The author’s new novel explores how global events shape individual lives – but nothing prepared him for this ‘dark moment’
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Ian McEwan was on holiday on the remote coast of north-west Scotland when he heard the news that his great friend Salman Rushdie had been attacked in New York. His wife, the writer Annalena McAfee, let out a cry from the next door room in the small hotel where they were staying. The numbness of his first response was quickly followed by a feeling of horrible inevitability: “How could I have been so blind?” Like Rushdie, McEwan had hoped the threat of the fatwa was over. “The tragedy of this is Salman always wanted to get back to having an ‘ordinary’ writing life, and that seemed to have happened,” McEwan says on a video call a week after the incident. The 74-year-old novelist is back in his Cotswolds home, surrounded by books and looking slightly beaten up after his first bout of Covid.
The grim effects of coronavirus added to his “sense of visceral disgust” at the violence of the stabbing. “It all seemed one with my own perception of it,” he says. “A colossal weariness and also disgust at the thought that it takes a lot of hatred, a lot of zeal, to push a knife deep into someone’s eye. It is beyond the edge of human cruelty. And only an intact ideology, not available to disprove in any way, could bring you to the point.”
We had met earlier in the summer to discuss McEwan’s epic new novel, Lessons, in which the fatwa issued against Rushdie for The Satanic Verses in 1989 appears as part of the novel’s far-reaching look at postwar British history. “It was a watershed moment for those of us around Salman,” he says now. For writers, intellectuals and artists in the 70s or 80s, religion wasn’t an issue: “We didn’t even deny religion, it just didn’t come up.” So when the fatwa was decreed, “it was explosive. It cut across the sort of multicultural assumptions we had at the time. People whom we naturally most wanted to defend from racism were burning books in Bradford.”
Although not originally part of the notorious gang of writers – Martin Amis, Julian Barnes and the late Christopher Hitchens – who made their names in the 70s and dominated the literary scene for much longer (too long, according to their critics), Rushdie arrived a few years later with the publication in 1981 of Midnight’s Children, which transformed both British and Indian writing, and won the Booker prize that year. “It was amazing, it expanded horizons,” McEwan says. “Salman is a great conversationalist, with a great taste for fun and mischief,” he adds. “So we all got on straight away.”
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McEwan’s ambition with Lessons, his 18th novel, was to show the ways in which “global events penetrate individual lives”, of which the fatwa was a perfect example. “It was a world-historical moment that had immediate personal effects, because we had to learn to think again, to learn the language of free speech,” he says. “It was a very steep learning curve.” It seems strange to remember that 1989 was also the year the Berlin Wall came down, a central event in the new novel. “The fatwa just preceded a rather wonderful time when democracies were sprouting out across Europe, free speech was on the rise, free thought was on the rise,” he says. “Everything has changed from 33 years ago. We now live in a time of heavily constricted, shrinking freedom of expression around the world: Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, China, you name it. Plus the self-inflicted free speech matter of the rich west.”
It is exactly this trajectory from youthful optimism to disillusionment and despair that the novel charts, following the life of his central character, Roland Baines, from the Suez and Cuban crises right up to Brexit and the pandemic. McEwan finished writing Lessons before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, or else he would have included it as a further example as part of the “trashing” of his hopes, which he compares to the thwarted dreams of Orwell’s generation at the end of the 30s. If he was still writing, the attack on Rushdie would be in there, too. “It is horribly consonant with the times,” he says. “We live in an age of casual death threats, of the kind that washes towards JK Rowling, for example. For some lone, insufficient individuals, it’s a short step to carry out some terrible act. This is a very dark moment.”
Things look much brighter when I meet McEwan in his immaculately white Bloomsbury mews back in July. He is tanned and healthy from a recent walking holiday (he is a committed hiker) in the Lake District with McAfee.
He shows me a photograph of Lingcove Bridge, which they visited, the site of a late scene in Lessons, when Roland, on the eve of his 70th birthday, has a tussle with a Tory peer and is pushed into the river. “That was me feeling I was defeated by Brexit,” McEwan admits. He describes Lessons as “a sort of post-Brexit novel”. Our world has got smaller, he says. “The ceiling in our rooms has lowered by two feet.” It’s the day before Boris Johnson is forced to resign, and he tells a jolly story about “a delightful hour” he spent discussing Shakespeare with the former prime minister (who is writing a biography of the playwright), after a dinner, long before Brexit. “He needs to get back to that book,” McEwan says drily.
Few interviews fail to note the disconnect between the genial man in linen shirt and jumper, who might just as easily be an eminent scientist, and his enduring reputation as contemporary fiction’s “prince of darkness”. Over his 50-year writing life, which has included winning the Booker in 1998, becoming a fixture on school reading lists and blockbuster films, not least Atonement, McEwan has been accorded the position of “national novelist”; “national psychologist” even, a tag he winces at now. Lessons is teasingly alert to the perils of being “white, hetero and old” as a writer today.
If there is no longer a commotion when his novels don’t make it on to the Booker longlist (Lessons hasn’t), he’s not complaining. “We had our time,” he says sanguinely. “My generation, when we were first publishing in the 70s, it was very boyish. It was a tight world. We’re all in our 70s now. We can’t complain. And I especially can’t complain. And for very good reason. We got the prizes and some money, and we had the writing life. And now it’s this tsunami of other voices. Everything has opened up wonderfully.”
He started writing Lessons in 2019, after a long publicity tour for Machines Like Me. All he wanted to do was stay at home and write throughout 2020. “One should be careful what one wishes for,” he deadpans. “All novelists are locked down. Lockdown is what we do. But I never thought I’d have such opportunities for total immersion, seven days a week, often 12 hours a day, broken only by walking the dog. I really wanted to write a long novel, to relax into it, to live in it.”
Coming in just shy of 500 pages, it is far longer than McEwan’s characteristically “short, smart and saturnine” novels, as John Updike summed up his work in a 2002 review of Atonement. So much for his assertion in previous interviews that he was going to spend his 70s writing novellas. “I think you have written your last novel,” a writer friend wrote after reading the end result. “Even though I hope you will write more.” As McEwan concedes, you know what he means. “It is a novel of the backwards look.”
Billed as “the story of a lifetime”, it is in many ways the story of McEwan’s life. “I’ve always felt rather envious of writers like Dickens, Saul Bellow, John Updike and many others, who just plunder their own lives for their novels,” he explains. “I thought, now I’m going to plunder my own life, I’m going to be shameless.” Before readers assume that he was abused as a boy, or went through any of the misfortunes that befall Roland, parts of McEwan’s past are fictionalised and “interwoven” with the narrative. “It is certainly my most autobiographical novel, but at the same time, Roland is not me. He didn’t lead my life,” McEwan explains. “But in a way he lives the life I might have led. All of us have these moments, when we think about them later, where we could have gone down some other path. I could so easily not have become a writer.”
While McEwan’s previous historical novels have zoomed in on specific periods – unforgettably the second world war (Atonement), the cold war (Sweet Tooth, Black Dogs, The Innocent), the 80s (Machines Like Me) and post-9/11 (Saturday) – Lessons marches through the political landscape of postwar Britain, taking in Thatcherism, New Labour (Tony Blair with “his copious hair, good teeth, an energetic stride”) to the new populism (Trump and Johnson are pointedly unnamed). He wasn’t aiming to write the British equivalent of the Great American Novel: “We don’t have that phantom bearing a whip that American writers have.” Instead he wanted to show how the actions of those “all too human gods”, our political leaders, can wreak havoc on mere mortals: “a piece of dust as it were from their heels flies in your eyes”.
The opening section, a minutely played out “affair” between the young Roland and his 25-year-old piano teacher at boarding school (very like the one the author attended), which Roland ony later realises was abuse, is vintage McEwan: psychologically gripping, erotically intense and morally troubling. On the brink of the Cuban missile crisis, the only question among Roland’s classmates after lights out in the dormitory was what if the world ended “before you had it? It.” Roland isn’t about to take any chances: chasing up overtures made by the seductive Miriam, he fetches up at her front door. The pair embark on a summer of “throbbing” duets and Lawrentian allusions. “This was what the far-off belligerent gods, Khrushchev and Kennedy, had arranged for him,” Roland reflects helplessly.
This story was not, McEwan makes clear, drawn from his own life, but from an abandoned earlier novel, part of which became On Chesil Beach, also set in 1962. Having taken on the biggest contemporary issues – the climate emergency as comedy in Solar (2010), artificial intelligence in Machines Like Me (2019) – it was only a matter of time before McEwan turned his dark-seeking antenna to the subject of historical child abuse. He admires Zoë Heller’s 2003 novel Notes on a Scandal, about a relationship between a teacher and one of her pupils. But the decision to have a female abuser was not simply McEwanesque contrarianism. “I wanted to write it from the point of view of the victim, to show the consequences for the rest of the life,” he says. “But I didn’t want to appropriate a woman’s experiences.”
McEwan hadn’t intended to write about his family history, but his discovery in 2002 of a brother, David Sharp, a bricklayer, was so powerful an illustration of the novel’s central idea that he found he “couldn’t step away”. His parents came from “very poor, hard-working families”: both left school at 14, his father, David (Robert in Lessons), to become a butcher boy, before joining the army, where he worked his way up to major; his mother, Rose, went into service as a chambermaid. They met when his father was training in Aldershot and his mother was already married. After her first husband was killed fighting they married, but never reclaimed the baby who had been born as a result of their wartime romance. “Wanted, Home for baby boy, age 1 month; complete surrender”, reads the heartbreaking advertisement his mother put in the paper offering her illegitimate child for adoption.
McEwan’s father, with his Brylcreem and “spit-and-polish” ways, as well as the frustrations “of a highly intelligent man deprived of formal education”, which led to drinking and often violent anger, and his mother’s anxiety and unexplained sadness, “all that just fell on to the page”. By the time the secret was finally revealed, his father was dead and his mother was in the late stages of dementia. “My mother was worried, frightened and sad as a person,” he says now. “There would be moments when she’d relax and laugh, but I think this matter hung over her all her life.” When the story became news in 2007, it was widely described as “like something out of an Ian McEwan novel”. Now it is.
As a boy in Libya, growing up “in an obscure crevice of history”, as he puts it in the novel, the Suez crisis gave the young McEwan his first taste of freedom and adventure, when he spent a “rapturous two weeks” at a military camp, an experience he gives to Roland. “It was just bliss,” he says now. “The long shadow or the light it cast over the rest of my life meant I never wanted a full-time job.” This became clear to him after a visit to the careers office at the University of Sussex, when he was presented with a chart of civil service salary scales from 22 to retirement: “Just looking at that, I knew I could never do anything like that. Ever.”
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Roland’s peripatetic adult life unfolds alongside his childhood. It is 1986 and Roland is in his mid-30s. There’s a hosepipe ban and ominous news of a radiation cloud from Chernobyl. Roland’s wife, Alissa, has suddenly deserted him and their seven-month-old son to return to her native Germany to fulfil her ambition to become “the greatest novelist of her generation”.
“I’ve read so many literary biographies of men behaving badly and destroying their marriages in pursuit of their high art. I wanted to write a novel that was in part the story of a woman who is completely focused on what she wants to achieve, and has the same ruthlessness but is judged by different standards,” he explains. “If you read Doris Lessing’s cuttings they will unfailingly tell you that she left a child in Rhodesia.”
While McEwan was never left to bring up a baby single-handed, both his sons lived with him from their early teens after a messy custody battle with his first wife. Unlike Alissa, he never felt “it was either/or” in terms of his writing. His office door was always open – “If children come in and out, they rapidly find it’s very boring” – and he would work in the school hours. “There’s no messing around, there’s no third cup of coffee,” he says. Today he keeps the door of his study, a converted barn, open for his sheepdog, who also likes to wander in. He works on two desks – an old kitchen table and a headmaster’s desk he picked up in a junk shop in London in the 70s – one reserved for the screen and one for longhand. He maintains the old disciplines: “Do an hour, then empty the dishwasher,” he advises firmly.
Decline and death inevitably creep into the final section of the novel. “I’ve had so many friends die of cancer,” he says, “the complicated last three years, the intrusiveness of the treatment.” He wanted to pay tribute to their “amazing bravery” and “incredible sense of purpose”. He has also lost many people to less talked about smoking-related illnesses, he adds ruefully: his father; Malcolm Bradbury, his creative writing teacher at UEA; Ian Hamilton, his editor at the New Review; and he was at Hitchens’s bedside shortly before he died.
He compares ageing to driving a car: “The car is your body and one day you notice the wing mirror has come off. And someone’s taken the front bumper away in the night, and the passenger side door no longer opens. Then there’s systemic change of course.” Rushdie’s age makes the attack particularly cruel, he says when we speak later. “People use the ‘phrase life-changing injuries’. This is very hard at 75. Being 75 is life-changing enough. It is going to take a good while for him to get to the other side of this and face the new kind of life.”
Does he worry about his own legacy? “I don’t know, maybe.” Honestly? “Yes. I’d like to continue to be read, of course. But again, that’s entirely out of one’s control. I used to think that most writers when they die, they sink into a 10-year obscurity and then they bounce back. But I’ve had enough friends die more than 10 years ago, and they haven’t reappeared. I feel like sending them an email back to their past to say, ‘Start worrying about your legacy because it’s not looking good from here.’”
He was greatly saddened by what he describes as “the assault on Updike’s reputation”; for him, the Rabbit tetralogy is the great American novel. Saul Bellow, another hero, has suffered a similar fate for the same reasons, he says. “Those problematic men who wrote about sex – Roth, Updike, Bellow and many others.”
Surely the reputations of his generation, many of them the self-styled British disciples of those problematic American men, none of whom have been shy about writing about sex, now seem similarly precarious? “We’ve become so tortured about writing about desire. It’s got all so complex,” he says. “But we can’t pretend it doesn’t exist. Desire is one of the colossal awkward subjects of literature, whether it’s Flaubert you’re reading or even Jane Austen. People will be compelled, they’ll just have to write about it.” He recalls listening to a young writer on the radio who said how difficult it is to write about male desire. “I thought, oh, poor kid.”
McEwan, like Alissa in the novel, was criticised for comments about gender at the end of a speech on identity at the Royal Institution in 2016. “I said: ‘Call me old-fashioned, but I tend to think of most people with penises as men,” he recalls now. “I did say most men, I didn’t say all.” He was accused of inciting violence against transgender people. “Violence!” he exclaims now.
It is important to resist the temptation to think “because you’re coming to an end, therefore the world is”, he cautions. “But it’s very, very tempting.” He finds it “chastening” that many young people also feel fearful about the future, “and timid in the face of history. There’s no big project, as it were, for a new kind of society.” He worries about the return of Trump, or someone “even worse”, he says. “We could be looking at a very authoritarian state, that could probably swing it so the Democrats are never in power again.”
He recently set himself the challenge of writing a short story in which he had to be optimistic about the future up to 2060 (there are “a couple of strategic nuclear explosions” – cheery). “I thought, am I just writing a delicious fantasy? That old saying that most things aren’t as bad as you fear?” But he is reluctant to make any real predictions. “The world is so connected now it’s like a giant mind,” he reflects. “And just as with our own minds, or with our own fates, we can never predict what we’re going to do next collectively.”
If there is a lesson to be learned from the new novel, it is that true comfort and happiness are to be found at home, and Lessons is touching on the quiet consolations of domesticity. One of the few compensations for getting old, he says, is becoming a grandparent. Like Roland, McEwan is a doting grandfather (he has eight grandchildren). “Just when you think that you’re never going to meet anyone new, you have this love affair,” he says. “There is another explosion of love in later life.” Even having “plundered” his life for Lessons, he doesn’t rule out writing a straightforward memoir: “I keep saying I will and then I don’t.”
He is a firm believer in what, borrowing VS Pritchett’s phrase, he likes to call “determined stupor” between novels: “I just read and soak things up.” His greatest pleasure when he is not writing is walking. Over the years he has hiked all over the world, especially across America. But he never feels totally free in the US. One of the things he most loves about England is the footpaths, “historically laid down over the centuries. Every village more or less is connected; in every town, if you walk to the edge of it there is a footpath.” He often hikes with a close friend with a bottle of good red wine in his rucksack. “To be high on a ridge with a glass of wine in your hand absolutely transforms the landscape,” he says looking wistfully into the distance. “Suddenly it’s your vast drawing room. It’s your space.”
Lessons by Ian McEwan is published by Vintage on 13 September at £20. To support The Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. He’ll be discussing it at the Southbank Centre in London on 14 September; tickets from £15.
This article was amended on 3 September 2022. Ian McEwan has eight grandchildren, not four as an earlier version said, and the bridge in the photograph that features in Lessons is Lingcove Bridge, not Lincoln Bridge. The author told us the VS Pritchett phrase he quoted as “productive indolence” should have been “determined stupor”; this has been corrected.