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  1. The Weekend Essay
24 June 2023

The restless storyteller

How Ian McEwan became the dominant novelist of his generation.

By Leo Robson

In 2015, while discussing his fourteenth novel, The Children Act, on the Vintage Books podcast, Ian McEwan dodged a question about the “differences” between his early and later books. The constant requirement to explain himself – at festivals, to journalists – had served to “anaesthetise” him against any desire to engage with his past work. If that were the case, the effects have worn off. Since then he has published one novel, Machines Like Me (2019), which like The Child in Time (1987) unfolded a counter-factual vision of 1980s Britain, and another, Lessons (2022), which covers subjects – the White Rose movement, the fall of the Berlin Wall – familiar from The Innocent (1990) and Black Dogs (1992). He took part in an oral history to mark the twentieth anniversary of his best and best-loved book Atonement (2001). And in the past few weeks alone he has granted interviews about the twenty-fifth anniversary of his Booker Prize victory (for Amsterdam) and his own seventh-fifth birthday, which fell on 21 June.

An unusual landmark, perhaps, but then, for better or worse, McEwan has been the dominant British fiction writer of his era. There is no obvious precedent for his success, in its longevity, consistency or range. His books have been reviewed in prominent publications by critics born in every decade of the twentieth century. As well as the Booker win, there were four appearances on the shortlist. Atonement was an international bestseller, and eight of his seventeen novels have been adapted for film or TV, along with four of the stories in his first book First Love, Last Rites. Yet he is also one of the key subjects in academic study of the modern Anglophone novel, alongside JM Coetzee, Zadie Smith, Don DeLillo and Kazuo Ishiguro. (The Ransom Center at the University of Texas paid $2m for his archive.)

It’s unclear how much protection McEwan ever really had against reminiscence and reflection. Sweet Tooth (2012), the novel that McEwan published before The Children Act, was set in the early 1970s, and portrayed a recent graduate from the University of Sussex whose unsparing fiction gives Murdoch and Drabble a run for their money while finding support from Ian Hamilton, editor of the New Review, and Tom Maschler of Jonathan Cape. And a fortnight before the podcast appearance, Vintage had brought out a fortieth-anniversary edition of First Love, Last Rites with an introduction in which McEwan recalled his period as an MA student at the University of East Anglia, feverishly writing about incestuous rape, child murder and pickled penises – well, one – in a mode that might be described as kitchen-sink Kafka. “How does it end?” the writer’s girlfriend asks in Sweet Tooth. “Do things get better?” “Of course not,” he replies. McEwan always said he wasn’t quite sure “where all that came from” and four decades’ distance had failed to yield illumination:

“I was meeting many new friends, falling in love, keenly reading contemporary American fiction, hiking the north Norfolk coast, had taken a hallucinogenic drug in the countryside and been amazed – and yet whenever I returned to my notebook or typewriter, a savage, dark impulse took hold of me.”

Working on those early stories, he said, he felt – or persuaded himself that he was – a “wild man… kicking against the bourgeois divorce novel that people complained about”. First Love, Last Rites was followed by another collection, In Between the Sheets, and then a short novel The Cement Garden, a kind of landlocked Lord of the Flies, which begins, “I did not kill my father, but sometimes I felt I had helped him on his way.”

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What emerges consistently from McEwan’s recollection is his sense of his career as a path, with elements of strategic thinking, but crucially no roadmap or grand plan. In an interview to mark his birthday, he told the journalist Mick Brown that a careers officer, advising a job in the foreign office, showed him a graph showing the arc of his salary from the age of 22 until retirement. “I couldn’t bear that thought: creeping up this pole.” Instead he took a bumpier option. The joy, he once told the Paris Review, “is in the surprise”. He made sure of that, with each book “a completely new departure”.

This wasn’t an illusion of hindsight. In 1979, talking to Christopher Ricks, after the appearance of two story collections and one novel, he recognised the need to “broaden”: “the adult world adultly observed… must be faced.” The immediate result was The Comfort of Strangers (1981), a grisly suspense story executed with uncanny precision, about a doomed couple, set in an unnamed city full of canal bridges. It was an adult world alright, but as he told John Wilson, on an episode of the BBC series This Cultural Life, it was the same “world of perversity and darkness” in which his stories and first novel had unfolded. McEwan recalled thinking, “This is nuts… There’s so much else I care about.” He took what he called “a conscious break” and wrote a television film, The Ploughman’s Lunch, about the Falklands War, and an oratorio, Or Shall We Die?, about the threat of nuclear war, and then set to work bringing similar concerns into his fiction.

[See also: Liz Truss’s essay shows she is as deluded as ever]

And so the first quartet of books was followed by another – The Child in Time, The Innocent, Black Dogs, Enduring Love (1997) – richer and fuller, exhibiting a wider range of narrative and descriptive or rhetorical gifts, but with a tendency towards the schematic and even preachy. As McEwan recently told John Self, he found himself “desperate to escape” his variant on the novel of ideas, the sort of novel with “a lot of ideas” – about totalitarianism, physics, rationality, Romanticism – “floating around”. He wanted to write something “social, elegant, short, comic”. Amsterdam, about the escalating conflict between a composer and a newspaper editor, a “less ambitious, small, almost jeu d’esprit kind of novel”, liberated McEwan to write Atonement, in which a thirteen-year-old aspiring writer makes a false accusation with repercussions she spends a lifetime trying to remedy. “It somehow cleared the decks,” McEwan recalled, in a formulation of suitable vagueness.

Some readers might argue that another conscious break was needed. Though Amsterdam was an aberration and Atonement a triumph, both showed that McEwan had thrown in his lot with worldly detail and researched fact. The closest that The Cement Garden offers to a contextual reference is the narrator observing that “there might have been a strike”. Talking to the Sunday Telegraph, where The Comfort of Strangers was improbably serialised, he said that he didn’t identify Venice because he “wanted the city to serve my own story-telling purposes”. But at a certain point the writer who once described “time and place” as “irrelevant distractions” became, as Gabriele Annan once put it, “topical to the point of Tom Wolfeishness”, writing novels, not exclusively realist, about the present day (Saturday, Solar, The Children Act, Nutshell, The Cockroach) or the post-war decades (On Chesil Beach, Sweet Tooth, Machines Like Me) or both (Lessons), with emphasis on such topics as decimal currency, Chernobyl, the emergence of jazz, the three-day week, petrol rationing, Edward Heath’s thyroid, the Brexit debate, the importance of the New Statesman’s “back half”.

When Atonement was published, Frank Kermode argued that none of McEwan’s contemporaries had shown such dedication to “the art of the novel”, a formulation which, in its echo of Henry James’s lecture “The Art of Fiction”, implies a particular kind of cogitating on matters of representing reality and rendering point of view, of “form”. But McEwan’s worldly turn yielded, perhaps necessitated, a baldness in technique. Though the recent novels are no doubt the product of a similarly reflective and reactive process, he seems less intent on abandoning established practices while the variations have been more local, tonal and generic. Saturday, the closely described portrait of a neurosurgeon on the Iraq War protest, is not so different from Solar, his comedy about a physicist in the context of the climate change debates. You wouldn’t mistake The Children Act, a legal thriller, for Nutshell, a rewriting of Hamlet with the prince as a foetus, but in both we’re left in little doubt as to what is in the headlines. It’s understandable, without being entirely fair, that over the past 20 years he has served as a shorthand for staidness and glibness, a middlebrow bogeyman. (I once told Tim Parks that his novel Cleaver had similarities to Saturday. “Please,” he said, “don’t even go there.”)

[See also: The triumph of cash]

McEwan is insistent that his development has not been a case of shedding skins or lurching between extremes. When John Wilson asked him “what happened” to that original darkness, he justifiably pointed to the dismemberment in The Innocent (“He should not have been going through bone”) and the endlessly cited hot-air balloon set-piece at the start of Enduring Love (“We watched him drop. You could see the acceleration.”) He aims for a mixed sensibility. VS Pritchett acknowledged that In Between the Sheets showed evidence not just of pleasure in revulsion – a range of experience confined to “his love of his disgusts” – but of what he called “the restless storyteller”, concerned with the interplay of “reality and fancy, the inner and the outer, the tender and violent, the banal and the grotesque”. The title of Enduring Love cuts two ways, in the direction of both happiness and menace – that which lasts, and that which must be outlasted. In Atonement he created a rich saga that was also a reflection on fiction-making, and in Sweet Tooth returned to the same self-referential territory with the Cold War thriller as his Trojan horse. Amsterdam succeeds, in its restricted way, as both tragedy and farce.

Lessons, his most recent book, and perhaps most traditionally ambitious, is an attempt to cross-pollinate a rich, fervent character study, Herzog (the book that contained, he said, Saul Bellow’s “most achieved dreamer”), with a stark, stringent one, John Williams’s Stoner (which he called “a beautiful, sad, utterly convincing account of an entire life”). But as with the recurrent pitting of rationality against instinct, where it’s all too clear which side he is backing – the epigraph to Lessons, from Finnegans Wake, is “First we feel. Then we fall” – you can see when his heart isn’t quite in it. Here is Bellow’s rendering of Herzog’s “self-examination”:

“To his son and his daughter he was a loving but bad father… To his country, an indifferent citizen. To his brothers and his sister, affectionate but remote. With his friends, an egotist. With love, lazy. With brightness, dull. With power, passive. With his own soul, evasive.”

McEwan’s version of the same riff barely gets off the ground:

In the management of his life, he was foolish. In mathematics, moronic.

His native strengths, like his true predilections, are hard to miss. Under the successive metamorphoses he has always been exacting, even cautious. (When he used another passage from Herzog as the epigraph to Saturday he said it was bound to make his own prose “sound puny”.)

In the final pages of Atonement, Briony, now a famous novelist, is marking her 77th birthday, looking back, winding down. She notes that she had always liked to “make a tidy finish”, and so has McEwan, with his kick-yourself twists and hyper-logical resolutions, those dinky clock-like payoffs that risk making a vice of his virtuosity. Lessons had elements of the summa or swansong, but McEwan has revealed he is currently drafting a successor. Whatever the result, it will surely reveal some telling relation, counter-reactive, corrective. The entire body of his work has been constructed with some of the same pride and care – the same regard for shifting dynamics and mounting stakes – as his individual novels, and the desire to see how things turn out is coupled with a sense of powerful regret that it needs to end at all.

[See also: The delusion of a new European empire]

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This article appears in the 28 Jun 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The war comes to Russia