Ian McEwan, Nutshell (Jonathan Cape, London 2016)

Nutshell, the latest novel by the English writer, Ian McEwan, is the story of a thinking fetus, who has the opportunity to know his family before time and meditate whether or not to come into the world. McEwan does not believe in the deterministic equivalence of biology and biography and in this novel, which owes so much to scientific knowledge, he concede to an agglomeration of cells, to an organ added to a mother’s body, that much of consciousness, irony and wit which serve to build a destiny.
A prisoner of his mother’s womb, the “quasi-son” dreams of adult life as a mirage or an enviable bourgeois condition. Meanwhile, from his “private penumbra”, he transforms his state of imprisonment into a privileged perspective, scrutinising reality with the only means at his disposal: hypersensitive hearing, amplified by the resonance chamber of his amniotic liquid. He is able to accurately distinguish voices and noises of the outside world. Alternating his personal interpretations with more objective dialogues, the narrator informs us with disarming sincerity of his psycho-physical progress and of his growing frustrations in the face of the desire for a life of his own.
Son-to-be of separated parents, he discovers that he has an intelligent but naive father, an unsuccessful poet, a beautiful, indifferent mother, and an uncle who is greedy, insulting, and destined to become his adoptive father. As if that were not enough, the couple of lovers have illegally settled in central London, in the dilapidated but historic family residence, thus taking it away from the only legitimate owner, the natural father, who hopes to win back together his wife with the lost kingdom. In a domestic space as claustrophobic as the womb, envies and resentments proliferate, and the tragedy is announced.
The narrator becomes the only non-eye witness of an assassination and on this paradox McEwan constructs a captivating crime fiction, using a Shakespearean frame. Although, in fact, the literary genres seem almost extinct to the postmodern conscience of the unborn child – with the exception of verses that he listens with infinite melancholy from his father – the references to Hamlet are many and dosed with superb mastery in the fabric of the text. In addition to the explicit quotations of the title, or the imitation of entire scenes, the debt appears much deeper in the characters, who thus acquire a dramatic stature in the banality of the present time. On the one hand, Hamlet’s excessive awareness is reflected in the son, condemned to literally embody the quarrel between being and not being; on the other, the immoral conduct of lovers sarcastically resounds in their very names, Claude and Trudy, casts of the noblest Claudius and Gertrude. The reader perceives on every page a sense of tragedy, mixed with grotesque, thanks to the mechanism of the plot, but, as in Shakespeare’s theatre, also thanks to the meticulous artifice of words.
Continuing in the paradox, we discover that the child, in his desire for the future, is the only one to come out of the shell, showing a heartfelt concern for the fate of the world and McEwan nourishes his curiosity by making him listen, along with his mother, hours and hours of podcasts and radio programs. Inspired once again by Hamlet, the author invents a modern background noise, so that in the twenty-first century everything is “overheard”, grasped by chance or disclosed with malice as gossip in a Renaissance court.
So the disillusionment of the child ends up incorporating also the denunciation of the author who, perhaps not accidently, in this book stops believing in the miracle of birth. It will suffice to compare the ending with that of his most famous book, The Child in Time (1987) to see all the cleverness, but also the bitterness, with which McEwan describes the birth and the establishment/disintegration of a family. The microcosm of private love is not enough, therefore, to redeem the world from chaos, and in this the voice of the child and the author become confused. As the protagonist writes in his lucid letter to his father: “From where I am, you and my mother and the world, are all one. Hyperbola”.

Generational Countdown – 4321 by Paul Auster

Who has never dreamed of living their lives at least a second time? To intervene in the order of events or change the outcome of apparently simple decisions? With 4321 Paul Auster gives us a surprising novel, granting its protagonist, the young Archie Ferguson, not a simple, banal, second chance, but the possibility of embodying himself in four different destinies.
Almost a century of American history – from immigration to world wars, from Vietnam to struggles for civil rights – unfolds to accompany the events of a typical family, also grown up, by a strange coincidence with the geography of its author, between Newark, in New Jersey, and neighboring New York.
This, at least, is the trace on which the book seems to put us right from the start, hinting, in its nineteenth-century layout, at the arrival of the founder, the Russian Jew Isac Ferguson, who landed on Ellis Island on January 1, 1900, and became through that rite of passage one of the many American citizens represented in the festive image of the English edition cover. It won’t take long, however, to understand that his legendary journey and the assumption of a new surname are just a conventional antecedent in a plot that actually denies epic breath because it tenaciously escapes the idea of a higher need, what the Greeks would call the “telos”. Here the lack of the end prevents a real end of the story; the gods are distracted or absent, as Archie often observes with desolation.
The myth of the American dream is broken, therefore, not only by the evident failure of his ancestor, forced into a life of hardship and killed – as we discover in the first of more than eight hundred pages – but in a narrative that proceeds little chronologically and expands, instead, much in the four parallel lives of his descendant. Like David Copperfield, the young Archie Ferguson, from the day of his birth on 3 March 1947 (one month after that of his inventor), is destined to become the hero of his own life and, at the same time, that of others; and through his point of view, necessarily partial, the facts will be told by an omniscient narrator.
The search for the “invisible spirit that guides the world”, inherent in every self-respecting epic, must coincide and be confused, then, with the equally invisible discovery of the plurality hidden in every single biography. For this reason, Auster does not give up his role as director, on the contrary, he gives unparalleled proof of it, not only in the plausible variatio to which he subjects the lives of the Fergusons, but also in the way he manages the time of the macro-history, regulating it to the slowest rhythm of its pages. There are frequent paragraphs that open with a date, as well as more general indications on the passage of time: “circumstances have changed”, “years pass”.
The innumerable facts of history almost plunge into the vortex of lives, showing that what is ultimately of interest to the writer is not so much the fulfillment of a destiny, but its development, the unparalleled energy of the beginning. In this key of interpretation one can understand the choice of the title, even before its apparent enigma is revealed by the plot. The descending series of those four numbers, in fact, can be read with the anxious expectation of a countdown, that necessary suspension that precedes every great impulse, that momentum in which the future track of events is perceived, time takes shape and one begins. It is not by chance that the history of the ancestor starts symbolically with the beginning of the year and the century.
In the infinite present of the twentieth century Auster throws himself headlong telling the literary and sentimental education of its protagonists, but stopping just beyond the threshold of twenty years. The surprising precocity with which all Fergusons devour books, write and consume their sexual experiences, using an uninhibited and at times brazen language, is an element of very strong acceleration, which finally balances, counteracting it, the risk of repetition.
Auster gave shape to a novel completely different from those to which we are accustomed. The most ardent fans, however, should not let themselves be intimidated by the wide measure and unusually loose style of his new writing. In fact, they will be able to find various elements of continuity, among which, the unmistakable taste for meta-fiction, the easy quotation and finally the absolute dexterity in mixing autobiography and fiction.

 

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