Writers are rarely the best judges of their own books. Take Ian McEwan, who has expressed grave reservations about his obviously brilliant Cold War thriller, The Innocent (1990), while singling out his deeply flawed second crack at the Cold War, Black Dogs (1992), as his finest work. It’s the other way round, Ian!
The fact that Black Dogs goes over the same ground as its predecessor is not one of my issues with it. The novels are actually very different: The Innocent a tight, linear, le Carré-esque page-turner; Black Dogs a time-hopping metafiction. The better comparison (and book) is Atonement (2001), the acknowledged inspiration of which, L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between (1953), I am certain is lurking in the background of Black Dogs, too. Or maybe not lurking: narrator Jeremy literally goes back and forth between his divorced parents-in-law, keeping the one informed of the other while collecting anecdotes for a proposed memoir about them.
This being an Ian McEwan novel, though, Bernard and June are more idea-vessels than flesh-and-blood human beings, representing, respectively, that classic McEwan dichotomy of rationalism and faith. How these former Communist Party members came to possess such different ideals is where the black dogs of the title come in. As described by a dying June to her dutiful son-in-law at the start of the novel, her encounter with these beasts on a summer’s day in France, 1946 was “the defining moment” of her life, “the experience that redirected, the revealed truth by whose light all precious conclusions must be re-thought.” “I met evil and discovered God [that day],” she says. “[The dogs] set me free.”
To this faithful transcription of direct speech, a “sceptical” Jeremy appends this important disclaimer:
Turning-points are the inventions of story-tellers and dramatists, a necessary mechanism when a life is reduced to, traduced by, a plot, when a morality must be distilled from a sequence of actions, when an audience must be sent home with something unforgettable to mark a character’s growth. Seeing the light, the moment of truth, the turning-point, surely we borrow these from Hollywood or the Bible to make retroactive sense of an overcrowded memory?
In other words, was June’s conversion as Pauline as she claims? Or has the dogs’ significance for her become distorted over time? There is also the suggestion, elsewhere, that she is deliberately exaggerating to give Jeremy’s memoir, and her life as described in it, a shape and “centrepiece.” Either way, what the novel is saying, and goes on to perform via Jeremy’s aimless wanderings through Europe and his entertainment of various tellings of the black dogs incident, is that reality does not conform to a three-act structure and that there is no such thing as a definitive version of the past.
This enactment of thesis – good for the brain, no doubt – does not make Black Dogs the most pleasurable of reading experiences. Divided into four discrete sections (as well as a preface about Jeremy’s childhood that has almost no bearing on the rest of the story), the novel has little to no narrative momentum, and its 175 pages feel twice that. The characters, too, test the patience, so self-absorbed are they by their personal mythologies. This solipsism is no better displayed than when Jeremy and Bernard fly to Berlin to watch the Wall come down – “History was happening” – and then spend their entire time there discussing Bernard’s marriage. Clearly, McEwan is poking fun at his creations here, but that doesn’t make them any less annoying. And when, at the end of the novel, it is argued (tenuously) that geopolitical horrors like the War and the Holocaust and the partition of Germany derive from personal horrors like June’s encounter with the dogs, then we lose even the pleasure of McEwan’s laughter, he seeming to have succumbed to his characters’ myths as fully as they.
What makes all of this so frustrating is that, on a prose level, the novel is immaculate. I think we take this for granted with McEwan, but the man is incapable of writing a bad sentence. He can do description (“The face creased into the complexity of a finger print as her lips pushed across her cheeks whorls of parallel lines that encircled her features and curled round to her temples”); he can do dialogue (“Jeremy, you’re a dear old fruit, but you do talk such twaddle”); he can do axiom (“It was a myth, all the more powerful for being upheld as documentary”); and he can even do action, when he wants to, as proved by the final section’s terrifically exciting blow-by-blow of the black dogs episode. If only he hadn’t left it so late.
Black Dogs is published by Vintage and is available here.