A CHRONICLER OF OUR TIMES. Ian McEwan is an English novelist and screenwriter who has been considered as one of “The 50 greatest British writers since 1945” and a leading member of the 100 most powerful people in British culture. His most recent novel Lessons is his longest to date and, translated into Italian as Lezioni, has just been published in Italy by Einaudi.
Ian McEwan, why is Lessons/Lezioni unusually long compared to your other works?
When you want to cover an entire lifetime, you have to make some space for yourself.
The protagonist Roland Baines turns his hand to many things in his life and, unlike you he never really achieves his purposes. The background to his life starts during the Cuban missile crisis and ends with the coronavirus. It’s a long journey. Why did you decide to mix the fictional private life of Roland with historical facts?
Political and diplomatic events form a musical soundtrack to our lives and penetrate our thoughts, our relationships, and also, perhaps most importantly, our levels of cultural optimism and pessimism. Possibly the best measure of that is asking ourselves if our children will have a better life than we do, and when I was growing up in the 50s and 60s the answer was always yes. We were having a better life than our parents, but now I wonder seriously whether our children will have a better life than us who were born in the late 40s. How these events penetrate and get into the little cracks of our own existence is important to us.
“A great deal of this novel is about having unresolved feelings.”
Ian McEwan, this novel is not your biography because you are a winner in life and Roland is not, but since you are more or less the same age is this also your own story?
It is. We’re very close, Roland and I. My parents are there, my family life, certain incidents at the Berlin Wall are entirely from my own experience. My boarding school, which was a rather experimental boarding school, that’s also there. A kind of alter ego, Roland is the kind of person I would have been if I hadn’t discovered writing. I was always against finding a regular job or a career or a profession, and I would have floated around the outside of things like Roland.
Born in Libya, Roland is also a displaced person. His father is a soldier and we discover that his mother has lied about how and when she met the father.
All of that is true and directly from my experience. I was not born there but I spent most of my childhood in Libya and my father was a soldier. My mother gave away a baby and she never told us. That brother appeared in my life in 2002. My mother had an affair with the man who was to be my father. She got pregnant. She had to get rid of the child. These two elements of memory and fiction are braided together.
Did you go to boarding school at age 11?
Yes, but I was not sexually abused by the piano teacher and when he runs away our lives begin to separate. That’s entirely fiction.
Like Roland, you lived through the Kennedy Khrushchev confrontation over Cuba. Did you worry about a Third World War?
I was 13 or 14 years old at the time. I thought the world was going to end. I was amazed that no adult was speaking to us about it. We children saw the newspapers. Even my mother’s letters from home made no mention of the fact that we might never see each other again. It was a curious moment. I notice that even now it has not passed into folk memory the way that the Kennedy assassination has, or many other large events. It was so traumatic that the world just wanted to forget about it.
“I was always against finding a regular job or a career or a profession.”
Ian McEwan, the Germans and Germany are very important in Roland’s. Do you have personal experience of Germany?
A novel called The Innocent that I wrote many years ago was about the Cold War and the Berlin Wall. I did a lot of research in Berlin for that, I was at the Berlin Wall coming down. My father was posted in Germany after Libya, so I spent time there as an adolescent, and when I was 13 years old I took many photographs of the Berlin Wall just after it was built. I still go there a lot, I have friends there and I hike in the Bavarian mountains, sometimes staying at the wonderful Schloss Elmau hotel. Maybe something more important than this long past is a post-Brexit fondness for the idea of Europe, that Germany stands. I just had to choose one country. I could have chosen Italy or France. I wanted this to be about someone who happens to be British but whose consciousness is European rather than simply English or isolated in one small space.
Alissa, the second woman that comes into Roland’s life, has an English mother and a German father. They have a long affair and they have a child named Lawrence, but suddenly Alissa disappears and at the beginning of the book he is alone, trying to find out what happened to her?
Alissa is one of those few people in life who can make a very severe decision to break with everything in her present. Very few of us have the courage to do this. She can do it, even though she knows it causes pain to others, and she makes a ruthless pursuit of what she must do. Roland is the complete opposite. He would stay loyal to his child, to the course of his life, but never takes a decision as bold as Alissa. This is a reversal of the usual thing of men running away from their families to write novels or paint pictures or sculpt. We have a rather double standard about this. We expect men to run away – or we certainly forgive them quite easily – but we do not forgive the women. So I thought, let’s explore this and find out what it would be like.
Is it sometimes necessary to abandon one’s family in order to write, as Alissa appears to have done?
If I’d been in Alissa’s very different circumstances to my own I would at least dream about it. If I was living in a tiny, squalid, untidy house, then I would certainly want to at least contemplate the possibility. Even Roland knows that Alissa could never write a novel in their domestic circumstances. A great deal of this novel is about having unresolved feelings. He is angry with her, but he also admires her novels, and he also becomes her most devoted reader throughout the rest of his life, even as he is very resentful – reasonably enough – that she deserted him. It’s a problem for him that never gets resolved.
Is her mother very important in Alissa’s life?
She doesn’t avenge her mother so much as redeem her. She promises her mother that she’s going to do something that women don’t usually do, and, in the process, she will redeem her mother’s notebooks. Her mother’s notebooks are the complete basis of her first novel, and without them, she could not write it.
The way you meld the story of Roland and all the characters and the events in the world is very interesting. Do you think we are passive in front of history?
I think we are helpless, yes. History molds our lives and we are part of these events. Probably the moment when almost the entire planet was experiencing the same thing was the pandemic. 6 or 7 billion of us were affected by a global event that had immediate personal family, friendship, consequences; and life and death too. Of course, there was no pandemic when I started this novel, but halfway through I realised that I had to confront it and had to face putting Roland through some isolation. Towards the end, the novel begins to write itself and history just takes over for me. Had I waited longer, then there would be the Ukraine war and all the consequences right around the world, the amount of grain that is shipped to countries that really need it, the effect of inflation and all the problems of European security that come out of this conflict would also have been in the novel, but I finished just two thirds of the way through the pandemic, and that’s where it has to end. Roland says to his granddaughter that the one book he would love to read – and these are my thoughts – is to know the history of the 21st century. That’s the one regret I have about death. I’d like to have a big fat book, one chapter for every year, that would take me to the end of this century to know what’s going to happen. Might we just squeeze through the consequences of climate change? Could we get away with not exchanging nuclear weapons without another bigger European war, without a conflict between the United States and China? Open questions.
“There is something in human fates that we have to regard as in a divine comedy.”
Ian McEwan, when reading your book I thought of how Tolstoy’s War and Peace combines private lives with historical events and wars. At the time when he wrote books were published in series in newspapers. This doesn’t happen anymore, so a long book is special and difficult to write and edit. How did you work on it?
My first move, long before I knew anything about the characters, I made a list of all those events from Suez right through to the pandemic, including Berlin Wall and all the political optimism of that and Chernobyl and so on. I looked at this list, and thought there is the structure that’s going to take me through 60 or 70 years. Then I began to look for a principal character, and I found myself writing the very opening pages of the novel. I didn’t know this piano teacher. I thought I didn’t know this boy, but then I suddenly realised that I remembered that room they are in from school. It was the music room, and at that point I realised too that this was going to be a novel in which I mix my own life into the life of a child, an entirely fictional character. I’m very flattered by you evoking Leonid Tolstoy in this respect. Certainly, he was the master in War and Peace of integrating large scale historic events, especially war, with private lives. I don’t think anyone had ever attempted it on such a scale and in such detail. Tolstoy’s research for specific battles are one of the most fascinating backstories of a novel that I’ve ever come across, but for me, living through these times, I didn’t have to do any research. Unlike Tolstoy, everything was there in memory, because just as certain pieces of music mark out the whole span of your existence from your teenage first love right through to the present, just as music plays this role, so do these political events and, to come back to where I started, that scale of pessimism and optimism about the future. When I stood at Potsdamer Platz in No Man’s Land, that was my highest point of political optimism in my entire life. I thought everything now is going to change, and this very slow disappointment does mark the spirit of this book. It has not turned out well. We are back with another kind of Cold War, maybe in two directions: Russia and China. Our children or our grandchildren face a number of problems that we never had to face. We have a severe housing crisis now in Britain. Very few kids who are in their twenties in England, and I think the same is true in Italy, can reasonably expect to buy a house. We haven’t solved many of the problems we posed ourselves in education and in social justice. They all remain. The gap between the very rich and the poor has remained and gets ever wider, and we don’t really have any great visionary political projects anymore. After the Soviet Union we’re very distrustful of social engineering, and we don’t yet know how we’re going to make better societies. We seem to have lost our way a bit. So this novel ends with Roland contemplating how is it he feels so happy with his son and his daughter in law and his two grandchildren, yet at the same time feels such anxiety about the future. They live in different parts of his brain.
Do you work every day, and do you write in longhand or type?
I do all of those. The lockdown were very good circumstances for a writer, as long as you didn’t get ill. I was working seven days a week, sometimes 12 or 14 hours. I was working on a big, high definition iMAC screen, but also I have a large notebook and when they’re particularly difficult scenes I wrote in longhand. Connecting scenes I write straight in the computer. Every morning I revise the work of the day before, but revision is an ongoing, constant process. Every thousand words I look back, every 5000 words. It’s not a matter of separate drafts, it’s a matter of constant revision.
Is writing such a long book very different from writing a shorter book?
It’s easier to write a longer book. I have written a few novellas, and a shorter book requires a concentration of exclusion. In the longer book, you can abandon your life to it. It becomes like a giant room in which you’re living.
I’m even more flattered than your comparison with Tolstoy. Ulysses is the final last word, but it was also the first word, on the explorations of consciousness and of history. Into that one day in June is packed so much of European consciousness, and Joyce’s real celebration in his ferocious anti anti-Semitism in the character of Bloom is triumphant. T.S. Eliot said this really is the novel at the end of all novels and the beginning of all novels. And that was just when Bloom and Stephen, at the end of their day, go in the garden to piss and Bloom is aware that the trajectory of his urine is much less than Stephen’s, and in that he senses his age. Somehow the bond between the two men who will never meet again – after that they part – is one of the most extraordinary minor scenes of such a great novel.
In Ulysses, Joyce also achieves something else terribly difficult which is to be comic. Even if there are lots of dramas for Roland in Lessons/Lezioni, is there also something comical in your book?
I like to think, and I often think of this about Shakespeare, at the heart of all good writing there is a sense of the human comedy. Balzac knew that, and there is something in human fates that we have to regard as in a divine comedy, as fundamentally humorous.
Thank you for your nice comparisons with Joyce and Tolstoy. You’ve made my morning.
Ian McEwan, thank you very much, and, as we say in Italian, “Complimenti” for your book!
Portrait of Ian McEwan © Basso Cannarsa.
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