I recently encountered Ian McEwan for the first time, in the form of an audiobook of The Children Act lent to me by my mother and very sternly read by a woman called Lindsay Duncan, CBE.
It’s relentlessly depressing so far. But some light relief came from an unexpected quarter: McEwan’s descriptions of people.
The following extracts are from an emotionally charged courtroom scene in which the Jehovah’s Witness parents of a 17-year-old are fighting against him receiving a blood transfusion for advanced Leukemia.
He was a wiry, tanned man in a well-cut suit and tie in which he himself could have passed for a successful member of the judiciary. Mrs. Henry was big-boned and wore outsized glasses with red frames that shrank her eyes to points. She sat upright, with tightly folded arms. Neither parent looked particularly cowed.
First, the consultant haematologist is called to the stand:
Mr Rodney Carter took the stand and was sworn in. Tall, stooping, severe, thick white eyebrows from under which he glared with ferocious disdain. From the top pocket of his pale gray three-piece suit there protruded a blue silk handkerchief. He gave the impression that he considered the court procedure a nonsense and that the boy should be dragged by the scruff of his neck to an immediate transfusion.
Then the parent’s attorney rises to cross-examine, and we really get going:
Fiona knew Grieve a little by reputation, but at that moment couldn’t recall whether he had ever appeared before her. She had seen him about the law courts—somewhat foppish, with silver, centre-parted hair, high cheekbones, long thin nose, haughtily flared. There was a looseness or freedom of limb that was in agreeable contrast to the reined-in movements of his graver colleagues. The entire grand and gay effect was complicated by a problem he had with his vision, a squint of some sort, for he never appeared to be looking at what he was seeing. This disability added to his allure. It sometimes disoriented witnesses in cross-examination and it may have caused the doctor’s tetchiness now.
Considering the seriousness of the situation, I can only imagine the bizarre images these descriptions conjure up must be unintentional. The idea of a loose-limbed, boss-eyed dandy is entirely at odds with the tone of this scene and of the book as a whole, which is weighty and really very earnest.
Hearing these passages I was instantly transported to the 1940s university campus of Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, a novel that contains some of the funniest word portraits ever written.
Lucky Jim opens on a conversation between the pompous Professor Welch and our protagonist, the young, self-conscious, lower-middle-class academic Jim Dixon, in free indirect style:
To look at, but not only to look at, they resembled some kind of variety act: Welch tall and weedy, with limp whitening hair, Dixon on the short side, fair and round-faced, with an unusual breadth of shoulder that had never been accompanied by any special physical strength or skill. Despite this over-evident contrast between them, Dixon realized that their progress, deliberate and to all appearances thoughtful, must seem rather donnish to passing students. He and Welch might well be talking about history, and in the way history might be talked about in Oxford and Cambridge quadrangles. At moments like this Dixon came near to wishing that they really were.
(They aren’t, of course. Welch is gleefully relating an overly detailed and boring anecdote about a blaps he witnessed at a concert.)
What Dixon is most famous for is the grotesque faces he makes, surreptitiously, in response to the pseudo-intellectual snobbery and inflexible middle class etiquette he encounters. In response to Welch’s unfunny story he tries ‘to flail his features into some sort of response to humour’:
Mentally, however, he was making a different face and promising himself he’d make it actually when next alone. He’d draw his lower lip in under his top teeth and by degrees retract his chin as far as possible, all this while dilating his eyes and nostrils. By these means he would, he was confident, cause a deep dangerous flush to suffuse his face.
Amis’s descriptions of people are as monstrous and, despite the fact that they are clearly intended to be humorous, resonate strongly with McEwan’s as inventories of unlikely physical characteristics.
Here’s Gore-Urquhart, the rich patron of the arts and Dixon’s eventual saviour:
Gore-Urquhart and Carol were sitting in one of the further palm-groves, talking fairly hard. When he saw the others coming towards them, Gore-Urquhart rose to his feet. This formality was so unfamiliar in the circles Dixon normally moved in that for a moment he wondered whether the other meant to oppose their approach by physical force. He was younger than Dixon had expected any distinguished man, and an uncle of Christine’s, to be: somewhere in the middle forties. His evening suit, too, was not nearly as spectacularly ‘faultless’ as might have been predicted. His large smooth face, surmounting a short thin body, was the least symmetrical, short of actual deformity, that Dixon had ever seen, giving him the look of a drunken sage trying to collect his wits, a look intensified by slightly protruding lips and a single black eyebrow running from temple to temple.
But one thing in particular about the above scene in The Children Act set a bell ringing in the back of my mind:
She inclined her head toward him and he stood. He was smoothly bald, bulky, but with dainty feet—size five, it was rumoured—for which he was mocked behind his back. His voice was a decent rich tenor and together their greatest moment had been last year when they performed Schubert’s “Der Erlkönig” at a Gray’s Inn dinner for a retiring law lord with a passion for Goethe.
This unusual attribute echoes one of my favourite characters of all time, Timofey Pavlovich Pnin, as the glorious opening passage of that novel proves:
The elderly passenger sitting on the north-window side of that inexorably moving railway coach, next to an empty seat and facing two empty ones, was none other than Professor Timofey Pnin. Ideally bald, sun-tanned, and clean-shaven, he began rather impressively with that great brown dome of his, tortoise-shell glasses (masking an infantile absence of eyebrows), apish upper lip, thick neck, and strong-man torso in a tightish tweed coat, but ended, somewhat disappointingly, in a pair of spindly legs (now flannelled and crossed) and frail-looking, almost feminine feet.
While I was chatting to the SO about what at this stage still seemed like a coincidence, he mentioned that McEwan’s descriptions reminded him of Zadie Smith’s, specifically of Jack French in White Teeth:
Kiki laughed lightly, but then her face changed and she held him tightly by his wrist. ‘Hey… ah, Howard, baby?’ she said warily, looking across the park. ‘You want good news or bad news?’
‘Hmm?’ said Howard, turning round and finding both kinds of news were approaching from across the green and waving at him: Erskine Jegede and Jack French, the Dean of the Humanities Faculty. Jack French on his long playboy legs in their New England slacks. How old was this man? The question had always troubled Howard. Jack French could be fifty-two. He could just as easily be seventy-nine. You couldn’t ask him and if you didn’t ask him you’d never know. It was a movie-idol face Jack had, cut-glass architecture, angled like a Wyndham Lewis portrait. His sentimental eyebrows made the shape of two separated sides of a steeple, always gently perplexed. He had skin like the kind of dark, aged leather you find on those fellows they dig out, after 900 years, from a peat bog. A thin yet complete covering of grey silk hair hid his skull from Howard’s imputations of extreme old age and was cut no differently than it would have been when the man was twenty-two, balanced on the lip of a white boat looking out at Nantucket through one sun-shading hand, wondering if that was Dolly stood square on the pier with two highballs in her hand.
But here’s the clincher. Following straight on from that passage is a description of another academic, Erskine Jegede:
Compare and contrast with Erskine: his shining, hairless pate, and those storybook freckles that induced in Howard an unreasonable feeling of joy.Erskine was dressed this evening in a three-piece suit of the Yellowest of yellows, the curves of his bumptious body naturally resisting all three pieces. On his small feet he wore a pair of pointed Cuban heeled shoes. The effect was of a bull doing his initial two-step dance towards you. Still ten yards away, Howard had a chance to switch his position with his wife — quickly and unobserved — so that Erskine would naturally veer towards Howard and French would go the other way. He took this opportunity. Unfortunately French was not given toduologic conversation — he addressed the group, always. No — he addressed the gaps between the group.
‘Belseysen masse,’ said Jack French very slowly, and each Belsey tried to ascertain which Belsey he might be looking at directly. ‘Missing. . . one, I believe. Belseys minus one.’
‘That’s Levi, our youngest — we lost him. He lost us. To be honest, he’s trying to lose us,’ said Kiki coarsely and laughed, and Jerome laughed and Zora laughed and so did Howard and Erskine and after all of them, very slowly, with infinite slowness, Jack French began to laugh.
That’s right, the small feet rear their ugly head again. On a hunch, I decided to check Lucky Jim for a similar description, and I’ll be darned if there wasn’t one, right there in the first scene:
After no more than a minor swerve the misfiring vehicle of his conversation had been hauled back on to its usual course. Dixon gave up, stiffening his legs as they reached, at last, the steps of the main building. He pretended to himself that he’d pick up his professor round the waist, squeeze the furry grey-blue waistcoat against him to expel the breath, run heavily with him up the steps, along the corridor to the Staff Cloakroom, and plunge the too-small feet in their capless shoes into a lavatory basin, pulling the plug once, twice, and again, stuffing the mouth with toilet-paper.
At this point I’m still trying to figure out what this means, but if twice is a coincidence, three times is a pattern and four times is a trend, it looks like I got myself a thesis topic for my imaginary PhD.