Roger Brunyate's Reviews > Nutshell

Nutshell by Ian McEwan
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it was amazing
bookshelves: comedy-sorta, sui-generis, top-ten-2016, fantasy-surreal, hogarth-shakespeare

Hamlet in Utero
Oh God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself king of infinite space—were it not that I have bad dreams.
I could check online, I suppose, but I suspect there is a story here. Is it a coincidence that, within months of the launch of the Hogarth Shakespeare series, in which famous authors (so far Jeanette Winterson, Howard Jacobson, Anne Tyler, and Margaret Atwood) are asked to retell Shakespeare plays in their own words, Ian McEwan (surely the equal of any of them) should come out with his own version of Hamlet, but not part of the series? Was he not asked? Or did he think he would simply do better on his own? Whatever the answer, his novel contains better writing than any of those actually in the series—one might say McEwan's best writing to date, in terms of the brilliance of his handling of words, ideas, and references. In short, an intellectual masterpiece.

But as a retelling of the Hamlet story, it strays farther from the canon than even the liberal approach of the other commissions; perhaps that is the point, that he demanded this freedom? Not that this matters; since it is not a Hogarth book, fidelity is no longer a criterion; you can judge it on its own merits. More important to me, though, is whether it tells enough of a story at all—whether Shakespeare's or McEwan's. For the first half or more, I felt that its brilliance as a literary tour-de-force detracted from its value as a novel, in the sense of narrative with rounded characters and a plot. It was not until much later that I changed my mind.

For this is Hamlet in utero. Yes, the first line of this 200-page soliloquy is: "So here I am, upside down in a woman." Hamlet's third-trimester interuterine viewpoint may be limited—he has no understanding of colors, for instance—but he more than makes up for it with his other senses; here is is, for example, as an oenophile:
I like to share a glass with my mother. You may never have experienced, or you will have forgotten, a good burgundy (her favourite) or a good Sancerre (also her favourite) decanted through a healthy placenta. Even before the wine arrives—tonight, a Jean-Max Roger Sancerre—at the sound of a drawn cork, I feel it on my face like the caress of a summer breeze.
Hamlet's (he's not actually named) front-row balcony viewpoint on the intercourse between his mother Trudy and his uncle Claude is bizarrely pornographic, and his knowledge of the outside world, gained ostensibly through his mother's addiction to podcasts, rivals that of the baby Stewie Griffin in Family Guy. This is a very funny book—far more so that McEwan's previous satire, Solar —though there were times when I wondered if the author's creation of an all-knowing fetus was simply a device to enable him to pontificate on the state of the world today:
Free speech no longer free, liberal democracy no longer the obvious port of destiny, robots stealing jobs, liberty in close combat with security, socialism in disgrace, capitalism corrupt, destructive and in disgrace, no alternatives in sight.
Well, let him pontificate now and then. For the brilliance of McEwan's wordplay, his vast range of reference, and his deftness in conjuring almost subliminal Shakespeare echoes throughout is worth the price of a little preaching. And there are times when he is nothing less than beautiful:
There's pathos in this familiar routine, in the sounds of homely objects touching surfaces. And in the little sigh she makes when she turns or slightly bends our unwieldy form. It's already clear to me how much of life is forgotten even as it happens. Most of it. The unregarded present spooling away from us, the soft tumble of unremarkable thoughts, the long-neglected miracle of existence. When she's no longer twenty-eight and pregnant and beautiful, or even free, she won't remember the way she set down the spoon and the sound it made on slate, the frock she wore today, the touch of her sandal's thong between her toes, the summer's warmth, the white noise of the city beyond the house walls, a short burst of birdsong by a closed window. All gone, already.
I think it was reading this passage on page 162, four-fifths of the way through, that first convinced me that what I was reading was more than a jeu-d'esprit but an often profound meditation. Up until then, there had been that little matter of the story. For the characters, though sharply drawn, could not be said to be rounded, and how much of Hamlet can you tell with the title character still unborn? But then I realized the freedom McEwan had gained by not writing within the Hogarth requirements. We may know how the play turns out, but there is no need for any of it to be replicated in the novel: there need be no revenge plot, no ghost, Hamlet's father need not even be killed. We can read with suspense, because William Shakespeare has no necessary hold over an independent Ian McEwan. In fact, he does not totally depart from the original story, but by the time things get moving in the last fifty pages or so, he manages to create surprises that make the novel increasingly satisfying, not only for style but also for plot.
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Reading Progress

July 9, 2016 – Shelved
July 9, 2016 – Shelved as: to-read
August 17, 2016 – Started Reading
August 19, 2016 – Shelved as: comedy-sorta
August 19, 2016 – Shelved as: sui-generis
August 19, 2016 – Shelved as: top-ten-2016
August 19, 2016 – Shelved as: fantasy-surreal
August 19, 2016 – Finished Reading
August 25, 2017 – Shelved as: hogarth-shakespeare

Comments Showing 1-28 of 28 (28 new)

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message 1: by Jill (new) - added it

Jill Roger, I know you've read the entire Hogarth series; I have not. I did not realize there were any particular Hogarth requirements. I thought that the authors were given free reign, starting with the Shakespeare story and then deviating as they might. I also sensed some Macbeth here for good measure -- agreed? Interesting that you say this might be McEwan's best writing to date. I'm inclined to agree.


message 2: by Roger (last edited Aug 19, 2016 01:15PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Roger Brunyate Well, I don't know exactly what the Hogarth requirements are. They are certainly given free rein to go off in quite inventive directions, and they clearly do not have to get everything in. But I do not think they could get away with contradicting major elements of the plot. My enjoyment (my plot-enjoyment rather than style-enjoyment) really began when I realized that McEwan could—that Hamlet's father did not have to die, for example.

Also, I think that McEwan's extreme reduction of the play to only two active characters, plus the father (who is dead before the play even begins) and the invented character of the owl poet, is a step beyond even the freest of the four Hogarth adaptations so far.

And yes, you are dead right about Macbeth. I noticed some of the sonnets too, and various other things that rang bells but I didn't bother to track down. But that was another wonderful thing: how McEwan managed to make this so Shakespearean without ever being clumsy about his insertions. Actually, this too is another advantage over the Hogarth approach, because by freeing himself of the need to translate Shakespeare, he opens up the possibility of quoting him and playing with him in a much more verbally engaged way. R.


message 3: by Jill (new) - added it

Jill Roger, I'm at a disadvantage, not having read all the Hogarth books. It would be instructive -- for me -- to know more about what Hogarth did require or whether McEwan was simply more inspired and inventive than the others.

Banquo's ghost, of course, was a major tip that McEwan had put Macbeth into play, as well as the mother's surmounting guilt. Yet he did it so seamlessly!


Diane S ☔ A very fine review, and so glad this worked for you.


message 5: by Roger (last edited Aug 19, 2016 02:37PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Roger Brunyate Jill, I have several theories about the Hogarth Press and McEwan. The most likely is that he was asked and declined, either because he does not consider himself a series person, or because he already knew that he would want to go his own way. He is inspired and inventive, but then so is Margaret Atwood. I think he just wanted to think outside the box, even the rather copious box that Hogarth provided.

It could also be that he was asked, submitted a treatment, and then withdrew when they seemed nervous about taking quite so many liberties.

I pity poor Gillian Flynn who now has the task of holding her own with her official Hogarth Hamlet due out in January, 2021. Hopefully that is far enough ahead for McEwan not to be still breathing down her neck! R.


Debbie Beauteous review, Roger. Based on your review, I just requested it from NG even though I have too many to read! Yikes! I loved The Children Act and want to get to Atonement, but why not go with this one. It sounds totally bizarre--right up my alley!


Roger Brunyate Bizarre indeed, Debbie! Better written than The Children Act, but with only a shred of that one's story. I would put it somewhat off the grand line of McEwan's novels, an exercise he has set himself on the side, succeeding magnificently, but not contributing much to his usual concern of how people behave in the modern world. R.


message 8: by Angela M (new)

Angela M Thoroughly enjoyed your review, Roger . Your last comment though will probably keep me from rushing to read this even though I really liked a number of his past works .


Roger Brunyate It is not one you read for story, Angela, but very much for brilliance of writing and invention. In those respects, I would call it McEwan's best book yet. R.


message 10: by Taryn (new) - added it

Taryn Awesome review! It sounds really interesting. I was unable to get it early, but I'll definitely make time for it when it comes out.

I love that you mentioned Stewie Griffin, because he is the first character that I thought of when I read the summary! :)


Roger Brunyate I wonder if Ian McEwan would be interested or insulted by the Stewie comparison, if indeed he knows who that is!? There is some classic, isn't there, that starts in the womb? Perhaps even more than one. R,


Hanneke Really great to read your splendid review on McEwan's latest book! I am so glad to hear that you enjoyed it very much. McEwan is one of my favorite authors, so I am looking forward to read it a.s.a.p. I had no idea that its main character is a Hamlet in utero! Well, there you go, people get confused when McEwan gets funny. He is supposed to be dark and menacing. I actually thought 'Solar' was a very funny book, but a lot of people were not charmed by it.


Roger Brunyate I was not charmed at all. But then it took almost the whole book for me to see the penny drop! R.


Sharon Sample Excellent review, Roger. I agree that the last 50 pages provide a satisfying ending.


Lizzy You make me want to drop everything I'm reading and start Nutshell right away. Amazing, Roger! Each time I read one of your reviews I feel nourished by your words. But it will have to wait, I am too immersed in Portrait of a Lady, and I'm totally captivated. It could well be my next reading... Thanks! L.


Roger Brunyate Thank you both, Sharon and Lizzy. Portrait of a Lady is certainly major reading, and too much competition even for McEwan, I think! R.


Elyse Walters great quotes --"sharing a glass with mother" --and 'free speech".. This novel is so amazing -- I just must read it again -


message 18: by Kristy (new) - added it

Kristy Diffey Hi Roger, this was indeed set to be part of the hogarth series but was withdrawn by the author at the eleventh hour for reasons unknown. I enjoyed it thoroughly.


Roger Brunyate Thank you, Elyse. McEwan certainly knows his way around words.

Interesting information, Kristy. How did you get it? R.


Lesley Moseley I am now REALLY looking forward to it!!


sylvie Ah...a question, which Hogarth in your opinion pleased you the most? I read Margaret Atwood's Hag - Seed and enjoyed it.


The Reading Bibliophile I agree! Incredible book!


Margitte Informative and brilliant review! If I ever wondered if I should read this book, I now know for sure that I simply HAVE to! You brought the perspective that I needed and did not know before.


Lesley Moseley I too feel a 4 1/2 to 5 star, coming one. Absolutely loving it so far..


message 25: by Bill (new)

Bill  Kerwin Sounds interesting. I'll have to give this one a try.


Roger Brunyate Lesley, sylvie, Reading Bibliophile, Margitte, Bill: a lot of people I haven’t thanked. But do so now.

And, sylvie, I think I liked Atwood’s Hag-Seed the best. R.


Lesley Moseley Roger wrote: "Lesley, sylvie, Reading Bibliophile, Margitte, Bill: a lot of people I haven’t thanked. But do so now.

And, sylvie, I think I liked Atwood’s Hag-Seed the best. R."


Good reminder. I am remiss for not thanking many people for the books I have found on the compare books service, that I could read from my EBOOK library and give 4 or 5 stars. Thanks to the many of you that are my GR friends, due to similar reading tastes.


message 28: by Joe (new) - rated it 4 stars

Joe Kraus A double apology on this one, Roger. I hadn't seen your review before I headline my own as "Hamlet in Utero." It's a clever line, but now I find I inadvertently stole it. Also, I hadn't realized it was part of the Hogarth series. I loved, deeply loved, Howard Jacobson's Shylock is My Name but thought this one was more clever than inspired. Thanks for the inspiration to consider others in the series too.


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