Sunday, December 07, 2014

Black Dogs by Ian McEwan

Literary reputations usually rest upon a book or a series of books, with the writer's other works acting as a supporting cast, or, as powers decline, an echoing coda. When that writer is still very active, and popular, as Ian McEwan is, there's a difficulty in wrestling that reputation from its current status. I have long wanted to write a long piece on McEwan, at least partly because he has written books that I love, books that I think are incredibly weak, and books which have both his strengths and weaknesses on equal show.

Yet whereas Martin Amis will forever be judged against the high water mark of "Money" and "London Fields", McEwan's career is an interesting weave, with some disagreement as to what might be his "big book." The very short novels and short stories he published in the seventies brought him much acclaim, but it was the five more political novels of the eighties and early nineties from "Child in Time" culminating in his Booker Prize for "Amsterdam" that cemented his reputation. The third of these, 1992's "Black Dogs" was his second Booker short listing, and I remember at the time how highly regarded he already was.

Reading "Black Dogs" for the first time, two decades later, in some ways it seems a period piece, obsessive about the past, and written in a complex, convoluted "high" style that seems somewhat dated. Yet, it is also instructive: in that some of its tropes are reflected in later novels like his massive selling "Atonement" and "Saturday." The novel centres around a scene that is constantly telegraphed, but delayed until near the end, of a confrontation between two black dogs and a young pregnant woman in the aftermath of the second world war in rural France. The teller of the tale is the son-in-law of June, that woman, and his own prevarications and uncertainties tease the reader in the first exploratory pages of the book.

For Jeremy is a writer who, in making up for the death of his own parents in a car crash when young, has latched onto those of his wife as a project. With June in a nursing home, hovering slowly towards her end, he acts as an unecessary go between between June and Bernard, who have spent most of their life unable to live together, but never quite separating. Regular McEwan readers will know that broken families, estrangements and lost children are central to his work. Indeed, it sometimes seems as if his archetypes simply resurface from novel to novel - so that Bernard, a larger-than-life media-friendly Labour politician could be reincarnated as the elderly poet in "Saturday", or that Jeremy himself is the slightly naive onlooker who reappears in "Enduring Love".

The novel is a series of concentric rings that places the personal story around two momentous events - second world war at one end and the fall of the Berlin wall at the other. Like "Saturday", its alacrity - it came out in 1992, not long after the wall had fallen, becomes a way of using immediate history to the purpose of a grander narrative. If Amis always seems a writer who needs the overhang of larger historical events onto which to write his satires, McEwan goes the other way somewhat, amplifying personal tragedies by virtue of the wider canvas. Had I read "Black Dogs" in 1992 I would have baulked a little at the poshness of it all. However small and personal the narratives, McEwan's characters are usually supping near the top table. This sense of privilege is used here as a way of examining conflicting ideas of the world - can we change the world by social good deeds, such as the welfare state as Bernard believes? Or is it more about personal epiphanies, avoiding compromise as June does? They both begin as Communists, but June leaves the party almost as soon as she's joined, whilst Bernard rescinds his membership after the invasion of Hungary.

Yet there's not too much of this historical backdrop - or certainly McEwan doesn't overplay it. The sense from his work - at least up until "Atonement" - that he doesn't so much write novels as string together disparate scenes to make up a more credible tableau is very much the case with "Black Dogs." Why does Bernard insist that Jeremy takes him to Berlin just after the wall has fallen if not for the fact that McEwan couldn't resist writing a piece of drama-reportage there. The small contretemps that happens there is an absurdity: a piece of show theatre as a Turkish man waving a red flag is almost attacked by a group of young Germans with swastika tattoos, until Bernard's semi-intervention, and the appearance of a young woman who comes out of nowhere to embarass the attackers away. Such vignettes are McEwan's staple, and see his writing at its best, as a heightened sense of immediacy and drama comes into these moments.

If there is an overwhelming meme throughout his work its that sense of dread - and particularly the dread of the upper middle classes for something outside of their control. Like the house invasion in "Saturday" or the tragic accident that opens "Enduring Love", "Black Dogs" has at its heart a moment of potentially fatal violence. On their honeymoon, just after the war, June - newly pregnant - and Bernard get separated by a few hundred feet and in that  moment June becomes confronted by two large black dogs, who bear down on her whilst he's back down the path sketching caterpillars. He is the rationalist, and his hobby is entomology, she is the idealist, who is suddenly confronted with something real and deadly. This scene has been forewarned throughout the book, to some extent the delay has become infuriating, but the scene when it happens is done with his customary power. The sense of everything changing in a moment. Yet the tightrope walk of a McEwan novel is not one of actual despair - at least not for his middle class protagonists - but of existential crisis. By the time Bernard arrives on the scene the black dogs are gone, and its as if they are myth. Later that evening they hear that the black dogs were left by the Nazis, and there have been other sightings, other terrible stories. McEwan plays with this beautifully, so that even though we face the horrors, they are as potent if we believe in them as myth.

Yet to get to this point, we've some considerable scaffolding. My favourite of his novels, "The Innocent" is almost a companion piece - and indeed it came before "Black Dogs." But its style could not be more different. Its a noirish thriller, played very straight, half Graham Greene, half "Casablanca", about an engineer working on secret tunnels in Berlin just before the Berlin wall goes up. For a brief moment as Jeremy and Bernard peer over the Berlin wall we are looking into the space that his previous novel has examined. Yet quickly we go back in time - for June and Bernard are that early generation, survivors of history - that they, as young optimists are given the task of changing. In a typical McEwan moment, Jeremy gives us a flashback to when he meets his wife Jenny, and its after a tour of concentration camps that they make love for the first time. The sense that the political and the personal are intertwined, and that our our insecurities - our very English insecurities - can only be unlocked through grand trauma, remains a continued fascination within his work. In this sense, reading "Black Dogs" two decades on, it seems the quintessential McEwan book in some ways, yet overly conscious of itself. The conversations between different belief systems - the spiritual vs the political - seem fusty, as if ransacked from the minutes of some college debating society; and the contemporary world in which its set, the late 1980s, is almost glossed over as the novel concerns itself with the echoes of incomplete pasts.

In many ways its the kind of book nobody writes anymore - erudite, full of ideas, and earnest - and one kind of regrets that; yet I can also see why - and see how his own work has become more immediate, less indirect in telling a story. The Englishness that Bernard and June represent - even with a backdrop of continental Europe - seem lost somehow. In an age of savage cutbacks, technocrats and market-led capitalism, their kind of Bloomsbury-socialism, is long gone. Its an appealingly literary novel that feels fusty for something written by a living writer just two decades ago, and it makes me wonder where we'll place McEwan when all's said and done, whether one or more of his books will last beyond the contemporary.

4 comments:

Kuba said...

The term 'Polish concentration camp' is offensive and incorrect. The German Nazis established the 'camps' on occupied Polish soil. The camps were not Polish as implied by the comment. Please correct the error.

Yvonne Kowalczewski said...

Another piece of fiction is the term "Polish concentration camp." Even the Association of German Historians has condemned the use of this history-distorting terminology. Please follow suit and change it to show the truth: German concentration camps.

Adrian Slatcher said...

I have changed it. Thanks for pointing that out.

Yvonne Kowalczewski said...

Thank you for taking our concerns into account.