[Book] Amsterdam – Ian McEwan


It should be among the books that consumed my time the least (but not necessarily my effort) to finish. It just took me two days, interrupted with meetings with friends and family during Tet Holiday, to complete it. I was a little bit discouraged while scanning the very first pages but its choice use of English and its complicated and subtle thinking process of the two main characters made it a difficult task to put it down. And when it came to the very final pages of the book, there are still lots of questions stuck in my mind.

The book was a peculiar one from its title. While the title is “Amsterdam”, the reader should expect that the story generally took place in London and it is not until the page 155 that the background of the story shifts to Amsterdam.

The main characters of the book are Clive Linley, a celebrated composer who was struggling for coming out with a masterpiece to welcome millennium and Vernon Halliday, a managing editor of a tabloid, struggling for preventing the circulation from falling. The two are close friends, as mutually assumed by each other during most of the story, such friendship, however, was once doubted by Clive as whether he had mistaken a scum for a friend when he tried re-defining their friendship. The two were connected by fond memories of their mutual old lover and resentment towards her very recent lovers, Julian Garmony, the Foreign Secretary, a notorious right-winged standing to be the next prime minister. They met each other in the funeral of Molly, their aforementioned old lover, who died of a mental decline, which turned “Molly, restaurant critic, gorgeous wit, and photographer, the daring gardener, who had been loved by the foreign secretary” into the sick-room prisoner of her husband, George. Such event then led them to agree with each other that if Clive, in any occasion, “get ill in a major way like Molly”, and “make terrible mistakes”, “errors of judgement”, “not knowing of names of things or who I was”, Vernon, as his oldest friend, will help him finish his life. While it is illegal in the UK for euthanizing anyone and Clive would not want to put his oldest friend on the wrong side of law, implicitly referred to “ways”, “places”, where such act is not considered illegal. The two were then depicted in their mundane lives struggling for their career. Vernon felt him to borne the mission of publishing the secret photos of Julian where Julian dressed like woman in an attempt to show Julian’s hypocrisy (actually, I was a little bit perplexed at such point. It seems that a right-winged one will be concurrently deemed to oppose marriage equality and it was condemned as “hypocrisy” by Vernon) but more important that it should be a catastrophe if Julian becomes the next Prime Minister (“There’ll be even more people living below the poverty line, more people in prison, more homeless, more crime, more riots like last year. He’s been speaking in favour of national service. The environment will suffer because he’d rather please his business friends than sign the accords on global warming. He wants to take us out of Europe.” – Given the world we are living in recently, it sounds familiar, doesn’t it?) Such intention, however, was disapproved by Clive for he perceived that the whole rationale is not relevant and more important, such an act is a betrayal to Molly cause it was a trust respected by Molly. Clive is not any better. While vacationing in the Lake District, as he summoned his effort to compose the signature melody for the millennial celebrations, he decided not to help a woman under threat so as to avoid the unnecessary complication which may interrupt his time and effort dedicated for his music. Clive and Vernon both went under their own rationalization of their choices and then condemned each other for commit unethical judgment. Finally, the two committed a suicide pact in Amsterdam.

Not so bright the whole story is. When buying this book in Thailand, I just did a quick search of books that won the Booker Prize and Ian McEwan with Atonement came across my mind as a good choice given my lack of Internet connection and the urge of buying books back home. As aforementioned, it is a nice book to read for its good depiction of characters’ lines of thoughts, their rationalisation process and their moral judgment as well. Its criticism of society seems to resemble that of The Fountainhead written by Ayn Rand but the different thing is that there seems to be no hero and heroine in “Amsterdam”. It seems that we are all villains ourselves.

There are several points remaining unresolved in me after reading this book. (Perhaps I need the second reading)

  • What is the spoiler that Vernon mentioned twice in the book? First, when his attempt of humiliating Julian became a failure. Second, when he died.
  • Molly and her actual influences on the two characters. The final moments of the two characters with the presence of Molly in hallucination are quite haunting.
  • What is the reality of Julian and George?
  • It appears to be more obvious to me of the self-destruction taking place in Vernon than that in Clive, should Clive be better than Vernon when it came to moral judgment?

There are some passages that I really enjoy during my reading:

  • “He fell himself to be the only one who really missed Molly…   Nobody else was missing her. He looked around at his fellow mourners now, many of them his own age, Molly’s age, to within a year or two. How prosperous, how influential, how they had flourished under a government they had despised for almost seventeen years. Talking ’bout my generation. Such energy, such luck. Nurtured in the postwar settlement with the state’s own milk and juice, and then sustained by their parents’ tentative, innocent prosperity, to come of age in full employment, new universities, bright paperback books, the Augustan age of rock and roll, affordable ideals. When the ladder crumbled behind them, when the state withdrew her tit and became a scold, they were already safe, they consolidated and settled down to forming this or that–taste, opinion, fortunes.”
  • The thought recurred to Vernon Halliday during an uncharacteristic lull in his morning that he might not exist. For thirty uninterrupted seconds, he had been sitting at his desk gently palpating his head with his fingertips and worrying. Since arriving at the Judge two hours earlier, he had spoken, separately and intensely, to forty people. And not only spoken: in all but two of these exchanges he had decided, prioritized, delegated, chosen, or offered an opinion that was bound to be interpreted as a command. This exercise of authority did not sharpen his sense of self, as it usually did. Instead it seemed to Vernon that he was infinitely diluted; he was simply the sum of all the people who had listened to him, and when he was alone, he was nothing at all. When he reached, in solitude, for a thought, there was no one there to think it. His chair was empty; he was finely dissolved throughout the building, from the city desk on the sixth floor, where he was about to intervene to prevent the sacking of a long-serving sub-editor who could not spell, to the basement, where parking allocations had brought senior staff to open war and an assistant editor to the brink of resignation. Vernon’s chair was empty because he was in Jerusalem, the House of Commons, Cape Town, and Manila, globally disseminated like dust; he was on TV and radio, at dinner with some bishops, giving a speech to the oil industry or a seminar to European Union specialists. In the brief moments during the day when he was alone, a light went out. Even the ensuing darkness encompassed or inconvenienced no one in particular. He could not say for sure that the absence was his.This sense of absence had been growing since Molly’s funeral. It was wearing into him. Last night he had woken beside his sleeping wife and had to touch his own face to be assured he remained a physical entity.

    Had Vernon taken a few of his senior staff aside in the canteen and confided about his condition, he might have been alarmed by their lack of surprise. He was widely known as a man without edges, without faults or virtues, as a man who did not fully exist. Within his profession Vernon was revered as a nonentity. It was one of the marvels of newspaper lore, difficult to exaggerate and often recounted in City wine bars, the manner in which he had become editor of the Judge.

    Lately he had realized he was learning to live with nonexistence. He could not mourn for long the passing of something—himself—that he could no longer quite recall. All this was a worry, but it was a worry that was several days old. There was now a physical symptom. It involved the whole of the right side of his head, both skull and brain somehow, a sensation for which there was simply no word. Or it might have been the sudden interruption of a sensation so constant and familiar that he had not been conscious of it, like a sound one becomes aware of the moment it stops. He knew exactly when it had begun—the night before, as he had stood up from dinner—and it was there when he woke in the morning, continuous and indefinable, not cold, or tight, or airy, though somewhere in between. Perhaps the word was dead. His right hemisphere had died. He knew so many people who had died that in his present state of dissociation he could begin to contemplate his own end as a commonplace—a flurry of burying or cremating, a welt of grief raised, then subsiding as life swept on. Perhaps he had already died.”

  • “We know so little about each other. We lie mostly submerged, like ice floes, with our visible social selves projecting only cool and white.”





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