What a refreshing change from his usual bittersweet format; Ian McEwan’s “Nutshell” is like no book I’ve ever read. Told entirely from the perspective of an unborn baby, the intellectual life of this foetus is a fascinating retelling of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” The bliss and boredom of existing afforded to the unborn promotes the excess of existential thought exhibited by the eponymous Hamlet, who battles vehemently with the notions of life, love and death.
There are moments of fantastic introspective clarity as well as hilarious observation throughout the book, as he makes use of what he hears and feels of the outside world. His observations and sensations are filtered through his mother – her hormonal/emotional/digestive responses are also his. Don’t think that means he has no emotions or opinions of his own, being in fact very frustrated by having to share in everything she feels and eats. But, he has excellent hearing of his own – a known fact of unborn children – and so his commentary and accounts of conversations can be taken as reliable.
He has some very sophisticated tastes for a foetus, not least his penchant for a good vintage – thanks to sharing his mother’s food and drink – and his appreciation for poetry and literary criticism – thanks to having a poet for a father and late night podcasts that his mother listens to when she can’t sleep. The sophistication of this foetus is fantastically absurd. “Milk, repellent to the blood-fed unborn, especially after wine, but my future all the same.” Small talk “is an adult device, a covenant with boredom and conceit.” “God said, Let there be pain. And there was poetry. Eventually.” These statements contain a wonderful meshing of childish bluntness with old-age boredom. Things children say because they don’t know they shouldn’t. Things old people say because they no longer care. One thinks of another famous Shakespeare quote – “second childishness”.
Of all the Shakespeare adaptations that exist – books, films, plays, TV – this is one of the most successful I have come across. It rather puts “The Wyrd Sisters” (aka “Macbeth”) by Terry Pratchett to shame, a book I read alongside “Nutshell”. Hamlet is one of the most famous of Shakespeare’s characters and rightly so. His soliloquys are the most infamous, powerful and elegant. It is particularly this feature of the play that McEwan has fabulously reworked in “Nutshell”. The passages I enjoyed most were exactly what you expect from Hamlet’s monologues: powerful exaltations and lamentations on human nature; the wonder that it is to think and be. Consciousness in overdrive. Besides their evident connection with Shakespeare, these passages are also incredibly modern and relevant with regards to politics, science and social analysis.
“Elsewhere, everywhere, novel inequalities of wealth, the super rich a master race apart. Ingenuity deployed by states for new forms of brilliant weaponry, by global corporations to dodge taxes, by righteous banks to stuff themselves with Christmas millions. China, too big to need friends or counsel, cynically probing its neighbours’ shores, building islands of tropical sand, planning for the war it knows must come. Muslim-majority countries plagued by religious puritanism, by sexual sickness, by smothered invention. The Middle East, fast-breeder for a possible world war. And foe-of-convenience, the United States, barely the hope of the world, guilty of torture, helpless before its sacred text conceived in an age of powdered wigs, a constitution as unchallengeable as the Koran. Its nervous population obese, fearful, tormented by inarticulate anger, contemptuous of governance, murdering sleep with ever new handgun. Africa, yet to learn democracy’s party trick – the peaceful transfer of power.”
Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a highly cerebral soul and that is his fatal flaw. Hamlet fails to be active or effective in the real world and this is precisely what escalates the tragedy in the play. Hamlet thinks and fails to act. Others complain he is too melancholy, too lost in his thoughts. What McEwan has done, by making Hamlet a foetus, is remove the blame that was laid at Hamlet’s feet. A foetus cannot be blamed for its inability to act. Where Hamlet’s is a cage of the mind, the baby is physically caged within his mother’s womb. By replacing a mental cage with a physical one, McEwan also gives us a powerful metaphor for depression, anxiety and even psychosis.
“What’s an imagination for but to play out and linger on and repeat the bloody possibilities? Revenge may be exacted a hundred times over in one sleepless night. The impulse, the dreaming intention, is human, normal, and we should forgive ourselves.”
Equally though, McEwan is crediting the relevance, the potential of a soully conceptual existence. For the foetus, to think is its only activity, aside from giving mum the odd kick, and as such, thinking is the only way it knows how to be. It may observe, speculate, look forward to existence beyond the womb, but at least for now, this warm, moist sac is his world, his universe.
“Just think: nothing to do but be and grow, where growing is hardly a conscious act. The joy of pure existence, the tedium of undifferentiated days. Extended bliss is boredom of the existential kind.”
Throughout the book, the baby is a witness, incapable of taking action, but that does not detract from its contribution to the plot. McEwan gives us an entirely inactive character as our narrator, but does that mean the story does not progress? That the child’s existence has not played its part in the story, or at least, in the telling of it? No.
McEwan has reinvigorated “Hamlet” and reminded us of the value of Hamlets in literature and art in general. “Hamlet” and “Nutshell” are artistic masterpieces because they deal with ideas. We feed off ideas, we exist because of ideas. We think, therefore we are.