Books by Ian McEwan loom large in my life. The first one I bought was a second-hand copy of his collection of short stories First Love, Last Rights. I was 18 and the year was 1982. It was a revelation. I have never stopped buying his books, and his latest, Lessons, is the nineteenth of his books to enter my home.
This one really does feel very different. Over the years my enjoyment has ebbed and flowed a little. I didn’t enjoy Saturday, was ambivalent about Solar and hated The Cockroach, but between these were gems like The Children Act and Nutshell. As I look at the shelf of titles, one thing is obvious. Lessons is by far the largest volume of the set. Only three of McEwan’s novels have crept over 300 pages, while Lessons is only seventeen pages short of five hundred. His particular skill as an author is in taking an event and stretching it into a novel. My favourite example is Enduring Love, where a hot air balloon accident haunts the whole novel and drives the subsequent events. Lessons is far more ambitious, it is a whole life story. It takes the time to let events unfold over the whole life time of the central character, Roland Baines.
Not being used to this slow burn from McEwan, I thought that he might not be able to maintain the momentum, but his skill around the singular momentous event is simply stretched across several in a lifetime. Themes and characters come back to life and haunt the narrative. Sometimes minor characters are resurrected to play another part long after you had forgotten them.
Roland Baines is not heroic. Our fascination with him is all about his ordinariness, elements of his life that could belong to thousands of others. His failures could easily be our own. However, two stories plague his life and dog his fortunes. The first happens when he is sent to boarding school and starts to take piano lessons with Miss Miriam Cornell. She spots his talent on the piano, but something more develops. At the age of fifteen he begins an affair with his teacher. It is an uneasy moment, uncomfortable mix of criminal act and schoolboy fantasy, narrated by a seventy-four-year-old author. It has a lasting impact on Roland, and we return to the scenes several times in the book. Because of the epic duration of the novel, we do find ourselves moving through time in vast leaps, from schoolboy to middle age in the course of a page turn. This can catch the reader off guard. In the end Roland will have to confront what has haunted his own history.
The second story is about Roland’s German-born wife Alissa, who suddenly vanishes from his life leaving him as the solo parent of a few month-old son. The suddenness and completeness of this disappearance even puts Roland under the spot light by the police force. Her disappearance is so complete that they suspect for a while that she may have been murdered. Roland clings to the belief that one day she will return. Her refusal to be in contact lingers through the book, while at the same time she develops into a best-selling author. She sacrifices Roland and her son for her career.
Almost at the end of the book, there is an interesting observation on Alissa and her work, made by her agent:
‘She’s our greatest novelist. Teenage school kids are made to read her. But she’s white, hetero, old and she’s said things that alienate younger readers. Also, when a writer has been around long enough people begin to feel tired. Even if she does something different every time. They say, She’s doing something different – again!’
I liked this comment because it seems to cast a shade over McEwan’s own career as well as catching the recent controversy that embroiled J K Rowling over comments she made about the transgender community. The evolving dangers of letting your thoughts be known.
In another cleverly self-referential play with real life events, Roland goes to heart a lecture about the American poet Robert Lowell, who ‘plundered, and plagiarised and reshaped the anguished letters and phone calls from the wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, he was leaving for another woman, Caroline Blackwood.’ A question from the audience raises the subject of the treatment of wives and lovers by male artists. ‘There were very few cases of women sacrificing others for their art and they were likely to be condemned harshly for it.’ Roland begins to formulate his own response, waiting his chance to stand in the audience and tell his own story:
While he and the woman argued it out Roland was thinking of the intervention he was about to make. It was causing his heart to beat harder. He already had his first line – I am a male Hardwick. It might get a laugh but he did not have a question. He had a statement to make, just the sort of thing the chairman had at the start of the open session asked the audience to resist. I was once married to a writer whose name will be familiar to you. No manifestos please. She abandoned me and our baby and I can tell you for a fact that you are wrong. You have to live it to know it – the quality of the work absolutely matters. Sir, will you please come to your question. To be left for the cause of mediocre work would be the ultimate insult. Next question then. Yes, I forgave her because she was good, even brilliant. To achieve what she did she had to leave us.
The moment passes, and as so often happens in Roland’s life he does not take the chance to say or do the things that might be for the best. I also love the nod to literary festivals and the way members of the audience will ramble with no question at the end of their statement.
There are several themes that float uneasily through Lessons – domestic violence being one. Roland’s father, a still, unfeeling military man, terrorised his wife and hit her sometimes. Roland’s second attempt at marriage is to Daphne, who had previously been abused by her first husband. And in her final novel, Alissa casts a character whom Roland recognises as himself, and accuses him of being abusive, although in real life he never was. It is a theme that weaves throughout the book, unsettling characters and their lives. The scope of the book is big enough to see it several times.
This turns out to be a fine book, it is unusual McEwan because it is a long slow burn that turns back on itself time and again, drawing you into a family saga that stretches across the generations. It is only in the last hundred pages that many of the themes and twists begin to reveal themselves, twisting nicely back and forth. The end result maintains its grip on the reader.
Reviewer: Marcus Hobson