Ian McEwan has a weak spot for characters who have a weak spot for words. Many of his fictions (his künstlerromans, to use the technical definition) slice through the peculiarities of writers in their different incarnations. Like the HBO series The Wire, in which each season deals with another aspect of the city of Baltimore, McEwan’s literary corpus has a continuous focus on different facets of writing and those who perform it. Not all of McEwan’s writer characters are professional authors, but an important percentage of them are. Enduring Love‘s lead character is a science writer who witnesses a balloon accident that changes his orderly, writerly life. Among Amsterdam‘s cast of characters are newspaper editors and hacks on the lookout for the latest scoop. Atonement‘s narrator and protagonist is a dreamy-eyed, 13-year-old-girl whose habit of plotting fictional stories for people around her leads to real catastrophe. Solar‘s comic protagonist is a Nobel Prize–winning physicist who has devoted a significant portion of his life to writing research papers. Sweet Tooth is based on the experiences of an up-and-coming novelist with an eerie resemblance to the author who has conceived him. In The Children Act, a novella written in the tradition of Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice” and “Tonio Kröger”, McEwan’s protagonist is yet another writerly figure: a high court judge whose obsession with producing lucid prose for her judgments reflects the deadened state of her emotions.
Death, youth and music are the subjects of this beautifully compact novel. They provide an antidote to the orderly existence of the 59-year-old Fiona Maye, who lives in a comfortable apartment around Gray’s Inn Square in London. We watch her spend her Sunday evening on a chaise lounge with a glass of Scotch in her hand. The moment seems peaceful from outside, but once we get into Fiona’s thoughts it appears that she is in pain, and is dealing with intense emotions she had forgotten about, thanks to her disciplined, law-oriented life. Earlier in the day she shouts at her husband, in a language she has not used in a long time: “You idiot! You fucking idiot!” Like Marlon Brando’s “Fucking God!”, the legendary roar that opens Last Tango in Paris, Fiona’s shout heralds an emotional crisis that she will need to come to terms with.
Rather like a public automaton serving the legal needs of discontented customers, Fiona has to respond instantly to cases brought to the Family Division of the High Court and provide detailed judgments about them. The private case that is being formed in her own apartment demands judgment of a different, more emotional kind. “I need it. I’m fifty-nine. This is my last shot. I’ve yet to hear evidence for an afterlife,” her husband Jack tells her. He is a handsome bloke (“lopsidedly square-jawed, a toothy game-for-anything expression that charmed his students”) who works as a history professor, writing and lecturing about ancient philosophers. His epically unsuccessful sales pitch for an open marriage includes the following sentences: “I’ve become your brother. It’s cozy and sweet and I love you, but before I drop dead, I want one big passionate affair.”
Although Fiona immediately rejects his proposal, it is understandable that Jack should make it: in their thirty-five-year marriage, things have been good and cozy between husband and wife, but a too-heavy workload on both sides, coupled with the regret of never finding the time to have a child, have proved consequential. From Jack’s perspective, being married to Fiona must seem a bit like being married to Gustave Flaubert’s objective, nameless, invisible narrators. She disappears into nothingness in her determination to do justice to the High Court. As a partner and a lover, she appears a bit lifeless. Jack’s prospective affair with a twenty-eight-year-old statistician named Melanie (a name “not so remote from the name of a fatal form of skin cancer”) is partly a reaction to living with a person who feels she needs to be perfectly selfless to do her job right.
Even after learning about the affair Fiona continues to be preoccupied with her judgments, her arguments and her prose. Authoring is a never-ending activity. She needs to approve a judgment before its publication the next day: the “prose needed to be smoothed, as did the respect owed to piety in order to be proof against an appeal.” A tireless producer of drafts and letters, Fiona finds it difficult to compose a judgment about her own situation. This will necessarily be more difficult than the impersonal judgment she has produced recently: “The draft of Fiona’s judgment was twenty-one pages long, spread in a wide fan facedown on the floor, waiting for her to take it up, a sheet at a time, to mark with soft pencil.” Her strategy about Jack’s proposal for an open marriage resembles those drafts, in that she modifies parts of her plan as she goes along.
The next day, a Monday, Fiona changes the lock on her apartment to keep Jack out. She also learns about a case concerning a seventeen-year-old boy named Adam. Talented and beautiful, Adam has leukemia but refuses blood transfusion because of his religious beliefs as a Jehovah’s Witness. Thus begins Adam’s symbolic role in the novel: just like the protagonist’s refusal to allow Jack back into her life, he refuses the blood of another person inside his body.
Fiona and Adam struggle with the emotionally challenging prospects of adultery and death in dramatically different ways. She is too mature, while he is too childish. McEwan places them in the same room (in the hospital where Adam is treated) and the resultant scene has an epiphanic quality. With more than a passing resemblance to James Joyce’s “The Dead” (also about the death of a marriage and the effect a dying boy has on it), McEwan reveals the emotional state of Fiona and Adam through a moment that crystallizes their concerns. In his state of decay and in his romantic acceptance of death, Adam ends up representing life and passion for Fiona, just as the bedridden young lad Michael Furey does for Gretta Conroy in Joyce’s story.
Adam is an exceptional child: he had won a poetry competition and can recite odes by Horace. His brightness creates an immediate bond with Fiona, who was also a poet at his age. She remembers her “quatrains daringly unrhymed,” one of which is “about death by drowning, of sinking deliciously backward among the river weeds, an improbably fantasy inspired by the Millais painting of Ophelia.” This is followed by other memories from her younger years: finally she is occupied with images and feelings from her own life. She remembers making “flowcharts of possible lives” as “a concert pianist, a vet, a journalist, a singer.” Being a high court judge was not among those.
Because of the leukemia and his refusal to treat it, Adam does not have the chance to make similar flowcharts. His refusal of blood also means, for Fiona, that he can’t be Fiona-like. She reads one of his poems that is decorated with Biblical references (“My fortunes sank into the darkest hole / When Satan took his hammer to my soul”), and listens to him play the violin. This newly acquired skill creates another bond between the two, as Fiona is an amateur piano player. She invites him play the violin, and accompanies him by singing the lyrics of Yeats’s “Down by the Salley Gardens,” whose words she knows by heart. The scene ends this way: “As they finished, the lad in the brown jacket was rolling his trolley into the room and the brushed-steel plate-covers made a cheerful tinkling sound.” Here, the intervention of the mundane, through the tinkling sound of the plate-covers, gives us a hint of Fiona’s decision.
The Children Act in the book’s title orders that “when a court determines any question with respect to… the upbringing of a child… the child’s welfare shall be the court’s paramount consideration”. Not allowing Adam the life choices she has had would be to work against his welfare. She arranges a secular intervention aimed to rescue Adam from his own beliefs. The tinkling sound also hints at Fiona’s wish for an intervention in her own problems— perhaps a courtly authority can solve her problems as if by magic.
The second half of The Children Act is about the consequences of Fiona’s intervention in Adam’s life, and the lack of intervention in hers. Her judgment on Adam has the unanticipated result of making him fall in love with his saviour. Having left his religious beliefs and his family behind, Adam comes after her, ready to sacrifice everything, like a passionate lover. In contrast, Fiona’s relationship with her husband continues with the same civility and coolness, with both sides making concessions so as to avoid a divorce. No decisive intervention is made by either wife or husband; they take a more moderate, mature and boring path. Adam, on the other hand, is keen to change things.
McEwan’s controlled prose, which incorporates music and poetry towards the operatic finale of the book, seems to imply two things about writers. One: a preoccupation with giving perfect judgments (and producing good prose) carries with it the danger of destroying life’s sensuousness and excitement. Two: one should open her ears to the forces of music and poetry, because in their uncontrollability they have the power to change our lives.
“Without music, life would be a mistake,” Nietzsche famously wrote. Writers or not, we can easily lose the sense of being alive, until something reminds us of music, sickness, and death.