Correspondence

The Quest for Certitude

I must thank you sincerely for your extremely thoughtful gift of Saturday by British novelist Ian McEwan.  I have read the book with great interest and enjoyment.  What is more, it has sent me back to “Dover Beach,” which it uses so creatively, and to Matthew Arnold in general, with a new perspective.  You can have little idea how difficult it is to elicit such a response in me.  I usually march entirely to the sound of my own drummer and take little to no advice on what to read.

On one particular question I would like to share some thoughts with you.  It might be best, though, if you’d first take a few moments to read another poem by Arnold, his “Rugby Chapel.”  This is a poem about his late father, who was a pastor in the Church of England and is now buried in this chapel.

McEwan, in his brilliantly written novel, is entirely one with his generation of intellectuals.  That is partly why he is able to “show us the way we live,” as a New York Times critic noted.  And yet the truly great writers have been those who have in some way been able to transcend their times, because they have looked to something beyond.  McEwan makes no bones about being a philosophical “materialist.”  (It is fair to assume he is at one with his character, neurosurgeon Dr. Henry Perowne, in this regard.)  Thus, although momentarily uneasy...

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