Tag Archive for 'Hamlet'

Ian McEwan in a Nutshell

This novel, which was our book choice for July, proved to have the uncanny ability to polarise readers in ways that none of our previous choices succeeded in doing, which lead us to decide at the end of this month meeting that you either love it or hate it. The only reason to sit on the fence is because it can be deemed to be both highly clever and very annoying at the same time. We all agreed that the premise of having an unborn child forced to witness the plotting and murder of his father was a very amusing way to engage with the themes and ideas behind Hamlet, but many readers found the narrative voice just too irritating to set aside their disbelief that a foetus could speak in this manner.

McEwan said the origins of this novel came from an idea he had during a particularly boring meeting where he was thinking about Hamlet and came up with the first line, “So here I am, upside down in a woman.” This was the seed that grew into an exploration of a very different take on the crime genre. We took some time throughout our discussion to think about genre and decided this novel could best be described as a murder-mystery farce. One reader commented how much it reminded him of ‘An Inspector Calls’ where the question about ghosts and reality only unravels at the end. Another reader focused on the many Shakespearean references that pointed to other plays such as the bear in ‘Winter’s Tale’. From the very beginning McEwan sprinkles clues that this novel is an engagement with Shakespeare and he starts by including the following epigraph: “Oh God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space – were it not that I have bad dreams.” In this novel McEwan’s Gertrude has become Trudy, the young estranged wife of the poet and editor John Cairncross, and she is having an affair with her husband’s brother Claude, who is a rather obnoxious version of Shakespeare’s Claudius. The entire plot is told from the perspective of an unborn foetus who represents Hamlet as he ruminates over the murder of his father. Just like in the play he is obsessed with Trudy’s immorality, which is described in a very tongue-in-cheek way, literally staring him in the face. Our narrator cannot get away from the “something rotten” which is corrupting his physical space and leads him to contemplate and attempt to “not be” by squeezing his umbilical cord to cut off his life supply. The fear of the afterlife here is not post-death but post-birth and so McEwan twists and plays with concepts of knowability, revenge, distorted truths, immorality, and the power of words.

NutshellThere were some members of our group who had entirely missed the references to Hamlet but found great enjoyment in the humorous play of words and ideas. We all appreciated the cleverness of the concept on which the whole novel rests, that the narrator has not seen the world outside the uterus. Several people commented on how McEwan never confines himself as a writer but likes to explore very different ways of writing, styles and ideas. that is not a re-telling of Shakespeare’s plot as we do not have all the characters and Ophelia is particularly noticeable by her absence. We all agreed that it was not necessary to try to recreate the characters and plot as McEwan’s intentions were more to engage with themes and play with language. Central to this is how he uses the restricted physical ability to see from inside the uterus to explore perception and play with truth and reality.

What was most contentious about the novel was the narrative voice. Instead of the innocent voice that could be expected from an unborn child, it sounded more like a middle-aged, middle-class, middle of the road academic. The language was unusual and we felt that, while it did successfully remind us of Shakespeare, it was debatable whether it was possible to move beyond the smugness and pomposity of the narrator to invest in the plot. Even if we suspended our disbelief enough to accept that a foetus could have some level of knowledge and understanding gained from listening to podcasts, how did this voice remain post-birth? It was suggested that having an adult ‘Hamlet’ recovering his pre-birth memories through some kind of regression therapy would have been more believable.

The plot is where we found most of the comedy and many of us loved the little touches such as the undoing of the murderers by the spiders inside the driving gloves, the slapstick incidences involving hats and glasses and the intricacies of how they used anti-freeze while suggesting in a Shakespearean fashion that it could have worked better by pouring poison in his ear. The restricted perspective of our first person narrator left us with lots of questions about who to believe, and if we were being told the whole story or a very distorted version of the facts. How did Trudy and John first meet, why did they suddenly find themselves separating now she was pregnant when they had been trying for this baby and why was she with such a terrible man? Many readers did not like Trudy or indeed any of the characters as they were all weak and selfish. We also asked who was the father of the baby as no one seemed to be claiming it or caring for it. Elodie’s character was the most enigmatic as there were so many questions about her role in the story. Was she John’s lover and therefore lying in order to entrap Trudy, or was she genuine? She certainly seemed to embody a catalytic purpose in driving Trudy towards carrying out their murderous plans, but it remained up to the individual reader whether we saw her as more than just a friend and writer of owl poetry. Whatever we ultimately think of her is coloured by our narrator’s fluctuating viewpoint. He may prove to be unreliable in many of his strongly held opinions but we are carried with him in the beginning as he holds her in distain: “she might be letting Trudy know that here in London she’ll be overnighting between John’s Shoreditch sheets. She’s staking a claim. I like the sound of her voice, the human approximation, I would say of the oboe, slightly cracked, with a quack on the vowels. And towards the end of her phrases, she speaks through a gargling, growling sound that American linguists have dubbed ‘vocal fry’.” (pp64-5) The duplicity of his feelings towards her are thus echoed in the sarcastic way he describes her ‘likeable’ voice.

One of the most uncanny scenes in the novel happens towards the end when Trudy invites Elodie into John’s study to choose a memento from his vast collection. The preceding conversation revolves around John’s thoughts on poetry and how he has instructed Elodie to “decide, decide, decide” and to “disrupt the beat knowingly”. In this short dialogue we learn a lot about John’s professional life and how he was thought well of by his peers but it is this very conversation which signals the beginning of Trudy’s downfall. McEwan plays with us during this scene by creating melodrama while continuing the farce. John’s library is described as “in mourning” and just as Elodie chooses a book of poetry the doorbell rings exposing Trudy’s guilty fears. The book Elodie takes away is Peter Porter’s “The Cost of Seriousness” which is a tongue in cheek pointer towards John’s supposed suicide and how hidden meaning can be found through the way words are put together. We talked about Elodie’s association with owls and how they can symbolise the route into hidden truths by gaining insight into ill-intent. Elodie may be the tool that helps to expose Trudy and Claude’s lies but her place in this scene is to suggest John was his own undoing: “the cost of seriousness will be death”. John was so busy playing with words and ideas that he did not see “the world as solipsistic as ever’. (Porter from his Collected Poems) McEwan describes how John was dismissive of modern poets and people who think they are poets, which leads the reader back to questioning John’s poetic talents and if he was actually any good at what he did, or if he was someone that elevated his status by quoting other people’s work. McEwan thus leaves us to laugh at the irony of it all.

The ending was not what many of us had expected and for some was an unnecessary anti-climax; did we really need or want the birthing scene? Our mini-Hamlet’s failed suicide attempt leaves him angered at his impotency and he is determined to find a way out of his imprisonment, but not before the murderers encounter the ghost of the dead father. This is the foetus’ ultimate revenge fantasy and he imagines “a terrible expression, both blank and purposeful” which overwhelms his mother. “He stands close before us, exuding a sweet miasma of glycol and maggot-friendly flesh. It’s my mother he stares at with small, hard, black eyes made of imperishable stone. His disgusting lips move but he makes no sound. The tongue is blacker than the lips. Fixing his gaze on her all the while, he stretches out an arm. His fleshless hand fastens on my uncle’s throat. My mother can’t even scream.” This scene brings the reader back to the dead king Hamlet demanding that his son take revenge on Claudius and Gertrude, while we are simultaneously caught up in the narrator’s “spirit of revenge in a secular age” and how he “never gets what he wants”. We see the revenge not emanating from the dead father’s ghostly quest but as the son’s need to see the criminals punished. The message however is clear that the helpless baby has no recourse for all he has witnessed and, on birth he begins to see the world is both as a dangerous place with the prospect of further future imprisonment. He notes that Claude is smaller than he had imagined him to be with a “foxy look” that turns to disgust when he looks at the new born. His first glimpse of his mother is also the moment when he knows the full insecurity of the world he has been born into; she is both loving and murderous. At the very moment of his birth he is thus propelled into danger and the revenge he so wanted will also be his imprisonment as he is dependent for all his needs on the woman who killed his father. Those members of our group who knew McEwan’s other novels discussed how he has explored similar themes of innocence and the vulnerability of childhood in his other novels. McEwan ends with the sentence, “the rest is chaos” which a parting nod to the Bard who inspired this novel by playing with Hamlet’s words, “the rest is silence”. Ultimately we enjoyed this clever engagement with Shakespeare and the very different narrative perspective that was employed in a farcical plot that was never meant to be taken serious but enjoyed for its puns and playfulness.


Anthea Cordner