Goethe famously claimed to have read this book in five and a half hours, a whole morning. When asked whether authoring a great novel or a great poem would be more satisfying, a renowned critic opted for verse because he could sit down with a glass of scotch in his study and finish the deed between dinner and bed. And while each of us must decide his own threshold of sustained artistic pleasure, with our poor attention span constantly assailed by news bytes masquerading as watersheds, its natural length seems to be about two and a half to three hours. There is something inherently sumptuous about a literary work that can be read and enjoyed in the same time as an opera, play, or artistic film. A major asset of the 1998 Booker Prize winner is precisely this feeling of round edges. The circle, beginning with two bad men and excessive ambition, will certainly be completed. Since the only reference to the Dutch city involves a very controversial procedure, even the news–bitten reader understands that death awaits one of the co–protagonists, who in no small irony begin their fatidic march at the funeral of a shared lover.
Several years past their forties, Clive and Vernon are long–time friends and not unremittingly bad. But too many of their own concerns clutter their living space. Clive can barely leave his privileged residence to mingle with the rabble, and has to turn to the whims of nature to inspire himself to Europe's next great symphony (reminiscent of the central motif, literally and figuratively, of this film). Vernon on the other hand is a gambler of souls, making money off reputations and what readers of his tabloid could possibly be led to believe. Snippets of boardroom banter reveal that he is neither respected nor feared by his staff, and that his life has been wasted on the petty faults of the famous. A clear dichotomy between the artist and the huckster, except that our dear composer is an unrepentant boor and snob (there is an excellent passage in which he "dares" to think of himself as a "genius"). He is also, like his yellow newsman chum, sentimentally attached to the late and lovely Molly Lane. Funerals of lovers, especially those loved in a distant past, are convenient moments to mull over the deceased's infidelities, promiscuity and forks in the road. Molly's husband George, unpleasantly aware that no fewer than three mourners had prior enjoyment of his companion, sets the two friends upon the third, an MP of rising importance and unaccountable physical repulsiveness. What did Molly see in him? They both stare and frown and shake their heads as all boys do when they see a pretty girl with anything less than an Adonis. Ah, but George knows what. And he has the pictures to prove it.
It is here that George, McEwan, and the reader wisely lean back and watch the spectacle run its course. Each of our protagonists is a misanthrope (a surly and unproductive Clive is even shrouded in "misanthropic gloom" on a train ride): Vernon has to make his readers hate celebrities in order to get them to read about their hatefulness, and ends up hating everyone except Molly (he has always, it should be said, hated himself), while Clive hates people because they were not assigned the honor of composing the symphony of Europe and all they do is prevent him from fulfilling his destiny. In time, hate becomes the mantra for the entire novel, and we know that hate is only rewarded in one way. And if it isn't, then we have just wasted our expectations on one of most uniformly detestable casts of characters in recent memory. What follows is both perfectly predictable and perfectly preposterous. Considering the "moral choices" that the two men make (a point given emphasis in most blurbs on the novel), the results merit no questioning. Just deserts could not be stamped more clearly on their lurching backs. About two–thirds through Amsterdam, Molly vanishes into a corner of both her former lovers' minds to remain beautiful and haunting forever and ever. With her go the youth and youthful frivolity of two souls whose idea of facing adulthood is watching a grown man squirm.