Friday, June 20, 2008

There is grandeur in this view of life (Ian McEwan's "Saturday")



"Some hours before dawn Henry Perowne, a neurosurgeon, wakes to find himself already in motion, pushing back the covers from a sitting position, and then rising to his feet." (Opening sentence)
A couple of people have told me they didn't get excited about Saturday. But London (where the novel is set) is one of my favourite cities, and Ian McEwan is one of my favourite authors. I especially like the way he is able to pose moral questions - what does it mean to be human, what does it mean to be human towards others - within an explicitly secular frame of reference.

In Saturday, the main character Henry Perowne is preparing for a normal Saturday, squash game, grocery shopping, seeing his mother, and a visit home from his daughter, when his car scrapes along another car and he encounters Baxter. Through the remainder of the day he comes up against many questions. Most of them concern how we live in the West today, with the knowledge of scientific, medical advances, and a so-called war on terror. Our genotype has become "the modern variant of a soul." If we were to see a burning plane descending towards a city, one thought would inevitably spring to mind.

What does it mean to be a person in this world? I was struck by a couple of the thoughts that Henry Perowne had during the course of the Saturday. He has read a biography of Darwin and is "faintly depressed by the way a whole life could be contained by a few hundred pages - bottled, like homemade chutney." At another point he remembers clearing out his mother's house: "It took a day to dismantle Lily's existence [...] her life, all lives, seemed tenuous when he saw how quickly, with what ease, all the trappings, all the fine details of a lifetime could be packed and scattered, or junked." Although these thoughts were laced with sadness for Perowne, there is something very down to earth and true about them as well.

In this context, it is all the more noteworthy that Perowne knows, when he encounters Baxter, that it matters how he behaves towards him.

And without giving too much away, the book ends with an image of Henry Perowne kissing the nape of his wife's neck, and the scent and warmth of another body, and what it means, come to stand side by side with the bleaker thoughts. Which I like.

I noted down the phrase "There is grandeur in this way of life" because it seemed to capture some of the book's question as well - it is a phrase that repeats itself in Henry Perowne's early drowsiness on the Saturday morning, before everything starts to happen.

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