“Twelve days of hell.” This is Ian McEwan’s succinct description of his recent run-in with Covid. The 74-year-old novelist and his wife, Annalena McAfee, were “knocked out” by it. “We tried to keep going, but there came a point where we just had to collapse.”
He has, just about, recovered now, and the fact that he looks somewhat vulnerable on my Zoom screen may be less the illness and more that McEwan is devoid of his usual glasses, and looks small in the scale of the room in which he sits — in his Gloucestershire home — with a desk behind him piled high with books, another in front of him, and shelves across the back wall well stocked. The trappings and work environment, in other words, of being perhaps England’s leading writer of literary fiction (provided Hilary Mantel isn’t listening).
Still, if Covid caught him badly when it finally got him, he had a good series of lockdowns before that. He spent them writing Lessonshis new novel, an epic — his longest book — which covers a man’s life from birth in the late 1940s to old age in 2021. But it also covers the major cultural and political events of that turbulent period.
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“Writing about politics and cultural history through the medium of a private life is something I notice going on rather a lot around me lately,” he says, adding that, on this theme, he has almost finished Fintan O’Toole’s We Don’t Know Ourselves, which is “amazing. It feels special to me.”
Aside from reading Irish writers, McEwan has no connections with the country: “I thought I might find an Irish grandmother to get my European citizenship back. My mother always said her mother came over from Dún Laoghaire at the age of 16. But we looked into the genealogy and there’s absolutely no truth in it! But my wife on her father’s side comes from the North. So we’re planning next year a proper trip to meet all the family.”
The central character in Lessons is Roland Baines, a sort of everyman who on the one hand hasn’t done much with his life through his own will, and on the other has a lot of things done to him: he is groomed by his piano teacher, and his wife abandons him and their son.
But Roland shares his age and many points in his life history with McEwan, including the discovery, late in life, of an unknown brother his parents gave away. McEwan is not known as a writer who puts himself on the page, but this book seems different: an accounting of a life.
“The writing experience was good,” he says. “There were long stretches which were fictionalised autobiography. It was a kind of exercise in memory; I thought I’d forgotten most of my childhood. And I was surprised at how much it flooded back, once one thing was opened, another would come back.
“I was able to think a lot about my parents and the difficulty of that generation who were completely shaped by the second World War, for whom the catastrophe of having a child and giving it away was so much a part of wartime experience.”
I feel no sorrow or resentment that white males of a certain age are getting a harder time of it maybe. Because we had our time in the sun, we had a good time
This was your brother David? “My brother David — given away on Reading station. And it’s brought me a full understanding of the sadness and meekness that surrounded my mother. Something crushed. I have an old studio photograph of her with my half-sister and half-brother. And it’s a woman I don’t recognise: confident, bold, very pretty. Relaxed looking. A woman I never knew.”
So the autobiographical parts of the book came flowing, but it took McEwan a while to find the form of the novel. It began in first person, then shifted to third, “and the moment you let the third person in, somehow you have a greater responsibility to what we commonly share as the world.” Did that make it easier?
“I think for my generation it’s easier. I’ve noticed an awful lot of books written in a highly subjective first person these days, and I rather want these writers to get through their 20s and 30s and start naming the world. You know, take some responsibility for it, not just wallow in it!”
In LessonsRoland’s wife Alissa leaves him and her child, and becomes a brilliant novelist; Roland becomes, as McEwan puts it, “her faithful reader for the rest of his life.” It brings to mind the question of great artists and bad personal behaviour. The long-established dictum that the work supersedes the person seems to be breaking down now.
“What strikes me in literary terms,” says McEwan, “is that the men get away with it. The women don’t. People still associate Doris Lessing with the fact that she left one of her children behind, whereas literary biographies are crammed with stories of men who left children and went off with another, usually younger, woman.”
McEwan has himself been a figure of controversy, though only in literary terms. Not always the senior master of English letters, he started his career in the 1970s with stories and short novels shocking in their content: in one story in his first book First Love, Last Ritesa 15-year-old boy rapes his 10-year-old sister. His second novel The Comfort of Strangers is a tense story of perversion and torture. Does he remember the reactions they evoked at the time?
That debut collection “was something of a scandalous success. It made good copy in newspaper reviews to list all the terrible things that went on! Stories that I thought were darkly humorous were described in terms of objective descriptions. Not inaccurate, but humourless.”
Did he enjoy that scandalous reputation? “I did. Because I’m in my mid-20s, just meeting all my lifelong friends, all publishing our first books at the same time: Martin Amis, Julian Barnes. And a couple of years later, Salman [Rushdie] burst on to the scene with his second novel.”
McEwan considers Rushdie a “dear friend” — and the events of last month, when Rushdie was stabbed multiple times on stage, were horrifying to us all. Has he had a chance to speak to him directly since then? “Not directly, no. But his wife Eliza, who’s been amazing, is at his bedside, and I get some reports from her.”
What’s interesting, I say, is that reading McEwan’s early stories, which are almost 50 years old now, what strikes the reader is how modern they are. Their content — black comic grotesquerie, sexuality and the body — are all being written about now, but by women writers like Sarah Hall, Daisy Johnson and Julia Armfield. There aren’t male writers doing it in the same way.
“I accept that young male writers especially now have a problem writing about desire. And I think that’s to be regretted, because it’s a human thing and they’ve got to find ways to do it that are humane and emotionally true. The truth has to be told about something as basic as male desire, as it is with women desire.
“I’ve heard other writers, male writers, talking about this,” he continues. “They don’t have the freedom that Philip Roth had, or John Updike or whatever.” But, he concludes, “I feel no sorrow or resentment that white males of a certain age are getting a harder time of it maybe. Because we had our time in the sun, we had a good time. I can’t complain! Other voices now need to be heard.”
Lessons is published on September 13th by Jonathan Cape