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Ian McEwan’s long look back

The novelist on Liz Truss, Salman Rushdie, and why he finally decided to write his own story into his new novel, Lessons.

Tom Gatti | 7th September 2022

When Ian McEwan was eight, something happened that determined the course of the rest of his life. The family had been living for some years in Libya, where McEwan’s father, an Army officer, was posted. In 1956, when the Suez Crisis broke, British women and children were sent to their nearest army base for protection. McEwan had the run of the place, climbing up scaffold towers to visit the machine-gun crews, playing football on the full-sized grassless pitch, speeding around the camp on the back of a friendly lieutenant’s 500cc motorbike. More than half a century later, as he worked the episode into his new novel, Lessons, he realised that this had been a high watermark of happiness. “I don’t think I understood until I wrote the novel just how important those few days were to me. It was so exciting: I was so thrilled by this freedom and adventure… it partly informed my wish to become a writer and kept me very sceptical about ever tying myself down to any kind of job.”

This strangely liberating period of imprisonment is what one might call a “McEwan moment” – a hinge on which a life can turn. Such moments are familiar from his fiction, in which a ballooning accident (Enduring Love) or a premature ejaculation (On Chesil Beach) can have unforeseen and far-reaching consequences. But in Lessons, McEwan set himself a specific task: to write to a “soundtrack” of “large-scale global events”. Before embarking on the book, he jotted down a list: Suez, the Cuban missile crisis, the Chernobyl disaster; episodes that “became part of something belonging to our shared reality that would have to be stitched into a fiction”. His task would be to describe the “interpenetration of the private life and public events”.

The novel would mark a departure in other ways, too. McEwan’s fiction is characterised by an economy of execution that has in the past had Booker juries flicking back through the rule-book to check the definition of a “full-length novel” (Amsterdam won the prize in 1998 and On Chesil Beach was shortlisted in 2007; both are under 200 pages). This time, he would loosen up a little.

“I wanted to have a large canvas and live inside it,” he recalls, in appropriately expansive mood, reclining on a leather armchair. We are on the second floor of his London home on a quiet, abundantly planted street of mews houses that once accommodated horses and servants and now host architects and authors. There is polished parquet underfoot, signed black and white prints on the wall (above me is an oddly desolate image by Martin Parr of tables set for a 1977 Silver Jubilee street party) and, on the shelves, Paris guides and The Large Hadron Collider Pop-Up Book.

McEwan, 74, is dressed in shades of blue and speaks slowly and thoughtfully. “It was about time I relaxed into drawing on my own life, in the way that novelists like Dickens always did, and contemporary writers like Updike or Bellow or Toni Morrison or Karl Ove Knausgaard. I thought of a central character whose fate and life and the texture of whose existence would be entirely different from mine, but that I could be him – and let him be me, in a way.” It was clear this would be his longest book yet: having spent much of 2019 travelling, now he just needed plenty of time at home to write it. And then a large-scale global event came along.

The pandemic was not too much of a personal hardship for McEwan and his wife Annalena McAfee. In February 2020, aghast that the government had not yet announced a lockdown, they cancelled a holiday and retreated to their early 20th-century manor house in the Cotswolds, set in nine acres of grounds. There they were joined by one of McEwan’s two sons (from his first marriage) with his pregnant wife and little boy of two. “We all bubbled up together for the first few months… There was a disaster around us but it was delightful having them and the pregnancy was a nice sense of an amazing event approaching us.” As the grandfather in him looked to the future, though, the writer turned to the past. “For those of us of a certain age during the pandemic, I noticed that the long backward look became very much part of the thought process.”

McEwan and his main character in Lessons, Roland Baines, were both born in 1948 and share a knotty family back story (more of which later). Both return from Libya to England aged 11 and are sent to a council-run boarding school in Suffolk. Woolverstone Hall School fed McEwan’s appetite for roaming. The uniform included a boiler suit – “I had no idea what it was; what did you boil?” – and two or three afternoons a week the pupils were told to get changed, go outside and not return for three hours. “There were miles of beautiful countryside, and a big tidal river, the Orwell. It really did suit me.” As an adult he found he could recapture the sense of freedom, first seeded by that camp in Libya, in his hikes with friends. “When you’re high on some ridge in the mountains – we make a point of carrying often with us a bottle of wine and glasses – to get up there with a wine glass in your hand, it seems like childhood. It just seems like such a great adventure.”

There are, though, ways in which McEwan’s and Roland’s paths diverge, most significantly in the novel’s bravura opening, which charts Roland’s relationship with his piano teacher. He is groomed by Miriam Cornell from the age of 11, but it is not until the Cuban missile crisis – when the spectre of nuclear apocalypse makes the 14-year-old Roland fear he might die a virgin – that they have sex. The intense two-year affair that plays out in Miriam’s cottage might seem a teenage boy’s fantasy but has an abusive, domineering dynamic that Roland eventually realises he must escape. He spends the rest of his life reckoning with the damage it has done.

 “I wanted to get the sense of the long shadow that can be thrown by an experience of abuse, not necessarily destroying someone, but sort of changing the course and quality of their life,” McEwan explains. “And I got a lot of questions from American journalists, saying, ‘Well, you know, overwhelmingly sexual abuse is an act carried out by men against women, so what are you trying to say here?’ And I said, ‘Well, this is literature, not sociology; these cases certainly occur, but that’s not the point.’ The point is, we have our humanity in common. If I’d made the victim a woman, no doubt the same people would be saying to me, ‘Culturally, you’re gender-appropriating.’ I’m impatient of that: the mind has to be free.”

[See also: Pragya Agarwal, data scientist: “Gender stereotypes are so deeply embedded in society”]

It’s the last evening of August and the light is receding. McEwan brings back from his stainless steel kitchen two glasses of red wine and turns his attention back to the past. His family history, shaped by acts of abandonment, is mirrored in Lessons. McEwan’s mother Rose had two children from her previous marriage, to a serviceman killed in the Second World War. When she remarried, her son was sent to live with his grandmother; her daughter to a Victorian-style institute for the daughters of men who had died at sea. Before McEwan was born and when she was still married to her first husband, Rose had a third child, from an affair with McEwan’s father. Terrified of scandal and possibly pressured by her husband, in December 1942 she advertised in the Reading Mercury: “Wanted, Home for baby boy, age 1 month; complete surrender.” Two weeks later she gave the baby up.

Did working through these events in a novel give him a better understanding of the fractures in his family? “It doesn’t solve anything, there’s no closure – ridiculous word – on it, but it helped me, I think, with respect to my parents. While I was writing the novel I dug out a studio photograph taken in 1940 of my mother, probably to give her first husband as he went off to fight in the North African desert, and it shows her with my half-brother Jim and my half-sister Margy, who are maybe four and two. That photograph shows a woman in her early 20s, already with two children, but her hair is long and black and she’s wearing a quite modern-looking blouse… This is a very poised young woman, very beautiful; her gaze is really strong. And in writing the novel, I realised this is a woman I never knew. She vanished at Reading Station when she handed that baby over, because I think the remorse lived with her for the rest of her life.”

McEwan discovered the existence of his elder brother – David Sharp, a bricklayer – in 2002. Ian and David found a sibling bond but it did not represent a healing moment for the family. “I was the one sent off to meet him, because Margy and Jim found it too painful. When they did meet him, it was all rather formal, and they never got close. It was dismaying. It was nothing to do with David as a person, but for my half-brother and half-sister, the past was too hard to contemplate.”

“A very poised young woman”: McEwan’s mother, photographed in 1940 with her first two children. Photo courtesy of Ian McEwan

[See also: Ian McEwan and the mess of living]

By the mid 1980s McEwan had published four widely noticed books – his early fiction, designed to shock, dealt with incest, murder and sadomasochistic sex – and was a prominent member of a literary scene that included his friends Martin Amis, Julian Barnes and Christopher Hitchens. (All four attended the famous “Friday lunches” that began in Bloomsbury the 1970s.) Politically on the liberal left, McEwan was never a Labour member but joined European Nuclear Disarmament, and travelled with the group to Russia in 1987: “We spent a lot of time on the 15th floor of sad apartment blocks on the edge of Moscow, having the most exhilarating conversations with Russian writers, activists, intellectuals.” Convinced the Cold War was coming to an end, he visited East Berlin several times researching a novel that would become The Innocent.

The Berlin Wall fell on 9 November 1989; McEwan flew out to Berlin the following day and followed the surging crowds into the “Death Strip” between East and West. “It was extraordinary. And I really did feel that all kinds of things were now possible.” That sense of hope spiked again in the years just before the election of Tony Blair when, says McEwan, it felt “that a great deal of well-being could be spread through the country just by doing sensible things that were beyond definitions of left and right”. But ultimately, the trajectory the book charts is one of political disappointment: “The long tail-off from that optimism of 1989 to the storming of the Capitol Building on 6 January last year… had the novel continued, it would have been Ukraine, and all underpinned by the climate emergency.”

The year 1989 was also notable for the fatwa that was issued against McEwan’s friend Salman Rushdie. McEwan was on holiday in Scotland and coming down with Covid on 12 August this year, when he heard the news that Rushdie had been stabbed ten times at an event in New York state. When I bring up the subject, McEwan seems to sink a little in his chair, suddenly tired by the effort of contemplating it. “It was a horrible assault, but, as we know, he’s a man of immense courage and I don’t think he’ll be silenced.”

The attack made McEwan think about how, in 1989, the fatwa seemed at odds with a world that was about to open up: “This assault on freedom of expression happening at a time when shortly we were going to watch democracies emerge in Europe, South America, South Africa, and so on, and [the American non-profit organisation] Freedom House were recording over the next two or three years an incredible rise in the number of places where people could speak and write freely. Now Freedom House is reporting a general shrinking around the world, and the attack seems sort of more consistent with the times, and especially in a country where lone, sad, terrible people shoot schoolchildren.”

British politics does not offer much more cause for optimism. Liz Truss becoming prime minister is “such a disaster”, he says. “She’s intellectually so vapid. I think her world-view is so tiny, so shrivelled, so ungenerous, so dry… Or maybe she’s just a highly ambitious politician who’s playing a very cynical game.” He sees an opportunity for Keir Starmer’s Labour – “I admire him in many ways” – but for McEwan, an ardent Remainer who wrote a satirical novella, The Cockroach, about Brexit, the Labour leader remains “tied to the Tories” until he “admits Brexit was a colossal error”.

In November 2021 Ian McEwan gave the annual Orwell Lecture, on Orwell’s 1940 essay “Inside the Whale”. The essay, published in this magazine, concerns the question of whether a novelist accepts or refuses political engagement; whether they remain “inside the whale” – “in the dark cushioned space that exactly fits you, with yards of blubber between yourself and reality” – or move outside it. McEwan, often described as England’s “national novelist”, is known for letting politics pour into his fiction, from The Innocent (the Cold War) to Saturday (the Iraq War) to Solar (climate change). And yet, his latest novel is perhaps his most concerted effort to grapple with the problem posed by Orwell.

In Lessons, late in Roland’s life, with his extended family, he experiences “happiness that could not be dispelled, even by rehearsing every looming disaster in the world”. It makes “no sense” to him, but perhaps that bewildering dualism is not only the business of the novelist, but the condition of being human. “We can’t retreat inside the whale,” McEwan tells me firmly. “But to stay outside the whale, you’ve got to have one foot in its mouth.”

”Lessons“ is published by Jonathan Cape. Ian McEwan will be in conversation at the Royal Festival Hall, London SE1, on 14 September, and at the Cambridge Literary Festival on 20 November

[See also: Agatha Christie: A Very Elusive Woman review]