I’m well prepared to appreciate Ian McEwan’s most recent novel, Nutshell, because I’ve read and seen Hamlet at least 25 times. Or maybe 50. The narrator of Nutshell is a foetus, some 8 months gone, who has picked up a lot of information by paying attention to the pod-casts his mother (Ger)Trudy listens to. Hamlet says that “I could be bounded in a nushell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.”
This little foetus is living a bad dream! His mother is having a raunchy affair with his uncle, that satyr named Claude. His father, a poet, is going to be murdered by this couple in rut. Shakespeare never makes it clear if Gertrude is implicated in old Hamlet’s death. In this short novel, she certainly is. John, the poet, amusingly does not quote Shakespeare when he learns that Trudy wants to break up their marriage: “Since there’s no help, come let us kiss and part,” he quote from Drayton. But death via Fruit Smoothie is the plan for him. They won’t pretend that a serpent bit him whilst he was sleeping in his garden; they have plans for a more public dispatch.
Motive? There’s evidently a fine house in rather ram-shackle condition owned by the infant-to-come’s father, the poet John. I know enough about real estate prices in London to believe that in this debased age it can be worth what the throne of Denmark once was.
The infant-philosopher has kept up with the “state of the world”. He knows that the world is filled with “psychopaths” a “human constant”. Europe is “in existential crisis, fractious and weak, as varieties of self-loving nationalism sip that same tasty brew”–the “noxious” brew that “lately intoxicated the Russians in Ukraine” and 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 every new handgun….” Ah, the body politic seems to be ailing a good deal more than when Norway invaded Poland in the geopolitics of Hamlet. Yes, Claude is a bawd, but his ambitions seem limited to sex and money. The inconvenient foetus, however, is a nuisance. The baby clutches his umbilical cord like worry beads as he listens to news about “altered climate, vanishing forests, creatures and polar ice….oceans turning to weak acid.
At the beginning of Chapter Ten, the precocious babe-in-utero channels Hamlet particularly closely: “I’ve no taste for comedy, no inclination to exercise, even if I had the space, no delight in fire or earth, in words that one revealed a golden world of majestical stars, the beauty of poetic apprehension, the infinite joy of reason. Those admirable radio talks and bulletins, the excellent podcasts that moved me, seem at best hot air, at work a vaporous stench. The brave polity I’m seen to join, the noble congregation of humanity, its customs, gods, and angels, its fiery ideas and brilliant ferment no longer thrill me.”
Hamlet, too, is similarly world-weary: the reflections of the foetus transcribed above remind me of his speech, Act II, scene 2, to Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern:
“I have of late,—but wherefore I know not,—lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why, it appears no other thing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form, in moving, how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not me; no, nor woman neither,…”
It helped that I recognized the Hamlet premise so soon, but this strangely compelling look at an infant’s limited universe in an ever perceptably smaller uterus is enchanting. The reading is intoxicating (Ger)Trudy is a lush and a wine connoisseur. Isn’t that all wrong for a pregnant woman?
I recommend Nutshell because the prose soars. No matter how prosaic the topics–oh, those fruit smoothies!–McEwan being strange is so much better than the pedestrian novelists who get better reviews. It’s just 200 pages and the reading moves along briskly. I recommend it for those who like mysteries, those who like inspired prose, those who like literary jokes, and those who want to get away from the traumas of politics–for a wee spot of refuge. And it’s a must for all Hamlet aficianados. And if you like Nabokov, you might be enchanted by the verbal dexterity and smooth moves of McEwan.