Lessons by Ian McEwan

It’s going to be difficult to talk about this book, Lessons (2022) without giving away too much of the plot; no spoilers. I’ll try.

The story is about Roland Baines and with a title of Lessons, it’s appropriate that it begins with a lesson: a piano lesson, but this one has lifelong repercussions.

The story isn’t linear but it progresses like a complex cable-knit from that piano lesson when he was 14 years old right into his early 70s.

The writing is dense and not conducive to the one and a half page read in bed before you go to sleep. This book demands your time and attention. It’s also a bit of a history lesson as world events impinge on Roland’s life from the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, through the fall of the Berlin Wall 1989 to the lockdowns of the 2020 pandemic. Roland was born in 1948, a real Baby Boomer, but only a few years before me; there’s little bits of my history that match Roland’s and those little bits are mainly reflected in his mistakes. It’s Roland’s mistakes – or, if you like, the lessons he didn’t learn – that lay down the path of Roland’s life.

For readers of Roland’s age you too will, I predict, see little bits of your own history as we all can’t be immune to the world and what goes on in it.

Roland’s life, in its teenage beginnings, has enormous potential as a pianist, a tennis player, and as a writer. What he does with that potential and how those choices affect him and those around him make up the spine of the story.

There is, of course, the piano teacher, Miriam, then his first wife Alissa and her German family, his only child, Lawrence, his second wife, Daphne, and an unknown brother, Robert, are all dragged along by the history around them; some do well, others do not.

After his trite little book, Nutshell (2016), which I thought was way below par, so much so that I didn’t bother with his next one, Machines Like Me (2019) Lessons is a return to the classic standard of his Enduring Love (1997), Atonement (2001), Saturday (2005), and The Children Act (2014). It’s not a return to his early work which was full of darkness and the macabre, but it’s a mature and serious work that delves into what it really takes for a person to fulfil their dreams and how easy it is for those dreams to turn to smoke.

The complexities if its timeline annoyed me a little in the first third, but there is a rhythm there you need to tap into but once you do the book rollicks along to its conclusion; well it did for this reader, anyway. I loved it! (But, please, make time for it and attend to it wholeheartedly)

Lessons is his most autobiographical work, about a quarter he says, and you can hear him talking about the book and his writing life here, in a short but fascinating video from the CBS Sunday Morning program.

You can purchase the book in various formats here.

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan
British novelist, Ian McEwan

The first thing that strikes you is that McEwan is writing in the first person, as a woman. I used to have a prejudice against this: a writer writing as another gender, but I called myself out and tried it myself. Now, it doesn’t bother me; in fact, it’s one of the things I like about this book. Generally speaking, I believe that people are more alike than not. Gender, sexuality, and up-bringing affect us in profound ways, but also don’t affect us at all. We all experience and react to the range of human emotions and consequent actions: a young homosexual female bus-driver and an old straight rich male banker could react to jealousy, a home-invasion, or a heart attack in exactly the same way. I don’t need to research the work space and tasks of an astronaut when I’m writing about her marriage breakdown, just like I don’t need to study aerodynamics to jump a puddle.

Writing in the third person is the more common format. The third person allows the writer to create a narrator that is god-like, knowing everything about everyone, past present and future. Writing in the first person gives the writer access only to what the protagonist experiences; but this can be useful to the writer who may not want the protagonist to know everything. Hold that thought.

I’ve read almost all of McEwan – I say almost because as yet I haven’t been able to get past page 3 of On Chesil Beach (2007): I find the situation the young couple are in so embarrassing. I must get over it, I know; and I will, just not yet. It’s a tribute to McEwan’s craft that it effected me so strongly.

McEwan’s early work, up until the turn of this century, were generally dark tales with something black, dangerous, or hellish at the heart of each new novel. He became known as Ian MaCabre. However since the turn of the century his style has changed although he still likes to play with the narrative form; as he did with Atonement (2001) – one of his best – by creating a fake ending which allowed the title to be so appropriate.

But, back to Sweet Tooth (2012) set in 1972: Serena Frome (as in “plume”) is a young, pretty, blonde who isn’t very picky about her sexual partners. In fact, she admits her hunger for approval but not her hunger for affection. She is recruited into M15 by an older lover who then abandons her for reasons she, and the reader, only find out about much later. She is placed in a lowly paid clerical job in a lowly department; with a 3rd mathematics degree from Cambridge but an enthusiastic love and ever-growing interest in literature, especially fiction. That is why she is given the job of signing up a new, intelligent, and promising writer – will he win a prestigious prize? – named Tom Haley, for a pension, seemingly from a creative arts foundation, but really as a way for the government to have some control over the culture of the society it governs; not control really but making sure they foster the right creative minds. This interesting idea is at the core of the book. It also leads to some very informative and rewarding discussion of the relationship between writer and reader. She prepares for her undercover work by reading three of his short stories and these stories aren’t presented as complete works by Tom Haley, although I wonder if McEwan actually wrote them out in full; but Serena tells us about them, giving the reader insight into what they tell her about the man she will soon meet.

Serena’s dilemma is how much does she tell Tom. This becomes critical when she falls in love with him, and he with her. As the romance deepens so does her duplicity. The reader can feel the doom gathering as events conspire against her – and then the media get hold of it: headline “HALEY’S SEXY SPY”; and it’s possible that you will have a choice of what you may think will happen. She of course calls him, visits him, but he is gone; nowhere in sight. No matter what you may think will happen when she finds him, I can safely guarantee you will be wrong. Here is an ending like no other, although in retrospect, it’s very McEwan. Only when you read the last page, the last line, do you really understand what happened. Oh, please don’t be tempted to look.

There are no spoilers here; but I will say that the success of the plot lies in the fact that Serena, and you the reader are oblivious to a very important piece of information and it’s crucial that it not be revealed. It’s only when it is that you realise that McEwan really had no choice: it had to be written in the first person.

For lovers of McEwan, this is a gem. So much better than his latest Nutshell (2016); such a disappointment.

You can find the novel, in various formats, here.

The Paris Review’s interview with Ian McEwan – “The Art of Fiction No. 173” – from 2002 you can find here.

Nutshell by Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan
British novelist, Ian McEwan

McEwan’s first published work, First Love, Last Rites, appeared in 1975; another short story collection, In Between the Sheets, appeared in 1978 then two short novels, The Cement Garden (1978) and The Comfort of Strangers (1981). My then he was known as “Ian Macabre” for the subject matter in his work. An early story is about a love affair between a writer and her pet ape told from the ape’s point of view; another concerns a disgruntled husband who discovers a technique of body manipulation that results in the person disappearing into himself; he tries this on his wife during sex.

His work settled down a little but there is always something dark at the centre of his stories. His three most accomplished works belong to this latter period; Enduring Love (1997) which concerns a science writer being stalked by a disturbed man: both of whom witness a horrendous accident involving a hot-air balloon; one of the most suspenseful and superbly written opening chapters you can ever hope to read, rendered rather ho-hum by the 2004 film starring Daniel Craig; Atonement (2001) in which a young girl witnesses her sister having sex but misconstrues it as an assault and ruins her sister’s and lover’s lives, which the young girl, as a grown-up novelist, atones for by writing about it but with a happy ending. This was superbly adapted as a film in 2007 with Keira Knightly and James McAvoy. And Saturday (2005), a day in the life of a neurosurgeon who is confronted on the street by a man, who, as recognised by the surgeon, has a neurological disorder; the mentally ill man then menacingly invades the surgeon’s home.

He won the Booker Prize for a slim volume called Amsterdam in 1998, about a pact between two male friends who re-connect at the funeral of a shared lover, and he was nominated again for On Chesil Beach (2007) which begins with the wedding night of an extremely sexually naïve couple. I was so embarrassed for them, McEwan’s writing was truly effective, that I shut the book at page 6 and have never opened it since.

His 2014 novel, The Children Act, confronts a modern dilemma involving personal faith and medical intervention. You can read my blog on this here.

Nutshell, is another slim work, –  nothing wrong with that – which begins with a superb, but short, opening line – I’ll leave it for you to discover. It is basically about the planning and execution of the murder of a poet, John, by his estranged wife, Trudy, and her lover, his younger brother, Claude. The identity of the narrator of this murderous pact by two unpleasant but intriguing people is the crux here: John and Trudy’s unborn foetus. Generally a reader can accept all of what a writer conjures, and this is the main ask a writer makes; however this foetus prefers a Sancerre, preferably from Chavignol, over a grassy Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand; loves the radio; tends to use Latin and French in lieu of English when the urge arises; insists on words like ‘youngly’; is intimate with the physics of sound and the work of 20th century composers; clearly au fait with the intricacies of human sexual behaviour and romantic attachment; has a fine understanding of poetics, and has studied the psychological preferences of murderers, all garnered it seems from BBC Radio podcasts favoured by his mother. But if you have made your narrator a foetus then it is de rigueur to make him an intelligent one; no use boring your readers with goo goo and gar gar. Although how much suspension of disbelief is too much?

It feels like a short story s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-d into a novella: too much about the self-absorbed (and observed) narrator and not enough about the protagonists. But then how is he to know? It’s a dilemma McEwan side-steps. However, if you accept without question what the writer throws at you it’s an entertaining and amusing read.

The title comes from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and the continued illusion to that work – the main players, the victim, John Cairncross, A.S. Cairncross is famous for a 1936 book entitled The Problem of Hamlet, the mother, Ger(Trudy) and the usurper, (Claude)ius, (get it?) – still doesn’t raise it above a minor work. Let’s hang out for the next one.

You can find all editions, including the ebook, here.

Getting Started, Again

Somewhere in the dim, dark, past of the very late twentieth century, two books, I read and loved, had an influence on the development of one of my own: John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany and Mario Vargos Llosa’s Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter. The former for a great page one. Browsing bookshops has always been one of my favourite pastimes; and that means reading a lot of page ones. A good opening page, a good opening paragraph, can grab you; it can be the best marketing tool ever, and Irving’s is one of the best openings, rivalling, Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love as THE best. At about this time I was dabbling with writing an autobiographical fiction and I got it in my head that the opening paragraph had to be a doosy. I had a name for my fictional me: my father, who died, when I was five wanted to call me Johann Wilhelm, he lost out. This would become the name of my hero. I first began an investigation, that continues today, into truth v’s fiction when I heard that the Australian commentator and writer, Clive James, had written something autobiographical. His Unreliable Memoirs were published in 1980. I found the title confusing, a contradiction, but as my reading education continued and as I discovered that my recollections of my own past differed from those who were also there, I developed a concept of fictional truth: every time we speak about the past something in the telling changes depending on who is listening AND the more we tell it the firmer those changes become part of our believed past. We are creatures whose desires, dreams, and fantasies can take root, grow, and evolve under favourable conditions, like mould, into memories. (Oo! That’s good. I might use that). Now I am of the view that anything that is written cannot be true: what is true is that we are looking at little black markings on a white page, or screen, and those markings, although we all share a common pool of meaning regarding those markings, the different arrangement of those markings can signify different meanings for different people.

LLosa’s great book I cherish, among many things, for its great title. The title of a book, the title for any piece of literature, needs to be specific, not general. Had Tolstoy consulted me about titles I would’ve said “Yes” to Anna Karenina, but “No” to War and Peace. I also would’ve poo-poohed Lawrence for Sons and Lovers. Oh well, I still like a specific title, like, The Prince of Norwood, and The Lavender-Hill Mob. Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter is very specific (it’s about an aunt called Julia and a man who writes TV scripts – how specific can you get?) but also intriguing: ‘Aunt Julia’ is familial, ‘Scriptwriter’ is vocational. There’s a mismatch that leads you to mentally ask a lot of questions: it sparks curiosity. I like that in a title. I worked for months on my biographical piece on my very first lap-top; but then in the late 1990s – it must have been after 1997 because I was living in Liverpool Street, Darlinghurst, Sydney – my computer blew-up. Clouds of smoke, SMOKE! began billowing from the thing and my computer repair man, in a back lane off Bourke Street, just, school-m’amishly, shook his little head, at me. He was no use at all. Fifty thousand words gone! I had backed everything up but not on a different device. Well, actually, not completely gone. I had worked on the opening so much I had memorised the opening sentence. It was all I had. I remember it now. Here it is.

“If at any time you had grabbed him by the shoulders, made him sit, looked him in the eye, and asked the right questions, even he would have to admit that it was not possible for him to have killed his step-father three times.”

This was, is, my killer opening and so, finally, last week, after nearly two decades, (and with my sequel to Veronica Comes Undone, Veronica Spreads It Around, at the proof-reader’s) I started anew and so Johnny William and the Cameraman rides again.

Ian McEwan’s The Children Act

British novelist, Ian McEwan
British novelist, Ian McEwan

Many decades ago a dear friend of mine gave me a little pile of novellas for my birthday. They were all by Ian McEwan. I had never heard of him but I devoured those little books hungrily. I liked the darkness, the little knot of evil in those novels. It’s become a trade mark of his and to this day I still think the first chapter of Enduring Love is the most thrilling opening to any novel I have ever read. I’ve read them all; well that’s not entirely true: I couldn’t read On Chesil Beach. I started it and almost got to the end of the first scene; in the hotel room, the honeymoon suite, with the two innocent newly-weds and the snickering staff bringing in their meal on a tray. I had such an overwhelming sense of foreboding and embarrassment for these two child-like people that I had to shut the book. I’ve never opened it again. That little dark nut at the heart of most of his work has faded over the years but he still has a talent for the unexpected except his use of the unexpected can sometimes be very subtle. I know a few readers who didn’t ‘get’ the twist that was behind the climax of his 1998 Booker Prize winning novel, Amsterdam.

After Atonement (2001) – his masterpiece, Saturday (2005) is the most representative of his latter work, and his latest, The Children Act, begins with a similar scene: a person alone at home contemplating their future, although Fiona in chapter one of The Children Act has just had the bombshell that will change her life, while Henry, in Saturday, has yet to meet it.

The Children Act

At the centre of The Children Act is a high court judge, her husband, and a case she has to decide: a case of life or death. A young underage man, three months before his 18th birthday, desperately needs a blood transfusion to save his life. He and his parents are Jehovah Witnesses, devout, and are refusing treatment. The hospital has taken the court action to allow them to treat the boy. The legislation, the Children Act of the title, is clear. The young man, Adam, is intelligent, articulate, and more than capable of understanding his situation. However just before this case is thrust upon her the judge, Fiona, nearing 60 and childless, is confronted by her husband who wants her permission for him to have an affair; he says he still loves her but his libido and masculinity want one last chance before they and he slide into an inevitable but comfortable twilight.

McEwan takes us through every detail of the hurried case, time is short, and Fiona decides to see the boy. The meeting is deftly handled, moving, real, and McEwan manages to keep the emotion from spilling into sentimentality, although a duet sung at a deathbed’s side is strewn with potential pitfalls. We are, however, along with all the parties in the case, made to wait for her decision from her high bench. There is a feeling of expectation and intrigue: what will she decide? It’s page-turning; but her decision is not the end of the story. Her decision has consequences that no-one could predict, and I won’t spoil it for you by revealing them.

Like all her decisions, separating conjoined twins, deciding which spouse gets the kids and/or the money, she listens to the arguments, does her research, decides, closes the book, and moves on immediately to the next case and another decision about the future of people’s lives. However the image of the dying Adam stays with her in both personal, and professional terms.

She is highly regarded by her peers but the means by which she makes decisions about other people are very different to the decisions she must make in her own life. How should she respond to her husband’s request? Is it reasonable? He’s being very open and honest with her. Professional decision-making has policies and precedents, but with personal decision-making you’re on your own. On impulse she demands he leave the apartment and she immediately changes the locks, which her legal mind tells her is NOT the thing to do.

These two strands of the personal and the professional are skilfully woven together around a third: music. Fiona is a very competent amateur pianist and every year she takes part is a concert among her legal fraternity and it’s as she is walking onto the stage, in the penultimate scene, her mind full of Mahler and Schubert, that news is unkindly whispered to her; news that in another circumstance may very well stop her in her tracks; but like every aspect of her life she has other responsibilities, and now, those responsibilities are to her fellow performers, her audience, herself, and especially to the composers she is interpreting. She gives an astounding performance but can’t bring herself to acknowledge the rousing applause: one set of responsibilities are fulfilled and extolled but another responsibility, one she thought she had executed, well and for the benefit of all, had just unravelled. It’s so like McEwan to defer a climactic revelation while the protagonist is intent on doing what is expected, and so like the character not to let a past failing interfere with her immediate duty.

The end is a soft, satisfying coda as she begins to tell the man lying next to her of her shame.