My rating: 3 of 5 stars
"[...] it seemed to Vernon that he was infinitely diluted; he was simply the sum of all people who had listened to him, and when he was alone, he was nothing at all."
I finished reading Ian McEwan's Amsterdam (1998) - my first novel of this quite famous author - only few days ago but have been too busy since then to write a review. Alas, I am finding out that I have already forgotten much about the novel and need to reach to my notes to refresh memory. It does not seem like an auspicious introduction to the author.
The novel begins with a formidable sentence:
"Two former lovers of Molly Lane stood waiting outside the crematorium chapel with their backs to the February chill."Molly, a well-known restaurant critic and photographer, has died rather suddenly of a rapidly progressing brain disease. Her funeral ceremony is in progress: Clive, a famous composer, and Vernon, the editor of Judge, a popular London tabloid, reminisce about their times and sex they had with Molly. Another Molly's former lover, Julian, who is currently the foreign secretary and has his sights set on the position of Prime Minister, is also a subject of the conversation. Molly's husband, George, completes the quintet of the main characters in the novel.
After the interesting opening - the conversation in the crematorium is quite a nice piece of real literature - the novel morphs into a sort of mystery. George finds compromising photographs from Molly's past, and all three former lovers become involved in the plot that focuses on whether to publish the pictures in Vernon's magazine. Unfortunately, I could not care less for the plot: it is of as sensationalist quality as the stories in Judge that Mr. McEwan is ridiculing.
On the other hand, there is some good stuff in the novel as well. For instance, I appreciate the author's sense of humor: Clive has been commissioned to compose the Millennial Symphony to be performed at the dawn of 2001, the task he envisions as something on the order of Beethoven's Ninth. When he finishes the work by composing a sort of current-day Ode to the Joy, the Ninth final movement, he contemplates whether he is a genius - a hilarious fragment of prose.
Obviously, the best passages in the novel have nothing to do with the plot. In addition to the outstanding beginning, the account of Vernon's hectic day as an editor of Judge and the description of the workplace politics are first rate. Yet perhaps the best fragment of the novel shows how Clive composes the key musical motif for the final movement of his masterpiece: while hiking near Allen Crags in the Lake District he hears a bird's piping sound on three notes. That sound becomes the inspiration for his monumental work but prevents him from paying attention to more important things that are happening at the same time. Realistic, well written, and funny! The ending is probably supposed to be funny as well, but I find the comedic payoff somewhat feeble.
Amsterdam is an easy read (maybe a warning sign?) and one can find quite a few thoughtful quotes in the text. While Mr. McEwan is certainly a gifted writer and his accomplished prose is a pleasure to read I do not think that the highly polished sentences add up to much.
Two and three quarter stars.
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