Monday, December 2, 2013

Novelists Are Spy Masters

Did you ever write the words, 'how true', in the margins of a great book? Have you picked up a novel in a used book shop and seen the words scratched in pencil from a previous reader? Did you mar A Tale of Two Cities in high school? I was subject to my sister's hand me down copies, so I was initiated into the 'how true' habit. Now I resort to a notebook and copy sentences that deserve this attention.

Ian McEwan is an English writer whom the San Francisco Chronicle, reviewing “Sweet Tooth,” describes as, “a thinking persons bestseller whose intelligent, tightly plotted novels, narrated in careful prose, address the pressing social and political issues of our days.”

 While visiting a charming and rustic cabin up in Bayview Idaho, a great friend whose intellect never ceases to astound me, pressed her copy of this work into my hand. As we had both read Atonement, and On Chesil Beach for the Best Food Ever Book Club, I could not wait to begin, Sweet Tooth.

A thinking person's bestseller is an apt description of Booker Prize winner, Ian McEwan's talent. Born in Aldershot England, on June 21 1948, he has enjoyed a very prolific career. He lived in Singapore and Lybia while his father, a sergeant major in the British army, worked on campaigns during the years of the Cold War. Ian McEwan's novel,  Amsterdam yielded a Booker Prize. His novel Atonement was shortlisted for the same award. The film of the same name, starring James McAvoy and Keira Knightly, was nominated for an Oscar. The story is a family saga set during before and during the days of World War II. It involves an innocent mistake with devastating consequences, and the need to 'atone' for both.

A great writer will craft sentences that are truly memorable. When lifted from their context, the sentence may stand alone,  live on, and be quoted frequently.

From Atonement:

“A person is, among all else, a material thing, easily torn and not easily mended.”

A character in the novel describes why she writes:

“A story was a form of telepathy. By means of inking symbols onto a page, she was able to send thoughts and feelings from her mind to her readers. It was a magical process, so commonplace that no one stopped to wonder at it"

On Chesil Beach was shortlisted for the Booker prize in 2007. Being that it was one of our summer selections for the Best Food Ever Book Club, I had the rare thrill of reading it on vacation, on the lovely southern coast of England where the tale is set. I could open the hotel window and smell the sea breezes while devouring this depiction of a marriage going off the rails, right from the start.

McEwan writes: “You can spin stories out of the ways people understand and misunderstand each other.”

In Sweet Tooth, chapter three begins with these words:

“I didn't cancel my appointment with MI5.”

Set in 1972, during the Cold War, an attractive young woman, a bishop's daughter, is recruited and given an assignment to work for British intelligence, known as MI5. She is to meet with a writer she admires, inform him of a charitable foundation willing to support him on the basis of his talent and  promise. His early misgivings are instantly overcome with the promise of cash and sponsorship. Once he accepts, she is tasked with  holding his hand through to completion. Publication and an ensuing award banquet follow, feeding his belief in himself.  In reality, it is a clever ruse on the part of government forces wanting to steer the conversation to their desired political ends. The Cold War rages on, and certain powers that be fear communist rhetoric infecting the Kingdom. When will she be found out? When will his dream of success shatter into a million pieces? Would this not represent the worst nightmare for any writer, to be seduced into thinking your writing is good, when in truth you are being used as a pawn in a sham production?

McEwan states: “You could say that all novels are spy novels and all novelists are spy masters.”


gmayster said...

Excellent and true

Mary Jane Honegger said...

I enjoyed reading the words of Churchill, Kennedy, King and Lincoln that have appeared in recent blogs. I think each of these men's words were so powerful because they spoke from the heart - from a dedication they felt to a cause. Thanks for reminding us, Elizabeth and Kathy.