§ion=&combo2=&text1=&text2=&SocNetUsername=&SocNetPassword=&authCode=& 7th Decade Thoughts: Black Dogs by Ian McEwan

7th Decade Thoughts

Thoughts about books, politics and history (personal and otherwise), pictures I've taken and pictures I've edited.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Black Dogs by Ian McEwan

I have always been somewhat suspicious of Ian McEwan. I first read Amsterdam which I disliked intensely since it was obvious to me what would happen very early in the novel and I didn’t particularly enjoy seeing it work out just as I predicted. Since then I’ve read a good chunk of his fiction and I’ve had this complaint: that he comes off as a more-than-usually-sophisticated thriller writer who focuses on the intrusion of gratuitous violence into the lives of the characters and watches how they deal with it.

Recently I read On Chesil Beach which I saw as very well put together and moving away from the usual formula (to which he returned, disappointingly in Saturday after attempting much more in Atonement) in that there was no physical violence and the dramatic plot development where the lovers separate on their wedding night never to see each other again grew out of their own psychology; it was not a crisis imposed from without.

Then I went back and read Black Dogs (published in 1992) and found it not nearly as “accomplished” especially in writing style as any of his last three, but not “just a sophisticated thriller” either. The narrator’s parents were killed in an accident when he was 8 and he grows up in the chaotic and unsupportive home of his elder sister. He makes a habit of interacting with the parents of his friends even as his friends rebel against them. Then he marries Jenny Tremaine and takes over the relationship with her parents, June and Bernard. As the novel starts, June and Bernard are elderly and the narrator, Jeremy, is interviewing June for a memoir he plans to write. The couple—both lapsed Communists—have lived their lives mostly apart, not because they don’t love each other, but because they disagree ideologically, June believing in both good and evil and in the possibility of unseen powers while Bernard remains the complete scientist/rationalist. Jeremy focuses on their philosophical differences and wonders if he’s better or worse because he has no philosophical passions.

June lived most of her life in a bergerie in France where she sought a spiritual life while Bernard was an active scientist, writer, journalist and politician in England. The event that marked their irreconcilable difference occurred on their honeymoon in France when June, wandering ahead of Bernard who stopped to examine an unusual caterpillar, encountered two large and vicious black dogs and during the confrontation experienced what seemed to her absolute evil (in the black dogs) as well as a visitation (evidenced by an unusual light event) from God who allowed her to survive.

The novel is set against the background of WWII. The “black dogs”, who turn out, appropriately, to be remnants of those trained by the Nazis during the occupation, are what separate June and Bernard. Bernard is proud that she defended herself with a knife and survived; June is sure she was allowed to survive in order to explore the spirituality inherent in human life. June believes in good and evil; Bernard believes in the infinite perfectibility of humans. Jeremy starts out feeling superior to both of them because he has no beliefs.


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