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The iconic author’s new novel was born out of the pandemic. Ian Brown speaks with him about trauma, memory and how our lives are shaped by the past

Let’s begin with a prediction, a statistical likelihood. At some point over the next 30 years, an enterprising scholar will survey the novels created during the COVID pandemic, and judge them. One of the questions the scholar will ask is whether two years of lockdown – during which writers all over the world were chained to their desks, and “freed” from distraction – altered the quantity and quality of fiction exuded.

For the scholarly record, then, the British writer Ian McEwan – one of the reliable mainstays of 20th century literature, bestselling author of 20 works of fiction, lauded screenwriter, winner of the Goethe Medal and the Man Booker Prize (he has been nominated six times), Commander of the Order of the British Empire, inspirer of Oscar-winning films (Atonement) – loved lockdown.

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Author Ian McEwan poses for a photograph in Vancouver, B.C. on May 9, 2019.The Globe and Mail

“Towards the end of 2019, I’d been doing a lot of travelling” he says from his spacious study in a converted barn next to the large manor house in England’s Cotswold hills that he “more or less swapped” a decade ago for his smaller house in central London 160 kilometres east of here. (The Cotswolds are gorgeous, but he keeps the blinds down when he’s writing, to avoid distraction.) “And I formed the ambition, come 2020, that I really just wanted to stay home and immerse myself completely in slow time, in a long novel which was just beginning to take shape in my mind. Then came the first lockdown. So I could do just what I’d hoped to do, which was to expand into a novel.” Writers, after all, “are lockdown artists. The better known you are, the harder it is to lock down. So this was a reversion to infinite space.”

This flow of articulation – he’s the watchful sort who speaks carefully in full sentences off the top of his head – is then interrupted by an explosion of coughing and nose-blowing. McEwan and his wife, former Guardian journalist Annalena McAfee, are still recovering from a bitter bout of COVID, their first, recently contracted on holiday in northwest Scotland. McAfee has finally tested negative on this morning of my conversation with McEwan, who still has it.

The literary product of McEwan’s long lockdown is Lessons, his latest and (at nearly 500 pages) by far his longest novel. The 74-year-old writer’s work is famously focused (he has spun entire books from an eventful Saturday morning, out of the consequences of a single spiteful lie). Lessons is a departure for the generally serious and always disciplined stylist: a shaggier, more discursive, at times even quasi-autobiographical cradle-to-(almost)-grave accounting of the complete life of Roland Baines, a typical (but this being McEwan, not typical at all) British baby boomer whose life is both privileged and not.

McEwan has always mined his life for details in his novels. (Echoes of his brutal custody battle for his two sons with his first wife, the astrologer and alternative healer Penny Allen, turn up in at least three.) Lessons is no exception. “Roland’s almost like a kind of alter ego,” McEwan admits, “a life that I might have had,” had McEwan been immensely less successful.

Like his inventor, Roland Baines is raised by a working-class soldier and his somewhat intimidated wife; spends his early years on an army base in northern Africa (where McEwan’s father was stationed, and where the writer spent his early youth); is later shipped off to boarding school in England (McEwan attended Woolverstone Hall in Suffolk); witnesses the global optimism that accompanied the fall of the Berlin Wall, as well as the descent into authoritarianism and pessimism that has followed; and even has a secret brother, whose existence he discovers only decades later. (Lessons is dedicated to the author’s sister and brothers, including David Sharp, the child McEwan’s mother gave up after having an affair, only to marry her former lover after her husband died at the invasion of Normandy. McEwan was born four years later in 1948. McEwan and Sharp, a bricklayer, learned they were brothers in 2002.)

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The teenaged Roland (this on page 1) is sexually abused by beautiful Miriam Cornell, his 25-year-old piano teacher. Roland is thrilled and terrified at once by a domineering Miriam: “He felt trapped, bewildered, and at the same time he felt he owed her a great debt … He suspected he had brushed against a fundamental law of the universe: such ecstasy must compromise his freedom. That was its price.” Miriam manipulates him, despite his talent, into not applying to university, which in turn permanently alters Roland’s prospects. He spends the rest of his life trying to catch up to his foregone education, reading three books a week and scraping a living where he can, playing piano in bars, teaching tennis to the elderly, trying a bit of this (photography) and a bit of that (writing greeting cards).

He eventually marries Alissa Eberhardt, the offspring of a frustrated mother and a leader of the anti-Nazi resistance in Germany. Most of the action in the book occurs under the exceptionally long shadow cast by the Second World War. “Warfare shapes private lives fundamentally,” McEwan tells me. “All kinds of illicit behaviour occurs. We have thousands of children born here to American GIs, for example, between 1942 and 1944, many to fathers who were already married. A lot of secrecy hangs over this, and sadness and shame.” Roland and Alissa – whose very beings are the product of chance meetings and unpredictable events – have a son of their own. But just as Roland finds some life purpose as a father, Alissa disappears – for good. She ghosts her husband and son to become a writer (a brilliant and famous one, it turns out, which makes it harder for Roland to hate her).

“I had to make something in my life, something more than a baby,” Alissa explains to Roland decades later. “Do you remotely understand how difficult it’s been historically for women to create, to be artists, scientists, to write or paint? My story means nothing to you?”

“I’ll tell you your story,” he replies. “You wanted to be in love, you wanted to be married, you wanted a baby, and it all came your way. Then you wanted something else.” Lessons is, among many other things, a chronicle of the cultural standoffs experienced by a postwar generation that hoped it could do whatever it pleased, and then realized otherwise.

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The Associated Press

“What I noticed during the pandemic was that many of my friends of my age were taking the opportunity to take the measure of their own existence,” McEwan says. “Their pasts, their childhood, their parents, their circumstances, the extent to which they were free or not free to make decisions about the course of their lives.” The book that came together in his head “reflects the ways in which all of our lives can be deflected, damaged, diverted. Not necessarily ruined. But their course, their direction, can be completely changed by certain events. And so that sense of how one directs a life, as opposed to simply responding daily to whatever comes your way, is very much the centre of Lessons.” Needless to say, regret lurks on almost every page.

Pause here for another bout of coughing. “See,” McEwan gasps, “I’m not fully back yet.”

He’s recovering from more than just COVID: As he came down with the virus, his close friend Salman Rushdie was attacked and stabbed on stage in upstate New York. “I was profoundly shocked, indeed numbed. For those of us who were around him for the initial fatwah, that was a sense of being driven back a third of a century, 33 years. When Salman’s fatwah was delivered in 1989, the paradox was that the world was about to open up, not close down. Democracies were sprouting right across Europe, South America. Now, the attack on Salman seems rather consonant with the ease with which death threats are issued on the Internet, with the disappearance in many countries of any freedom of thought, speech, or writing. It seems horribly in tune with certain aspects of our times.”

Back in 1970, when he started writing, McEwan was almost witlessly optimistic about his prospects. “When you live in an age where the political culture sees it as a duty to increase the life opportunities for children in a visionary way, that has a massive impact. I benefited from the massive postwar expansion in educational opportunity, paperback books, rock and roll – you name it. And, crucially, growing prosperity. Through the fifties and sixties that shaped our lives.”

Then came Margaret Thatcher’s cutbacks and capitalism’s global free-for-all. “Certainly for our children, this generation and their children’s generation, life is harder,” McEwan admits. “The gun pointing at their heads is the climate emergency. But also the diminution of political optimism at the top makes serious inroads on the general sense of optimism about life.”

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McEwan became “passionately attached” to the idea of literature at 16, thanks to an inspirational high-school English teacher. “I became aware that literature was a great conversation being conducted through the centuries. And that anyone who could afford a pencil and 500 sheets of paper could join in the conversation.” Halfway through his stint at Sussex University, he began to write: a play, an adaptation of a Thomas Mann story, short stories. More to the point, “I never wanted to work in an office. I never wanted a career structure. I wanted to be free.” Within a few years he was “getting by living in London, writing reviews, writing magazine journalism, a bit for television and scraping by. And that’s all I ever expected. And I was happy.”

Writing – ”to frame the thing I feel, or the thing I want the reader to feel,” which once took him ages – has become easier with age and practice. “The steady accumulation of more experience provides a whole range of feelings to draw on.” But the value of that trove is offset by the “shaming inadequacies of memory,” as Roland calls them in the later chapters of Lessons, by which time he’s an obsessive observer of his own aging.

“I think my mind’s okay,” McEwan says of himself. “But it’s only my mind that can tell me that, so I take that with a pinch of salt.” (A classic McEwan observation.) Physical endurance is another matter. “Writing a novel takes stamina, no question. And sometimes you just have to wait till tomorrow to do the things that you might have done that evening.” Still, he is “much haunted” by the scene in Elegy for Iris, John Bayley’s 1999 memoir of his wife, the novelist Iris Murdoch, whose genius was shattered by Alzheimer’s. “They’re both reading and writing one evening, and she looks up from the typewriter and says to him, ‘How do you spell puzzle? I tried it with one Z and it doesn’t look right. And I tried it with two Zs and it certainly doesn’t look right.’ That was the first sign of her dementia. So when I suddenly forget a name, I think, oh, is this my puzzle? I’m always on the lookout.” McEwan’s mother died of Alzheimer’s in 2003.

What keeps him writing is the freedom writing offers – to find his way through to the unsaid, the unsayable, and the unexpected, to what even the writer does not know is there, waiting to be expressed. Events and amoral chance afflict all of us, altering our lives and our trajectories in ways we can’t control. One antidote is the act of creation – to invent a world out of the uncontrollable events that play out shamelessly before us.

“What were you trying to free yourself from when you started writing?” I ask McEwan.

“Well,” he replies, “trying to puzzle out the answer to that question is one of the things I pursued through Roland. And it was something of a discovery for me. And I gave it all to him in a scene in the book – the nine or ten days I spent in a barricaded army camp at the age of eight, when my mother happened to be in England, and my father was too busy to pay much attention. The expectation was that there was about to be a slaughter of English civilians by Libyan nationalists.” (The slaughter never occurred.) “That was one of the happiest, freest weeks of my life. And I think it marked me, made me not get a job in case this paradise came again. Of course, adult life does not offer such paradise as a barricaded army camp and no responsibilities. But the notion of freedom remained sacred to me. And the great thing about being a freelance writer is that if at any point you want to throw down your pen and go spend the next three days walking up a mountain, you can. Even if you don’t do it, the notion that you can can have a fabulous effect on the mind.”

And so, when McEwan found himself “doodling on the screen” and writing what became the opening two or three pages of Lessons – ”a piano lesson, and a moment of grooming or abuse” – he felt the familiar frisson of freedom that has always signalled a new writing adventure for him. “I just knew that this would set me free into the very thing that I’d been looking for.”

What might that be, at the age of 74? Pause here to cough and catch your breath. What does Roland’s meandering, frequently hapless, often thwarted but stubbornly persistent life resemble? It resembles the meandering, frequently hapless, often thwarted but stubbornly persistent life of a writer – especially the best ones. In his own seventies, at the height of his fame, the poet T.S. Eliot remarked that “no honest poet can ever feel quite sure of the permanent value of what he has written. He may have wasted his time and messed up his life for nothing.” McEwan ransacks Roland’s time on the planet, kicking and digging through his alter ego’s fictional life for clues as to what, if anything, that life has amounted to. No one can say for certain, yet: that will be for the next generation and future scholars to determine. But at least Ian McEwan has shown us his path.

So here is a question: If we are all subject to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune (not to mention the whips and scorns of time, another steady preoccupation in Lessons), how much can we blame one another for our ill-fated lives? There’s a lot of it going around lately. Roland knows how lucky he is, comparatively, “to have been born in 1948 in placid Hampshire, not Ukraine or Poland in 1928, not to have been dragged from the synagogue in 1941 … His white tiled cell – a piano lesson, a premature love affair, a missed education, a missing wife – was by comparison a luxury suite.” But he resents Miriam and Alissa anyway: They screwed him up.

But when he finally has a chance to send his abusive music teacher to prison, he can’t do it, just as he can’t hate the ruthlessly talented (and now desperately lonely) Alissa for leaving him in the lurch with an infant. They had their own extenuating circumstances, their own crosses to bear. Roland doesn’t forgive Miriam, but he lets her be.

“This much-used term closure is very, very deceptive,” McEwan admits. “My discovery is that most big problems in life are not solved. They simply get redefined or they fade. Or other things take their place. What Roland’s not prepared to do is send her to prison, simply because he can no longer bring himself to do it. That’s not quite forgiveness. So it’s never quite resolved.”

By the end of Lessons, Roland, being Roland – a baby boomer in his 70s – has (of course) fallen in love with his granddaughter, the eight-year-old who will apparently lead him into the future. He’s a fool. “I was reflecting on something which I think many of us experience,” McEwan says, by way of explanation. “Which is that we can be darkly pessimistic, full of foreboding about the direction of the world. But we experience great happiness, in private life. These things live in compartments, and there’s no solution to it. It makes no sense. Roland does find happiness. But the book he can never read, which is a history of the 21st century, has many, many dark unanswered questions. So we’re left hanging in the air.” Roland settles for optimism because he finds the alternative unthinkable or unlivable, or both. McEwan prefers to keep his mind free to describe us as we are.

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