“You Gradgrind”: The Role of Literature in Saturday

April 9, 2012 § Leave a comment

One of the most curious things about Ian McEwan’s Saturday is his take on literature. We know Henry Perowne adores Daisy, his poet of a daughter; but McEwan beats us over the head with the point that Henry himself has no clue about literature. He’s slow at reading the books assigned to him by Daisy (currently a biography of Darwin, which is at least based on reality), and he absolutely despised magical realism. We find this out from a rather amusing conversation–via postcard–between father and daughter:

“No more magic midget drummers,” he pleaded with her by post, after setting out his tirade. “Please, no more ghosts, angels, satans or metaphphoses. When anything can happen, nothing much matters. It’s all kitsch to me.”

“You ninny, ” she reproved him on a postcard, “you Gradgrind. It’s literature, not physics.” (66-7)

(The amusing part – for me, at least – comes from the fact that she reproves him by referring to a literary character, with whom we doubt Perowne is familiar. Being called “a Gradgrind” probably means little to Perowne.)

Moreover, Perowne’s father-in-law – John Grammaticus, what a name – is a poet, or a poetical character; so Perowne is hemmed in by artistic types on both sides, unable to figure out their likes, dislikes, thought-processes, nuances. And, of course, the climatic scene makes Perowne’s literary illiteracy all the clearer. Baxter, the uneducated thug, thinks “Dover Beach” is a poem that Daisy had written; Perowne, who had read almost all of his daughter’s poems, also cannot tell the difference between her (what appear to be rather silly poems about men she’s slept with) words and Matthew Arnold’s. Highly educated neurosurgeon and street thug are leveled at this moment, as both are affected by Arnold’s words. Too, both fall a bit more in love with Daisy (and the relationship between Perowne and Daisy was already curious): both Baxter and Perowne believe in Daisy’s sheer poetic genius at this moment.

I’m curious as to the point McEwan is making here. Is he commenting on literature’s life-changing abilities? Is the novel’s denouement – Baxter’s under Perowne’s knife – meant to indicate that the sciences have the same life-changing capacity as poetry? Or is the fact that the novel ends on surgery instead of poetry meant to show how silly the belief in literature is? Are Daisy and Grammaticus meant to be sympathetic characters who propound the worth of literature, despite how annoying they are as characters? Are we meant to take serious that Perowne’s life has been changed by poetry? Is McEwan’s point that good literature does not need to be attributed to its author, that “Dover Beach” is as effective from Daisy Perowne’s mind as it is from Matthew Arnold’s? What does that do to his subject-position as author? And what is his own stance on literature, as put forth in a novel in which poetry begins to seem shallow and mechanical, while the intricate description of the brain begins to feel like poetry? What are we to make of this novel, and would what we make of it differ if we were neurosurgeons?

Dan Fang


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