The Capital of Holland

Wooden shoesOne of the more noted contemporary British writers is Ian McEwan, winner of many awards. In 2001 he published Atonement, which has what I consider an unsatisfying trick ending, but plenty of people disagree with me, and it was made into an interesting-looking movie that won an Oscar. Three years before Atonement, McEwan published Amsterdam (McEwan is laconic with his titles). This novel was so highly acclaimed that it won a Man-Booker prize, one of the major literary prizes in Britain.

I’m going to talk about the novel Amsterdam, and if you want to read that, then don’t read this. Unless it doesn’t bother you to know the ending ahead of time. Personally, I hate knowing the ending before I read a novel; it rather ruins the book for me.

This is a dark novel, but not so much because of the subject matter. The plot leads up to a double murder at the end, but the killing is set up in such a way that it is not remotely believable, and the murders come off more as a kind of clever literary device. What makes this novel dark is something much more subtle, a kind of sour cynicism running through the book.

Let’s take an example from a paragraph on the third page, with the introduction of a character whose wife has died. “George, the sad, rich publisher who doted on her and whom, to everyone’s surprise, she had not left, though she always treated him badly.” (No, there is no verb with the subject, but that’s OK in context.) In this sentence we get the odd information that a man who we expect to be sad from the death of his wife is also rich. Inserting a reference to his wealth seems to add a bit of cynical irony. More overtly, we get the denigrating information that everyone thought his wife would leave him, though she did not. This implies how bad their relationship must have been, and to make the situation worse, she treated him badly. A few sentences later, the character is further described with greater negative clarity: “Her death had raised him from general contempt.” The sentence after that one ends with “a new dignity had narrowed his pleading, greedy eyes”.

To describe a man’s eyes as pleading or greedy due to “dignity” tells us little about the characters in a scene, but it tells us a good deal about the author’s attitude toward the characters. McEwan is not sympathetic toward a single character in the book, and the description of George is fairly typical of how characters are viewed. A harsh dyspeptic attitude is exhibited in broader ways as well, at the level of plot. Consider the first sentence of the book: “Two former lovers of Molly Lane stood waiting outside the crematorium chapel with their backs to the February chill.” In one sentence we have a tragic fact (a woman has died), a grim setting (a crematorium), and harsh weather. Though the tone varies through the book, it never really grows more jolly than this.

As plot elements in Amsterdam, we find a famous composer, Clive, trying to write a masterpiece, and he ignores a man assaulting a woman because the effort might interrupt his creative process. Clive is friends with Vernon (they are the two former lovers of Molly), who is a newspaper editor. Against the advice of almost everyone, Vernon decides to publish a photograph he has acquired, of a politician he hates who has dressed in women’s clothing.

The two main characters of the book are portrayed as weak, self-obsessed, vengeful, and petty. Normal humans, in some ways. What makes them not normal is that the emphasis in portraying them is entirely on the negatives, and they seem to have no positive qualities. Presenting the characters in this way is, for a talented writer, a deliberate literary choice.

As the sour darkness of the novel grows more dense, Clive writes a bad symphony, while Vernon is made to look like a fool and loses his job, tricked by the one person at the newspaper who he has taken as a confidante.

All of the plot thus described turns out to be simply build-up, however, to what is surely seen by many readers as a truly clever twist. I agree that it is clever. Clive and Vernon argue over whether Vernon should publish the photograph, and a disagreement that should have been easily managed by real friends, which the novel claims they are, quickly escalates into visceral hatred for one another. And thus the clever bit—they simultaneously manage to have one another “euthanized” (supposedly possible) while they are both in Amsterdam.

A review in the New York Times called this book “A dark tour de force”, the Boston Globe said that it has “dark comic brio” and the Chicago Tribune called it “Chilling and darkly brilliant”. At least we all agree that it is dark. Where I disagree with these newspapers, with the people who award the Man-Booker Prize, and no doubt with whoever is currently planning to make a movie of the book, is whether it is worth reading.

A clever killing was not enough for me.

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