viernes, 10 de diciembre de 2010

First Love, Last Rites by Ian McEwan

Having read much of Ian McEwan’s later work in the last few years, I was intrigued to chance upon a copy of First Love, Last Rites, a set of his short stories published in 1975. I read The Cement Garden and The Comfort Of Strangers just after their publication, but I have not picked up any early McEwan since then. First Love, Last Rites proved to be an eye-opening read, not least because hindsight offers real clues as to how Ian McEwan has developed as a writer.

The stories in this set vary from Disguises which, at around 20,000 words, might even be a novella, to Cocker At The Theatre which is definitely a short story. What characterises all of these tales, however, is that they focus on characters whose behaviour or personal culture might be seen as towards the minority end of taste. I use the word minority to indicate that only a few people would admit to such proclivities, not that they might comprise only a small element of generality. It was this concentration on arguably the freakish that allowed the nickname Ian Macabre to stick.

In First Love, Last Rites, for instance, we have a touch of incest, sexual intercourse on stage, not a little child abuse seasoned with transvestism, an episode of boiling in oil, childhood games that grow prematurely adult, rats scratching at the skirts and more. I am reminded of the photographs of Diane Arbus from roughly the same period. It seemed that wherever she pointed her camera, no matter how potentially mundane the shot might appear, there would be evidence of sadomasochism, bestiality, paedophilia, even meat-eating.

It was this mix of what was understood as marginal mixed with the manifestly prosaic that caught the attention in the photographs and rendered them so disturbing. Viewing them reminded oneself of diverse aspects of humanity that – at least potentially – we all share and yet publicly try to deny. For the British, that might include all sex that cannot be advertised or sold. It certainly includes all the aspects of human behaviour listed above. I am not accusing all adults of paedophilia. I am suggesting that all of us have both privately and publicly appreciated the neat, taut beauty of a child’s body. The question, and it remains an interesting one, is where is the line between ‘normal’ appreciation of beauty and socially unacceptable ‘perversity’. I will never forget a trip around London’s National Gallery with a relative younger than myself, someone with little previous exposure to “art”. Her comment was that the paintings were pornographic, merely because they portrayed nudes.

All Ian McEwan’s characters straddle this question’s necessary confusion. Maybe their acts are merely imagined, leaving the individuals grappling with aspects of themselves they cannot understand, admit or control. Maybe they do what they say but, as a result of some inner drive that others do not share, cannot comprehend their own marginality. Whatever the case, these peoples’ psyches must continually grapple with a conflict between a truth of what they are versus an image of what they believe themselves to be. There’s a gap of communication wide enough to allow most experience to fall through.

And it is these gaps that Ian McEwan exploits. He presents people in situations that for them might seem completely mundane. For the rest of us, these are highly individual worlds that publicly we do not expect to see. But, like the images of Diane Arbus, we find we can enter into them because those aspects of humanity are within us as well, though often we don’t like to admit it.

Where Ian McEwan’s later work triumphs can now be seen more clearly. Whereas in the earlier work there was a need for a fundamental shift by the reader to admit a possible likeness with his characters, in his later work he presents the individual foibles of his characters in much more rounded, complex forms, forms that all of us can easily associate with. Then the contradictions emerge. Then the conflicts surface and then the gaps in communication widen. The approach is the same, but the effect is so much greater. First Love, Last Rites remains a brilliant read in its own right, but I reckon that for many readers of Ian McEwan a re-visit would shed much new light on his later work.

No hay comentarios: