Enduring Love, by Ian McEwan


The beginning of this novel (Random House, 262 pages), pervaded, as one reviewer writes, with “dazzling cinematic bravura,” is worth citing at some length. The protagonist Joe Rose, a science writer, and his wife Clarissa Mellon—a university professor who has just returned to London from the U.S., where she was doing research on the poet John Keats—are about to have a picnic.

“This was the moment, this was the pinprick on the time map: I was stretching out my hand [for the bottle of wine], and as the cool neck and the black foil touched my palm, we heard a man’s shout. We turned to look across the field and saw the danger. Next thing, I was running toward it. The transformation was absolute: I don’t recall dropping the corkscrew, or getting to my feet, or making a decision, or hearing the caution Clarissa called after me. What idiocy, to be racing into this story and its labyrinths, sprinting away from our happiness among the fresh spring grasses by the oak. There was the shout again, and a child’s cry, enfeebled by the wind that roared in the tall trees along the hedgerows. I ran faster. And there, suddenly, from different points around the field, four other men were converging on the scene, running like me.

“I see us from two hundred feet up, through the eyes of the buzzard we had watched earlier, soaring, circling, and dipping in the tumult of currents: five men running silently toward the center of a hundred-acre field . . . the motorist, John Logan, whose car was banked on the grass verge with its door, or doors, wide open. Knowing what I know now, it’s odd to evoke the figure of Jed Parry directly ahead of me, emerging from a line of beeches on the far side of the field, a quarter of a mile away, running into the wind. To the buzzard, Parry and I were tiny forms, our white shirts brilliant against the green, rushing toward each other like lovers, innocent of the grief this entanglement would bring. The encounter that would unhinge us was minutes away, its enormity disguised from us by the colossus in the center of the field, which drew us in with the power of a terrible ratio that set fabulous magnitude against the puny human distress at its base.”

The protagonist and narrator makes his living writing articles and books on science. What he is describing here is “an enormous balloon filled with helium, [and here comes the science], that elemental gas forged from hydrogen in the nuclear furnace of the stars, first step along the way in the generation of multiplicity and variety of matter in the universe, including ourselves and all our thoughts.” A child is trapped in the gondola, his grandfather, the pilot, is outside the balloon, on the ground, struggling to control its movements, and four other men run to the rescue, try to grab onto ropes hanging from that runaway balloon to pull it down.

Seldom will you read a better beginning for a novel, a scene that would seem to guarantee a soon-to-be notation on the paperback cover: “Now a major motion picture.” Note also the filming from above (the buzzard’s eye view), so favored by cinematographers these days. The title as well, “Enduring Love,” appears custom-made for Hollywood, perfect for a movie about erotomania, like, say, “Fatal Attraction.” But, as we shall discuss later on, Ian McEwan can be a subversive writer, his title is all wrapped up in irony, and Hollywood is subverted at every step of the way. In fact, one of the underlying sub-themes of the novel is how life, and literary fiction, does not accommodate itself to filmmaking.

The bravura beginning, furthermore, describes how five men struggle to control the balloon, grabbing ropes and hanging on, until a gust of wind pulls the monstrous thing up and away, and one by one the men drop their ropes, all but one man, Dr. John Logan, who hangs on and is pulled up too high to let go, and, finally, cannot hold on any longer and drops to his death. Soon after this a look passes between Joe Rose and Jed Parry, an unhinged young man who decides that look is full or import: God has sent him Joe Rose as the object of his love, and he has been anointed to bring Joe Rose to God.


So you’re happy and in love with Clarissa, you have the perfect conjugal union, but then one fine day comes “the touch of a wine bottle and a cry of distress,” after which you find yourself “sprinting away from your happiness,” and then nothing is ever the same again. The rest of the book describes how Jed Parry, a stalker—the word is never used—inserts himself into Joe’s life, infringes upon his discreteness, and ruins his perfect union with Clarissa.

Parry, it seems, is afflicted with a type of erotomania, De Clerambault’s Syndrome, but Joe the scientist becomes aware of this only more than a hundred pages into the book (133), when he recalls having read about a French woman obsessed with King George V, a woman who believing she is in love with the king and he with her, hangs around outside Buckingham Palace, waiting for him to send her a sign by manipulating the curtains in the palace windows. “She lived her life in the prison gloom of this delusion. Her forlorn and embittered love was identified as a syndrome by the French psychiatrist who treated her, and who gave his name to her morbid passion. De Clerambault.”

While the action of the novel revolves around Parry’s mad pursuit of his destined love—his hanging around outside Joe’s and Clarissa’s London apartment, his obsessive sending of love letters—the subtext of the novel, which is a novel of ideas, delves into any number of other issues. Some things are mentioned only in passing: the discovery of DNA in 1869, a discovery whose importance remained long unacknowledged, the meaning of the human smile, the universality of the greeting ritual at airports (“fifty theatrical happy endings”).

Many of the divagations are subtly connected to major themes of the novel. Take the smile. Joe Rose is set to write a long piece about the smile for an American science magazine. He plans on a slant directed more at nature than nurture. Nature, in fact, has of late been more in vogue than nurture: “The word from the human biologists bears Darwin out: the way we wear our emotions on our faces is pretty much the same in all cultures, and the infant smile is one social signal that is particularly easy to isolate and study . . . In Edward O. Wilson’s cool phrase, it ‘triggers a more abundant share or parental love and affection.’”

Clarissa, however, who teaches British Romantic poetry, and whose present research interest is focused on finding lost love letters of the poet John Keats, disdains Wilson: “What a zoologist had to say about a baby’s smile could be of no real interest. The truth of that smile was in the eye and heart of the parent, and in the unfolding love that only had meaning through time.” Following this line of discussion, and, in particular, Joe’s and Clarissa’s different takes on the smile, we are into the novel’s major question: What is love?

Of course nobody knows what love is, but Clarissa thinks she does. At the beginning of the book she and Joe live by the ideal of total contentment in the love they have for each other. They believe deeply in this ideal, but it is never more than a delusion and is ripe for bursting. “Friends considered Clarissa to be successful and happy, and most of the time they were right.” The same could be said of Joe. His bouts of unhappiness are associated largely with what he considers his failure to become a genuine scientific researcher and hold a position in a university. Her bouts of gloom are occasioned by her inability to bear a child.

Until unhinged Jed Parry comes into their lives, neither Joe nor Clarissa seems to realize that they are not very compatible in basic ways. She teaches a seminar on Romantic poetry and searches for the lost love letters of Keats, while he, the ultimate rationalist, does not much believe in romance. They are opposites, the Humanities vs. the Sciences, and they have frequent arguments, but their emotions are somehow in perfect balance, so that discussions between them do not become heated, the tone never querulous and rigid—until that day the balloon arrives.

When Parry begins leaving repetitive messages on his answering machine—“Joe, God’s love will seek you out.”—it suddenly dawns on Joe: “I’m in a relationship.” He would never have thought to apply that New Agey word to his union with Clarissa, but, alas, after Parry appears, Joe and Clarissa are suddenly in the same gruesome thing: a relationship. The sad implication is that even without the episode of the balloon, even without Parry, their ideal union had long-term prospects of turning into something far from ideal.

At any rate, the balloon, and Parry, precipitate Joe and Clarissa—very rapidly, almost too rapidly to believe—out of ideal contentment and into a place from which return to the ideal is impossible. Early on Parry, who believes in a God who intervenes directly in human affairs, tells Joe, “I’m just the messenger,” and this turns out to be egregiously true. His message is this: your previous life is over.

Clarissa and Joe have together witnessed a tragedy, or, as she says, “We’ve seen something terrible together. It won’t go away, and we have to help each other. And that means we’ll have to love each other even harder.” But the word “hard” is not applicable to the ideal love they once experienced—maybe not to any love. It all came easy, and trying hard had nothing to do with it. Clarissa’s words here, furthermore, remind you of what people say to each other when they’ve lost a child. Going through such a personal tragedy should bring the spouses, as well as the whole family, closer. But the fact is that no, on the contrary: it often sends the survivors off in all different directions. The spouses who have lost a child often end up divorced.

Later Joe mentions “all this talking and listening that’s supposed to be good for couples,” suggesting that the talking and listening is beside the point, especially after things take a turn toward estrangement: “there’s so much luck involved, as well as the million branching consequences of your unconscious choice of mate, that no one and no amount of talking can untangle it if it turns out unhappily.”

As their life together begins unraveling (“we had lost the trick of love”), they try to reassure each other. “‘You’re working too hard,’ said Clarissa. ‘Go easy on yourself. And remember that I love you. I love you.’ We kissed again, deeply.” Of all the “I love yous” uttered all across the U.S.A. or U.K. on any given day, by phone or face to face, how many of them are genuinely sincere? The one uttered here by Clarissa is already rough about the edges. She’s trying too hard.  What are we talking about when we talk about love?

Apropos to the argument about why babies smile, Joe says, “We had had this conversation in different forms on many occasions. What we were really talking about this time was the absence of babies from our lives.” You might say that what Clarissa is often talking about when she talks about love is her deep disappointment in being unable to bear a child, and what Joe is talking about is his deep disappointment in being unable to be a genuine scientific researcher, instead of a journalist who recycles the ideas of others.

Given all the above discussion, the reader still has trouble believing that what Joe and Clarissa had together can fall apart so disastrously, and so quickly. One reader at least (me) can never quite believe that Clarissa could be so casual about Parry, and so quick to blame Joe for being fearful and upset. After all, they are dealing with a deranged stalker, who, potentially, could be dangerous. Even before he invades their apartment with a knife, there are numerous confirmations of this. All she has to do is read some of the letters he sends. Take this passage: “My love for you is hard and fierce, it won’t take no for an answer, and it’s moving steadily toward you, coming to claim you and deliver you.” That’s a threat, and it’s scary.

For me Clarissa’s behavior is a flaw in the narrative verisimilitude of the novel. Would the union begin to break up under the tension that crazy Parry brings into their lives? Yes, of course. As mentioned above, there are some indications that even without Parry the ideal conjugal bliss could not last. Would the union dissolve rapidly, in the way the author describes it? Would Clarissa be almost insouciant in her attitude toward Parry? Right up to the day he holds a knife to her neck? Doubtful.


This brilliant, highly intelligent novel of ideas is about love, yes, but it also touches upon a multitude of other issues concerning human nature. Take Chapter Three for example, describing how Joe and Clarissa sit up late into the night on the day of the tragedy, trying to work their way out of the horror. “We hadn’t said much in the car. It had seemed enough to be coming through the traffic unharmed. Now it came out in a torrent, a postmortem, a reliving, a debriefing, the rehearsal of grief and the exorcism of terror.”

What we have here are liminal incantations designed for threshold crossings. “An element of ritual was in play . . . these were not only descriptions but incantations also.” Joe and Clarissa talk and talk, telling and retelling the story of what has happened, making it into an orderly narrative that they can live with, “dedicated craftsmen at work, grinding the jagged edge of memories, hammering the unspeakable into forms of words.” Mired in feelings of guilt, Joe hopes to convince others, and himself, that he was not the first of the men to let go of the rope. Interesting fact: even at the end of the book no one apparently knows who was the first.

“Over the days and weeks, Clarissa and I told our story many times to friends, colleagues, and relatives. I found myself using the same phrases, the same adjectives in the same order. It became possible to recount the events without reliving them in the faintest degree, without even remembering them.” We are all fiction writers, making up stories. Faced with a raw tragedy, we construct a tale around it, giving it structure, order—taming it, making it into our own private fiction.

While the narratives we create and tell most frequently help us cope, sometimes our imaginations work against us. Faced with the death of her husband, Dr. John Logan, the man who dangled from a rope too long and then fell to his death, his wife, Jean Logan convinces herself that he had a lover, a woman who was with him at the time of the accident. He died, surmises Jean, showing off for that young woman, who had accompanied him on a picnic. Utterly convinced of the fictional narrative she has created—based solely on a picnic lunch and a woman’s scarf that was found in Logan’s car after his death—Jean becomes trapped in her own bitterness.

Such myth-making can be contagious. A few pages later Joe Rose finds himself describing in his mind that same imaginary woman. “She wouldn’t have been able to see where he landed. I imagined her, pretty, in her early twenties, frantic in distress, running back up the road to the nearest village . . . I stood there in her place and daydreamed of the secret phone calls or notes that might have preceded their picnic. Perhaps they were in love.” At the end of the novel it turns out that no such woman ever existed. Logan, rather, had given a ride to two lovers, a middle-aged professor and his student, to whom the scarf belonged.

After some hideous event we sometimes conjure up a different scenario in our minds and wish it could have turned out that way. Midway in the novel, an innocent man is shot in a restaurant, by Parry’s hired killers, who mistake that man for Joe. “What, in fantasy, could I have done to persuade Clarissa and Jocelyn and the strangers at the next table to leave their meals and run with me up the stairs to find by interconnecting doors a way down into the street? On a score of sleepless nights I’ve been back to plead with them to leave. Look, I say to our neighbors, you don’t know me, but I know what is about to happen. I’m from a tainted future. It was a mistake, it doesn’t have to happen. We could choose another outcome.” This kind of myth-making is typical of ex post facto human thinking; highly imaginative, it also is, basically, insane. At one point Clarissa even suggests that Joe’s obsession with Parry is an act of imagination that somehow transcends Parry’s obsession with Joe: “You were so intense about him as soon as you met him. It’s like you invented him.”

Enduring Love keeps asking a central question: why do human beings behave the way they do? Take this: “He [Joe, arguing with Clarissa] speaks in a quiet, breathy tone, exaggeratedly slow. Where do we learn such tricks? Are they inscribed, along with the rest of our emotional repertoire? Or do we get them from the movies?” Most likely both, but McEwan, along with his protagonist Joe, emphasizes that much of human behavior has been imprinted on our psyches eons ago—like the instinctual smile of babies, or the way travelers from anywhere in the world greet each other in the same identical fashion at airports. We live by “deep emotional reactions that duck the censure of the higher reasoning processes.” We lie or tell half truths, not only to others, but to our very selves as well, since over thousands of eons evolution has favored the best liars. As Joe remarks, “I thought how the brain was such a delicate, fine-filigreed thing that it could not even fake a change in its emotional state without transforming the condition of a million other unfelt circuits.” That would make a good alternative title for this novel: The Brain Is A Fine-Filigreed Thing.

As recent neuroscience has established, certain neurons deep in our brains fight things out and decide what insights will be allowed in the full light of consciousness. We have the sensation of remembering, or half-remembering something important; we fight through the maze of countervailing neurons to bring this something up to where we can see it. Then some concatenation of circumstances come together to lift the veil. So it is with Joe Rose, who senses that what Parry has told him about his ostensible secret sending of signals by way of manipulating curtains is familiar and important. Only when the two Logan children play a game that includes winding the curtains around themselves—and when they incidentally mention the word “king”—does the lost recollection finally come through: one of the earliest examples of De Clerambault Syndrome involved that French woman who thought that her love, King George V of England, was sending her messages by moving a curtain in Buckingham Palace.

Nowadays the old adage, “Seeing is believing” has been turned inside out. Now it’s “Believing is seeing,” cited twice in Enduring Love. What this means is that our brains play tricks on us, and we see not what is actually there, but what some neuron in our brain considers it most advantageous for us to see. It is a truism in legal circles these days that eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable. Relating his story about the restaurant shooting in the police station, Joe soon learns that the eyewitnesses cannot agree on much of anything, including what flavor of ice cream they were eating. “We lived in a mist of half-shared, unreliable perception, and our sense data came warped by a prism of desire and belief, which tilted our memories too . . . Pitiless objectivity, especially about ourselves, was always a doomed social strategy. We’re descended from the indignant, passionate tellers of half-truths, who, in order to convince others, simultaneously convinced themselves. Over generations success had winnowed us out, and with success came our defect, carved deep in the genes like ruts in a cart track: when it didn’t suit us, we couldn’t agree on what was in front of us. Believing is seeing.” This quotation is from page 196, the whole of which demonstrates convincingly how human nature and the process of evolution militate against rationalism. All too aware of these sad truths, the rationalist Joe Rose plods on through his life, holding high the beacon of science.


As you read through Enduring Love you cannot help thinking, repeatedly, how much of Hollywood there is in the plot and structure of the novel. At the very beginning we have the highly cinematic balloon scene, and later on Hollywood’s most beloved artifacts of all, firearms, step into the story and go off. There is the attempted murder in the restaurant, in which assassins whom Parry has hired shoot the wrong man, who is sitting at a table next to Clarissa and Joe. After which Joe himself, fearful for his life,  acquires a handgun.

Then, the phone call from the bad guy, Parry: “I’ve got Clarissa.” We’re into a tired Hollywood cliché at this point. Armed with a handgun, the righteous hero must rush to the aid of his damsel in distress. Then comes the confrontation, in which the bad guy holds a knife on the heroine, eventually decides to cut his own throat instead, but is forestalled when the gallant hero shoots him in the arm. Even earlier there is the inevitable Hollywood plot twist, when Joe’s story about the restaurant shooting is given no credence by the police, and the reader is led to believe that maybe Clarissa is right: Parry had nothing to do with the shooting, was not present in the restaurant, and Joe himself is half mad and making things up.

Of course, what happens after Joe rescues Clarissa? In Hollywood the music rises as they rush into one another’s arms, the movie is over, and the implication is that all their conjugal strife is over as well. The madman has been foiled, they will go on living out their lives as before, exulting in their ideal love. But that’s not what happens in McEwan’s novel, which is in many ways a parody of a Hollywood movie. At the end of the book it appears highly doubtful that Joe and Clarissa will ever get back to where they were. He cannot forgive her for taking Parry so lightly and assuming even that he himself bears much of the blame for the Parry business. She cannot forgive him for attempting—as she sees it—to go alone in his efforts to foil Parry, for retreating into a kind of monomania. Parry has ruined their lives together for all time.

The author did, in fact, sell the rights to this novel and something of a Hollywood movie was made in 2004, starring Daniel Craig as Joe, Rhys Ifans as Parry, and Samantha Morton as Clarissa (renamed Claire). The director was Roger Michelle. The screenwriter, Joe Penhall, took only the bare-bones plot from the novel and smoothed over a lot of complications. Clarissa/Claire has been totally revamped, made into a sculptor instead of a professor who loves Keats; most of her roundness and complexity is lost. Joe is now a university professor. Practically all of the subtext about why and how human beings behave is lost as well, and we end up with a rather typical thriller movie about a stalker. The sad fact is that you can’t really make a novel of ideas into a film, inasmuch there is no room on the celluloid for the complexity of ideas. The best thing about the movie is probably Rhys Ifans, with his eerie portrayal of deranged Parry, smiling his vacant grin. Counting his money with an ironic grin on his face, McEwan must have found it amusing that his story about how Hollywood scenarios cannot accommodate the complexities of human nature was made into a Hollywood movie.


Enduring Love is in some ways an epistolary novel. The book is full of letters, especially love letters. First of all, we have mention of Clarissa’s pursuit of the lost love letters of Keats. “Might one of them be addressed to Fanny Brawne? . . . [In the throes of the TB that would soon kill him] He knew he’d never see Fanny again,” Clarissa said . . . but he never stopped thinking about her. He was strong enough those days in December, and he loved her so much. It’s easy to imagine him writing a letter he never intended to send.” Apropos of this, Joe remarks, “Lately I’d had the idea that Clarissa’s interest in these hypothetical letters had something to do with our own situation, and with her conviction that love that did not find its expression in a letter was not perfect. In the months after we met and before we bought the apartment, she had written me some beauties, passionately abstract in their exploration of the ways our love was different from and superior to any that ever existed.”

Can’t you just imagine E.O. Wilson reading that line and smiling knowingly? A love that is in one lover’s mind “superior to any that ever existed” seems tailor-made for a big fall. Much later in the book, in the scene at the restaurant, Keats and his poems about love are discussed again. You can read them on line. They are, most certainly, beautiful and heartfelt letters. No need to demean Keats or his brilliant writings, but what, after all, could he have known about love, especially about long-term conjugal love? He never married Fanny Brawne, and he died of TB at age twenty-four.

Whole chapters consist solely of letters to Joe: e.g., Parry’s love letters in Ch. 11 and 16. Near the end of the book, in a letter comprising all of Ch. 23, Clarissa apologizes in passing, for not having taken the threat of crazed Parry more seriously, but the bulk of her letter justifies her behavior and puts most of the blame for the Parry affair on Joe: (1) “I can’t quite get rid of the idea that there might have been a less frightening outcome if you had behaved differently.” (2) “I watched you go deeper into yourself and further and further away from me.” (3) “Isn’t it possible that Parry presented you with an escape from your guilt?” (4) “I can understand how he might have formed the impression that you were leading him on.” (5) “A stranger invaded our lives, and the first thing that happened was that you became a stranger to me.”


In Appendix One to the novel, McEwan plays a Nabokovian game. The scholarly article here on De Clerambault Syndrome, including a case study that mirrors almost exactly the action of the novel, is, supposedly, “reprinted from the British Review of Psychiatry.” Its authors are Robert Wenn and Antonio Camia. Bibliographical references at the end of the article point, apparently, to actual articles, but the final one in the list, “Homosexual erotomania,” is, once again, authored by “Wenn, R. and Camia, A.” Critics have determined that the letters of the authors’ names here make up an anagram of the writer’s name: Ian McEwan. In a clever twist that points to the Hollywood parody, McEwan smuggles into the case study the potential for a happy ending to the story of Joe and Clarissa: “R and M were reconciled and later successfully adopted a child.” Possible final scene for a movie never made: Joe, Clarissa, along with bouncy dog and lovely, curly-haired Emily (age four), all out on a picnic in sunshine, romping around a field where the grass is greener than shrill green.

Appendix Two, the final pages of the novel, consists of another love letter from Parry to Joe, this one never sent but confiscated in the mental institution where Parry is incarcerated, and passed on to Dr. R. Wenn, the fictitious author of the fictitious article in Appendix One. Here, at the end of the novel, Parry exults in the happiness his love has brought him.

What about Parry’s love, mired in the De Clerambault Syndrome? Joe muses as follows: “a man who had a theory about pathological love and who had given his name to it, like a bridegroom at the altar, must surely reveal, even if unwittingly, the nature of love itself. For there to be a pathology, there had to be a lurking concept of health. De Clerambault’s syndrome was a dark, distorting mirror that reflected and parodied a brighter world of lovers whose reckless abandon to their cause was sane” (137). Taken as a whole, however, the subject matter of this novel suggests no such sane world of normality among lovers. On the contrary. The last pair of lovers to appear in the book are an old professor of logic and his much, much younger student. Like any other lovers, they are “aloft on the wings of love” and behaving in ways that are far from logical: “thirty years between us, but we’re in love.”

Jed Parry, immured as he is in his own private world of insanity, turns out, nonetheless, to be the most devoted slave of love. Passages from his letters to Joe could be taken—maybe some passages are—directly from the letters of Keats to Fanny Brawne. “I’m sitting at a small wooden table on a covered balcony that extends from the study and looks out over the inner courtyard. The rain is falling on two flowering cherry trees. The branch of one grows through the railings, so that I am close enough to see how the water forms into oval beads tinged by the flowers’ pale pink. Love has given me new eyes, I see with such clarity, in such detail. The grain of the old wooden posts, each separate blade of grass on the wet lawn below, the little tickly black legs of the lady bird walking across my hand a minute ago. Everything I see I want to touch and stroke. At last I’m awake. I feel so alive, so alert with love” (104).

In the book’s final love letter, crazed Parry writes to Joe as if he were in communication with him, apparently seeing signs in every movement of a leaf outside his window—as he had once assumed that Joe were leaving messages in the privet hedge outside his apartment building. “The old tears streaming, but the joy! The thousandth day, my thousandth letter, and you telling me that what I’m doing is right! At first you didn’t see the sense of it, and you cursed our separation. Now you know that every day I spend here brings you one tiny step closer to that glorious light, His love . . . This happiness is almost an embarrassment to me . . . You know it already, but I need to tell you again that I adore you, I live for you. I love you” . . . etc., etc.

The title is perfect: Enduring Love. Here is the dictionary definition of the word “enduring”: (1) lasting, durable; (2) chronic, unresolved: “an enduring problem”; (3) long-suffering.

“I have two luxuries to brood over in my walks, your Loveliness and the hour of my death. O that I could have possession of them both in the same minute. I hate the world: it batters too much the wings of my self-will, and would I could take a sweet poison from your lips to send me out of it. From no others would I take it. I am indeed astonish’d to find myself so careless of all charms but yours—remembering as I do the time when even a bit of ribband was a matter of interest with me.”

From a letter of John Keats to Fanny Brawne, dated July 27, 1819

U.R. Bowie, author of Sama Seeker in the Time of the End Times








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