On Chesil Beach: Life (and sex)

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan.

A relationship formalised when her stroking his penis elicits a marriage proposal from him ends on wedding night when her grasping his penis again makes him come all over her, sending her fleeing in revulsion first to the bathroom and then out of the hotel. She is frigid, Edward tells Florence, running after her. And when she tells him she loves him and that if he really wanted –- she doesn’t say what -– she would never be jealous as long as she knew he loved her, he spits out in cold fury: “You want me to go out with other women!…

“Do you realise how disgusting and ridiculous your idea is?”

Humiliated, Florence leaves the hotel the same night — and Edward doesn’t try to make up with her. Her parents set in motion a divorce on the grounds of non-consummation of marriage.

Unusual as it sounds, Ian McEwan brings this short novel to life with his exquisite prose, which verges on music and photography. He describes scenes and feelings vividly from the act of “self-pleasuring” — “a self-made spoonful, leaping clear of his body” — to the virgin Florence’s dread of any kind of physical intrusion. She does not like even French kissing, so when out of a sense of duty she starts foreplay with her newly-married husband, it ends in disaster. They have been engaged and fondled and kissed before, but they have never had sex.

Early Sixties

This is England in 1962, memorably described by Philip Larkin in the poem Annus Horribilis:

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

Edward adores his beautiful wife, and she loves him too -– but she is not prepared for this. She has other interests. As a trained classical musician, she is engrossed in her music and her career and has had girlfriends, not boyfriends, before.

McEwan portrays the differences in class and background between Edward and Florence. He is a schoolmaster’s son, a grammar school boy, she is a businessman’s daughter who has had all the privileges.

Starting with the dinner the newlyweds have before they retire to bed with disastrous consequences, the author tells the story flashing back and forth between the past and the present showing the differences between the couple. In the process one gets a picture of early 1960s England.

A day in the life

The story is set almost entirely in a single day, jumping 40 years to the noughties -– the present decade -– in the last pages.

Edward, now in his 60s, looks back on his life and misses Florence, who has become a famous violinist leading her own quartet.


He has changed since he was shocked by her suggestion that he could go out with other women. He absorbed the spirit of sexual liberation that came in the late 1960s, had affairs with other women and went through another short-lived marriage. But he feels his life would have been far more rewarding had he listened to Florence and stuck with her.

The last two pages of the novel, filled with Edward’s regrets, are a meditation on the choices we make and their consequences, success and failure. The story ends on an elegiac note in McEwan’s beautiful prose: 

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James Fenton on Paris

Poems can be sexy and fun. Like this poem by James Fenton. I first read James Fenton way back when in the New Statesman. But let’s get on with the poem.

In Paris With You
By James Fenton

Don’t talk to me of love. I’ve had an earful
And I get tearful when I’ve drowned a drink or two.
I’m one of your talking wounded
I’m a hostage. I’m maroonded.
But I’m in Paris with you.

Yes I’m angry at the way I’ve been bamboozled
And resentful at the mess that I’ve been through
I admit I’m on the rebound
And I don’t care where are we bound.
I’m in Paris with you.

Do you mind if we do not go to the Louvre,
If we say sod off to sodding Notre Dame,
If we skip the Champs Elysees
And remain here in this sleazy 
Old hotel room
Doing this and that
To what and whom
Learning who you are,
Learning what I am.

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The sweetest Indian love story

The English Teacher by RK Narayan reminds me of Erich Segal’s Love Story and the Bobby Goldsboro classic, Honey. One may even be reminded of David Copperfield and Dora. Narayan has been compared to Charles Dickens. But the relationship between the couple at the centre of this story is more profoundly moving.

I have not come across a more romantic English novel by an Indian author.

Set in Narayan's fictional town of Malgudi, the plot is simple.  A man teaching English in a college gets married, has a daughter and a few years later his wife dies of typhoid. The rest of the story, told by the man himself, is about his raising his daughter and holding on to his wife’s memories.

What makes it remarkable is the love that pours out of every page.

The man describes the beauty of his wife and the happiness they had known with an ardour and a lack of inhibition that's extraordinary for a book by an Indian author published in 1945.

 Narayan's own story

It's said to be Narayan's own story: his wife died of typhoid, leaving behind a little daughter, a few years after their marriage.

Indeed, Narayan dedicated the book to his wife, Rajam.

Narayan captures the ardour of the young couple. Krishna, the English teacher, virtually worships his wife, Susila, who is beautiful, charming, a perfect homemaker, and enjoys the attention of the man she loves. Outwardly though she defers to him, she has him completely under her thumb.

When he is sitting at his table, trying to write a poem, she comes up and says: “Let me see if you can write about me.”

She is simply adorable.

Here they are out on a walk. Krishna, the narrator, writes:

“I was highly elated. The fresh sun, morning light, the breeze, and my wife’s presence, who looked so lovely – even an unearthly loveliness – her tall form, dusky complexion, and the small diamond ear-rings – Jasmine, Jasmine…”I will call you Jasmine, hereafter,” I said. “I’ve long waited to tell you that…”

“Remember, we are in a public road, and don’t start any of your pranks here,” she warned, throwing at me a laughing glance. Her eyes always laughed – there was a perpetual smile in her eyes.”

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Short stories that add up to a novel

Tales from Firozsha Baag by Rohinton Mistry

Tales from Firozsha Baag is a charming collection of short stories – and unusual too. Published in 1987, Rohinton Mistry’s first book describes an India I remember all too well. An India where it took years to get a telephone, months to get a refrigerator. Now even slum dwellers have mobile phones and television sets.

But life was more laidback then. People once they found jobs could expect lifetime employment. Workers were seldom fired. Companies that went into the red were taken as “sick industries” by the government, which kept on the workers. That might have made the economy sluggish, the country poor – and the bright and ambitious emigrated in droves – but there was a stability, which seems enviable amidst the uncertainties unleashed by globalisation.

Mistry describes the lives of Parsis living in a rundown apartment complex in Bombay, now called Mumbai. They include clerks, salesmen, lawyers and a vet. Few own cars, residents use their neighbours’ phones and fridges. But they like their drinks, send their children to English medium schools, celebrate Christmas and New Year while at the same time maintaining their own Parsi traditions.

Each short story centres on the occupants of one apartment. One is about a Goan maid working for a Parsi family, another about a widow, a third about a lawyer.

Mistry describes their lives in intimate detail. He describes the interaction between neighbours, the escapades of their children who play in the compound, the interaction between the children and the adults.

The stories flow from one into another, documenting life in the apartment complex with the passing of years. A mischievous boy is sent off to a boarding school, a popular resident dies, his wife adjusts to widowhood, another boy goes to college, finds a girlfriend and then realises he is gay. Another boy becomes a social activist.

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Karl Marx goes manga

When Karl Marx alerted economists to the “the knell of capitalist private
property” he probably didn’t imagine the phrase cropping-up as a speech
bubble in a comic strip for Japanese commuters, says The Times.

But across the world’s second biggest economy, bookstores from Hiroshima to
Hokkaido are preparing for what they expect to be the publishing phenomenon
of the year: Das Kapital – the manga version.

The comic, which goes on sale early next month, plays into a growing
fascination among Japan’s hard-working labour force with socialist
literature and joins a collection of increasingly fierce literary critiques
of the global capitalist system.

The Telegraph adds: The appearance of the famous economic treatise in the form of a comic is the latest sign of a resurgence of leftwing literature in Japan as the world's second largest economy sinks into recession.

The rise of part-time workers and increasing erosion of financial security have fuelled a boom in Communist Party membership in Japan along with a fashionable revival of anti-capitalist literature.

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Marquez biographer talks about the author

Even those who have not read Gabriel Garcia Marquez will enjoy listening to The Strand, the BBC World Service arts and culture programme, where Gerald Martin tells Harriett Gilbert how he wrote Marquez's biography. The 1982 Nobel Prize winner for literature emerges as such a fascinating figure that one immediately wants to read him. The biography was supposed to appear in 1994 but has been published in Britain only recently and is yet to be released in America, where Martin teaches at the University of Pittsburgh. Click on the link to go to the page and then listen to the interview on your media player. It's almost half an hour long: You have been warned! But Martin has so much to say about Marquez, Latin America and the world that listeners will enjoy every minute of it.

Martin spent 17 years working on the biography, travelling around the world, meeting the peripatetic Marquez and his friends and acquaintances. He had to transcribe more than 300 interviews. But Marquez refused to be interviewed on tape. Martin could only chat with him over a cup of tea or a bottle of whisky and carry it all in his head to be written down later. What made the task more difficult is that Marquez is a born storyteller who likes to spin a yarn, so Martin would end up getting different accounts of the same incident. But Marquez is warm, generous and humorous, says Martin, and he had a wonderful time interviewing him.

Martin talks about Marquez's friendship with Fidel Castro, Salman Rushdie's debt to Marquez, and why Marquez is immensely popular in the Third World. One Hundred of Solitude is a global masterpiece that will be read for generations to come, he says, and adds that Love in the Time of Cholera was one of the most popular novels of the late 20th century.

Marquez is popular in the Third World because he writes about the effect of technical progress on developing societies, which can relate to his brand of magical realism, says Martin. He is right. Salman Rusdhie's Midnight's Children is perhaps the most successful example of magical realism in English fiction — and it is set in India.

It is a pleasure to listen to the interview because Martin is so knowledgeable and appreciative of Marquez. He started with the impression that Marquez was egoistic and narcissistic and ended up enjoying his company. Marquez is deeply intuitive and intuited what was going through his mind faster than he could get insights into the author,  says Martin.

Listen to the BBC interview and read the reviews of Martin's book, Gabriel Garcia Marquez: A Life, in The Times, the Telegraph and the Independent. The Telegraph review is especially fascinating with colourful details about Marquez. For example, on his honeymoon, he and his wife went to bed with three packets of cigarettes and an ashtray each and he told her the outline of what would become his greatest novel. 


Sublime writing — like a movie

Amit Chaudhuri is one of the best Indian writers in English today.
Salman Rushdie may be more flamboyant, but when it comes to describing
a scene, Chaudhuri is second to none. He can be as vivid as a
photograph or a video. The only reason he is not better known is his
short stories and novels are not ambitious in scope: they are more like
subtle miniatures than epics. But Chaudhuri, who teaches creative
writing at the University of East Anglia, has won several literary
awards. See Amit Chaudhuri  for more details. Praising him, the Guardian  said:

he writes about India, but not the Technicolor romps British readers
have come to expect since Midnight's Children. Mr Chaudhuri's work is
better, and more truthful, than that…

Here's an extract
from A Strange and Sublime Address, which won the Commonwealth Writers
Prize for Best First Book in 1991. It's set in Calcutta (Kolkata),
where Chaurdhuri was born. Here he is describing three little boys
looking out of a window and watching pigeons mating. They are too young
to know what the birds are up to. The details are fascinating. It's both poetic and funny.

the far side of the parapet, while the rest dreamed, two pigeons began
to kiss each other in a solemnly painful manner, beaks locked together,
heads moving up and down simultaneously as if they were trying to
release themselves from the mysterious lock. It was a strange kind of
passion; it was the only way birds could embrace, or come close to
embracing — locking their beaks in that funny, tortured way. Finally,
the male climbed on the female's back and proceeded to flap its wings
in an abstracted fashion. The female waited, bending its head in a
world-weary manner.

Continue reading “Sublime writing — like a movie”