Ian McEwan talks about his new novel ‘Lessons,’ his most personal yet

On the bookshelf


By Ian McEwan
Knopf: 448 pages, $30

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As he reached his 70s, Ian McEwan realized he had lived enough and seen enough to write an epic. While he often incorporated the sweep of politics and history into novels such as “The Innocent,” “Amsterdam” and “Atonement,” his new book, “Lessons,” is on a different scale.

For starters, it covers everything from World War II to the climate crisis and the COVID lockdown, with everything from the Suez Canal crisis to Chernobyl in between. But while the scope may be broad, the focus is much narrower: a character study of Roland Baines.

“The big picture won’t have much impact without the little things that make up our lives,” McEwan says. “They have to feed each other.”

For Roland, the fears and freedoms of childhood give way to an adolescence marked by the sexual abuse of a piano teacher (even if it takes him decades to see anything more than an affair). Later, he travels to East Berlin and takes a stand in British politics even as he wanders through an unstable existence.

Roland’s first marriage ends so suddenly that he is suspected by the police of murder, but he also provides her with the son who gives shape and meaning to her life. His second love comes to him gradually and suddenly, even if it also brings him loss and life. Roland gets lost in it without ever really finding a conclusion. “It’s one of my most hated words,” McEwan says. “It does not exist.”

During a video call from his home in London, McEwan spoke to The Times, in a conversation edited for clarity and space, about why this novel feels so personal, as well as his “duty to optimism” about the future.

What inspired the scope of “Lessons”?

I am coming to the month of October or November of my own life; I was thinking what it would be like to watch someone’s whole life. I try to start every novel as if it were my first, but there’s no escaping yourself. This time, however, I felt a difference – I felt like I was bringing everything I knew and everything I had written.

A writer friend read it and wrote, “This reads like your LAST NOVEL.” I knew what he meant. This lifelong commitment is something I could only have done now – I had to lead a lifetime.

Assuming it’s not your last novel, was it hard to start over after that?

I felt like I gave my all to this book. I feel completely drained, but pleasantly enough. I’ve since written journalism and a short story – I was commissioned to write one that was optimistic about the future, which I found compelling, even though my story is a very nuanced optimism. I still need this novel to be published and behind me. I need to talk about it. There will come a time when I won’t be able to say the title without wanting to vomit. But I have no idea what’s next. I have two or three ideas but none are urgent enough.

This novel contains more of your life than usual. Was it a challenge or a pleasure?

I had a sly admiration and a mistrust both of authors who constantly plunder their lives. I dedicated myself to a life of invention, even as little bits of my life slipped through. But this time, I thought I was going to take my whole existence and wrap it up in fiction.

I knew I wanted to write about my lost brother. [McEwan discovered late in life that he had a brother whom his parents gave up for adoption before they were married.] This story is so much about the intrusion of public events – World War II – into the lives of ordinary people. And I wanted to write about the Suez Canal incident, which had a huge impact on my life: I found myself in this military camp like Roland does; my dad was busy, my mom was away and i ran free for 10 days with a few friends. While writing these scenes, I realized that one of the reasons I became a writer was to keep myself available for adventures. It is rooted in this idea that I touched the sky and freedom in this camp.

Yet much of it is fiction. The three most important women in Roland’s life are all totally fictional. But I really wanted to inhabit this character, so for some scenes I stopped doing the usual thing of taking notes of how the scenes might play out and I would come to it empty-handed. It was a very different writing experience.

Sexual abuse, also fictional, haunts the novel. Was childhood trauma a central theme?

You could say instead of trauma it’s experience. We all have difficulties in our lives and I feel like they are never resolved, they are just part of the baggage you carry on your back. Roland isn’t entirely ruined by being sent off to boarding school, but it does make major changes for him later on. He’s not devastated by his sexual abuse, but his life is certainly hijacked from the path he might have expected.

Roland’s first wife says the piano teacher ‘rewired’ his brain. Had he dealt with this earlier, could he have rewired it again?

The therapeutic culture might claim that it would have been wonderful for him if he had gone to an understanding analyst or therapist. My feeling is that it would have given him insight into who he was and how he behaved, but I don’t think it would have fundamentally changed his restless sexual nature and rather lofty notion of what a relationship is supposed to bring.

At the end, with his granddaughter, Roland notes that it would be a shame to turn a fun children’s book into a lesson. Is that part of your message here?

Novels are better at not giving lessons, but at laying out everything. When Roland says to himself that he has learned nothing from life, it reflects my own experience, in a certain mood. If someone asks you “Tell me the lessons of life”, you must either write “Lessons” or resort to such platitudes as “Kindness is good” and “Love triumphs over all” and “Be bold and take risks” or “Be careful what you are doing. I have never read an advice book that has been helpful to me.

Has the grief/hope ratio shifted in your novels? And does it reflect changes in you or in the world?

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, there was optimism, a sense of real possibility, and a sense that rationality could be applied to the political order. We have lost all of that. From the Berlin Wall to the assault on January 6, Roland goes from optimism to apprehension, but it could have been the invasion of Ukraine or the last melting of the ice in Greenland. This 30-year curve is part of the dissonant music of Roland’s life.

My family was here yesterday, and when the grandkids were in bed, we were talking about how their lives were going to be. By listening to my sons and my daughters-in-law, I realize that they share many of my apprehensions. I gave a lot of that feeling to Roland. At the same time, he felt enormous hope on a personal level. This tension seems insoluble.

Where does that leave Roland. And U.S?

I feel a kind of duty of optimism. The world is so complex and so interconnected that it is quite possible that there are a million bright spots around the world related to the climate emergency that will sooner or later connect. It’s a little late, but we could make our way. Or maybe not. It’s the mixture of hope and apprehension that makes life so complicated.