On the Shelf
By Ian McEwan
Knopf: 448 pages, $30
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As he reached his 70s, Ian McEwan realized he had lived enough and seen enough to write an epic. While he has often incorporated the sweep of politics and history into novels including “The Innocent,” “Amsterdam” and “Atonement,” his new book, “Lessons,” is of a different scale.
For starters, it covers everything from World War II to the climate crisis and COVID lockdown, with everything from the Suez Canal crisis to Chernobyl in between. But while the scope may be vast, the focus is much narrower: a character study of Roland Baines.
“The larger picture won’t have much impact without the small things that make up our lives,” McEwan says. “They have to feed off each other.”
For Roland, the fears and freedoms of childhood give way to an adolescence marked by sexual abuse from a piano teacher (although it takes him decades to see it as anything but an affair). He later journeys into East Berlin and takes stands in British politics even as he roams through an unsettled existence.
Roland’s first marriage ends so suddenly he is suspected by the police of murder, yet it also provides him the son who gives his life shape and meaning. His second love comes to him gradually and all at once, although it too brings both loss and life. Roland muddles through it all without ever really finding closure. “That’s one of my most detested words,” McEwan says. “It doesn’t exist.”
Over a video call from his home in London, McEwan spoke to The Times, in a conversation edited for clarity and space, about why this novel feels so personal, as well as his “duty to optimism” about the future.
What inspired the scope of “Lessons”?
I’m coming into the October or November of my own life; I was thinking about what it would be like to look at the whole life of someone. I try starting each novel as if it were my first, but there’s no escaping the self. This time, though, I did feel a difference — I felt as if I were bringing everything I knew and everything I’d written.
One writer friend read it and wrote, “This reads like your LAST NOVEL.” I knew what he meant. This commitment to the whole life is something I could only have done now — I had to lead a whole life.
Presuming it’s not your final novel, was it difficult starting over after this?
I felt like I’ve given this book absolutely everything. I feel completely emptied out, but quite pleasantly so. I’ve since written some journalism and a short story — I was commissioned to write one that was optimistic about the future, which I found irresistible, although my story is a very nuanced optimism. I still need to get this novel published and behind me. I need to talk myself out about it. There’ll come a time when I can’t say the title without wanting to throw up. But I have no idea what’s next. I have two or three ideas but none are quite urgent.
This novel contains more of your life than usual. Was that a challenge or a pleasure?
I’ve had a sneaking admiration and a distrust at the same time of authors who endlessly plunder their life. I dedicated myself to a lifetime of invention, even though little bits of my life would sneak in. But this time I thought I’m going to take my entire existence and wind it into a fiction.
I knew I wanted to write about my lost brother. [McEwan discovered late in life that he had a brother whom his parents gave up for adoption before they were married.] That story is so much about the intrusion of public events — the Second World War — into ordinary people’s lives. And I wanted to write about the Suez Canal incident, which had a huge impact on my life: I found myself in this army camp like Roland does; my father was busy, my mother was away, and I ran free for 10 days with a couple of friends. In the course of writing those scenes I realized one reason I became a writer was to stay available for adventures. It was rooted in this idea that I touched heaven and freedom in that camp.
Still, much of it is fiction. The three most important women in Roland’s life are all totally fictitious. But I really wanted to inhabit this character so for certain scenes I stopped myself doing the usual thing of making notes about how the scenes might go and I would get to them empty-handed. It was a very different writing experience.
The sexual abuse, which is also fictitious, haunts the novel. Was childhood trauma a central theme?
You could say instead of trauma it’s experience. All of us have difficulties in our lives and my sense of it is that they’re never solved, they just become part of the baggage you carry on your back. Roland is not ruined entirely by being sent away to boarding school, but it makes major shifts for him later on. He is not wrecked by his sexual abuse, but his life is certainly diverted from the track he might have expected.
Roland’s first wife said the piano teacher “rewired” his brain. Had he dealt with this earlier could he have rewired it again?
The therapy culture might proclaim that it would have been magnificent for him if he had gone to an understanding analyst or therapist. My sense is that it would have given him insight into who he was and how he behaved, but I don’t think it would have fundamentally changed his restless sexual nature and his rather elevated notion of what a relationship is meant to provide.
At the end, with his granddaughter, Roland notes it would be a shame to turn a pleasurable children’s book into a lesson. Is that part of your message here?
Novels are best at not delivering lessons but at laying it all out there. When Roland tells himself he hasn’t learned a thing in life, that mirrors my own experience, in a certain mood. If you’re asked, “Tell me the lessons of life,” you either have to write “Lessons” or resort to banalities like “Kindness is good” and “Love conquers all” and “Be bold and take chances” or “Be careful what you do.” I’ve never read a book of advice that was of any use to me.
Has the ratio of heartbreak to hope tilted in your novels? And does that reflect changes in you or in the world?
After the Berlin Wall came down there was optimism, a sense of real possibility and the sense that rationality could be applied to the political order. We’ve lost all that. Charting Roland from optimism to foreboding is the Berlin Wall to the January 6th assault, but it could have been invasion of Ukraine or the latest ice melt in Greenland. That 30-year curve is part of the dissonant music of Roland’s life.
My family was here yesterday, and when the grandchildren were in bed we were talking about how their lives will unfold. Listening to my sons and daughters-in-law, I realize they share a lot of my foreboding. I gave a lot of that foreboding to Roland. At the same time, he was feeling enormous hope on a personal level. This tension seems irresolvable.
Where does that leave Roland. And us?
I feel some kind of duty to optimism. The world is so complex and so interconnected that it’s quite possible there are a million points of light around the world in connection to the climate emergency that will sooner or later connect up. It’s somewhat late, but we might fumble our way through. Or we might not. It’s the mix of hope and foreboding makes life so complicated.