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Book Clubbing

Introduction

Amsterdam
by Ian McEwan

Title

Author

Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan

Author Interview

About the Book

On a chilly February day, two old friends meet in the throng outside a London crematorium to pay their last respects to Molly Lane. Both Clive Linley and Vernon Halliday had been Molly's lovers in the days before they reached their current eminence: Clive is Britain's most successful modern composer, and Vernon is editor of the newspaper The Judge. Gorgeous, feisty Molly had other lovers, too, notably Julian Garmony, Foreign Secretary, a notorious right-winger tipped to be the next prime minister.

In the days that follow Molly's funeral, Clive and Vernon will make a pact with consequences that neither could have foreseen. Each will make a disastrous moral decision, their friendship will be tested to its limits, and Julian Garmony will be fighting for his political life. A sharp contemporary morality tale, cleverly disguised as a comic novel, Amsterdam is "as sheerly enjoyable a book as one is likely to pick up this year" (The Washington Post Book World). 

About the Author

Ian McEwan was born on 21st June 1948 in Aldershot, England, and now lives in London. He studied at the University of Sussex, where he received a BA degree in English Literature in 1970. While completing his MA degree in English Literature at the University of East Anglia, he took a creative writing course taught by the novelists Malcolm Bradbury and Angus Wilson.

McEwan's works have earned him worldwide critical acclaim. He has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize for Fiction three times, winning the award for Amsterdam in 1998. His bestselling novel Atonement received the WH Smith Literary Award (2002), National Book Critics' Circle Fiction Award (2003), Los Angeles Times Prize for Fiction (2003), and the Santiago Prize for the European Novel (2004). He also won the Somerset Maugham Award in 1976 for his first collection of short stories First Love, Last Rites; the Whitbread Novel Award (1987) and Prix Fémina Etranger (1993) for The Child in Time; and Germany's Shakespeare Prize in 1999.

Discussion Questions

  1. Talk about the tone of this novel. Is it ironic? Humorous? Menacing?
  2. Think about Clive and Vernon and your feelings about each at different stages of the novel. Did those feelings change? If so, at what key points? 
  3. In a relatively short novel, the author devotes many pages to Clive's creative process. What do you think of the author's description of the process itself and of his decision to give it so much space?
  4. At one early point in the novel, Vernon Halliday thinks this about himself, "[H]e was infinitely diluted; he was simply the sum of all the people who had listened to him, and when he was alone, he was nothing at all." Discuss this prescient statement, in light of Vernon's fate.
  5. Discuss the role of lucky (and unlucky) coincidence in the novel: Vernon's rise in his profession due to "Pategate" or the story in the Judge about euthanasia in Holland that leads Clive and Vernon there.
  6. Talk about the author's skill in showing the workplace; the composer's process and studio; the newspaper editor's office. 
  7. This novel is funny--the Siamese twins story, the sub-editor who could not spell--talk about the role of humor in the novel.
  8. At different points in the novel, both Clive and Vernon think that Clive has given more to their friendship than Vernon has. Talk about the form and course of their friendship. Can friendships ever be equal?
  9. The author suggests that years and success narrow life. Is this true to your experience?
  10. The author withholds information throughout the novel, offering bits that are only fully developed later (the photographs of Garmony, the importance of the "medical scandal in Holland"). Talk about the author's use of suspense. 
  11. How shaky is Clive's moral foundation? Should he be allowed to condemn his fellow artists who "assume the license of free artistic spirit" and renege on commitments, even as Clive ignores the plight of a woman he witnesses being attacked?
  12. Vernon wants to crucify Garmony for the greater good of the republic. Is this ever a valid reason to go after a politician? Do you agree with Clive that Vernon is betraying Molly's trust? Or do you side with Vernon in his wish to stop a vile leader from gaining power?
  13. Talk about the parallels between the fictional political scandal the author creates and the real one that has occupied Washington, D.C., for the past year. Is the author commenting on U.S. politics and media with this novel? 
  14. Is everybody in Amsterdam a hypocrite? 
  15. Clive thinks he's a genius. How do you define genius? Does Clive fit the definition?
  16. Talk about Molly’s importance in the novel. Are there other examples in literature of characters who carry great weight and importance even though they never appear?
  17. At Allen Crags where Clive watches the woman and man struggle, the author writes, "Clive knew exactly what it was he had to do....He had decided at the very moment he was interrupted." Was there any question in your mind at that point about what Clive's decision was? Were you correct?
  18. What do you make of the author's choice to have Clive die happy, that is, unaware that he's been poisoned, but to have Vernon grasp in his last seconds "...where he really was and what must have been in his champagne and who these visitors were."