Saturday, by Ian McEwan

A Saturday in the life of Henry Perowne, who's a successful neurosurgeon. The Saturday in question is 15th February, 2003: the day of the protest against the Iraq war.

During the course of the day, Henry sees what he thinks is a terrorist attack, plays squash, visits his mother who's senile in a nursing home, hosts a dinner party for his family and performs an emergency operation. So there's plenty of stuff that happens, not to mention the rather dramatic events caused by an altercation Henry has following a traffic accident.

Henry is a man whose life appears to be blessed: comfortably off, a good career, in love with his wife, and with two children who appear to be making successes of their own lives. He's a decent man, someone with whom we feel sympathy, rather than envy. But throughout the book there's a sense of discomfort due to the way that things are happening in the world that are beyond Henry's control, and that are not susceptible to reason.

There were a fair number of bits in here that I wanted to remember, so here are some quotes.

Daisy, Henry's daughter, is a poet, and she tries to encourage Henry to read more literature. But that's not something he has been able to understand, and his attitude shows how he fails to grasp the point: Under Daisy's direction, Henry has read the whole of Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, two acknowledged masterpieces. At the cost of slowing his mental processes and many hours of his valuable time, he committed himself to the shifting intricacies of these sophisticated fairy stories. What did he grasp, after all? That adultery is understandable but wrong, that nineteenth-century women had a hard time of it, that Moscow and the Russian countryside and provincial France were once just so. If, as Daisy said, the genius was in the detail, then he was unconvinced. The details were apt and convincing enough, but surely not so very difficult to marshal if you were halfway observant and had the patience to write them down.

At one stage Henry has an argument with his daughter about the Iraq war, to which she is passionately opposed. He considers that going to war may turn out to be the lesser of two evils, and you can see that perhaps this may have been how Blair reasoned. Although the way the discussion ends is, in hindsight, sadly prophetic: ...'My fifty pounds says three months after the invasion there'll be a free press in Iraq, and unmonitored Internet access too. The reformers in Iran will be encouraged, those Syrian, and Saudi and Libyan potentates will be getting the jitters.' Daisy says, 'Fine. And my fifty says it'll be a mess and even you will wish it never happened.'

His son is less concerned with world events: On a recent Sunday evening Theo came up with an aphorism: the bigger you think, the crappier it looks. When asked to explain he said, 'When we go on about the big things, the political situation, global warming, world poverty, it all looks really terrible, with nothing getting better, nothing to look forward to. But when I think small, closer in - you know, a girl I've just met, or this song we're going to do with Chas, or snowboarding next month, then it looks great. So this is going to be my motto - think small.'

Although he seems blind to the appeal of literature, he does like music, and has it playing while he performs his operations. When he listens to the Goldberg variations, he realises that at the end, the aria returns, identical on the page, but changed by all the variations that have come before. And there's a good passage talking about how he feels when he's operating, which is one of the best descriptions of what Tim Kasser calls flow that I've come across: For the past two hours he's been in a dream of absorption that has dissolved all sense of time, and all awareness of the other parts of his life...he's been delivered into a pure present, free of the weight of the past or any anxieties about the future. In retrospect, though never at the time, it feels like profound happiness...This state of mind brings a contentment he never finds with any passive form of entertainment. Books, cinema, even music can't bring him to this. Working with others is part of it, but it's not all. This benevolent dissociation seems to require difficulty, prolonged demands on concentration and skills, pressure, problems to be solved, even danger... (and on...).

At one stage, Daisy reads out a poem, "Dover Beach", by Matthew Arnold. I had a lump in my throat when I got to the end of the book and found the poem re-printed. And it is very well chosen: the last stanza seems to sum up Henry's situation very neatly.

I keep thinking of other bits of the book which I liked. Basically, a really good and impressive read.

Completed : 01-Jul-2007

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