On a Darkling Planet: Ian McEwan's Saturday and the Condition of England

By Ross, Michael L. | Twentieth Century Literature, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

On a Darkling Planet: Ian McEwan's Saturday and the Condition of England


Ross, Michael L., Twentieth Century Literature


Although Ian McEwan's recent best seller Saturday maintains throughout a conspicuous air of up-to-the-minute internationalism, that impression turns out to be somewhat misleading. In fact, in its broad outlines the book adheres to a long-familiar insular paradigm: the Condition of England novel. Like the encompassing novel genre itself, this subgenre resists strict definition. However, the preeminent Victorian exemplars, like Disraeli's Sybil (1845), Gaskell's North and South (1855), and Dickens's Hard Times (1854), share certain distinguishing features: they focus on landmark movements in the society of their time, such as rampant industrialization and urbanization, and their action often involves weighty public events. Typically, these hinge on class conflicts: strikes or other types of friction between owners and their workforce. Whatever the authors' explicit political allegiances, their novels, broadly speaking, project a liberal vision, manifesting a compassionate concern with the lives not only of the most privileged but also of the most oppressed members of British society. While such Victorian exemplars may now seem dated, the template itself has been repeatedly pressed into service by writers of the ensuing century and a half, from Edwardians like E. M. Forster to moderns like Martin Amis, William Boyd, Zadie Smith, and, not least, Ian McEwan.

Saturday is not the first work by McEwan to have been identified as a Condition of England novel, (1) though it is the one that most strikingly fits the category. Concerning the shift in his imaginative gestalt that coincided with the writing of The Child in Time (1987), McEwan has said:

  From then on, I've never really been interested in anything other
  than trying to find connections between the public and the private,
  and exploring how the two are in conflict, how they sometimes reflect
  each other, how the political invades the private world.
  (qtd. in Louvel 10)

Such an exploration emerges vividly in Saturday, where the protagonist Henry Perowne's customary private composure is repeatedly tested by tremors from the public realm. While the book's action unfolds in an England that has long outlived the Industrial Revolution, it displays a number of elements linking it with its Victorian forebears. It focuses on an urban setting epitomizing contemporary English life, and it refers repeatedly to a public event of signal importance--the massive rally opposing war in Iraq. Perowne, though not a captain of industry, is an eminent neurosurgeon who heads a firm of medical associates. And as in its Victorian counterparts, the pivotal conflict in the novel pits members of the elite against a representative of the marginalized, the derelict Baxter. Obviously, however, McEwan's England is not the England of Dickens or Gaskell; the intervening years have drastically reconfigured the nation's socioeconomic map. My aims in what follows are to provide a perspective on what the Condition of England mode has become in McEwan's masterly hands and to assess what remains of the liberal vision that once inspired Saturday's illustrious predecessors.

As a writer whose earlier work has sometimes involved French, German, and Italian settings, Ian McEwan has an honest claim to the label cosmopolitan. Although geographically more confined, Saturday too displays a global reach. This is intimated early on by the book's epigraph, drawn from a well-known text by an American writer: Saul Bellow's Herzog. It runs, in part:

  Well, for instance, what it means to be a man. In a city. In a
  century. In transition. In a mass. Transformed by science. Under
  organized power. Subject to tremendous controls. In a condition
  caused by mechanization. After the late failure of radical hopes.

The reader infers that McEwan's narrative will respond to the global sweep of Bellow's survey; though its venue will be London rather than Herzog's New York, and its century not Herzog's twentieth but the dawning twenty-first, it too promises to deal with universal questions, above all "what it means to be a man. …

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