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On a chilly February day, two old friends meet in the throng outside a crematorium to pay their last respects to Molly Lane. Both Clive Linley and Vernon Halliday had been Molly's lovers in the days before they reached their current eminence. Clive is Britain's most successful modern composer; Vernon is editor of the quality broadsheet The Judge. Gorgeous, feisty Molly had other lovers, too, notably Julian Garmony, Foreign Secretary, a notorious right-winger tipped to be the next prime minister. In the days that follow Molly's funeral, Clive and Vernon will make a pact with consequences neither has foreseen. Each will make a disastrous moral decision, their friendship will be tested to its limits, and Julian Garmony will be fighting for his political life.
A contemporary morality tale that is as profound as it is witty, this short novel is perhaps the most purely enjoyable fiction Ian McEwan has ever written. And why Amsterdam? What happens there to Clive and Vernon is the most delicious shock in a novel brimming with surprises.
|Edition description:||French-language Edition|
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About the Author
In a 1987 interview in Publishers Weekly, Ian McEwan said, "[W]hen you love someone, it's not uncommon to measure that love by fantasizing about his absence. You gauge things by their opposite." In McEwan's works, the opposite is a theme. His characters may take action that seems opposite to all sorts of things, their best interests, their lovers, their friends, their morals, or their political, religious, or rationalist beliefs. This is the tension and the story. And it is this, along with his acute and beautifully written observations about the opposites that infuse our lives, that keep readers waiting for the next McEwan novel.
McEwan is the author of two short-story collections, First Love, Last Rites and In Between the Sheets, and eight novels: The Cement Garden; The Comfort of Strangers, short-listed for the 1981 Booker Prize; The Child in Time, winner of the 1987 Whitbread Novel of the Year Award; The Innocent; Black Dogs; The Daydreamer; Enduring Love; and Amsterdam, winner of the 1998 Booker Prize.
Date of Birth:June 21, 1948
Place of Birth:Aldershot, England
Education:B.A., University of Sussex, 1970; M.A., University of East Anglia, 1971
Read an Excerpt
It wasn't his intention to walk away at this point, for he wanted to hear Pullman's reply, but just then two loud groups cut in from left and right, one to pay respects to George, the other to honor the poet, and in a swirl of repositioning Clive found himself freed and walking away. Hart Pullman and the teenage Molly. Sickened, he pushed his way back through the crowd and arrived in a small clearing and stood there, mercifully ignored, looking around at the friends and acquaintances absorbed in conversation. He felt himself to be the only one who really missed Molly. Perhaps if he'd married her he would have been worse than George, and wouldn't even have tolerated this gathering. Nor her helplessness. Tipping from the little squarish brown plastic bottle thirty sleeping pills into his palm. The pestle and mortar, a tumbler of scotch. Three tablespoons of yellow-white sludge. She looked at him when she took it, as if she knew. With his left hand he cupped her chin to catch the spill. He held her while she slept, and then all through the night.
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 behindthem, 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.
He heard a woman call out merrily, "I can't feel my hands or feet and I'm going!" As he turned, he saw a young man behind him who had been about to touch his shoulder. He was in his mid-twenties and bald, or shorn, and wore a gray suit with no overcoat.
"Mr. Linley. I'm sorry to intrude on your thoughts," the man said, drawing his hand away.
Clive assumed he was a musician, or someone come to collect his autograph, and shrank his face into its mask of patience. "That's all right."
"I was wondering if you'd have time to come across and talk to the foreign secretary. He's keen to meet you."
Clive pursed his lips. He didn't want to be introduced to Julian Garmony, but neither did he want to go to the bother of snubbing him. No escape. "You show the way," he said, and was led past standing clumps of his friends, some of whom guessed where he was going and tried to lure him from his guide.
"Hey, Linley. No talking to the enemy!"
The enemy indeed. What had attracted her? Garmony was a strange-looking fellow: large head, with wavy black hair that was all his own, a terrible pallor, thin unsensual lips. He had made a life in the political marketplace with an unexceptional stall of xenophobic and punitive opinions. Vernon's explanation had always been simple: high-ranking bastard, hot in the sack. But she could have found that anywhere. There must also have been the hidden talent that had got him to where he was and even now was driving him to challenge the PM for his job.
The aide delivered Clive into a horseshoe grouped around Garmony, who appeared to be making a speech or telling a story. He broke off to slip his hand into Clive's and murmur intensely, as though they were alone, "I've been wanting to meet you for years."
"How do you do."
Garmony spoke up for the benefit of the company, two of whom were young men with the pleasant, openly dishonest look of gossip columnists. The minister was performing and Clive was a kind of prop. "My wife knows a few of your piano pieces by heart."
Again. Clive wondered. Was he as domesticated and tame a talent as some of his younger critics claimed--the thinking man's Gorecki?
"She must be good," he said.
It had been a while since he had met a politician close up, and what he had forgotten was the eye movements, the restless patrol for new listeners or defectors, or the proximity of some figure of higher status, or some other main chance that might slip by.
Garmony was looking around now, securing his audience. "She was brilliant. Goldsmiths, then the Guildhall. A fabulous career ahead of her . . ." He paused for comic effect. "Then she met me and chose medicine."
Only the aide and another staffer, a woman, tittered. The journalists were unmoved. Perhaps they had heard it all before.
The foreign secretary's eyes had settled back on Clive. "There was another thing. I wanted to congratulate you on your commission. The Millennial Symphony. D'you know, that decision went right up to cabinet level?"
"So I heard. And you voted for me."
Clive had allowed himself a note of weariness, but Garmony reacted as though he had been effusively thanked. "Well, it was the least I could do. Some of my colleagues wanted this pop star chap, the ex-Beatle. Anyway, how is it coming along? Almost done?"
His extremities had been numb for half an hour but it was only now that Clive felt the chill finally envelop his core. In the warmth of his studio he would be in shirtsleeves, working on the final pages of this symphony, whose premiere was only weeks away. He had already missed two deadlines and he longed to be home.
He put out his hand to Garmony. "It was very nice to meet you. I have to be getting along."
But the minister did not take his hand and was speaking over him, for there was still a little more to be wrung from the famous composer's presence.
"Do you know, I've often thought that it's the freedom of artists like yourself to pursue your work that makes my own job worthwhile . . ."
More followed in similar style as Clive gazed on, no sign of his growing distaste showing in his expression. Garmony, too, was his generation. High office had eroded his ability to talk levelly with a stranger. Perhaps that was what he offered her in bed, the thrill of the impersonal. A man twitching in front of mirrors. But surely she preferred emotional warmth. Lie still, look at me, really look at me. Perhaps it was nothing more than a mistake, Molly and Garmony. Either way, Clive now found it unbearable.
The Foreign Secretary reached his conclusion "These are the traditions that make us what we are."
"I was wondering," Clive said to Molly's ex-lover, "whether you're still in favor of hanging."
Garmony was well able to deal with this sudden shift, but his eyes hardened.
"I think most people are aware of my position on that. Meanwhile, I'm happy to accept the view of Parliament and the collective responsibility of the cabinet." He had squared up, and he was also turning on the charm. The two journalists edged a little closer with their notebooks.
"I see you once said in a speech that Nelson Mandela deserved to be hanged."
Garmony, who was due to visit South Africa the following month, smiled calmly. The speech had recently been dug up, rather scurrilously, by Vernon's paper. "I don't think you can reasonably nail people to things they said as hot-head undergraduates." He paused to chuckle. "Almost thirty years ago. I bet you said or thought some pretty shocking things yourself."
"I certainly did," Clive said. "Which is my point. If you'd had your way then, there wouldn't be much chance for second thoughts now."
Garmony inclined his head briefly in acknowledgment. "Fair enough point. But in the real world, Mr. Linley, no justice system can ever be free of human error."
Then the foreign secretary did an extraordinary thing that quite destroyed Clive's theory about the effects of public office and that in retrospect he was forced to admire. Garmony reached out and, with his forefinger and thumb, caught hold of the lapel of Clive's overcoat and, drawing him close, spoke in a voice that no one else could hear.
"The very last time I saw Molly she told me you were impotent and always had been."
"Complete nonsense. She never said that."
"Of course you're bound to deny it. Thing is, we could discuss it out loud in front of the gentlemen over there, or you could get off my case and make a pleasant farewell. That is to say, fuck off."
The delivery was rapid and urgent, and as soon as it was over Garmony leaned back, beaming as he pumped the composer's hand, and called out to the aide, "Mr. Linley has kindly accepted an invitation to dinner." This last may have been an agreed code, for the young man stepped across promptly to usher Clive away while Garmony turned his back on him to say to the journalists, "A great man, Clive Linley. To air differences and remain friends, the essence of civilized existence, don't you think?"
Reading Group Guide
About the Book:When you read Ian McEwan's most recent novel, Amsterdam, you'll understand why it won the Booker Prize. When you read his earlier works, you'll wonder why he didn't win it sooner.
The four McEwan novelsBooker Prize-winning Amsterdam, Enduring Love, Black Dogs, and The Innocentincluded in this Reading Group Companion, showcase the author's range and skill as he delivers unlikely, and welcome, combinations of suspense, ethics, philosophy, and political and religious ideology. In lesser hands, such a mix might be lethal. In McEwan's, it's intoxicating.Discussion Questions:Questions for Discussion
Question: Talk about the tone of this novel. Is it ironic? Humorous? Menacing?
Question: Think about Clive and Vernon and your feelings about each at different stages of the novel. Did those feelings change? If so, at what key points?
Question: In a relatively short novel, the author devotes many pages to Clive's creative process. What do you think of the author's description of the process itself and of his decision to give it so much space?
Question: At one early point in the novel, Vernon Halliday thinks this about himself, "[H]e 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." Discuss this prescient statement, in light of Vernon's fate.
Question: Discuss the role of lucky (and unlucky) coincidence in the novel: Vernon's rise in his profession due to "Pategate" or the story in the Judge about euthanasia in Holland that leads Clive and Vernon there.
Question: Talk about the author's skill in showing the workplace; the composer's process and studio; the newspaper editor's office.
Question: This novel is funnythe Siamese twins story, the sub-editor who could not spelltalk about the role of humor in the novel.
Question: At different points in the novel, both Clive and Vernon think that Clive has given more to their friendship than Vernon has. Talk about the form and course of their friendship. Can friendships ever be equal?
Question: The author suggests that years and success narrow life. Is this true to your experience?
Question: The author withholds information throughout the novel, offering bits that are only fully developed later (the photographs of Garmony, the importance of the "medical scandal in Holland"). Talk about the author's use of suspense.
Question: How shaky is Clive's moral foundation? Should he be allowed to condemn his fellow artists who "assume the license of free artistic spirit" and renege on commitments, even as Clive ignores the plight of a woman he witnesses being attacked?
Question: Vernon wants to crucify Garmony for the greater good of the republic. Is this ever a valid reason to go after a politician? Do you agree with Clive that Vernon is betraying Molly's trust? Or do you side with Vernon in his wish to stop a vile leader from gaining power?
Question: Talk about the parallels between the fictional political scandal the author creates and the real one that has occupied Washington, D.C., for the past year. Is the author commenting on U.S. politics and media with this novel?
Question: Is everybody in Amsterdam a hypocrite?
Question: Clive thinks he's a genius. How do you define genius? Does Clive fit the definition?
Question: Talk about Molly and the importance of her role in the novel. Are there other examples in literature of characters who carry great weight and importance even though they never appear?
Question: At Allen Crags where Clive watches the woman and man struggle, the author writes, "Clive knew exactly what it was he had to do....He had decided at the very moment he was interrupted." Was there any question in your mind at that point about what Clive's decision was? Were you correct?
Question: What do you make of the author's choice to have Clive die happy, that is, unaware that he's been poisoned, but to have Vernon grasp in his last seconds "...where he really was and what must have been in his champagne and who these visitors were."
On Thursday, January 28th, barnesandnoble.com welcomed Ian McEwan to discuss AMSTERDAM.
Moderator: Good evening, Ian McEwan! We welcome your return to our Auditorium, and congratulate you on the Booker Prize! We're thrilled you could join us to chat about AMSTERDAM. How are you tonight?
Ian McEwan: I'm fine.
Iain from Houston, TX: Molly Lane, although we never meet her when she is alive per se, in the story, is a powerful and compelling character. Where did she originate? Did she evolve from someone you know?
Ian McEwan: No, she's really a ghost who stalks the pages of AMSTERDAM. She exists only in the memory of the principle characters, or is dreamed by Clive and Vernon when they are hallucinating in their final moments. If she has any kind of source, it's literary rather than actual. She perhaps is a distant cousin of some of the bright young heroines of Evelyn Waugh's early novels.
Fred from California: The jacket of AMSTERDAM calls this "a contemporary morality tale," and in many ways, I think it is a modern version of this old form. Do you agree? In a time where morality seems to be in flux, do you think we need a morality tale for our society today?
Ian McEwan: Well, I suppose you could say it's an examination of a moral climate, but it's not a morality tale in the old-fashioned sense of offering the reader an indication of how to live. In times of flux (but all times are times of flux, to contemporaries) we need to be alive to moral issues. However, it's always been my view the reader must sharpen his or her sensibility through the novel, but not expect to receive direct instructions.
Mark from London: Mr. McEwan, you are an incredibly talented writer, and I have loved everything of yours I've read. The Independent on Sunday calls you "a brilliant social satirist" -- do you consider yourself a social satirist?
Ian McEwan: Well, I consider AMSTERDAM a social satire, or a comedy of manners. I'm not sure to what extent this kind of writing is going to become central to what I do. I had a lot of pleasure in writing AMSTERDAM, and I'm still toying with a kind of sequel. But even if I did write another book like AMSTERDAM, social satire would remain simply one of the things that interest me.
Julie Chappell from Lake Zurich, IL: I've been reading your fiction for longer than I care to mention. There is always a strong element of the macabre in your work, although less so in recent years. Is this a conscious choice that you made early in your career?
Ian McEwan: No, it was never a conscious choice. The word "macabre" didn't occur to me until critics started pinning me down with it. I think it's not a useful word to describe what I do, although I concede that it is a reasonable description of my early short stories. For many years I've been interested in a whole range of things -- science, history, the problems of modernity, the relationships between men and women, the contest between faith and reason -- so I feel that the "Ian Macabre" line is a way of trying to see everything I do in terms of my earliest work. Coming back to conscious choice: The novelist always has a hard time persuading readers that he is never really fully in control of what he chooses to do next. One sits back and waits for the right kind of urgency about material to set in. The choices are in the detail, but the material itself has to come from a deeper place.
Allison from Cambridge, MA: Given Vernon's and the Judge's decisions in your book, I would love to get your take on the Clinton and Lewinsky scandal in the U.S., and the way it is being handled by the press?
Ian McEwan: I'm not sure I can add anything significant to the billions of words already expended. Clinton is a liar, but I don't think he should be impeached. However, there is a mischievous voice in my head which says that it might be a marvelous thing if the Republican party could not bring itself to stop the thing that it had started, thereby making the impeachment trial the Republican party's long, boring suicide note when the wrath of the American public is vented at the next election.
John from Greensboro, NC: In your chat transcript here about ENDURING LOVE, you stated that "the names Wenn and Camia are an anagram of Ian McEwan." Did you sneak anything into AMSTERDAM that we should know about?
Ian McEwan: No. AMSTERDAM is, in formal terms, a rather old-fashioned piece of storytelling. There are no embedded messages in the text. Its subtitle used to be, until the proofs stage, "a cometragedy," which is why it has five chapters -- five acts. I wanted it to have a rather Edwardian quality. In this respect, it's a very different kind of novel from ENDURING LOVE.
John from Ohio: The specter of Wordsworth, in one fashion or another, haunts each of your last two novels. Is there some particular element of his poetry -- say, the egotistical sublimity, the darker shadings of nature -- that especially interests you?
Ian McEwan: This is a strange and intriguing response to ENDURING LOVE. If Wordsworth stalks its pages, I didn't let him in. However, that does not mean he's not there. The connection of Wordsworth to AMSTERDAM is obviously a more conscious matter.
Eve from NYC: I saw the film version of FIRST LOVE, LAST RITES this fall, and I thought it was an interesting look at your story -- what did you think of the adaptation?
Ian McEwan: I liked it a great deal. The screenplay had been sent to me a few years ago, and I was impressed by the freedom that it assumed with the material while somehow managing to stay true to the spirit of the story. I think the director, Jesse Peretz, has a great career ahead of him. I thought the two young actors were quite formidable. The movie seemed to me to represent the best of that adventurous side of American independent filmmaking. It may interest you to know that Jesse used to be the bass guitarist for the Lemonheads. Bass guitarists have been often mocked in the past, but Jesse has done a great deal to elevate them.
Valerie from Utah: Did you have a Millennium Symphony in mind when you were writing about it? If you were to hear it, would you recognize it? Could you hum a few lines while you were writing it?
Ian McEwan: It's a good question. What I had clearly in mind was the aspiration and a kind of visual equivalent rather than an auditory one of the process of composition. Clive's music is not really to my taste. It's overstated, portentous, too anxious to create startling effects using the full resources of an orchestra. Bear in mind that Clive, rather like Pierre Menard in the famous story by Borges, is doing little more in his final melody than writing out another man's work -- in this case, Beethoven's "Ode to Joy." Also bear in mind that Clive regards himself as a genius, and is no good. If I heard Clive's music, I'd wince, visibly.
Patrick from Gross Point, Michigan: AMSTERDAM begins at a funeral, and takes off in directions I could never have imagined, and the whole story feels like a dream. Where did AMSTERDAM begin for you, and how did it evolve?
Ian McEwan: AMSTERDAM grew out of a joke. I hiked regularly with an old friend who is a neuroscientist and a psychiatrist. We were walking in the Lake District once, and he was telling me about a patient who was suffering from rapid onset Alzheimer's. It sounded perfectly horrific, and I said to him, jokingly, that if he ever saw me succumbing to the same disease, that he should get me across to Amsterdam and have me put down legally. He agreed on condition that I would do the same for him. Over the months, whenever one of us forgot something, like a compass, or the day of the week, or his house keys, the other one would mutter threateningly, "Amsterdam." Amsterdam in this private joke became a form of insult, and I set out in my notebook once the bare bones of the story: What if two old friends who had made such a pact arrived in Amsterdam each convinced that the other was mad?
Julie Chappell from Lake Zurich, IL: Your response to my "macabre" question makes me wonder if you consider yourself misunderstood by your readers and/or critics? Is it simply that you have changed along with your work but we readers simply cannot forget the strong impressions of your earlier works?
Ian McEwan: It is the luxury of all novelists, indeed all artists, to feel misunderstood. It can even be a rather pleasant sensation. But seriously, I do get frustrated when I read a review of AMSTERDAM that uses words like "macabre." I think it's laziness. All writers are bound to evolve. The alternative is to stagnate. There is another consideration which you've half touched on, and that is for readers, all of a writer's work exists in a perpetual present tense, and it is only the more careful reader who becomes curious about the chronology of the work and the way it has changed. So, I'm sure there are people who pick up my earlier stories and think of them as something I might have written the year before last.
Moderator: It was a joy chatting with you this evening, Ian McEwan. AMSTERDAM is well deserving of the recognition it's been getting, and we congratulate you on its success. Before you leave, will you tell us what you plan to write next?
Ian McEwan: I'm still in that rather delicious stage of trying to work out not what to write, but how to write it, and I'm a little superstitious about describing it too soon. Sorry.
Ian McEwan's Booker Prize-winning novel Amsterdam showcase the author's range and skill as he delivers unlikely, and welcome, combinations of suspense, ethics, philosophy, and political and religious ideology. In lesser hands, such a mix might be lethal. In McEwan's, it's intoxicating.