By Ian McEwan.
193 pages
New York: Anchor Books, 1999.
ISBN# 0-385-49424-0

Comments by Bob Corbett
October 2003

AMSTERDAM is a bit lighter read than I’m used to, and while not up to the writing style or depth of other recent reads, the novel is fun in its own dark way.

Molly Lane has died and at her cremation ceremony we meet three of her former lovers and her long-suffering husband, George.

Clive Linley, a famous composer and earliest of these four lovers of Molly, is a close friend of newspaper editor, Vernon Halliday, the second of this set of Molly’s many men. The third is Julian Garmony, foreign minister of England. Husband George Lane is a publisher and has lived through them all, and despises them all.

Linley and Halliday are political enemies of Garmony, though for Linley any political positions are of little serious interest. Vernon’s newspaper is in a position to the foreign minister great harm because of some photos found in Molly’s effects.

Once the long and delightful introductions are over and the characters well-sketched, the novel shifts focus and turns much darker, yet always with a tongue-in-cheek comical level hanging over the proceedings like a bit of sunlight threatening to break up the gloom of a rainy afternoon picnic.

There are interconnected plot twists touching the lives of all four principal male characters, while the dead Molly is never far removed. Late in the novel the darker side turns into a classic who-done-it, and takes us to Amsterdam, solving for me the puzzle of the title which was weighing on me. 2/3 the novel is set in London and the word Amsterdam had only appeared on the title page until quite late in the book.

In that early section I especially enjoyed the characterization of composer Clive Linley. McEwan presented a quite romanticized portrait of a composer, long on the power of inspiration leading him to great themes while in unusual situations – walking in the lake region, or meditating over expensive wine. Yet the author does allow Linley moments of hard grinding work of following the logic of these inspirations and doing the drudgery of orchestrations and following through with glorious themes. I haven’t any idea how REAL composers compose, though I have some intuitive sense that McEwan is way off. I still liked his portrait of Linley’s mode of work since I wish things were like that and I had fun following McEwan’s play with the character’s mode of composing.

Part of my love of Linley is that he and I share attitudes toward contemporary classical music. It was with great delight that I read his own reflection about his “place” in contemporary music, and recognized many of my own biases in his “place.”

“For Clive Linley the matter was simple. He regarded himself as Vaughan Williams's heir, and considered terms like "conservative" irrelevant, a mistaken borrowing from the political vocabulary. Besides, during the seventies, when he was starting to be noticed, atonal and aleatoric music, tone rows, electronics, the disintegration of pitch into sound, in fact the whole modernist project, had become an orthodoxy taught in the colleges. Surely its advocates, rather than he himself, were the reactionaries. In 1975 he published a hundred-page book which, like all good manifestos, was both attack and apologia. The old guard of modernism had imprisoned music in the academy, where it was jealously professionalized, isolated, and rendered sterile, its vital covenant with a general public arrogantly broken. Clive gave a sardonic account of a publicly subsidized "concert" in a nearly deserted church hall, in which the legs of a piano were repeatedly struck with the broken neck of a violin for over an hour. An accompanying program note explained, with references to the Holocaust, why at this stage in European history no other forms of music were viable. In the small minds of the zealots, Clive insisted, any form of success, however limited, any public appreciation whatsoever, was a sure sign of aesthetic compromise and failure. When the definitive histories of twentieth-century music in the West came to be written, the triumphs would be seen to belong to blues, jazz, rock, and the continually evolving traditions of folk music. These forms amply demonstrated that melody, harmony, and rhythm were not incompatible with innovation. In art music, only the first half of the century would figure significantly, and then only certain composers, among whom Clive did not number the later Schoenberg and ‘his like.’”

McEwan “got me” with a clever device of getting me aggravated with him for tipping off the plot so early on that I saw it immediately. I smugly laughed off this “flaw,” congratulating my self on my cleverness and deductive powers, but haughtily blaming McEwan for amateurish writing.

However, McEwan got the last laugh there as it turns out he set me up, as I’m sure he got other readers too, letting it play out that things in Amsterdam were not quite what we were led to suspect.

The rushing surprise at the end compounded the darkness and humor of the novel, which is a nice touch, but it all comes tumbling down a bit too quickly, a great deal too sketchily, and too far fetched, at least for my level of credulity.

The book makes a better read for a long day of air or train travel than as a more serious prop for aesthetics or intellectual stimulation, but is, nonetheless, fun and well-created. Since I don’t do too many long plane or train trips these days, but tend to hunt intellectual and aesthetic stimulation, I doubt I’ll be quickly drawn back to McEwan. It is, however, a well done work for what it is aimed to be.

Bob Corbett

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Bob Corbett