Solar by Ian McEwan

Decline and fall of a Nobel Prize winner

I don’t think that this is my favourite McEwan book, but I still enjoyed it. Its protagonist is Michael Beard, erstwhile Physics Nobel prizewinner and terminal womaniser: as the novel opens, he is engaged in the breakup of his fifth marriage.

Solar is basically one long downward slope, as the once promising scientist spends his professional life resting on his laurels, living off professorships and directorships granted because of the Nobel aura still clinging to his name. The rest of the time, he spends his life neglecting his women and neglecting his health.

There are a couple of kinks in the downward journey, like a death, and a birth, but you can sense pretty early on that nothing will halt Beard’s decline. The action also includes a fairly sketchy description of technological developments arising from scientific research. The foibles and weaknesses of science, academia, business and the law all interfere with the probably utopic vision of working for the greater good. And so the novel takes us no further towards the grail of energy independence. Good job it’s only a novel, eh? In the real world, we have to hope that serious-minded, safety-conscious and business-savvy people crack fusion or harnessing the sun’s energy on a massive scale…

Ian Mc Ewan’s novels are never particularly cheery, but they don’t err towards pathos, either; rather, they are ironic, often with narcissic characters hypocritically affecting self-deprecation. Michael Beard is no exception. He drives the reader mad (well, he drove me mad) with his unreasonableness tempered with relative clear-sightedness which in no way improves his behaviour. And after a bit, you give up on him, as everyone else eventually does.

I guess this might put you off the book but it is of course, as ever with Mc Ewan, beautifully observed and rendered.

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