My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Amsterdam (1998) by Ian McEwan rightfully won the Booker Prize and the novel, being only 178 pages long, was claimed by the Sunday Telegraph as “a psychologically brilliant study of heartlessness.”
And that is exactly what a reader will get: a superbly written piece of brutal heartlessness and blatant betrayals on all sides, but Ian does it so well it feels like the reader is getting slapped in the face with silk.
The story starts out in a wintry London at a funeral and revolves around the dead, Molly Lane, and her surviving husband, George, and her lovers: the struggling editor of The Judge Vernon Halliday, and the genius Clive Linley who is writing the musical score of his lifetime.
“At last,” Ian (author of Atonement) writes, “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” (p 9).
Then there is one final character the story revolves around: Molly’s former friend, the Foreign Secretary named Julian Garmony, who is later discovered to have taken pictures dressed as a woman and Vernon must decide if he will ruin the man. But for now, Clive, the musician faces Garmony at Molly’s funeral,
“Then the Foreign Secretary did an extraordinary thing which quite destroyed Clive’s theory about the effects of public office and which, 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’” (p 16).
The heartlessness that is so popular in people these days just gets worse as Clive, out on a hike in the Lake District, witnesses a possible rape and decides instead to finish working on his masterpiece:
“The woman shouted again and Clive, lying pressed against the rock, closed his eyes…
“The jewel, the melody. Its momentousness pressed upon him. So much depended on it; the symphony, the celebration, his reputation, the lamented century’s ode to joy. He did not doubt that what he half heard could bear the weight. In its simplicity lay all the authority of a lifetime’s work…
“What was clear now was the pressure of choice: he should either go down and protect the woman, if she needed protection, or he should creep away round the side of Glaramara to find a sheltered place to continue his work—if it was not already lost. He could not remain here doing nothing…
“Twenty minutes later he found a flat-topped rock to use as a table and stood hunched over his scribble” (p 87-88).
Far too often in this world we live in, we find pathetic men like Clive who choose to ignore what is morally right and instead focus on their own selfish needs and desires—and in any morally intelligent being, this sort of behavior is highly unacceptable. Ian, one may consider quite evident in this work, asks the hard questions about morality and ambition and friendship and betrayal.
But what of Amsterdam, the namesake of the book?
According to the time of the book, Amsterdam had just passed certain laws to aid people in killing themselves (i.e., euthanasia), while Clive and Vernon, two very good friends, have an awkward talk, in hopes of not wasting away and dying from cancer like their former friend and lover, Molly Lane:
“‘So, what I’m saying is this—I’m asking you, as my oldest friend, to help me if it ever got to the point where you could see that it was the right thing. Just as we might have helped Molly if we’d been able…’
“Clive trailed away, a little disconcerted by Vernon who stared at him with his glass raised, as though frozen in the act of drinking. Clive cleared this throat noisily.
“‘It’s an odd thing to ask, I know. It’s also illegal in this country and I wouldn’t want you to put yourself on the wrong side of the law, assuming, of course, you were to say yes. But there are ways, and there are places and if it came to it, I’d want you to get me there on a plane. It’s a heavy responsibility, something I could only ask of a close friend like yourself. All I can say is that I’m not in a state of panic or anything. I have given it a lot of thought…’
“Both men accepted that the nature of the request, its intimacy and self-conscious reflection on their friendship, had created, for the moment, an uncomfortable emotional proximity which was best dealt with by their parting without another word, Vernon walking quickly up the street in search of a taxi, and Clive going back up the stairs, to his piano” (p 49-50).
But what makes Ian’s writing top-notch is not just the plot and his profoundly twisted characters, but the superb ability to manipulate simple words into sentences that spark life into existence:
“Finding the notes would be an act of inspired synthesis,” Ian writes of Clive. “It was as if he knew them, but could not yet hear them. He knew their enticing sweetness and melancholy. He knew their simplicity, and the model, surely, was Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. Consider the first line—a few steps up, a few steps down. It could be a nursery tune. It was completely without pretension, and yet carried such spiritual weight…
“During the first hour or so, after he had turned south into the Langstrath, he felt, despite his optimism, the unease of outdoor solitude wrap itself around him” (p 76-77).
Then there is when Ian, a true master, can combine all elements of his craft into a few sentences that, if one were to look closely and pay attention, give the story’s ending away:
“The hours passed, and Vernon picked up his copy of The Judge several times to read again about the medical scandal in Holland. Later on in the day he made a few phone enquiries of his own. More idle hours passed while he sat about in the kitchen drinking coffee, contemplating the wreck of his prospects, and wondering whether he should ring Clive and pretend to make peace, in order to invite himself to Amsterdam” (p 149).
Amsterdam by Ian McEwan is a simple, but elegant, read and can be completed in one or two sittings on a lazy afternoon when the rain has deprived the reader of an outdoor hike of her own. The writing springs to life on almost every page and the corruption that haunts weak men’s souls is just as relevant today as it was when the book was first published some seventeen years ago. And for these reasons, among many many more, this is why Amsterdam is a strong recommend.
Keep reading and smiling…
CG FEWSTON has been a Visiting Fellow at Hong Kong’s CityU, and a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome (Italy). He has a B.A. in English, an M.Ed. in Higher Education Leadership (honors), an M.A. in Literature (honors), and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing & Fiction. He was born in Texas in 1979 and now lives in Hong Kong.
He’s the author of several short stories and novels. His works include A Father‘s Son (2005), The New America: A Collection (2007), Vanity of Vanities (2011), A Time to Love in Tehran (2015), and forthcoming: Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being; Little Hometown, America: A Look Back; and, The Endless Endeavor of Excellence.
You can read more about the author on Facebook @ cg.fewston – where he has 350,000+ followers