de Berk to spread Tarot cards). These small volumes could be classified into several categories; for example there were the “castle novels” (I realize that the word “novel” might be a bit heavy in this context, but it’ll have to do for the moment) and “doctor novels”. On the first page of novels of the latter type a successful good-looking (usually male) doctor would be introduced and some kind of romance would start to develop with a nurse or female colleague (I recently learned that the French equivalent for a novel in the Dutch bouquet series is a “roman de quai de gare” or “roman à l’eau de rose”).
I was reminded of this when reading the first line of Ian McEwan’s book “Saturday”, recommended by the Observer as “Dazzling… profound and urgent”:
“Some hours before dawn Henry Perowne, a neurosurgeon,…”
Let’s compare this with the first sentence of “The catcher in the rye” by J.D. Salinger:
“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”
If we believe that the first page of a book “sets the tone”, it is clear that the first page of Ian McEwan’s book “Saturday” sets a rather different tone than the first page of Salinger’s catcher in the rye. And indeed, after the introduction of the neurosurgeon Henry Perowne, we get some information on the really nice house he is living in, we get to know his wife Rosalind who is a highly successful lawyer (“She’s due in the High Court at ten for an emergency hearing”, p. 24) and his son Theo.
Ouch! His son Theo didn’t do to too well at school and won’t read books! But not to worry: Theo is a highly successful blues musician! Moreover, to compensate for the illiteracy of Theo, there is his sister Daisy (both “sensuous” and “intellectual”!): “His little girl, slipping away from him into Parisien womanhood, is expecting her first volume of poems to be published in May.” (p. 49).
Moreover, in a shrewd combination of the doctor novel and the castle novel, there is granddad -what’s in a name- Grammaticus in his castle (“chateau”) in France, inherited from the parents of his wife. Yes, we almost have to say aloud, following Henry Perowne on p. 55: “There is grandeur in this view of life.”!
After all this one is almost craving for the first loser to enter the scene. And, be assured… there will be such person! This character, named Baxter, certainly is as “loserish” and “havenottish” (to coin two new words) as can be. But one feels that in reality his main function there is to demonstrate the superiority of the family Perowne (+ granddad Grammaticus, owner of the French castle and father of Henry’s wife). In the decisive scene of the novel, daughter/poet Daisy reads a poem to Baxter, just when he is on the verge of afflicting the family physical harm or worse. This, however, after -as a special treat to the bouquet series readers- Daisy had to undress herself (which reveals that she is pregnant) in front of her parents (“Perowne hasn’t seen his daughter naked in more than twelve years”), granddad Grammaticus, her brother Theo, Baxter and his second man Nigel, as requested by bad, bad, but, at the same time, miserable Baxter.
Then Baxter falls to the spell of the poem and everything ends well. “End well, all well”, as fairy tales often end (in Dutch), although we have to admit that Baxter’s end will not fall into this category.
Now, just to know whether this bouquet series thing was a systematic feature of McEwan’s writing, I also read his most recent novel “On Chesil Beach”. And yes, it seems to be systematic… Another time I might say more about this last novel and discuss my views on general laws of composition with it. I guess I would also have to read the novel for which he got the Booker prize, called “Amsterdam”, although I am not particularly looking forward to that.
But I want to touch now on a more general issue, which concerns development of style during the past century. One reads McEwan’s novels and it seems that, for example, Salinger has not been there. And all these French authors of the past century, Nathalie Sarraute, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Robert Pinget, Raymond Queneau, to name just four. Long ago Paul Valéry said something like: “I will never be able to write a novel, because I never could write: “Countess X opened the door for count Y and said….” (I have to warn you that I am trying to reproduce the gist of what he was saying, and this is certainly not a literal citation!). Exactly for that reason, I believe, Nathalie Sarraute has people without names or (specified) occupations in a lot of her books. We just fall into the middle of a conversation (as in “Martereau”, “Les fruits d’or” or the great play “Pour un oui ou pour un non”). But, in spite of this lack of information, we know immediately what is going on.
And with respect to the question whether one should have “winners” or “losers” as main characters of a novel: of course these categories do not really mean very much, although they are popular themes in American movies. But just to stick to Salinger’s book: it has advantages to introduce as a main character someone who is not too successful. Why? Because it frees the mind for things that really matter! The “I” of “The catcher in the rye” (called “Holden Caulfield”) has been kicked out of school, doesn’t do well in any subject, except perhaps English, but certainly has the “power of observation” (which is of course the author’s power of observation). I’ll just cite a whole passage here to illustrate my point.
“It wasn’t as cold as the day before, but the sun still wasn’t out, and it wasn’t too nice for walking. But there was one nice thing. This family that you could tell just came out of some church were walking right in front of me – a father, a mother, and a little kid about six years old. They looked sort of poor. The father had one of these pearl-gray hats that poor guys wear a lot when they want to look sharp. He and his wife were just walking along, talking, not paying attention to their kid. The kid was swell. He was walking in the street, instead of on the sidewalk, but right next to the curb. He was making out like he was walking a very straight line, the way kids do, and the whole time he kept singing and humming. I got up closer so I could hear what he was singing. He was singing that song, ‘if a body catch a body coming through the rye.’ He had a pretty little voice too. He was just singing for the hell of it, you could tell. The cars zoomed by, brakes screeched all over the place, his parents paid no attention to him, and he kept walking next to the curb and singing ‘If a body catch a body coming through the rye.’ It made me feel better. It made me feel not so depressed any more.”
Salinger also has a striking description of how he might want to express his appreciation or lack of it to an author of the book he just read. I’ll quote some relevant passages here. “What I like best is a book that’s at least funny once in a while”. How does this apply to “Saturday” and “On Chesil Beach”? Mmm… These books might be “Dazzling… profound and urgent”, to quote the Observer again, but “funny once in a while” is not the first thing that comes to mind. A friend of mine has the theory that it is McEwan’s intention to make a caricature and that, in “Saturday”, he wants to illustrate the “emptiness” of the life of middle-upper class families, living in London. An interesting theory (in which I personally do not believe)! If this really were his intention, then the book should be “at least funny once in a while”.
Holden Caulfield continues to say in “The catcher in the rye”: “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn’t happen much, though.”…