Have I told you already how much I love the book exchange shelf in my laundry room? Sure, there’s a lot of James Patterson, but sometimes such finds! Last week I went down to do a load of darks and came back with Saturday and The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit! And as it turned out, Saturday was the perfect book to read after Man with a Blue Scarf. Best of all, I was able to read Saturday in more or less one sitting, which was the ideal reading condition for a book that takes place over the course of one day.
So we’ll get Proust out of the way first, OK? When I say “takes place over the course of one day,” we do go through 24 hours with Henry Perowne, the 46-year-old English neurosurgeon who is Ian McEwan’s protagonist. But in the course of that day, Perowne’s memory travels through his past. As when we follow Proust’s narrator, we wander from the novelistic “now” (say, Perowne kissing his wife) to the remembered “then” (Perowne meting his wife). With a tug of the thread, we are brought back to the fictional present and reinserted into the course of the day. And Perowne (as with Proust’s narrator) doesn’t just remember things, he thinks about them. He ruminates, turning over his ideas about life, incidents of his day, his work, his children, his past, the nature of memory, the flow of his moods, the way they affect his perception.
And here’s where we get to Martin Gayford, for McEwan’s subject is the age-old question of where consciousness/identity/the soul resides. Perowne, as befits a neurosurgeon, is a resolute materialist. In his view, the brain produces the mind. In Man with a Blue Scarf, Lucian Freud is also seeking a kind of essence, and produces it in material form through artistic effort. McEwan makes Perowne almost completely resistant to that kind of incalculable, ungovernable impulse — almost. But he gives Perowne artistic children, a son who plays the blues and a daughter who is a just-published poet. They parse the world differently from the way he does, and despite his bafflement, he tries to follow them. And in his effort to process the novel’s denouement, Perowne resorts to story-telling.
Another strong tie to the Gayford book is the focus on the physical qualities of man: hair, skin, bone structure. A passage in Saturday about the musculature of the face might have come from Man with a Blue Scarf. McEwan, like Gayford, seems to find great reward in hard work. At the end of his long day Perowne performs surgery and reflects on why it satisfies him more than anything else in his life. “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. Even all awareness of his own existence has vanished… This benevolent dissociation seems to require difficulty, prolonged demands on concentration and skills, pressure, problems to be solved, even danger.” Lucian Freud might have said the same thing about painting a portrait.