On a chilly February day, two old friends meet in the throng outside a London crematorium to pay their last respects to Molly Lane. Both Clive Linley and Vernon Halliday had been Molly's lovers in the days before they reached their current eminence: Clive is Britain's most successful modern composer, and Vernon is a newspaper editor. Gorgeous, feisty Molly had other lovers, too, notably Julian Garmony, Foreign Secretary, a notorious right-winger tipped to be the next prime minister. In the days that follow Molly's funeral, Clive and Vernon will make a pact with consequences that neither could have foreseen…
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Edition description:||First Anchor Books Edition|
|Product dimensions:||5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.50(d)|
About the Author
Date of Birth:June 21, 1948
Place of Birth:Aldershot, England
Education:B.A., University of Sussex, 1970; M.A., University of East Anglia, 1971
Read an Excerpt
Two former lovers of Molly Lane stood waiting outside the crematorium chapel with their backs to the February chill. It had all been said before, but they said it again.
"She never knew what hit her." "When she did it was too late." "Rapid onset." "Poor Molly." "Mmm."
Poor Molly. It began with a tingling in her arm as she raised it outside the Dorchester Grill to stop a cab--a sensation that never went away. Within weeks she was fumbling for the names of things. Parliament, chemistry, propeller she could forgive herself, but less so bed, cream, mirror. It was after the temporary disappearance of acanthus and bresaiola that she sought medical advice, expecting reassurance. Instead, she was sent for tests and, in a sense, never returned. How quickly feisty Molly became the sickroom prisoner of her morose, possessive husband, George. Molly, restaurant critic, gorgeous wit, and photographer, the daring gardener, who had been loved by the foreign secretary and could still turn a perfect cartwheel at the age of forty-six. The speed of her descent into madness and pain became a matter of common gossip: the loss of control of bodily function and with it all sense of humor, and then the tailing off into vagueness interspersed with episodes of ineffectual violence and muffled shrieking.
It was the sight now of George emerging from the chapel that caused Molly's lovers to move off farther up the weedy gravel path. They wandered into an arrangement of oval rose beds marked by a sign, THE GARDEN OF REMEMBRANCE. Each plant had been savagely cut back to within a few inches of the frozen ground, a practice Molly used to deplore. The patch of lawn was strewn with flattened cigarette butts, for this was a place where people came to stand about and wait for the funeral party ahead of theirs to clear the building. As they strolled up and down, the two old friends resumed the conversation they had had in various forms a half-dozen times before but that gave them rather more comfort than singing "Pilgrim."
Clive Linley had known Molly first, back when they were students in '68 and lived together in a chaotic, shifting household in the Vale of Health.
"A terrible way to go."
He watched his own vaporized breath float off into the gray air. The temperature in central London was said to be twelve degrees today. Twelve. There was something seriously wrong with the world for which neither God nor his absence could be blamed. Man's first disobedience, the Fall, a falling figure, an oboe, nine notes, ten notes. Clive had the gift of perfect pitch and heard them descending from the G. There was no need to write them down.
He continued, "I mean, to die that way, with no awareness, like an animal. To be reduced, humiliated, before she could make arrangements, or even say goodbye. It crept up on her, and then . . ."
He shrugged. They came to the end of the trampled lawn, turned, and walked back.
"She would have killed herself rather than end up like that," Vernon Halliday said. He had lived with her for a year in Paris in '74, when he had his first job with Reuters and Molly did something or other for Vogue.
"Brain-dead and in George's clutches," Clive said.
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. They looked now to where he stood outside the door, receiving commiseration from a group of mourners. Her death had raised him from general contempt. He appeared to have grown an inch or two, his back had straightened, his voice had deepened, a new dignity had narrowed his pleading, greedy eyes. Refusing to consign her to a home, he had cared for her with his own hands. More to the point, in the early days, when people still wanted to see her, he vetted her visitors. Clive and Vernon were strictly rationed because they were considered to make her excitable and, afterward, depressed about her condition. Another key male, the foreign secretary, was also unwelcome. People began to mutter; there were muted references in a couple of gossip columns. And then it no longer mattered, because the word was she was horribly not herself; people didn't want to go and see her and were glad that George was there to prevent them. Clive and Vernon, however, continued to enjoy loathing him.
As they turned about again, the phone in Vernon's pocket rang. He excused himself and stepped aside, leaving his friend to proceed alone. Clive drew his overcoat about him and slowed his pace. There must be over two hundred in the black-suited crowd outside the crematorium now. Soon it would seem rude not to go over and say something to George. He got her finally, when she couldn't recognize her own face in the mirror. He could do nothing about her affairs, but in the end she was entirely his. Clive was losing the sensation in his feet, and as he stamped them the rhythm gave him back the ten-note falling figure, ritardando, a cor anglais, and rising softly against it, contrapuntally, cellos in mirror image. Her face in it. The end. All he wanted now was the warmth, the silence of his studio, the piano, the unfinished score, and to reach the end. He heard Vernon say in parting, "Fine. Rewrite the standfirst and run it on page four. I'll be there in a couple of hours." Then he said to Clive, "Bloody Israelis. We ought to wander over."
"I suppose so."
But instead they took another turn about the lawn, for they were there, after all, to bury Molly.
With a visible effort of concentration, Vernon resisted the anxieties of his office. "She was a lovely girl. Remember the snooker table?"
In 1978 a group of friends rented a large house in Scotland for Christmas. Molly and the man she was going about with at the time, a QC named Brady, staged an Adam and Eve tableau on a disused snooker table, he in his Y-fronts, she in bra and panties, a cue rest for a snake and a red ball for an apple. The story handed down, however, the one that had appeared in an obituary and was remembered that way even by some who were present, was that Molly "danced naked on Christmas Eve on a snooker table in a Scottish castle."
"A lovely girl," Clive repeated.
She had looked right at him when she pretended to bite the apple, and smiled raunchily through her chomping, with one hand on a jutting hip, like a music hall parody of a tart. He thought it was a signal, the way she held his gaze, and sure enough, they were back together that April. She moved into the studio in South Kensington and stayed through the summer. This was about the time her restaurant column was taking off, when she went on television to denounce the Michelin guide as the "kitsch of cuisine." It was also the time of his own first break, the Orchestral Variations at the Festival Hall. Second time round. She probably hadn't changed, but he had. Ten years on, he'd learned enough to let her teach him something. He'd always been of the hammer-and-tongs school. She taught him sexual stealth, the occasional necessity of stillness. Lie still, like this, look at me, really look at me. We're a time bomb. He was almost thirty, by today's standards a late developer. When she found a place of her own and packed her bags, he asked her to marry him. She kissed him, and quoted in his ear, He married a woman to stop her getting away/Now she's there all day. She was right, for when she went he was happier than ever to be alone and wrote the Three Autumn Songs in less than a month.
"Did you ever learn anything from her?" Clive asked suddenly.
In the mid-eighties Vernon too had had a second bite, on holiday on an estate in Umbria. Then he was Rome correspondent for the paper he now edited, and a married man.
"I can never remember sex," he said after a pause.
"I'm sure it was brilliant. But I do remember her teaching me all about porcini, picking them, cooking them."
Clive assumed this was an evasion and decided against any confidences of his own. He looked toward the chapel entrance. They would have to go across. He surprised himself by saying rather savagely, "You know, I should have married her. When she started to go under, I would have killed her with a pillow or something and saved her from everyone's pity."
Vernon was laughing as he steered his friend away from the Garden of Remembrance. "Easily said. I can just see you writing exercise yard anthems for the cons, like what's-her-name, the suffragette."
"Ethel Smyth. I'd do a damn better job than she did."
The friends of Molly who made up the funeral gathering would have preferred not to be at a crematorium, but George had made it clear there was to be no memorial service. He didn't want to hear these three former lovers publicly comparing notes from the pulpits of St. Martin's or St. James's, or exchanging glances while he made his own speech. As Clive and Vernon approached they heard the familiar gabble of a cocktail party. No champagne trays, no restaurant walls to throw back the sound, but otherwise one might have been at one more gallery opening, one more media launch. So many faces Clive had never seen by daylight, and looking terrible, like cadavers jerked upright to welcome the newly dead. Invigorated by this jolt of misanthropy, he moved sleekly through the din, ignored his name when it was called, withdrew his elbow when it was plucked, and kept on going toward where George stood talking to two women and a shriveled old fellow with a fedora and cane.
"It's too cold, we have to go," Clive heard a voice cry out, but for the moment no one could escape the centripetal power of a social event. He had already lost Vernon, who had been pulled away by the owner of a television channel.
At last Clive was gripping George's hand in a reasonable display of sincerity. "It was a wonderful service."
"It was very kind of you to come."
Her death had ennobled him. The quiet gravity really wasn't his style at all, which had always been both needy and dour; anxious to be liked, but incapable of taking friendliness for granted. A burden of the hugely rich.
"And do excuse me," he added, "these are the Finch sisters, Vera and Mini, who knew Molly from her Boston days. Clive Linley."
They shook hands.
"You're the composer?" Vera or Mini asked.
"It's a great honor, Mr. Linley. My eleven-year-old granddaughter studied your sonatina for her final exam in violin and really loved it."
"That's very nice to know."
The thought of children playing his music made him feel faintly depressed.
"And this," George said, "also from the States, is Hart Pullman."
"Hart Pullman. At last. Do you remember I set your Rage poems for jazz orchestra?"
Pullman was the Beat poet, the last survivor of the Kerouac generation. He was a withered little lizard of a man who was having trouble twisting his neck to look up at Clive. "These days I don't remember a thing, not a fucking thing," he said pleasantly in a high-pitched, chirpy voice. "But if you said you did it, you did it."
"You remember Molly, though," Clive said.
"Who?" Pullman kept a straight face for two seconds, then cackled and clutched at Clive's forearm with slender white fingers. "Oh sure," he said in his Bugs Bunny voice. "Molly and me go way back to '65 in the East Village. I remember Molly. Oh boy!"
Clive concealed his disquiet as he did the sums. She would have turned sixteen in the June of that year. Why had she never mentioned it? He probed neutrally.
"She came out for the summer, I suppose."
"Uh-uh. She came to my Twelfth Night party. What a girl, eh, George?"
Statutory rape, then. Three years before him. She never told him about Hart Pullman. And didn't she come to the premier of Rage? Didn't she come to the restaurant afterward? He couldn't remember. Not a fucking thing.
George had turned his back to talk to the American sisters. Deciding there was nothing to lose, Clive cupped his hand about his mouth and leaned down to speak in Pullman's ear.
"You never fucked her, you lying reptile. She wouldn't have stooped to it."
It wasn't his intention to walk away at this point, for he wanted to hear Pullman's reply, but just then two loud groups cut in from left and right, one to pay respects to George, the other to honor the poet, and in a swirl of repositioning Clive found himself freed and walking away. Hart Pullman and the teenage Molly. Sickened, he pushed his way back through the crowd and arrived in a small clearing and stood there, mercifully ignored, looking around at the friends and acquaintances absorbed in conversation. He felt himself to be the only one who really missed Molly. Perhaps if he'd married her he would have been worse than George, and wouldn't even have tolerated this gathering. Nor her helplessness. Tipping from the little squarish brown plastic bottle thirty sleeping pills into his palm. The pestle and mortar, a tumbler of scotch. Three tablespoons of yellow-white sludge. She looked at him when she took it, as if she knew. With his left hand he cupped her chin to catch the spill. He held her while she slept, and then all through the night.
Nobody else was missing her. He looked around at his fellow mourners now, many of them his own age, Molly's age, to within a year or two. How prosperous, how influential, how they had flourished under a government they had despised for almost seventeen years. Talking 'bout my generation. Such energy, such luck. Nurtured in the postwar settlement with the state's own milk and juice, and then sustained by their parents' tentative, innocent prosperity, to come of age in full employment, new universities, bright paperback books, the Augustan age of rock and roll, affordable ideals. When the ladder crumbled behind them, when the state withdrew her tit and became a scold, they were already safe, they consolidated and settled down to forming this or that--taste, opinion, fortunes.
He heard a woman call out merrily, "I can't feel my hands or feet and I'm going!" As he turned, he saw a young man behind him who had been about to touch his shoulder. He was in his mid-twenties and bald, or shorn, and wore a gray suit with no overcoat.
"Mr. Linley. I'm sorry to intrude on your thoughts," the man said, drawing his hand away.
Clive assumed he was a musician, or someone come to collect his autograph, and shrank his face into its mask of patience. "That's all right."
"I was wondering if you'd have time to come across and talk to the foreign secretary. He's keen to meet you."
Clive pursed his lips. He didn't want to be introduced to Julian Garmony, but neither did he want to go to the bother of snubbing him. No escape. "You show the way," he said, and was led past standing clumps of his friends, some of whom guessed where he was going and tried to lure him from his guide.
"Hey, Linley. No talking to the enemy!"
The enemy indeed. What had attracted her? Garmony was a strange-looking fellow: large head, with wavy black hair that was all his own, a terrible pallor, thin unsensual lips. He had made a life in the political marketplace with an unexceptional stall of xenophobic and punitive opinions. Vernon's explanation had always been simple: high-ranking bastard, hot in the sack. But she could have found that anywhere. There must also have been the hidden talent that had got him to where he was and even now was driving him to challenge the PM for his job.
The aide delivered Clive into a horseshoe grouped around Garmony, who appeared to be making a speech or telling a story. He broke off to slip his hand into Clive's and murmur intensely, as though they were alone, "I've been wanting to meet you for years."
"How do you do."
Garmony spoke up for the benefit of the company, two of whom were young men with the pleasant, openly dishonest look of gossip columnists. The minister was performing and Clive was a kind of prop. "My wife knows a few of your piano pieces by heart."
Again. Clive wondered. Was he as domesticated and tame a talent as some of his younger critics claimed--the thinking man's Gorecki?
"She must be good," he said.
It had been a while since he had met a politician close up, and what he had forgotten was the eye movements, the restless patrol for new listeners or defectors, or the proximity of some figure of higher status, or some other main chance that might slip by.
Garmony was looking around now, securing his audience. "She was brilliant. Goldsmiths, then the Guildhall. A fabulous career ahead of her . . ." He paused for comic effect. "Then she met me and chose medicine."
Only the aide and another staffer, a woman, tittered. The journalists were unmoved. Perhaps they had heard it all before.
The foreign secretary's eyes had settled back on Clive. "There was another thing. I wanted to congratulate you on your commission. The Millennial Symphony. D'you know, that decision went right up to cabinet level?"
"So I heard. And you voted for me."
Clive had allowed himself a note of weariness, but Garmony reacted as though he had been effusively thanked. "Well, it was the least I could do. Some of my colleagues wanted this pop star chap, the ex-Beatle. Anyway, how is it coming along? Almost done?"
His extremities had been numb for half an hour but it was only now that Clive felt the chill finally envelop his core. In the warmth of his studio he would be in shirtsleeves, working on the final pages of this symphony, whose premiere was only weeks away. He had already missed two deadlines and he longed to be home.
He put out his hand to Garmony. "It was very nice to meet you. I have to be getting along."
But the minister did not take his hand and was speaking over him, for there was still a little more to be wrung from the famous composer's presence.
"Do you know, I've often thought that it's the freedom of artists like yourself to pursue your work that makes my own job worthwhile . . ."
More followed in similar style as Clive gazed on, no sign of his growing distaste showing in his expression. Garmony, too, was his generation. High office had eroded his ability to talk levelly with a stranger. Perhaps that was what he offered her in bed, the thrill of the impersonal. A man twitching in front of mirrors. But surely she preferred emotional warmth. Lie still, look at me, really look at me. Perhaps it was nothing more than a mistake, Molly and Garmony. Either way, Clive now found it unbearable.
The Foreign Secretary reached his conclusion "These are the traditions that make us what we are."
"I was wondering," Clive said to Molly's ex-lover, "whether you're still in favor of hanging."
Garmony was well able to deal with this sudden shift, but his eyes hardened.
"I think most people are aware of my position on that. Meanwhile, I'm happy to accept the view of Parliament and the collective responsibility of the cabinet." He had squared up, and he was also turning on the charm. The two journalists edged a little closer with their notebooks.
"I see you once said in a speech that Nelson Mandela deserved to be hanged."
Garmony, who was due to visit South Africa the following month, smiled calmly. The speech had recently been dug up, rather scurrilously, by Vernon's paper. "I don't think you can reasonably nail people to things they said as hot-head undergraduates." He paused to chuckle. "Almost thirty years ago. I bet you said or thought some pretty shocking things yourself."
"I certainly did," Clive said. "Which is my point. If you'd had your way then, there wouldn't be much chance for second thoughts now."
Garmony inclined his head briefly in acknowledgment. "Fair enough point. But in the real world, Mr. Linley, no justice system can ever be free of human error."
Then the foreign secretary did an extraordinary thing that quite destroyed Clive's theory about the effects of public office and that in retrospect he was forced to admire. Garmony reached out and, with his forefinger and thumb, caught hold of the lapel of Clive's overcoat and, drawing him close, spoke in a voice that no one else could hear.
"The very last time I saw Molly she told me you were impotent and always had been."
"Complete nonsense. She never said that."
"Of course you're bound to deny it. Thing is, we could discuss it out loud in front of the gentlemen over there, or you could get off my case and make a pleasant farewell. That is to say, fuck off."
The delivery was rapid and urgent, and as soon as it was over Garmony leaned back, beaming as he pumped the composer's hand, and called out to the aide, "Mr. Linley has kindly accepted an invitation to dinner." This last may have been an agreed code, for the young man stepped across promptly to usher Clive away while Garmony turned his back on him to say to the journalists, "A great man, Clive Linley. To air differences and remain friends, the essence of civilized existence, don't you think?"
Reading Group Guide
Ian McEwan's Booker Prize-winning novel Amsterdam showcase the author's range and skill as he delivers unlikely, and welcome, combinations of suspense, ethics, philosophy, and political and religious ideology. In lesser hands, such a mix might be lethal. In McEwan's, it's intoxicating.
1. Talk about the tone of this novel. Is it ironic? Humorous? Menacing?
2. Think about Clive and Vernon and your feelings about each at different stages of the novel. Did those feelings change? If so, at what key points?
3. In a relatively short novel, the author devotes many pages to Clive's creative process. What do you think of the author's description of the process itself and of his decision to give it so much space?
4. At one early point in the novel, Vernon Halliday thinks this about himself, "[H]e was infinitely diluted; he was simply the sum of all the people who had listened to him, and when he was alone, he was nothing at all." Discuss this prescient statement, in light of Vernon's fate.
5. Discuss the role of lucky (and unlucky) coincidence in the novel: Vernon's rise in his profession due to "Pategate" or the story in the Judge about euthanasia in Holland that leads Clive and Vernon there.
6. Talk about the author's skill in showing the workplace; the composer's process and studio; the newspaper editor's office.
7. This novel is funny—the Siamese twins story, the sub-editor who could not spell—talk about the role of humor in the novel.
8. At different points in the novel, both Clive and Vernon think that Clive has given more to their friendship than Vernon has. Talk about the form and course of their friendship. Can friendships ever be equal?
9. The author suggests that years and success narrow life. Is this true to your experience?
10. The author withholds information throughout the novel, offering bits that are only fully developed later (the photographs of Garmony, the importance of the "medical scandal in Holland"). Talk about the author's use of suspense.
11. How shaky is Clive's moral foundation? Should he be allowed to condemn his fellow artists who "assume the license of free artistic spirit" and renege on commitments, even as Clive ignores the plight of a woman he witnesses being attacked?
12. Vernon wants to crucify Garmony for the greater good of the republic. Is this ever a valid reason to go after a politician? Do you agree with Clive that Vernon is betraying Molly's trust? Or do you side with Vernon in his wish to stop a vile leader from gaining power?
13. Talk about the parallels between the fictional political scandal the author creates and the real one that has occupied Washington, D.C., for the past year. Is the author commenting on U.S. politics and media with this novel?
14. Is everybody in Amsterdam a hypocrite?
15. Clive thinks he's a genius. How do you define genius? Does Clive fit the definition?
16. Talk about Molly and the importance of her role in the novel. Are there other examples in literature of characters who carry great weight and importance even though they never appear?
17. At Allen Crags where Clive watches the woman and man struggle, the author writes, "Clive knew exactly what it was he had to do....He had decided at the very moment he was interrupted." Was there any question in your mind at that point about what Clive's decision was? Were you correct?
18. What do you make of the author's choice to have Clive die happy, that is, unaware that he's been poisoned, but to have Vernon grasp in his last seconds "...where he really was and what must have been in his champagne and who these visitors were."
On Thursday, January 28th, barnesandnoble.com welcomed Ian McEwan to discuss AMSTERDAM.
Moderator: Good evening, Ian McEwan! We welcome your return to our Auditorium, and congratulate you on the Booker Prize! We're thrilled you could join us to chat about AMSTERDAM. How are you tonight?
Ian McEwan: I'm fine.
Iain from Houston, TX: Molly Lane, although we never meet her when she is alive per se, in the story, is a powerful and compelling character. Where did she originate? Did she evolve from someone you know?
Ian McEwan: No, she's really a ghost who stalks the pages of AMSTERDAM. She exists only in the memory of the principle characters, or is dreamed by Clive and Vernon when they are hallucinating in their final moments. If she has any kind of source, it's literary rather than actual. She perhaps is a distant cousin of some of the bright young heroines of Evelyn Waugh's early novels.
Fred from California: The jacket of AMSTERDAM calls this "a contemporary morality tale," and in many ways, I think it is a modern version of this old form. Do you agree? In a time where morality seems to be in flux, do you think we need a morality tale for our society today?
Ian McEwan: Well, I suppose you could say it's an examination of a moral climate, but it's not a morality tale in the old-fashioned sense of offering the reader an indication of how to live. In times of flux (but all times are times of flux, to contemporaries) we need to be alive to moral issues. However, it's always been my view the reader must sharpen his or her sensibility through the novel, but not expect to receive direct instructions.
Mark from London: Mr. McEwan, you are an incredibly talented writer, and I have loved everything of yours I've read. The Independent on Sunday calls you "a brilliant social satirist" -- do you consider yourself a social satirist?
Ian McEwan: Well, I consider AMSTERDAM a social satire, or a comedy of manners. I'm not sure to what extent this kind of writing is going to become central to what I do. I had a lot of pleasure in writing AMSTERDAM, and I'm still toying with a kind of sequel. But even if I did write another book like AMSTERDAM, social satire would remain simply one of the things that interest me.
Julie Chappell from Lake Zurich, IL: I've been reading your fiction for longer than I care to mention. There is always a strong element of the macabre in your work, although less so in recent years. Is this a conscious choice that you made early in your career?
Ian McEwan: No, it was never a conscious choice. The word "macabre" didn't occur to me until critics started pinning me down with it. I think it's not a useful word to describe what I do, although I concede that it is a reasonable description of my early short stories. For many years I've been interested in a whole range of things -- science, history, the problems of modernity, the relationships between men and women, the contest between faith and reason -- so I feel that the "Ian Macabre" line is a way of trying to see everything I do in terms of my earliest work. Coming back to conscious choice: The novelist always has a hard time persuading readers that he is never really fully in control of what he chooses to do next. One sits back and waits for the right kind of urgency about material to set in. The choices are in the detail, but the material itself has to come from a deeper place.
Allison from Cambridge, MA: Given Vernon's and the Judge's decisions in your book, I would love to get your take on the Clinton and Lewinsky scandal in the U.S., and the way it is being handled by the press?
Ian McEwan: I'm not sure I can add anything significant to the billions of words already expended. Clinton is a liar, but I don't think he should be impeached. However, there is a mischievous voice in my head which says that it might be a marvelous thing if the Republican party could not bring itself to stop the thing that it had started, thereby making the impeachment trial the Republican party's long, boring suicide note when the wrath of the American public is vented at the next election.
John from Greensboro, NC: In your chat transcript here about ENDURING LOVE, you stated that "the names Wenn and Camia are an anagram of Ian McEwan." Did you sneak anything into AMSTERDAM that we should know about?
Ian McEwan: No. AMSTERDAM is, in formal terms, a rather old-fashioned piece of storytelling. There are no embedded messages in the text. Its subtitle used to be, until the proofs stage, "a cometragedy," which is why it has five chapters -- five acts. I wanted it to have a rather Edwardian quality. In this respect, it's a very different kind of novel from ENDURING LOVE.
John from Ohio: The specter of Wordsworth, in one fashion or another, haunts each of your last two novels. Is there some particular element of his poetry -- say, the egotistical sublimity, the darker shadings of nature -- that especially interests you?
Ian McEwan: This is a strange and intriguing response to ENDURING LOVE. If Wordsworth stalks its pages, I didn't let him in. However, that does not mean he's not there. The connection of Wordsworth to AMSTERDAM is obviously a more conscious matter.
Eve from NYC: I saw the film version of FIRST LOVE, LAST RITES this fall, and I thought it was an interesting look at your story -- what did you think of the adaptation?
Ian McEwan: I liked it a great deal. The screenplay had been sent to me a few years ago, and I was impressed by the freedom that it assumed with the material while somehow managing to stay true to the spirit of the story. I think the director, Jesse Peretz, has a great career ahead of him. I thought the two young actors were quite formidable. The movie seemed to me to represent the best of that adventurous side of American independent filmmaking. It may interest you to know that Jesse used to be the bass guitarist for the Lemonheads. Bass guitarists have been often mocked in the past, but Jesse has done a great deal to elevate them.
Valerie from Utah: Did you have a Millennium Symphony in mind when you were writing about it? If you were to hear it, would you recognize it? Could you hum a few lines while you were writing it?
Ian McEwan: It's a good question. What I had clearly in mind was the aspiration and a kind of visual equivalent rather than an auditory one of the process of composition. Clive's music is not really to my taste. It's overstated, portentous, too anxious to create startling effects using the full resources of an orchestra. Bear in mind that Clive, rather like Pierre Menard in the famous story by Borges, is doing little more in his final melody than writing out another man's work -- in this case, Beethoven's "Ode to Joy." Also bear in mind that Clive regards himself as a genius, and is no good. If I heard Clive's music, I'd wince, visibly.
Patrick from Gross Point, Michigan: AMSTERDAM begins at a funeral, and takes off in directions I could never have imagined, and the whole story feels like a dream. Where did AMSTERDAM begin for you, and how did it evolve?
Ian McEwan: AMSTERDAM grew out of a joke. I hiked regularly with an old friend who is a neuroscientist and a psychiatrist. We were walking in the Lake District once, and he was telling me about a patient who was suffering from rapid onset Alzheimer's. It sounded perfectly horrific, and I said to him, jokingly, that if he ever saw me succumbing to the same disease, that he should get me across to Amsterdam and have me put down legally. He agreed on condition that I would do the same for him. Over the months, whenever one of us forgot something, like a compass, or the day of the week, or his house keys, the other one would mutter threateningly, "Amsterdam." Amsterdam in this private joke became a form of insult, and I set out in my notebook once the bare bones of the story: What if two old friends who had made such a pact arrived in Amsterdam each convinced that the other was mad?
Julie Chappell from Lake Zurich, IL: Your response to my "macabre" question makes me wonder if you consider yourself misunderstood by your readers and/or critics? Is it simply that you have changed along with your work but we readers simply cannot forget the strong impressions of your earlier works?
Ian McEwan: It is the luxury of all novelists, indeed all artists, to feel misunderstood. It can even be a rather pleasant sensation. But seriously, I do get frustrated when I read a review of AMSTERDAM that uses words like "macabre." I think it's laziness. All writers are bound to evolve. The alternative is to stagnate. There is another consideration which you've half touched on, and that is for readers, all of a writer's work exists in a perpetual present tense, and it is only the more careful reader who becomes curious about the chronology of the work and the way it has changed. So, I'm sure there are people who pick up my earlier stories and think of them as something I might have written the year before last.
Moderator: It was a joy chatting with you this evening, Ian McEwan. AMSTERDAM is well deserving of the recognition it's been getting, and we congratulate you on its success. Before you leave, will you tell us what you plan to write next?
Ian McEwan: I'm still in that rather delicious stage of trying to work out not what to write, but how to write it, and I'm a little superstitious about describing it too soon. Sorry.
Ian McEwan's Booker Prize-winning novel Amsterdam showcase the author's range and skill as he delivers unlikely, and welcome, combinations of suspense, ethics, philosophy, and political and religious ideology. In lesser hands, such a mix might be lethal. In McEwan's, it's intoxicating.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
It has been several years since I read this book. After reading it, I was excited to share it with my husband who does not read novels often, but grew up in Amsterdam. This book does not have an American sensibility. The wry turns of phrase, the tiny details that let you almost inhabit the character's bodies and personas add up to a story told with the detail and sensibility of an artist's etching. My experience generally with Booker Award novels is they are a feast of words. This is certainly that. This is book for lovers of language, for those who enjoy the sense of a culture not necessarily their own. There is an excerpt published here. Read it. If you like it, you will like the book. I notice some reviews don't care for the ending. I would say, the story belongs to the writer, to the teller. The story is the story. The ending is where the story finishes. Reading a book is not like ordering a meal in a restaurant where you get to finish with dessert or not as you wish.
Pretty good mystery with a good sense of atmosphere. The main character was maybe a bit cocky, but on the other hand, he kept me laughing. I liked the use of place. Now I want to go to Amsterdam, not that I would ever have any of the same problems! Stefani Trujillo
After reading Atonement, I was disappointed with this book. I knew what was going to happen about 35 pages into the book. Character development seemed very limited. I am not giving up on the author. This book just was not a book I could put on my favorites list.
Not only is this sweeping novel beautifully written, illuminating, poetic, and thought-provoking, it's an adventure, a love story, a mystery, a tragedy, and a drama all rolled into one gorgeous work. Highly recommended. I plan to re-read it again and again, and share with everyone I know who appreciates great literature.
A pure delight to read, Amsterdam is a sardonic romp with an undertow of irony at every turn of the page. Mr. McEwan's books always amaze, but this is superbly entertaining with it's humor and pathos all wrapped together to give us great wit along with a pinch of the dark side of human nature. I keep waiting for Hollywood to make films of Mr. McEwan's wondrous literary achievements because I believe his books would transfer well to the screen with a sensitive director of equal caliber. The world is a better and more empathic place with such keen observances as seen in Amsterdam, Atonement, Black Dogs, Enduring Love, The Cement Garden and others by this superb author. Tell all your friends to read just one book by Mr. McEwan and they will soon be delighted at his unique literary talents and reading everything by this author. Bravo once again. Kathryn Forrester, Poet Laureate Emeritus of Virginia
I absolutely loved this until the last chapter, but the ending is simultaneously predictable and implausible, so much so that, until then, I'd assumed it couldn't possibly be heading the way it looked like it was: this is a Booker Prize-winning novel, after all.That said, it is a beautifully written book. As a musician, I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of music and the process of writing it. The characters are sympathetic, even in their narcissism, and have some depth to them. And the issues it raises are interesting and deftly handled.In other words, very good, but not quite as good as I expected.
I can't believe this won the Booker prize. I barely could finish it, it's a good thing the book is quite short.
A black comedy about two friends living in the UK in the mid to late 1990s.McEwan is one of those writers who manages to draw the reader in right off the bat with his gorgeous prose. Each passage travels up and down in the most delightful ways, hitting all the right notes as it thunders towards its inevitable - and fulfilling - conclusion. I ate it up. The writing was so lovely that I think I would have enjoyed this book very much even if it hadn't gone anywhere.The tight plot does move forward, though, in leaps and bounds. The story unfolds via a series of quick scenes that paint the characters in their natural environments, giving us a great sense of who these people are and how they relate to the world. As things gain momentum, McEwan demands some real intuitive leaps from the reader, but he always sets them up in such a way that they feel natural. By the time we reach the conclusion, it feels inevitable.And, as a special bonus, it's hilarious... in a dark way, of course. I initially wondered why this was considered a comic novel, but as things progressed I started to see what everyone was talking about. Events play out in such a way that you can't help but see a certain desperate humor behind it all.Overall, this was excellent. If Margaret Drabble and Robertson Davies had ever written a book together, it might have resembled this one. Highly recommended.
A trifle that had me wondering what all the fuss was about McEwan, read in 1999.
When the electrifying Molly Lane dies of a swift and terrible illness, two of her former lovers, Clive Linley and Vernon Halliday, meet at her funeral. Both men fear for the uncertainty of the future and their mortality, which leads them to make a pact with each other that will have vast and far-reaching consequences. Meanwhile, Clive, a modern genius of a composer, is charged with writing the score of the millennial concert, while Vernon is the editor-in-chief of a floundering newspaper that would do anything to increase its circulation. When Vernon receives stunning information about another of Molly's lovers, the foreign secretary Juilian Garmony, he believes that his newspaper can be saved from its torpor with news of this sensational story, but Clive strongly disagrees. In his opinion, Vernon is being traitorous to Molly's memory and more than a little unkind to Garmony. This argument seriously undermines the friends' relationship and pits each against the other. As Vernon rushes to get his story to print and Clive puts the finishing touches on his symphony, both men find that life has other plans for them. Both Clive and Vernon, driven by their desire for success and renown, will make a terrible choice that will lead them towards the paths of their destruction, and toward the agreement that binds them together.Frankly, I would read a telephone book if it was penned my McEwan. His perfect eye for prose and the significant weight of his dialogue has impressed me on many occasions. He has a way of capturing the visceral traits in human behavior that people so desperately try to hide. I believe very few authors can compare to McEwan's brilliance. That said, this book was disappointing. I felt that the characters had too much egotism and callousness to make them sympathetic. Vernon and Clive, although cut from different cloths, were much like two sides of the same coin. Clive was entirely too self-absorbed and shallow. He always seemed to be only half-aware of his social actions and their repercussions and he held firm to outdated beliefs and mindsets. Vernon was unlikeable as well. He was also self-absorbed, and there was a cruelty in him that made him slightly repugnant. I found myself growing very tired of his fits of righteous indignation and his issues of entitlement. I was ill at ease with both of these men and their behavior, and it made it very hard to connect and sympathize with their plights. I didn't feel sorry for either of them when things began to turn sour; in fact it seemed as though they were getting what they deserved. I felt rather impersonally towards these characters because neither of the men seemed to have any redeeming or humanizing qualities, nothing to give them the spark of life I was looking for. They seemed almost too stereotypical. I also didn't like the way in which their supposedly great friendship devolved into petty and inconsequential cat fighting. They carried their grudges like heavy weights across their backs, obsessing constantly over perceived slights. This got tiresome very quickly and made the story seem uninteresting and flat.The conclusion of the story had an ironic twist, but it was so absurdly concocted that it almost became comical. It was at once both overblown and operatic, and although I saw it coming, I couldn't believe it would actually play out in the way that it did. It seemed something so oddly out of character for this writer to conceive of a finale like this, and it ultimately strained the credulity of the book to the breaking point for me. Yes, this book was intended to be satirical, but I think it overreached and instead became ludicrous.After all the issues I had with this book, there were some very redeeming qualities about it. McEwan's writing was both clever and beautiful, elegant and cultured in a way that entrances. In certain parts of the book he writes so fluidly about the composition of music, I had to wonder if he ever studied classical music. The pages desc
Short novel re 2 friends, one a journalist, who gets fired, the other a symphony writer. Girlfriend who dates all these men, and reveals compromising pictures of a powerful cabinet minister. Too short.
Disturbing, great book
Winner, 1998 Man Booker PrizeI¿m not a huge fan of McEwan¿s so I had put off reading this book until my sister read it and enjoyed it. I have a commitment to reading all the Booker Prize winners and this was short so that also made it easier to start it.I was surprised to find it much easier to read than Atonement, where I really bogged down in the initial chapters. It¿s a darkly comic novel about four men who¿ve all been lovers or married to Molly Lane, who is recently deceased. The book starts out with her funeral, the interactions of the four men during it, and their thoughts on how much they all appreciated Molly.We then go on to their professional lives. Clive is a composer, Vernon a newspaper editor, George (the husband) is on the board of that same paper, and Garmony is the Foreign Secretary. All of these men and their vocations intersect throughout the story. It was hilarious to hear how the men see and think about themselves. McEwan pokes fun of all these men and their professions, and even of fellow writers.¿He had a number of friends who played the genius card when it suited, failing to show up for this or that in the belief that whatever local upset it caused, it could only increase respect for the compelling nature of their high calling. These types¿novelists were by far the worst¿managed to convince friends and families that not only their working hours but every nap and stroll, every fit of silence, depression, or drunkenness, bore the exculpatory ticket of high intent. A mask for mediocrity, was Clive¿s view. He didn¿t doubt that the calling was high, but bad behavior was not a part of it. Perhaps every century there was an exception or two to be made. Beethoven, yes; Dylan Thomas, most certainly not.¿I was enjoying the book for the most part when suddenly I saw what was coming at the end, and thought, ¿It¿s not really going to go there, is it?¿ It did go there. I put off reading the last 50 or so pages because I knew I wouldn¿t like the ending. Although, the sequences ¿in the haze of confusion¿ were quite funny. As was the modern duel.I don¿t know. I guess I didn¿t like how Atonement began but appreciated how it ended, and with Amsterdam it was just the opposite. I liked the beginning and not the ending, though it did have its humor. I didn¿t like On Chesil Beach at all. Not sure I¿ll read another McEwan novel, but I was happy to check this one off my list.
McEwan is a master storyteller, and as expected, this was finely crafted, but even though it won the Booker, it wasn't his best. Vernon, a successful newspaper editor, and Clive, a renowned composer, are two old friends who reunite at the funeral of mutual friend, Molly Lane, who died of a degenerative disease and who had dated both of the men previously. The friends have a bitter disagreement which escalates over the course of the novel, and ultimately, each man must make a crucial decision about the other. I found both men to be hollow, and I never felt strongly about either one of them. This hurt my overall opinion of the novel, but ultimately, I still enjoyed it. The pervasive theme is allegorical, in which bad decisions can often have severe and unexpected effects on other people and events - a "gift" that keeps on giving, so to speak. The book is less than 200 pages and would be best if read in one uninterrupted sitting.
McEwan is a master of the surprise and when you are expecting one surprise--the random incident that changes everything in an otherwise ordinary life (as in Saturday)--he takes you in another direction. I see other readers found it difficult to relate to the characters and it is true that Clive is a rather soulless egomaniac. He is, in other words, an artist and his constant wonderings about whether he is a genius and his obsession with his work were not outside the realm of my experience... I found the synesthetic description of the composition process interesting. I can't imagine writing a symphony. The novel doesn't say how he researched this or whether it is entirely out of his own understanding of the imaginative process. Except words are words and tunes are something very different.
Two lovers of a dead woman reunite at her funeral. I didn't find this novel to be as memorable or as haunting as many of McEwan's other novels.
My least favorite book by McEwan; I didn't like the story or the ending, which seemed contrived. Favorite quotes:"Instead it seemed to Vernon that he was infinitely diluted; he was simply the sum of all the people who had listened to him, and when he was alone, he was nothing at all.""In his corner of West London, and in his self-preoccupied daily round, it was easy for Clive to think of civilization as the sum of all the arts, along with design, cuisine, good wine, and the like. But now it appeared that this was what it really was - square miles of meager modern houses whose principal purpose was the support of TV aerials and dishes; factories producing worthless junk to be advertised on the televisions and, in dismal lots, lorries queueing to distribute it; and everywhere else, roads and the tyranny of traffic. ... To watch it mile after mile, who would have guessed that kindness or the imagination, that Purcell or Britten, Shakespeare or Milton, had ever existed?""They should have been ridiculous, these photographs, they were ridiculous, but Clive was somewhat awed. We knew so little about each other. We lay mostly submerged, like ice floes, with our visible social selves projecting only cool and white. Here was a rare sight below the waves, of a man's privacy and turmoil...."
A strange little novel, with an unexpected twist at the end. I don¿t think I have ever read a novel with an ending like this one. I¿ve read about murders, and suicides, and accidental deaths, but nothing like this - don¿t worry, I won¿t give it away.It is very short. This edition is less than 200 pages, and with large print. It might be 50 thousand words. Yet the author gets his story out there and nothing seems to be missing. Not a lot of words are wasted, obviously.His novel, Atonement, is one of my favorites. This novel is very different, but it¿s also finely crafted and a delight to read.
Very exciting, and quite funny in places. I couldn't put it down. Ultimately, though, it's a tragedy of human nature.
I liked Amsterdam - sort of. But I don't think it came close to some of McEwan's other achievements. Odd that is won the Booker. In an interesting way, it certainly captures the sour, almost childish disappointment in life that seems to to run through the novels of many of MeEwan's British peers.
I was expecting the odd ending since I had read the reviews. The writing was good but I too found it contrived and just not realistic. I listened to the audio version and the reader was terrific though. Perfect for that chiseled prose.
Ian McEwan is one of those unusual writers nearly everyone loves. His prose is smooth and calm, with interesting characters mixed into a deceptively simple plot. I am tempted to throw away all my scruples about revealing too much of the story, since McEwan fooled me so thoroughly, but I won¿t. His prose pulls the reader along, like a lazy day on the river. And even though we might hear a dull roar ahead, we are two closely bound into his story to pay any attention. Then, when it¿s too late, the end comes and we are flying over the waterfall in shock ¿ and delight!Clive and Vernon have been friends for a long time. They both had a relationship ¿ at different times ¿ with Molly. Clive is a composer who has been commissioned to compose a symphony for the celebration of the millennium. Vernon is the editor of a newspaper teetering on the brink of bankruptcy and closure. The both have a tense relationship with the wealthy George, widower of Molly. The story opens at Molly¿s funeral. That is all you get.This typical scene has Clive working on his symphony as the deadline approaches. Constant interruptions prevent him from piecing together fragments of the ending:"At nine-thirty he stood and decided to pull himself together, drink some red wine and get on with the work. There was his beautiful theme, his song, spread out on the page, craving his attention, needing one inspired modification, and here he was, alive with focused energy, ready to make it. But downstairs he lingered in the kitchen over his rediscovered supper, listening to a history of the nomadic Morroccan Tuareg people on the radio, and then he took his third glass of Bandol for a wander about the house, an anthropologist to his own existence." (150)I put down the novel after reading this passage, and wandered through my house looking at paintings, carvings, drawings, photos, and books that spelled out the interests of my life. I tried to imagine what someone who did not know me might think. Then, I understood what Clive was doing.If you have never read McEwan, many of his novels are good places to start ¿ Atonement, or A Child in Time, or Saturday, or Black Dogs, or, of course, Amsterdam, which won the Booker Prize in 1998. I am working my way through his 12 novels ¿ this is my fifth, and it is about time I went on a spending spree and completed my collection. Five Stars--Jim, 2/18/10
When Molly Lane dies, two of her friends meet outside a crematorium to express both their remorse and their view of Molly¿s last days. Clive Linley and Vernon Halliday are a pair of extremely successful men who at one point or another had an affair with Molly. Molly died in what they consider a horrible way; she just started to lose it suddenly, became ill, and required her long-suffering husband to nurse her. Clive, the most famous composer of his age, and Vernon, editor of a top newspaper, make a pact after Molly¿s death that rebounds against them in a way they¿d never expected.On the back cover, this is described as ¿a sharp contemporary morality tale, cleverly disguised as a comic novel¿, and I can¿t say it better than that. The comedy to me appears to come from how ridiculous these men are, how they are so wrapped up in themselves that they can¿t hear and don¿t care about the outside world at all. By the end of the novel, they have each truly become like Molly, lost to the world without realizing what has happened to them. They¿ve been overtaken by an illness, and that illness is, according to Ian McEwan, the ills of public society and the selfishness that it takes to ignore the needs and wellbeing of fellow humans while taking care of number one. The disturbing thing is that neither of them realize it; what they¿re doing is so normal to them that they don¿t understand what¿s wrong. They think they¿re adding to society when really they¿re just adding to the problem.Anyway, in that way, this novel is so deep in so few pages that it¿s hard to say whether or not I liked it. This is one of those books that I want a class on. There¿s a lot here to pick at and just writing that paragraph above has helped me clarify it in my mind. I think I could write a paper on it. It¿s less than two hundred pages long, so it didn¿t take me very long to read, but it packs in so much thought-provoking material in with the ridiculousness of the situation. The worst part is that, when dissected, the behavior of neither of the characters is ridiculous. They¿re doing what has been done countless times before and that is eerie and worrying, especially given the extreme dislike I felt for both of them by the end of the novel. Really the problem with the novel is that it isn¿t a very good story. The story and the characters exist only to prove McEwan¿s point, which is a strong one, but it doesn¿t work very well at a surface level.In conclusion, there is a very good reason that Amsterdam won the Booker Prize. It¿s a truly haunting commentary on society that still manages to be slightly ridiculous enough to make it interesting. I haven¿t even touched on all the issues here, but I can tell I¿m going to continue thinking about this for some time to come. It isn¿t as good as a book as Atonement is, in my humble opinion, particularly because it is shallow in everything but its overall meaning. I still think it¿s worth a read.
I guess this is McEwan in "Waugh mode". Pretty well written, but the ending is just a little too silly to pass the test for good black comedy. About 3/4th into the book, it's clear what Vernon needs to do, and he doesn't do it! I'm no editor at a British newspaper, but this was a no-brainer. Guess Vernon gets Upper Class Twit of the Year award for that. Did this one really win a Booker? I guess I need to see what it was up against. I haven't read Atonement, but it has to be better than this.
I love Ian McEwan, but I hated this book. It starts with an intriguing premise: Clive and Vernon, two old friends, attend the funeral of a former lover. Over the course of the following days, both men will make "disasterous" moral decisions and a pact with unpredictable consequences. Reading this on the jacket copy set up considerable expectations, most of which were disappointed. Like most of Ian McEwan's characters, Vernon and Clive are deeply flawed, so I was prepared not to fully like them. I was not prepared to find them utterly unengaging. Each chapter finished with a cliffhanger, but the suspense was never enough to carry me forward. Reading about boring people is simply not rewarding. As the book crept toward its conclusion, it shed its final virtue: realism. Ian McEwan often writes about people controlled by their flaws, but in his previous characters, those flaws have always seemed honest and human. The ending of Amsterdam, however, requires us to believe the characters are almost sociopathic and I just didn't find that plausible. I heaved a great sigh of frustrated relief when the book reached its final chapter. Thank goodness it was less than 200 pages.