The anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, which has been marked ad infinitum this year, has been the inspiration for a vast array of modern cultural works which unpick and reimagine the Bard’s output. The Hogarth Shakespeare project, which has commissioned Jeanette Winterson, Howard Jacobson, and Margaret Atwood among others, is the most prominent literary example of this trend. Although not part of the Hogarth series, Ian McEwan’s latest work Nutshell (Jonathan Cape, 2016) is another instance of a household name taking on one of Shakespeare’s best-known plays – in this case Hamlet. The timeliness of this publication aside, however, there is not much vintage McEwan in this somewhat bitter and unproductive retelling of one of literature’s great tragedies.
The potential ingredients for a great modernisation of Shakespeare’s masterpiece are all in place. McEwan wisely chooses to situate his novel against a backdrop of twenty-first-century political and social upheaval, a tangible parallel to the corruption rife in Hamlet’s Denmark. In noting the rise of the twin threats of populism and extremism within a British society characterised by consumerism and greed, the author credibly evokes a pessimistic sense that there is indeed “something rotten” in the world of his protagonists. McEwan’s original, if slightly gimmicky, invention is that his narrator is yet to come into contact with this rotten world. He is a foetus. Our hero is trapped inside the womb of the inscrutable Trudy, who has forsaken his father, the poet-publisher John Cairncross, for the attentions of her brother-in-law Claude. Though blind to his surroundings, the unborn Hamlet is witness to a terrible plot to murder his father, which unfolds before his very ears. Here, McEwan discovers a way to avoid grappling too closely with the great philosophical question that stumps Hamlet in the original text – his inability to act to avenge his father – by making it physically impossible. Clever though this may be, you can’t help thinking that perhaps this physical restraint eradicates much of the tension that is palpable in Shakespeare’s play. While the theatregoer becomes engrossed in wondering if Hamlet will act or not, the reader of McEwan’s novel must occupy themselves by idly watching the plot unfold without the prospect of Hamlet’s intervention.
Although it negates a central aspect of the original plot, the womb device does allow McEwan to exercise his considerable descriptive and comedic talents. Many of the most enjoyable moments in the book can be found in the narrator’s frequent soliloquies. His mother’s penchant for fine wine – Sancerre and Pinot Noir the major culprits – has left the fledgling Hamlet with a connoisseur’s appreciative instincts, while her habit of filling her day with whatever is on Radio 4 anachronistically engenders a polymath’s cultural nuance amusingly beyond his years. Placing speeches of such stupendous intellectual snobbery in the mouth, or inner monologue, of an unborn baby is a surprisingly effective way of parodying them. McEwan’s command of his art on these occasions is such that a few unfortunately-public guffaws were an occupational hazard when reading this novel. Apologies are due to any passengers on Chiltern Rail Services who I may have disturbed with involuntary chortles during their morning commute.
Amusing in small doses though it is, you always sense that McEwan sympathises with the narrator’s hyper-cultured rants, saving his real satirical disdain for the banality of Uncle Claude. Claude is a former property-developer, obsessed with money, ill-humoured, and avaricious enough to plot his brother’s murder in order to obtain the Islington townhouse that Trudy and the doomed John Cairncross occupied during their brief marriage. There is material enough there for a convincing critique of capitalist greed, but frustratingly the harshest criticism reserved for Claude is that he is haplessly devoid of wit and culture. In one exchange John Cairncross explains the meaning of ‘threnody’, a song of death or grief, to which Claude responds, “like ‘Candle in the Wind’”. The ensuing “For God’s sake” which John exclaims is a great comic moment, but also one which reveals the cultural snobbery inherent in the satire, a snobbery which is conveyed too clearly through the characters with whom we are meant to sympathise. In the face-off between John and the evil Claude, the author reveals a dichotomy between high and low culture with a clear indication of whose side the reader is meant to be on.
This cultural elitism is initially amusing, soon becomes faintly irritating, and towards the end of the novel feels increasingly problematic. The pretext for many of the narrator’s lengthy musings is his uncertainty about the world he is about to be born into. In admittedly virtuosic passages the author assesses our rapidly decaying circumstances, from war in the Middle East to the terror of irreversible climate change. Although McEwan wrote this work prior to the EU referendum, in the post-Brexit landscape that Nutshell was born into it seems a timely description of the precariousness of contemporary global affairs. While these passages are striking in isolation however, when collected in the soliloquies of the modern-day Hamlet they reduce the book to a vehicle for a paean of liberal grief and uncertainty. When Claude’s lack of literary or musical taste, indicative of the wrong sort of education, is conflated with xenophobia, islamophobia, and capitalist greed, the humour gives way to bitter condemnation – the weak retaliation of the sore loser.
The best novels in McEwan’s oeuvre derive their tension and complexity from enclosed spaces: the family home in The Cement Garden; Perowne’s living room in Saturday; and a small seaside hotel in On Chesil Beach. What sets McEwan apart in these examples is his keen dissection of the psychology of the characters he confines. This preoccupation with interiority might be expected to continue in a book where the central character occupies the most enclosed situation possible – that of his mother’s womb. The central failing of Nutshell, one which undermines the often sparkling prose of the author, is that McEwan abandons the interior in favour of pronouncements on the external. So much of the novel is devoted to assessing the state of modern society that there is ultimately little room left for the narrative to play out. The ending of the novel feels far too abrupt as a result, and the middle too ponderous. While the novel may have been born from lofty, emulative ambitions, the result is a bitter examination of modern society as represented by Claude, who is to be criticised above all because he embodies cliché. In this work, considering the multitude of Shakespeare adaptations currently circulating, the same criticism could well be levelled at the author himself.
‘Nutshell’ is published by Jonathan Cape, RRP £15.99.
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