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Ian McEwan and the mess of living

His new novel Lessons is alert to human texture and complexity – and it’s his best in 20 years.

By Johanna Thomas-Corr

Lessons looks like an Ian McEwan novel. It features a protagonist who was born in 1948, in the same circumstances as its author and it homes in on moments familiar from his past novels: 1950s postwar Germany (The Innocent); the thermonuclear-sexual threat of 1962 (On Chesil Beach); the Thatcherite 1980s (The Child in Time). It smells like an Ian McEwan novel too, with all the moral dilemmas, cataclysmic events, withheld narratives, comic encounters and dinner-party discourse we have come to expect from the author of Atonement, Saturday and Amsterdam.

And yet this intimate but sprawling story about an ordinary man’s reckoning with existence does not resemble the lean, controlled enquiries of McEwan’s past fiction. A “meditation” on the way that global events penetrate and shape the life of a man and those around him, it is baggier and more protean than anything the author has written before, sacrificing polish in favour of swing. McEwan has typically been a 600-words-a-day craftsman; Lessons, written over three lockdowns, has a looser beat – much like the jazz its piano-playing protagonist so enjoys.

The man at its centre is Roland Baines, who bears a strong resemblance to McEwan, were McEwan not a hugely successful novelist. Roland is a baby boomer, part of a generation “who had the historical luck and all the chances”, and “lolled on history’s aproned lap, nestling in a little fold in time, eating all the cream”. Like McEwan, he attends a state-run boarding school, where the social mix gives him a certain classlessness. In theory, Roland is more fortunate than his parents, who were shaped by the Second World War, and his son, who will later find himself priced out of the housing market and working to tackle climate change.

And yet, when we encounter the adult Roland in the late 1980s, he is often broke and dependent on the soon-to-be dismantled welfare state. A failed poet, he lacks “that immediate hands-on-hips automatic and grounded sense of the right course”. He scratches out a living as a hotel lounge pianist, an occasional tennis coach and a hack, living in a dilapidated house in Clapham, where he worries about his baby son, Lawrence. Both are abandoned by Lawrence’s half-German mother, Alissa, a Doris Lessing like-figure who feels overwhelmed by domestic chores. One spring day in 1986, shortly before Chernobyl starts emitting a “radioactive miasma”, she leaves. “Don’t try to find me,” she writes in a note. “I love you but this is for good. I’ve been living the wrong life. Please try to forgive me.”

[See also: JK Rowling’s The Ink Black Heart is confusing, insular and far too long]

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Alissa is not the first headstrong woman in Roland’s life. When he is 11, his piano teacher, Miriam Cornell, makes a sexual overture in their lesson and demands he visits her cottage. Though he doesn’t take up the invitation, he spends years daydreaming about her. Then, during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, 14-year-old Roland cycles to her village. He wants to lose his virginity before he and everyone else is vaporised.

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It’s the beginning of an all-consuming and manipulative sexual relationship, which results in Miss Cornell locking Roland in her cottage and refusing to let him wear anything but the carefully ironed pyjamas she has bought him, causing him to fail most of his O-levels.

As Roland tries to navigate his life without any formal qualifications, the 20th century unspools. He drops acid in Big Sur, attends Bob Dylan gigs, makes sorties to East Germany with bootlegged records and becomes an evening-class autodidact, where he encounters Alissa teaching German in the mid-1980s. When she leaves, he succumbs to a life of “single-parenting, improvised careers, sequential lovers, political disappointment and pessimism” buoyed by his devotion to his maths-loving son and rowdy dinners with his lively, metropolitan friends.

In the 1990s the novel becomes a sometimes perfunctory medley of McEwan’s public proclamations and Guardian think pieces: “Bill Clinton was seeing through benign welfare reform and children’s health insurance. His administration was showing a budget surplus – all good for a second term.” Cynics may enjoy playing McEwan bingo (the Chilterns! Has he mentioned the second law of thermodynamics yet? Ooh, I’ve got Clapham!). But what’s curious is how Roland’s world-view and tastes hew so closely to his creator’s even as his fortunes diminish in inverse proportion to McEwan’s success.

The unspoken question is: at what point (or points) did it all go wrong for Roland? “It could have been different. Any part of it, or all of it, could be otherwise,” the novelist wrote in his last book, set in an alternative 1980s, Machines Like Me. In Lessons, he keeps the 20th century intact but instead plays counterfactuals with his own life. What if he were to give his protagonist the same childhood and the same educational opportunities – but planted an early trauma?

McEwan’s fiction has often been reliant (perhaps over-reliant) on the singular, resonant moment when everything changes: a balloon accident, a broken vase, premature ejaculation. But, ever the scientist, he has also held his own theories up to scrutiny. In Saturday, the neurosurgeon Henry Perowne notes that in life, unlike in novels, “moments of precise reckoning are rare… questions of misinterpretation are not often resolved. Nor do they remain pressingly unresolved. They simply fade. People don’t remember clearly, or they die, or the questions die and new ones take their place.”

Lessons wrestles with this tension between life’s messiness and the need for narrative pattern. Roland’s sad-sack status is never fully attributed to the piano teacher’s abuse but the experience certainly warps his expectations of sex and romance. “‘It had an effect, do you understand? An effect!’” he says when he confronts her as an adult. But what if Roland’s course was determined earlier? He later learns that his mother, Rosalind, had put an illegitimate baby up for adoption in 1942. Her sadness coloured his childhood, he realises, even if he was unaware at the time. (This plot line draws on the discovery McEwan made in the 1990s that he had an elder brother who was conceived when their mother was still married to her first husband.)

[See also: Why Gone with the Wind is American culture’s original sin]

Roland keeps coming back to the dictum from his childhood that “nothing is ever as you imagine it”. Not least the women in his life, who are the most interesting characters in the novel. With the exception of Daphne, Roland’s steadfast friend (later lover and wife), the female characters are all ruthless in their own ways. Rosalind quietly surrender her illegitimate baby for the sake of her first marriage and her two elder children for the sake of her second. Miss Cornell is hellbent on pursuing her sexual gratification (“It was possession. I had to have you.”). And Alissa sacrifices her husband and son for a writing career. She returns to Germany, three years before unification, only to haunt their lives by becoming a world-famous novelist.

If McEwan has a faith, it is in literature (it is here, rather than in his exasperated centrism and anti-religious rationalism, that he feels most acutely boomer-ish). Think of Daisy Perowne in Saturday talking down a dangerous thug by reciting “Dover Beach” – and of McEwan’s passionate defence of his friend Salman Rushdie’s right to freedom of expression. In Lessons, his enquiry focuses on the uneasy relationship between fiction and reality and the rights of artists to plunder from life what they need: “Do we forgive or ignore [artists’] single-mindedness or cruelty in the service of their art? And are we more tolerant the greater the art?”

Roland wants to pardon Alissa for both her abandonment and her critically acclaimed book: “He must forgive her for writing well. As unbearable as not forgiving her.” Later on, when he fears she has cast him as a domestic abuser in her latest book, Alissa delivers her own lecture on how to read fiction: “I borrow. I invent. I raid my own life. I take from all over the place, I change it, bend it to what I need. Didn’t you notice?”

Although Lessons can be read along different axes – as an enquiry into the moral responsibilities of the novelist; as a story about the effects of sexual grooming; as an exploration of fraught mother-child relations – the connecting theme is forgiveness, which McEwan seems intent on rescuing from Christianity. He doesn’t underestimate the considerable challenges that forgiveness poses. Several characters make noble attempts to forgive, only to give up or change their minds. It is perhaps Roland’s ability to forgive that is his most redeeming quality, elevating him from a passive underachiever to a soulful hero. Throughout the book, we are waiting for the line: “He forgave himself.” When it comes, it’s deeply affecting.

In recent years, McEwan’s novels have often asserted the messiness of life but remained mirthfully detached from it. Not here. Lessons is deep and wide, ambitious and humble, wise and substantial. It is, to my mind, McEwan’s best novel in 20 years because it is so alert to human texture and complexity. The enforced social isolation of the past few years has left many writers struggling to depict human relations. Lockdown seems to have done the opposite for McEwan. Making a sharp inward turn has awakened, as he said in an interview last year, “some deeper sense of the value of life… the value we put on each other, the value of our relationships”. Lessons should have made the Booker longlist (and shortlist) but no matter. It marks a significant new phase in McEwan’s already astonishingly productive career – and may well be remembered as one of the finest humanist novels of its age.

Ian McEwan will appear at the Cambridge Literary Festival on 20 November. Tickets are available here.

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

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This article appears in the 31 Aug 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Liz Truss Doctrine