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Ian McEwan: Amsterdam

By chance, I read this book the day it was announced who the Headless Man was in the Duchess of Argyll divorce scandal. [For the prurient, too lazy or unable to follow the links, the Duchess of Argyll was divorced by her husband the Duke in 1963 when he revealed she had had 88 lovers and produced in evidence a photo showing her naked but for a string of pearls and performing fellatio on a man whose head was conveniently omitted from the photo and who therefore became known as the Headless Man. It has now been revealed that the man was then Commonwealth Secretary Duncan Sandys.] McEwan was probably inspired more by the Conservative scandals of the Major government, in particular David Mellor‘s infamous toe-job with a Spanish porn actress, which resulted in a famous picture of Mellor and family, standing at the gate of the family house, showing solidarity, a scene McEwan uses with relish.

The story concerns the aftermath of the death of Molly Lane, famous restaurant critic and wife of George Lane, wealthy though boring publisher. In particular, it involves three of her ex-lovers – Clive Linley, a successful but conservative composer, who is composing a symphony for the millennium, his long-time friend Vernon Halliday, editor of The Judge, an upmarket newspaper desperate to stop falling circulation, and Julian Garmondy, the Duncan Sandys-like Foreign Secretary. As far as we knew Molly Lane did not blow Garmondy but she did take photos of him in women’s clothing. After her death, George Lane finds them and passes them to Halliday to gain revenge for Garmondy’s having had an affair with his wife. Linley is opposed to Halliday publishing them, not for moral reasons but because he thinks it would betray Molly’s memory while Halliday is desperate to boost his paper’s circulation. In fact, Linley is so absorbed in his symphony (which turns out to be rubbish) that he does not even realise that an attempted rape, happening before his very eyes, is any more than a family squabble (yes, it’s the old life versus art theme, which McEwan has given us before).

There is an interesting plot twist at the end and McEwan’s bitter judgement on artists out of touch with reality, circulation-boosting newspaper editors and politicians of dubious morality is interesting though somewhat predictable as are his views on friendship and morality but overall this novel does not seem to rise much above the predictable and will certainly not count as one of his greats.

Publishing history

First published 1998 by Jonathan Cape