– Vintage Canada Edition 2011 ISBN 978-0-307-39925-0
Read from January 23rd to February 4th 2015
My rating :
Should I feel ashamed? According to some critics of McEwan’s Solar I should, since its hero, Michael Beard, is a despicable character, a philanderer, a plagiarist, an egocentric and a criminal liar… whom I totally liked. Moreover, it is a long time since I have been so immersed in a reading to forget everything around me – last week I almost missed the metro stop on my way to university, such I was enjoying this crazy, crazy book, which rose conflicting reactions in its readers.
One of the most acerbic reviews was written immediately after its apparition in 2010 by Jason Cowley in The Guardian (here it is). The journalist pointed out mercilessly many of what he considered the minuses of the novel, from the one-dimensional character to the trodden subject, from the sometimes nonsensical comedy to the lack of other perspectives, ending with a graphical image of the book as an empty room in which only the groan-like confession “of a fat, selfish man in late middle age eating himself” can be heard.
However seductive this metaphor of a novel speaking like an echoic chamber, I beg to differ. Not against the observations per se, they are true enough, but against the implication they are flaws.
In my opinion, Solar is brilliantly a one-man’s show. Is this one-man, Michael Beard, also one-dimensional? Absolutely, since it is the only voice of the narrative (mocking objectivity with its third person) – I should hope this is the interpretation the critic gave to the term, because even though the hero doesn’t change – and is proud of this – he is by no means a flat, superficially built character. Although he has some caricatural traits, they are not inconsistent with his type (and I agree with Jason Cowley regarding the neo-realistic style of the author) and reminded me vividly of David Lodge’s academic figures. Furthermore, he is so forgiving of his own behaviour, so candid in the admiration of his own consistency in vice and weakness he doesn’t try to hide at all, and so determined to resist any woman who would try and change him that he is really touching:
Beard comfortably shared all of humanity’s faults, and here he was, a monster of insincerity, cradling tenderly on his arm a woman he thought he might leave one day soon, listening to her with sensitive expression in the expectation that soon he would have to do some talking himself, when all he wanted was to make love to her without preliminaries, eat the meal she had cooked, drink a bottle of wine, and then sleep – without blame, without guilt.
Michael Beard is indeed a zany fighter for his right to be questionable, to take off his mask of decency and scientific morgue, that is, to come down the pedestal of a Nobel laureate and happily mix with (very) lesser beings. Life is a nightmare, but a funny one, so why not try it all? I think the comedy is genially built precisely on this humorous interpretation of the philosophy of solipsism, that is, on the hero’s belief that his space is inhabited only by him and the others are there to please, importunate or serve him, but they do not have a life independently of him. Like any minor god, he becomes nasty only when the others try to assert their own existence.
This is so human a reaction that even when his conduct is blatantly immoral, the reader empathizes with him and judges its behaviour rather leniently. This bald, fat man had it all and, despite his great talent, scattered it all. And here it might be discovered, in my opinion, the real theme of this superb book: not to depict Beard as a symbol of the consumerism and waste that haunt our times (as Cowley observed) – this is a secondary, even though very clever theme – but to answer an old question: does the spark of genius excuse a questionable behaviour? Theoretically, and in true political correctness, it doesn’t excuse it at all, but what a consolation for everyday people! His misadventures and misconduct can be so easily identified with that it also seems (to our secret delight) that his genius can also be identified with. For here you have a Nobel laureate with a noble mission: to save the world by making the planet green. The same man who made an accident look as a murder in order to frame the lover of his wife, the same man who based his research in artificial photosynthesis on the work of his late student, without mentioning him at all, the same man who sincerely suffered for his wife’s infidelity while he had eleven affairs in the five years of marriage, and so on, and so forth. And, like I said, what makes him even more approachable is that he doesn’t oppose his character at all, he is indulgent with himself and invites the others to do the same:
He was self-sufficient, self-absorbed, his mind a cluster of appetites and dreamy thoughts. Like many clever men who prize objectivity, he was a solipsist at heart, and his heart was a nugget of ice…
Towards the end of his story and possibly his life he has the same epiphany as most of us: the humans cannot really change, not even a Nobel prize, not even a great cause, not even a child can fundamentally transform a criminal into a law-abiding citizen, a cheat into a faithful husband, in a word, a lesser person into a better one. And this comical resignation to a dishonourable fate is the best excuse also for us, for all our past and future failures – so how can we not sympathise with him, how can we not feel, like him, cheated?
The surprise was this: his existence since Catriona’s birth was much as before. His friends had told him he would be astonished, he would be transformed, his values would change. But nothing was transformed. Catriona was fine, but he was the same old mess. And now that he had entered upon the final active stages of his life, he was beginning to understand that, barring accidents, life did not change. He had been deluded.
The extraordinary talent of Ian McEwan regaled us with another book in which apparently incompatible ingredients blended perfectly: extensive scientific vocabulary and research jargon which could arise an inferiority complex in the profane reader but read surprisingly well; an excellent comedy of situations and characters which would deserve an extensive study of its own; an anti hero so happy with his “anti” condition that he becomes, against all expectations, an almost reliable narrator; and last but not least, an unexpected open ending, by cruelly cutting the narrative at its rising point, at the very moment when all ghosts of the past gather to beset our hero. How and if he gets rid of this can only be guessed, although it is devilishly suggested by the narrative voice that the swelling he feels in his heart for his daughter and which he takes for love could be in fact the onset of a heart attack which would solve all his problems once and for all.