Shakespeare used to use Venice as a setting for wickedness and corruption because Italian cities were fair game and a beaut contrast to the respectabilities of England. McEwan has used Amsterdam as a place of freedom to do dreadful things with drugs and state-sanctioned deaths, and to deliver a shocking finale to this very entertaining book. A reviewer called Kirkham on Amazon dismissed this book as 'middle-brow fiction British style - strong on the surface, vapid at the centre', but I don't agree.
Molly Lane dies, and her lovers meet at her funeral. Clive Linley and Vernon Halliday are great friends, united in their dislike of Molly's husband, George, who's stuffy and pretentious. They also loathe Julian Garmony, Foreign Secretary and likely claimant to the Prime Ministership.
Clive's a successful composer, struggling with writing a Millenium Symphony. (How long ago the Millenium fuss seems now!) He's not avant-garde, he's got pretensions to Beethoven. McEwan mocks him a bit, because he's popular and therefore probably lowbrow, but he paints an interesting picture of the artist at work. Clive is at pains to shrug off the 'creative genius must-not-be-disturbed while in seclusion' tag. He makes time for his friends and he schedules his responsibilities to fit in around his composing efforts. But clearly something is not quite right because the deadline looms (as the Millenium did) and the work's not finished. Clive finds he has to get some peace and quiet and takes himself off to climb in the Lake district and allow the muse to come...
The trouble is, that he is interrupted, even there. He's had a row with his mate Vernon, a not-very-successful editor of a newspaper which is struggling to compete with the cut-throat world of English tabloid 'journalism'. He is at war with the 'Old Grammarians', a pun to show their links to both the old public schools and the old ways of writing - he wants to do upmarket tabloids, with feature articles on 'Siamese twins in local government'. There's a very funny comment on this type of writing in which the editor discusses revamping their columns with the team, suggesting that they hire 'someone of low to medium intelligence, possibly female, to write about, well, nothing much. You've seen the sort of thing. Goes to a party and can't remember someone's name.... Twelve hundred words.' Navel gazing is deemed too intellectual, what they want is 'navel chat' and the topics they brainstorm are hilarious: 'Can't work her video recorder'. 'Is my bum too big?' 'Buying a guinea pig'. 'His hangover.' 'Her first grey pubic hair'. 'Always gets the supermarket trolley with the wobbly wheel'. 'Always losing biros'. (p129). (I think of this excerpt often when I scan today's papers, and every now and again I email it to the editor, with so far no impact whatsoever, but I live in hope...)
Anyway, Vernon has some compromising photos of the loathesome Garmony. Taken by Molly, they capture him in his pathetic cross-dressing. These photos are the subject of major debate even before publication - with injunctions in court, rival papers sneering at their use and so on. Clive tears Vernon apart because the freedom to be a cross-dresser is one of the freedoms they fought for in the 70s. Vernon wants to bring down Garmony because he's a racist, a hypocrite, and a 'scourge of immigrants, asylum seekers, travellers, marginal people' (p73) but Clive believes that 'if it's ok to be a transvestite, then it's ok for a racist to be one. What's not ok is to be a racist...if it's ok to be a transvestite, it's ok for a family man to be one too.'
Up in the mountains, Clive can't shake off this row and the angst it causes him, and for a while it threatens to block the muse there too. Inspiration eventually comes, but so too does a rapist intent on harming a solitary female hiker. Clive sees the start of the violence, but - in the service of his 'art' - does not intervene.
When Vernon hears about this he is outraged, and when he is sacked over the photo fallout, he decides to avenge himself. Here the story becomes grand farce, as the two friends meet up in Amsterdam to poison each other. Clive is livid because the finale of his new symphony is no good. It's derivative and unfinished because Vernon intervened and called in the police about the hiker, just in the last couple of days that Clive needed to finish off the composition. Not everyone likes the shocking ending, but I think it works. A reviewer on Amazon calls it Jacobean, something I should have picked up myself, considering my degree in Eng Lit at Melbourne University, where we studied Jacobean plays in some detail. Amsterdam is (in my opinion) a morality play where reprehensible characters get their comeuppance in a 'tragedian bloodbath'.
There are much delicious satire in this book, such as the description of Clive's mansion in its various incarnations as a flower child's pad (p45) and a composer's hideaway, still holding the detritus of the passing years. It's quite clear (p64) that Clive is a very wealthy, comfortable snob and slob! He sneers at modern music (p22) and writes the kind of stuff the public likes (p23) - but there's also a lovely passage which resonates with anyone creative about how the muse comes on p84.
There's also an interesting thread about euthanasia. Molly dies a ghastly undignified death from some horrible disease that prevented her not only from caring for herself but also from tidying up her own affairs (which was how the photos got into Vernon's hands). Appalled by this, Colin and Vernon made a pact to 'help each other out' if ever either one should be unable to fend for themselves, and it looks here as if McEwan is making a strong case for trusting someone with power of attorney to end the suffering of the terminally ill. However, considering how things turn out between Colin and Vernon, McEwan's view seems to be that even the best of friends can't be trusted with the power of life and death over another.
I finished reading this book and journalled it on New Year's Day 2003.
Lisa Hill, ANZ Litlovers