‘A’ for Ian McEwan’s ‘Nutshell


Well, Ian, what can I say? You’ve done it again – out smarted your clever class-mates and dazzled your teacher with a real tour-de-force.

Your classmates chose a more predictable approach. Many wrote as Gertrude (the closet scene being a particular favourite). Some opted for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, despite my warning that this had been very successfully tackled by a former student some years ago. There were a few Horatios, a couple of gravediggers, an Osric, a Laertes , and several Claudiuses. One smart-arse chose Yorick’s skull and another decided to be the arras.

But you, Ian, have outdone them all. You have outsmarted the smartest.

A foetus! And, what’s more, it seems to be Hamlet’s  foetus! What other foetus  could have that wit, that command of language, that knowing, yet troubled, take on the world he is about to enter, a world he has been listening to through his mother’s womb – an intellectual world of Radio 4 and highbrow podcasts.

And, Ian, how well you’ve used the language and ideas of the play! Do you know what? The references are so clever and there are so many of them that I might even have missed some. But then you’ve always liked to catch poor old teacher out. All that stuff about unreliable narrators you’re so keen on (remember that balloon story and the crazy stalker?). All that pulling the rug from under poor teacher’s feet and revealing that the story he’s been reading might not be the story he thought he was reading.

But do you know what, Ian? I’ve seen hints of what you’ve done here in some of your earlier work. I’ve taught you for some time now, though taught is probably the word here. We’ve sat in the same classroom would be a more accurate description – if there’s been any teaching going on it’s been you teaching me! I still marvel at how much I learned about brain surgery in that piece you wrote that was set on the day of the Stop The War March and at how much I discovered about theoretical physics in that one about the child who went missing in the supermarket. And it’s that one I want to go back to, Ian, because I think it has some bearing on your latest work.

Not only did that piece, like this one, end with a birth, a delivery – it also had a character defying all notions of sense and reason and regressing so far back that he became…a foetus! Yes, a foetus! You’ve pulled the trick before, Ian, haven’t you, in that scene at The Bell Pub where the character goes back to the point where it as unborn child witnessing his parents discussing whether or not to have him? I’ve dug out the piece and I’ve actually found the passage – ‘His eyes grew large and round and lidless with desperate, protesting innocence, his knees rose under him and touched his chin, his fingers were scaly flippers’.He could, of course, be descending the evolutionary scale but I think we’re looking an embryo here, aren’t we, Ian? An embryo considering whether or not it will be allowed to exist. Very Hamlet, Ian. Very to be or not to be.

And, Ian,how very very well you use  the play. The language, the imagery. Everything. As early as page two we have ‘Seems, Mother? No, it is.’ Some of the foetus’s very first words are the same as Hamlet’s. And on that very same page we have the italicised ‘To be’. How well you have followed the assessment criteria for this piece of coursework, Ian, the necessity to show a ‘detailed and specific knowledge and understanding of the original text’. Your piece drips with such knowledge, positively oozes with knowing textual reference. ‘This too solid stench’ (‘too too solid flesh’), ‘the spectral prison that’s lately haunted me’ (‘Denmark’s a prison’) ‘oh, little mole’ ( ‘well said old mole’). Even the take-away food they order near the end is Danish! And then there’s your brilliant take on Hamlet’s ‘to be or not to be’ – the foetus contemplating suicide in the womb, debating whether to strangle himself with the umbilical cord – the ‘mortal coil’. Fantastic!

What is so clever , Ian, is the way that, despite your giving the foetus a level of linguistic competence and understanding beyond an eight- month old foetus (let’s face it, beyond any  foetus) you are faithful to the last detail to the limited perceptions of a womb-bound being – sensed physical movement, things heard (all that Radio 4), things felt (including Claude’s invading member) and a lot of speculation. I couldn’t find a moment in which the narrator presented something which was not perceived through his circumscribed senses or which was not marked off with appropriately limiting modals and conditionals.

What’s more, you introduce lovely judgements on, and sideswipes at, the horrors and absurdities of the contemporary world which the foetus is destined to enter. And, as if the whole ‘Hamlet’ thing were not enough you have a little ‘Macbeth’ thing bubbling away on the back burner as well (‘fatal bellman’, ‘we’ll stick our courage to the screwing whatever’’ ‘if I fail, you fail’,  and the whole murder plot) Very smart.

And those poetry lessons, Ian. How well you have used those sheets I gave you on scansion ( I hate to be pedantic but  you do use ‘iamb’ as a metaphor twice which I think might be over doing it) and having John as a poet is a masterstroke, allowing you to casually and deftly weave in so many poetic references and allusions. I got them, Ian, I got them ( Drayton, Keats, the whole lot – I won’t list them all).

I think you may have borrowed a bit of your mate Martin’s style here and there (I know how much you and he are rivals but don’t worry, Ian, you have definitely now left him far far behind) but I do  like the way you sculpt those sentences, the way you work the language. There were times when I was reading this and my heart soared. And believe me, Ian, given the amount of crap coursework I have to read each year a heart-soar is a very rare event.

It is, though, as well as being an exemplary piece of coursework, very very amusing. You’re meeting all the coursework criteria, Ian, but you’re also having fun – a teacher could not ask for more.

Ian, I bow before your brilliance. I might almost forgive you that last sentence.