Amsterdam

by Ian McEwan

Paperback, 1998

Status

Available

Publication

New York : Anchor Books [1999], c1998.

Description

In the affairs of his dead wife, a British publisher discovers compromising pictures of the foreign secretary who was her lover. An opportunity for revenge on both the political and personal level.

Media reviews

Because Booker prize deliberations go on behind closed doors, we'll never really know what led the judging panel to Ian McEwan's Amsterdam. Naturally, that makes it all the more tempting and intriguing to speculate. What discussions were there? What compromises were made? Who stuck the knife into poor old Beryl Bainbridge? Were there displays of taste and erudition from Douglas Hurd and Nigella Lawson? How was the case made for Amsterdam? Were there compromises, or just a fuzzy consensus? Did anyone dissent? Did anyone actually try to suggest that this isn't a very good book?
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.
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Amsterdam is an intricate satirical jeu d'esprit and topical to the point of Tom Wolfeishness. It is also funnier than anything McEwan has written before, though just as lethal.
''Amsterdam'' is very British and, despite its title, takes place mainly in London and the Lake District. On the scale of nastiness, it gets high grades as well. But it is less unsettling than McEwan's earlier solemn-gory fables since its humorous dimension is everywhere apparent -- granted that the humor is distinctly black. Its tone overall, as well as part of its theme, reminded me more than once of the excellent 1990 Masterpiece Theater production ''House of Cards,'' in which Ian Richardson plays a sinister Tory cabinet minister. What readers tend to remember from McEwan's fiction is its penchant for contriving scenes of awful catastrophe: human dismemberment in ''The Comfort of Strangers''; a confrontation between a woman and two deadly wild dogs in ''Black Dogs''; the tour de force balloon disaster that brilliantly opens ''Enduring Love.'' Nothing in ''Amsterdam'' quite measures up to these events. Instead, the tribulations of its two main figures -- a composer, Clive Linley, and a newspaper editor, Vernon Halliday -- are treated in a cooler, more ironic manner, even as they move toward disaster. This chilliness is an extension of McEwan's habitual practice of damping down the sensational aspects of his imagined encounters by narrating them in a precise, thoughtful, unsensational way. It may, in fact, make the violence, when it occurs, seem that much more natural and inescapable.

User reviews

LibraryThing member cestovatela
I love Ian McEwan, but I hated this book. It starts with an intriguing premise: Clive and Vernon, two old friends, attend the funeral of a former lover. Over the course of the following days, both men will make "disasterous" moral decisions and a pact with unpredictable consequences. Reading this on the jacket copy set up considerable expectations, most of which were disappointed. Like most of Ian McEwan's characters, Vernon and Clive are deeply flawed, so I was prepared not to fully like them. I was not prepared to find them utterly unengaging. Each chapter finished with a cliffhanger, but the suspense was never enough to carry me forward. Reading about boring people is simply not rewarding. As the book crept toward its conclusion, it shed its final virtue: realism. Ian McEwan often writes about people controlled by their flaws, but in his previous characters, those flaws have always seemed honest and human. The ending of Amsterdam, however, requires us to believe the characters are almost sociopathic and I just didn't find that plausible. I heaved a great sigh of frustrated relief when the book reached its final chapter. Thank goodness it was less than 200 pages.… (more)
LibraryThing member Intemerata
I absolutely loved this until the last chapter, but the ending is simultaneously predictable and implausible, so much so that, until then, I'd assumed it couldn't possibly be heading the way it looked like it was: this is a Booker Prize-winning novel, after all.

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.
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LibraryThing member laphroaig
Amsterdam is a well crafted book. It avoids the bloat of some of McEwan's later work, maintaining a subtle momentum and a terse narrative. It is undoubtedly well written.

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.
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LibraryThing member cindysprocket
Since there already so many good reviews. I'm just going to say I enjoyed it and after thinking about it . Reminded me of a Hitchcock or a Twilight Zone thriller. Which made it fun.
LibraryThing member Cait86
Meh. I usually love McEwan's novels - his writing is beautiful. In fact, I think he is one of the greatest writers I have ever read. His sentences leap off the page, his paragraphs contain pearls of well-constructed widsom, and the blandest of moments become inspiring. Amsterdam, however, is lacking this greatness. Yes, the novel is probably better written than many other books, but it does not have that spark of greatness that I have come to expect from McEwan.

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?
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LibraryThing member Perednia
A trifle that had me wondering what all the fuss was about McEwan, read in 1999.
LibraryThing member varwenea
After reading Atonement and On Chesil Beach, Amsterdam is a disappointment. Make that a BIG disappointment. I wasn’t amused or smiled wily with knowing passages. None of the characters were likeable, not even in a wicked, sly, ‘daaang’ kind of way. The details were not particularly relatable – I liked Clive Linley’s search of that inspiring sound in nature for his symphony, but his other musical writer’s-book was more tedious than revealing. Similar for Vernon Halliday’s journalism tribulations – somewhat informative, but not news (punt intended). There weren’t even delightful sound bites, except perhaps one – “visual pollution of Day-Glo anoraks” during Clive’s hike in Lake District.

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.

Some quotes:

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.”

On Civilization:
“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?”
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LibraryThing member whitewavedarling
Understated and fast-moving, this is a graceful novel that asks difficult questions. I'd been told by others that this is McEwan's best work (at least as of a few years ago), and from what I've seen I whole-heartedly agree. McEwan's style is delicate here, his authorial voice not so overpowering as it is in some of the other novels I've read. The characters he creates here are not just believable, but sympathetic--something I've found lacking in some of his other works. Additionally, he creates some adept passages about artistry and music especially, to the point that some of the passages reminded me of favorite moments in work by James Baldwin and others who let music so influence their work. Those passages combined with graceful writing throughout and an engaging quick story made this book well worth exploring, and perhaps even returning to as well.

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.
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LibraryThing member Hera
I hated this novel. For it to have won The Booker, it had to be up against utter dross. Old-fashioned, self-regarding: the two main characters are obviously reflections of the nasty bits inside McEwan. This novel attempts philosophical questions in a cack-handed way, draws characters lazily and then expects the reader to give a damn. I didn't. A total waste of the three hours it took me to read it!… (more)
LibraryThing member TheAmpersand
This is the second novel by Ian McEwan that I've read, and I think I may have to conclude Mr. McEwan and myself just do not get along. "Amerstardam" is what literature might be like if "Mrs. Dalloway" had never happened: there's hardly anyone in this book, who isn't wealthy, extremely accomplished, and very British. It invites comparison, of course, to "Saturday," McEwan's more obvious homage to "Daloway," which featured a successful brain surgeon who had a genius-kid blues guitarist and a prize-winning poet for kids. Clarissa Dalloway, we should remember, was neither particularly bright nor particularly accomplished, though she managed to be pretty memorable. I suspect that McEwan is positioning himself to be the favorite author of the new British ruling class, which probably gets him invited to some pretty good parties. "Amerstam" features the editor of a national British daily, a noted composer, a cabinet secretary, a photographer who'd worked for Vogue, and another prominent politician. You know, just folks.

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!
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LibraryThing member dczapka
McEwan's Booker Prize-winning novel is every bit as impressive as its prizes would suggest, a work that is subtle but shocking, saying precisely what it needs to say and wasting nary a word.

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.
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LibraryThing member DoraBadollet
I expected more out of McEwan's Booker Prize award winning novel. It wasn't bad, but I found myself trudging through it rather than actually being inspired or entertained. The characters were well formed (that's McEwan's style) but they seemed incredibly difficult to either a) relate to or b) care about whatsoever. The moral dilemma was mildly interesting, but for a similar theme and much greater effect, pick up McEwan's Atonement. The characters are far more endearing and the novel itself enthralling. (Claire)… (more)
LibraryThing member piefuchs
Creepy, fast read with some stretched of exceptional prose detailing human behaviour at its most honest. That said, the plot failed to inspire and outside of a few passages I didn't think it was worthy of the raves reviews.
LibraryThing member daizylee
I don't know what I was expecting from Amsterdam but it wasn't what I got. It is a slim but amazing book. It definitely has that darkness that McEwan's earlier works have, but there's also this sly comedy there as well. And, as is the case with most big prizewinners, it's not afraid to be about big issues. If you haven't read any McEwan before, this would be a great place to start.

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.
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LibraryThing member NocturnalBlue
When you look up "black humor" in the dictionary, I would be surprised if you saw this book right next to the definition. Probably not something I would have picked up had I not already fallen for McEwan, but definitely worth reading. However, don't expect to have warm feelings about the human race by the time you finish.
LibraryThing member dryfly
I can't believe this won the Booker prize. I barely could finish it, it's a good thing the book is quite short.
LibraryThing member suejonesjohnson
Sharp characterizations and a bit of black humor told with a paucity of words.
LibraryThing member cdogzilla
This is the first McEwan that I've read, based on the recommendation of a friend whose high opinion of McEwan I had to respect. I was disappointed with this novel though. Not that it's bad, but it seems awfully slight and not very original for a prize winner. I liked the characterizations and prose enough to try again ... and I've seen other reviews that also call this book disappointing for this novelist.… (more)
LibraryThing member tls1215
I didn't like this book as much as I liked Atonement; frankly, I didn't know what all the fuss was about with this one.
LibraryThing member Sauvik
Atonement is a really good work by McEwan. But before that he actually won Booker for Amsterdam, a much shorter novel, in 1998.

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.
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LibraryThing member shootingstarr7
Amsterdam is a beautifully written, if somewhat predictably-plotted novel from one of the most well-received writers today. Character development was lacking, and the end didn't surprise me at all. However, a mediocre offering from McEwan is still better than the strongest works of others. It was a quick read, if not particularly engaging.… (more)
LibraryThing member lmckend
I enjoyed the read, literate, considered prose as always, however nowhere near as good as Enduring Love, for which he should have won the Booker.
LibraryThing member BrianDewey
McEwan, Ian. Amsterdam. Doubleday, 1998. A quick read---I read it on the flight from DC to Seattle on January 1. A contemporary moral fable with a lot of wit, it lacks the emotional punch I expected from a Booker-prize-winning novel. However, I enjoyed McEwan's writing, esp. the way he portrays the characters' fall into obsession.… (more)
LibraryThing member SirRoger
Very exciting, and quite funny in places. I couldn't put it down. Ultimately, though, it's a tragedy of human nature.
LibraryThing member msjoanna
It was clear from the beginning where this book was going. The writing was excellent, but the plot just didn't work for me. Rather than feel connected to the characters and interested in their twisting friendship, I felt like strangling them. As my husband put it, an excellent book for 9/10ths of the book. I definitely enjoyed On Chesil Beach, the only other of his books that I've read, more than this one. Nonetheless, I liked the writing in Amsterdam enough to want to read more of McEwan's books.… (more)

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