Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

by Ian McEwan
Doubleday, 304 pp., $26.

Ian McEwan’s Saturday is his eighth novel, and perhaps his finest. It tells the story of a single Saturday, in early 2003, in the life of Henry Perowne, a prosperous and successful London neurosurgeon approaching fifty. Perowne is married to a beautiful and intelligent lawyer, Rosalind. They live in an elegant house in an expensive London square. Their cars, their furnishings, their tastes, and their work are all just as they should be, objects of delight.

This is true, as well, of their two grown children: the daughter, Daisy, is about to have her first book of poetry published; the son, Theo, is an accomplished blues musician. Henry and Rosalind’s principal delights are their children”and their work, without which, it seems to Henry, they would be nothing. They behave, the two of them, as though work were the very stuff of life: Their handheld electronic calendars mate, weekly, by infra-red beam in order to keep their eleven- or twelve-hour workdays coordinated, and they wield, with the pleasure of skilled mastery, the scalpels and legal briefs that are the tools of their trade. They are masters of the beautiful universe of things, rejoicing in their mastery and in that beauty; their children, poets and musicians freed by prosperity from the need to control, sing of the beauty their parents have mastered.

The prose of Saturday is understated, clear, and intense, an almost perfect instrument for depicting the deep and subtle beauties of the material world with such clarity that they seem immediately present. McEwan has always been good at this, and here he is better than good: music heard, flesh touched, wine tasted, food eaten, words exchanged, colors seen, sexual love taken and given, familial ties celebrated and mourned”all presented with loving accuracy as delightful but fragile goods constantly under threat by the forces of chaos and dissolution.

McEwan’s prosperous and hardworking characters have shaped an ordered and beautiful universe with their intelligence and skill, but they and that universe are, half-knowingly, suspended over an abyss which their gifts and efforts cannot control. This is a standard McEwan theme, often evident in macabre and horrifying ways in earlier novels such as The Comfort of Strangers (1981) and Black Dogs (1992). In Saturday , there is nothing macabre, no grand guignol . But there is threat and menace, all the more effective because it is understated and depicted in an utterly realistic setting. The novel’s beauty is matched by its horror: It is a book about “the awareness of the abyss,” a phrase that recurs several times in the novel.

The Perownes’ garden of earthly delights is indeed beautiful, and they know it. But the worm is in the bud. The novel’s Saturday is a real one, shortly before the opening of hostilities in Iraq in the spring of 2003, and a march of protest in London against that war provides a darkly threatening frame for the events of the day. In the novel’s opening scene, Henry wakes early, looks out of his window and sees a burning airplane weaving its way through the sky toward Heathrow, a vision that brings with it post-9/11 images of unpredictable and uncontrollable violent death. The airplane turns out to be not an al-Quaeda weapon aimed at London’s heart but only a cargo plane suffering from engine failure; it lands without casualties. But Henry does not immediately know this, and the book’s tone is set: The earthly paradise of the Perownes is subject to forces it does not understand and cannot control, and while its inhabitants may prefer to forget this, they will sometimes be forced to face it.

Violence soon moves inward, from the book’s margins into the center of the picture. On his way to his usual Saturday morning squash game, Henry has a minor car accident that leads to a threatening confrontation with the driver of the other car, a man named Baxter. Violence is offered, but Henry deflects it by quick intelligence, perceiving that Baxter is suffering from Huntington’s Disease, a degenerative malady of the brain with clear behavioral symptoms. The immediate threat is deflected and defused by Henry’s understanding of Baxter’s condition: He offers a quick diagnosis and half-promises the possibility of treatment. Baxter is almost seduced. But then Henry goes too far, humiliating Baxter in front of his friends.

This prepares the pivotal scene of the book, in which the Perowne paradise, the house beautiful in which everything is ordered, is invaded by Baxter, the agent of chaos seeking revenge. The assembled Perowne family, preparing for a celebratory dinner (its ingredients and the accompanying wine are all lovingly described), is faced by chaos, just as London, civilization’s heart, was faced by a burning airplane in the book’s opening scene, and just as Henry, the brain surgeon, had earlier faced down Baxter, his brain-sick assailant. The abyss is now open and yawning, and the reader is prepared for the very worst, the dissolution of order into blood and death.

In the book’s pivotal scene, Baxter, armed and in control, orders Daisy, Henry’s daughter, to strip naked. Sexual violence threatens. But Baxter has also noticed the proof-copy of Daisy’s book of poems, and he asks her to read from it. Naked and terrified, she at first cannot compose herself sufficiently to do so, but then she begins to read”or at least to pretend to read. In fact, she recites, from memory, Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” while pretending that it is written on the pages of her own book. The reader at first hears this poem through Henry’s ears, and since he does not know the poem, there is no explicit signal that the poem is not Daisy’s but Arnold’s.

Baxter, moved, asks her to read it again, and so she recites it again, in a stronger voice: “The sea is calm tonight. The tide is full, the moon lies fair upon the straits.” Baxter is transformed and exalted. Thoughts of rape vanish. “You wrote that,” he says, “It’s beautiful. You know that, don’t you. It’s beautiful. And you wrote it . . . . It makes me think about where I grew up.” All Baxter wants after hearing the poem is to possess the book in which he thinks it is written and to grasp at Henry’s offer of treatment. He’s no longer interested in revenge or violence.

This scene is not the end of the house invasion or of the book, which aims at a complex denouement. But the scene does contain the concentrated essence of the book, and it is full of art. First, there is seduction and transformation by beauty. McEwan is horribly explicit in his description of the long-term prospects of those suffering from Huntington’s, and he is careful to depict Baxter as a man who knows exactly what is in store for him. Baxter, a sociopath whose brain has begun its irreversible decay, is temporarily transformed, remade, exalted, and inspired by the beauty of Arnold’s poetry on the lips of a naked woman under threat of rape. Beauty, in McEwan’s view, does have the power to make people remember who and what they are and to act accordingly. Beauty may be poetic or musical or gastronomic or sexual: All are lovingly depicted in Saturday . But whatever its mode, response to it is proper to us, woven into the fabric of our being, and McEwan’s depiction of Baxter’s transfiguration by Arnold can be read as an extended and dramatic refutation of W.H. Auden’s dictum that poetry makes nothing happen.

There is also the question of memory and tradition. Daisy has been trained by her poet-grandfather to memorize English poetry: swaths of Shakespeare, tracts of Traherne, acres of Arnold. She has been textualized, inscribed with the high literary culture of England. This is what permits her to speak with Arnold’s voice, to allow Arnold to speak through her. She finds it easier, in extremis, to speak the words of others than her own, and it is the words of others, of a tradition, that transform. McEwan says something important here about memory. Baxter is an intelligent man (and, of course, an Englishman) but one without roots or memory. He floats upon the violent surface of a turbulent sea with no idea of the depths it contains, and McEwan perhaps suggests that it is not only beauty but local beauty, particular beauty, the beauty of a tradition, that transforms. Daisy is an English poet speaking the English tradition to an Englishman, and Baxter is brought by her words not only to an acknowledgment of beauty as such, but also, recall, to a memory of where he came from: “It makes me think about where I grew up.” McEwan, in fashioning this scene, is also an Englishman representing England, extending its literary tradition.

The poem that has averted violence is an elegiac lament for loss, and above all for the loss of faith. By choosing this poem, McEwan is intimating that beauty is all we can hope for. God is unavailable. Arnold’s ignorant armies clashing by night are present everywhere in the margins of Saturday (the protesters in London’s streets, the American and English armies massing for invasion, the Baathist legions digging in around Baghdad, the mysteriously threatening presence of al Quaeda, the brain-sick and drug-addicted of London’s streets), and the chaos-waters that threaten to engulf the Perowne family cannot be stemmed by a divine fiat lux .

McEwan goes to a good deal of trouble to emphasize that the Perownes are godless people, Henry because he has become convinced that there can be no God in such a troubled and violent world, and his children because God has never occurred to them”they are secular by default, and in this they serve as synecdoche for England in 2003. Himself an atheist, McEwan chooses this poem with care, then, to show without telling what we have and what we do not have. What we have and can use is beauty. What we do not have and cannot use is God. Beauty cannot save us: The ignorant armies will not go away, Baxter’s brain will wither and give him a horrible death, the burning planes will drop from the skies and kill the innocent, women will be raped, children will be killed. But, at the same time, poetry will be written, music played, love exchanged, and the dramatic and precise skills of the neurosurgeon exercised for good. And sometimes, just sometimes, the suffocating fabric of violence will be shot through with threads of beauty sufficient to transform it into a cloak of light.

But the reader, while admiring McEwan’s skill and being absorbed by his story, is finally left melancholy and even anguished. The novel ends as Perowne is falling asleep with his wife: “He fits himself around her, her silk pajamas, her scent, her warmth, her beloved form, and draws closer to her. Blindly, he kisses her nape. There’s always this, is one of his remaining thoughts. And then: there’s only this.”

But there isn’t only this and there isn’t always this. The beauty of the beloved and of the love that makes her the beloved is real and true and important. But those beauties are what they are because they participate in and resonate with God, something vastly greater than they, something that promises what in Perowne’s (and McEwan’s) universe must necessarily be absent: a final victory over the ignorant armies, and a dawn in which their night is suffused with light. It is a tragedy for those with skill and taste and energy and wit and sensibility in our time that, increasingly, this vision”this truth”seems unavailable to them. McEwan is perfectly aware of this. His book is an almost-perfect witness to the texture and meaning of a cultured paganism that knows it cannot last.

Paul J. Griffiths is the Schmitt Professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His latest book is Lying: An Augustinian Theology of Duplicity (Brazos).

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift