Ian McEwan’s “Enduring Love”: Literature Making a Comeback?

The great French (or Italian, if you believe his gravestone.  To make a long story short, he fell madly in love with a Milanese woman, who never said “yes”) novelist, Stendhal, had his own definitions of romanticism and classicism.  As he wrote in his Racine and Shakespeare,

Romanticism is the art of presenting to different peoples those literary works which, in the existing state of their habits and beliefs, are capable of giving them the greatest possible pleasure.

Classicism, on the contrary, presents to them that literature which gave the greatest pleasure to their great-grandfathers.

His definition of culture was equally idiosyncratic.  For him, genuine culture, whether music, art, poetry or prose, was a reflection of some aspect of the here and now.  It was a reflection of the artist’s observation and experience of his own world.  Classicists might entertain by resurrecting the cultural artifacts of bygone times, but, at least according to Stendhal, they were not creating culture in the process.  Neither were artists like Sir Walter Scott, whose work represented for Stendhal a daydream about the past rather than a reflection of the present.  In The Charterhouse of Parma, for example, the stifling reactionaries in post-Napoleonic Italy who were responsible for educating his hero, Fabrice, would allow him to read only the Bible, one or two official newspapers, and the works of Sir Walter Scott.

While I am not particularly enamored about the idea of attempting to return to bygone times, I am not particularly happy with the present, either.  As a result, I have found little in what Stendhal would have considered the genuine culture of our time that I enjoy or appreciate.  In general, some random poem from a dog-eared magazine of the 20’s or 30’s is more likely to bring a smile to my face than any of the contemporary stuff I’ve read for the last year or two.  The same goes for serious fiction.

However, I keep searching.  In fact, I just finished a book by a contemporary novelist that I actually liked.  It’s Enduring Love, by Ian McEwan.  I’ll even go so far as to say that I agree with some of the reviewer’s comments on the cover.  For example, from The New York Review of Books, “[McEwan] is the quietest and most lucid of stylists, with never a word wasted or fumbled.”  That’s no exaggeration.  I found myself constantly smiling (and feeling envious) over McEwan’s skill in the use of words.  However, I didn’t really connect with the characters or plot.  McEwan is a screenwriter as well as a novelist, and I probably would have liked the story better in a movie rather than a serious novel.  The “enduring love” referred to is actually a rare, psychotic malady know as de Clerambault’s Syndrome, and things happen that are possible, but are nothing that an average human is likely to experience in the course of a lifetime.  I don’t doubt that the characters are accurate representations of people McEwan has run across, but they are alien to me.  I prefer characters in my novels that I can recognize immediately.  Stendhal may have written a long time ago, but I stumble across many of them in his work, and I actually turn up myself occasionally.  No doubt that’s why Nietzsche spoke of him as “the last great psychologist.”

However, there are some brilliant insights and uncanny reflections of the present in Enduring Love. For example, my jaw dropped when I read things like,

 And what, in fact, were the typical products of the twentieth-century scientific or pseudo-scientific mind?  Anthropology, psychoanalysis-fabulation run riot.  Using the highesst methods of storytelling and all the arts of priesthood, Freud had staked his claim on the veracity, though not the falsifiability of science.  And what of those behaviorists and sociologist of the 1920’s?  It was as though an army of white-coated Balzacs had stormed the university departments and labs. (Italics mine)


 I had set aside this day to start on a long piece about the smile.  A whole issue of an American science magazine was to be dedicated to what the editor was calling an intellectual revolution.  Biologists and evolutionary psychologists were reshaping the social sciences.  The postwar consensus, the standard social-science model, was falling apart, and human nature was up for reexamination.

Hows that for an example of Stendhal’s genuine culture as a reflection of contemporary reality?  Great shades of Arrowsmith!  I found myself scratching my head and wondering how many readers of a novel with a title like Enduring Love would have so much as an inkling of what the writer was talking about.  You really have to have some serious insight into what’s been going on in the behavioral sciences to write things like that.

How about this one:

 We (the two main characters) were having one of our late-night kitchen table sessions.  I told her I thought she had spent too much time lately in the company of John Keats.  A genius, no doubt, but an obscurantist, too, who had thought science was robbing the world of wonder when the opposite was the case.

I couldn’t agree more.  And last but not least, there’s this, about the metamorphosis of literature from the 19th to now:

Most educated people read contemporary novels.  Storytelling was deep in the 19th century soul. Then two things happened.  Science became more difficult, and it became professionalized.  It moved into the universities; parsonical narratives gave way to hard-edged theories that could survive intact without experimental support and that had their own formal aesthetic. At the same time, in literature and in other arts, a newfangled modernism celebrated formal, structural qualities, inner coherence, and self-reference.  A priesthood guarded the temples of this difficult art against the trespasses of the common man.

Sounds plausible to me.  Maybe that’s why contemporary literature and poetry seem so foreign to me.  We could use another guy who has the nerve to pull down the temples.  Meanwhile, it appears the book has been made into a film.  I’ll have to check it out.

Stendhal Gravestone

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

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