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This article is taken from PN Review 185, Volume 35 Number 3, January - February 2009.

On On Chesil Beach Frederic Raphael

Cyril Connolly set the mark in the opening sentence of Palinurus: 'the true function of a writer is to produce a masterpiece and no other task is of any consequence'. It follows that, when a commanding critic - who has been more durably magisterial than Karl Miller? - announces that a novel is 'more than an event. It is a masterpiece', we should hurry to read the applauded text. So it was that, on the way to a holiday in the Cyclades, I bought On Chesil Beach, Ian McEwan's latest work of fiction. It would make an instructive addition, I had no doubt, to Josephus's The Jewish War, John Gribbin's Science: a History, Virgil's Eclogues (one a day would, I thought, be good for my morals) and the hardly less lauded Night Train to Lisbon ('One of the best books I have read for a long time', Isabel Allende). Pascal Mercier's novel turned out to be so badly translated and so ill-set, in addition to being one of the slowest trains in the history of fiction, that Allende's 'for a long time' began to have ironic undertones: in what other period of time could one ever read such a work? With McEwan it was evidently quite other-wise: his narrative was composed of five parts, but they accumulated to no more than 166 well-spaced pages.

I do not know Ian McEwan personally, though we both showed ...

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