On a chilly February day two old friends meet in the throng outside a crematorium to pay their last respects to Molly Lane. Both Clive Linley and Vernon Halliday had been Molly's lovers, Clive and Vernon will make a pact that will have unforeseen consequences.
On the latter question, we must assume that the answer was "no" – or that the person making the case against the book was roundly ignored. As I shall now attempt to show, a point-by-point debunk of the novel can be carried out in around five minutes – even less time than it takes to read the thing.
That said, it is a beautifully written book. As a musician, I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of music and the process of writing it. The characters are sympathetic, even in their narcissism, and have some depth to them. And the issues it raises are interesting and deftly handled.
In other words, very good, but not quite as good as I expected.
Yet it seems oddly joyless, almost clinical. It is populated by character studies, rather than people, and those characters are bourgeois and self-important, sometimes brushing close to caricature.
Finishing a good book can feel like a momentous act, its fictional events disturbing, its characters mourned for. Finishing this was satisfying, was interesting, but emotionally it felt like finishing the manual for a DVD player.
The plot is interesting enough - it is a tale of morality, of politics, and of the destruction of friendship. The two main characters are well-constructed, and the narrative contains many twists and turns. But, it is no Atonement - a book with characters that I cared about, and themes that resonated in my own life. I finished Amsterdam and immediately moved on to my next book. I didn't stop to ponder passages, or to reflect on the ending - something that I almost always do.
I still love McEwan - you can't give up on an author because of one mis-step, right?
The story started with Clive and Vernon’s friendship and their common lover, Molly Lane, now deceased. Along the way, they make a promise to each other. As each of them proceed with their lives and the climax of their careers, all hell break loose. (Well, it wouldn’t be a McEwan book if things go smoothly now, would it?) Unfortunately the conclusion is forced, blunt, potentially plausible but poorly delivered.
What a dud of a book.
On Music – I’m a pretty big fan of “Nessun dorma”, particularly the Pavarotti version, so this was entertaining:
“The committee, dismissed by the music establishment as middlebrow, above all longed for a symphony from which could be distilled at least one tune, a hymn, an elegy for the maligned and departed century, that could be incorporated into the official proceedings, much as “Nessun dorma” had been into a football tournament. Incorporated, then set free to take its chances of an independent life in the public mind during the third millennium.”
On Being a Manager:
“This exercise of authority did not sharpen his sense of self, as it usually did. Instead it seemed to Vernon that he was infinitely diluted; he was simply the sum of all the people who had listened to him, and when he was alone, he was nothing at all.”
“But now it appeared that this was what it really was – square miles of meager modern houses whose principal purpose was the support of TV aerials and dishes; factories producing worthless junk to be advertised on the televisions and, in dismal lots, lorries queuing to distribute it, and everywhere else, roads and the tyranny of traffic. It looked like a raucous dinner party the morning after... To watch it mile after mile, who would have guessed that kindness or the imagination, that Purcell or Britten, Shakespeare or Milton, had ever existed?”
I'd absolutely reocmmend this to folks who are looking for a taste of McEwan or a fast-moving escape, as well as to any readers who have an interest in fiction that deals ethics or with the place of the artist and or artistic morality in society. Readers interested in detailed character studies should appreciate McEwan's work in general.
The other similarity to "Saturday" here is the fact that it seems to have an odd distrust of the written word. That book, let's remember, featured a venerable old poet getting socked right in the jaw after daring to stand up to a thug. "Amsterdam" gives us Vernon, a newspaper editor constantly at war with a faction of the staff he dismisses as "the grammarians," you know, newspaper writers who bother with the finer points of grammar and style. True, Vernon is attempting to find his fading paper's place in the new media landscape, but It's still kind of depressing, really, especially since McEwan's writing isn't bad at all. But Vernon's attitude seems to point toward the fact that McEwan, for all his use of the indirect third person, is a writer more interested in systems than people. That's not what I read novels for, though, thank you very much.
There are some things to admire about "Amsterdam," beyond McEwan's prose. It features, as other reviewers have noted, a lovely account of the mechanics of artistic creation on the part of the composer, something that's surprisingly rare in fiction. And the book is, as a blurb has it "a well-oiled machine," the plot, with, as another reviewer noted, its Greek tragedy dynamics, really does lock together very nicely. And there's some dry humor here and there. But in the end, "Amsterdam" struggles to justify its existence: its seems a bit like literature for a post-literature world. And it is, at last, refreshingly brief. This thing got the Booker Prize? Heaven forfend!
The tale revolves around composer Clive Linley and newspaper editor Vernon Halliday, both of whom are long-standing friends connected notably by the affairs they held with Molly Lane, whose funeral opens the novel. Her death ends up setting into motion a number of decisions for the two friends -- one of which involves high-ranking government official Julian Garmony, another of Molly's former beaus -- that leads slowly and inexorably towards disaster.
The success of this fairly straightforward morality tale lies in McEwan's management of the material. Throughout the first three sections, there is little obvious mention of moral fortitude, instead letting the dialogue between Clive and Vernon gradually increase in tension. Though the relationship seems to jump a little too quickly into adversity, the development of the two characters is natural and effectively unnerving.
It's hard to nail down precisely what makes this novel so entrancing, but with commentaries on topics as wide-ranging as friendship, creativity, journalistic integrity, political involvement, scandal, and even assisted suicide, McEwan's strength here is his deft handling of complexity within a limited but potent space. Save for Clive's holiday to Lake District, there is little extenuating description, just direct prose that carries the story forward at a brisk pace. The climax of the book, which hinges on an issue that seems at first to have been a passing mention, exemplifies the subtlety of his approach, letting the tale speak for itself instead of grinding out a "message" book.
All told, the novel is brief but compulsively readable, the tale of men unraveling before they even realize they have, and thereby elevating itself beyond the typical morality tale to something truly memorable and very much worth reading.
Intensely readable (I did it in nearly one sitting), quick, dark, funny. Not nearly as weighty as Atonement or Saturday, but still just as important a work.
The plot deals with an absent character called Molly who is dead and two former lovers of Molly meet at her funeral. One of them, Vernon, is a newspaper editor and the other is Clive, a successful composer commissioned to compose a Millennium Score. A third character called Julian is the foreign secretary and also a former lover of Molly, who can't get along with Vernon because of the scissor-paper relationship politicians and newspaper editors naturally share.
I will not divulge the plot. However, I might say that two moral mistakes are committed by both the lead characters and each of them becomes the other's enemy fighting on moral grounds until they both reach Amsterdam to fulfill a promise they made to each other during their days of friendship.
Let me tell that I did not like the closure. The closure has a strange and cunning hint at euthanasia - only the ailment here is not physical but mental and moral. The thing one must know is that Netherlands is the only country to legalise euthanasia and probably that's why the author chose such a place. However, the other part is that non-Dutch are not legally allowed euthanasia. Whatever may be the case, the strange ending will linger in your head and will surely vex you until you find a reasonable argument for the actions, like I have tried to relate it to a form of euthanasia, or will leave a bitter taste.
I own a trade paperback edition of this novel and I would not recommend buying it for appx. 350 INR.