Sunday 1 November 2009

Enduring Love

Enduring Love by Ian McEwan was the Reading Group’s choice for November. This is now the fourth book by Ian McEwan that I have read and I have enjoyed them all. The previous ones were Atonement, Saturday and On Chesil Beach, his three most recent novels as it happens. Enduring Love is an earlier novel, published in 1997.

In some ways enjoy is not the right word to use about a McEwan book. Perhaps appreciate is a more appropriate word. You appreciate and at times marvel at the quality of his writing. This is certainly the case with Enduring Love. It is a beautifully written book. The story is both strange and banal. After witnessing a fatal accident, Joe Rose is obsessively stalked by one of the other witnesses to the fatality, Jed Parry. The novel, written in the first person, is Joe’s account of what happened and how he tries to deal with the consequences of this obsession.

This obsession is caused by a real medical condition - de Clerambault’s syndrome. This is form of paranoid delusion with an amorous quality. For no apparent reason a person comes to believe that a particular person is deeply in love with them. A lack of response is rationalized and pursuit and harassment may occur.

What gives the novel a pronounced eery feel to it is how Joe does retell and react to the events. Joe is a scientist who failed to make it as a scientist and is now a successful journalist. And his account both of the accident and the stalking are written almost as a scientific case study. There is a coldness and over emphasis on precision in his account of what happened. Here is an example from early in the novel, when Joe is going over with painstaking deliberation what he remembers happened.

A beginning is an artifice, and what recommends one over another is how much sense it makes of what follows. The cool touch of glass on skin and James Gadd’s cry - these synchronous moments fix a transition, a divergence from the expected: from the wine we didn’t taste (we drank it that night to numb ourselves) to the summons, from the delightful existence we shared and expected to continue, to the ordeal we were to endure in the time ahead.

This little extract is a very good illustration of the strength of McEwan’s writing. It is not just beginnings that are artifices. The whole writing itself is an artifice, and in McEwan’s hands he uses the beautify of the language to write about some pretty horrible and terrifying things. This short piece also brings in a neat reference to the title. In this tale, enduring love is an ordeal that one has to endure.

Joe’s response to this ordeal goes from the dismissive to the obsessional and in the process he almost wrecks his own happy relationship with his wife Clarissa. It is one of the ironies of the novel that it is a real loving relationship that suffers most while the delusional one endures, unaffected by reality. In a sense the whole novel is a fictional reflection on what is reality. It is a recurrent theme as Joe in particular painstakingly tries to recall what really happened and discovers that it is impossible to know what really happened.

As the novel develops, Joe’ s relationship with Clarissa breaks down and one or two side plots develop. These also are about discovering the truth or what passes for the truth. The novel builds to an unexpected and violent climax. In keeping with the detached tone of the writing the novel ends with two appendices. One is a fictional article from the British Review of Psychiatry on de Clerambault’s syndrome. This article includes as a case study the very story we have just read. And it is through these medical-scientific notes that we learn that Joe and Clarissa were reconciled. Perhaps real love can endure too.

As hinted at above, Enduring Love is not really an enjoyable book, though it is well worth reading for the quality of the writing.

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