Ian McEwan is one of Britain’s most prominent novelists. His latest offering, Lessons, is an attempt to track the life story of its fictional protagonist through the turbulence of postwar British and European history.
The result is a labored exercise in boomer agitprop. Instead of delivering a literary manifesto in defense of liberal democracy, McEwan ends up revealing his own creative exhaustion and sense of bewilderment at the world.
From Baghdad to Brexit
McEwan won the Booker Prize in 1998 for Amsterdam, and the New Yorker anointed him as “England’s national author” in 2009. His early novels were slick, slender texts that shunned the class-ridden tropes of contemporary English fiction in favor of darker, more Freudian motifs — incest in The Cement Garden (1978), murder and sadomasochism in The Comfort of Strangers (1981).
Atonement, published in 2001, was a landmark moment in the rise of McEwan’s public profile. The novel — a rich, anguished tale of guilt and forgiveness — sold more than 2 million copies and became a BAFTA-winning film starring Keira Knightley and James McAvoy. Yet McEwan struggles — badly — when he adopts self-consciously topical themes as his primary subject matter.
His 2005 novel, Saturday — set on February 15, 2003, the day a million people marched through London in opposition to the impending war in Iraq — is a case in point. Saturday’s protagonist, Henry Perowne, is a forty-eight-year-old neurosurgeon who lives in a sprawling town house off Tottenham Court Road.
Perowne does a great deal of Blairite hand-wringing over democracy and human rights in the Middle East. The novel’s major climatic scene is absurd: Perowne’s daughter, Daisy, uses poetry to disarm a man, both literally and figuratively, who has invaded the family home.
Saturday was a commercial hit — like most or all of McEwan’s books — but split the critics. The Irish writer John Banville called it “dismayingly bad,” with all “the subtlety of a child’s Erector Set.” Keith Gessen in New York Magazine was only slightly less hostile: “Few contemporary writers are as fixated as McEwan on physical violence; yet no one’s prose is less violent than his.”
Since then, McEwan has substituted conceptual nuance for ham-fisted punditry. In 2019, he published two more political novels. The first, Machines Like Me, explored the collision of sex, love, and artificial intelligence in the context of a reordered 1980s Britain, where Argentina has won the Falklands War and Tony Benn has replaced Margaret Thatcher as prime minister.
This was followed up by The Cockroach, a Brexit satire. A cabal of sentient insects has seized control of the British state and plans to implement a deranged economic theory called “reversalism.” The cabal succeeds and the UK kicks into reverse.
Machines Like Me fails on a dramatic level. The emotional exchange between its three main characters — Charlie, Miranda, and their robot, Adam — is overwhelmed by McEwan’s counterfactual account of British politics in the late twentieth century. The Cockroach fails on a comic level — the book is a one-note joke about nationalism stretched over a hundred pages.
Tell, Don’t Show
McEwan cannot be separated out from his wider literary and political milieu. Since the late 1970s, he has been part of an elite set of liberal English writers that includes Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, and, until his death in 2011, Christopher Hitchens.
After 9/11, McEwan never lurched as far into crude neoconservatism or Islamophobia as the other members of this quartet. Nor did he reach the same level of American celebrity, preferring, in contrast to his friends, to remain in England and cultivate his status at home — for the past few decades, he has lived between London and rural Oxfordshire.
At the same time, we can find the ideological imprints of Hitchens all over Saturday. As protesters descend on central London, congesting the city’s streets and disrupting its bustling urban traffic, Perowne worries about the long-term consequences of allowing Saddam Hussein to acquire weapons of mass destruction.
In an interview with Salon, conducted shortly after the book was published, McEwan acknowledged his own ongoing ambivalence over the invasion. Had the United States left Saddam in place, “he could have lived another 15 years and gotten nastier and more paranoid with age,” McEwan said. “Some of the antiwar arguments have been exploded.”
McEwan ultimately renounced his position on Iraq, conceding, in 2013, that the antiwar marchers had been “vindicated.” But a few years later, he found his next political fixation. In 2017, McEwan appeared to compare living in Brexit Britain to life under the Third Reich. In 2020, he declared that leaving the EU was the most “pointless, masochistic” thing the UK had ever done.
Britain’s right-wing press seized upon these comments, brandishing them as evidence of the Remain campaign’s snobbery. But they also revealed an author — now very much an elder statesman of English letters — who had become painfully obsessive in his old age.
Now seventy-four, McEwan’s dyspeptic political instincts increasingly dominate his creative ones. In The Cockroach, the opposition leader is an aging stalwart of the “post-Lenin” left named Horace Crabbe. This thinly veiled pastiche of Jeremy Corbyn votes with the insect government to enact “reversalist” legislation.
Machines Like Me anticipates some of the controversies associated with — or criticisms leveled at — #MeToo. Not only does Miranda fuck Adam, whose personality she helped design and over whom she has near-total control, but she also lies to the police about being raped by one of her classmates.
A Boomer’s Odyssey
Against this inauspicious backdrop, Lessons has arrived. Lessons spans the life of Roland Baines, a quiet, intelligent child of postwar Britain whose education is disrupted when he is drawn, at the age of fourteen, into a relationship with his twenty-five-year-old piano teacher, Miriam Cornell. The affair — abusive, oppressive, intense — implodes, and Roland moves into adulthood sexually restless and professionally unsettled.
In the years that follow, Roland progresses through a series of generic Boomer experiences. In the 1970s, he hikes the Himalayas and consumes hallucinogenic drugs. In the 1980s, he quits the Labour Party and observes the fall of the Berlin Wall. In the 1990s, he drifts into a pattern of bucolic middle-class existence.
By his late sixties, Roland is a dissatisfied single father rattling off lounge tunes for lunchtime diners at a mid-level London hotel. The talent he showed as an adolescent pianist was thrown off course by his brief encounter with Miss Cornell. Subsequent (consensual) partners have either ditched him or died. He is haunted by the feeling that history has passed him by.
At just under five hundred pages, Lessons is McEwan’s longest book, and his most autobiographical. Like Roland, McEwan was born, in 1948, into a British military family and spent the early part of his childhood on an army base in North Africa, before being thrust into the English private school system. Also like Roland, McEwan discovered, as an adult, that he had a long-lost brother — the product of a parental affair in the 1940s that was given up for adoption in infancy.
Roland is not McEwan, however. Instead, through Roland, McEwan is constructing a kind of parallel personal trajectory. In 1986, Roland’s first wife, Alissa, flees the couple’s Clapham flat in order to pursue her ambition of becoming a great literary novelist. Rather than track her down and try to win her back, Roland stays behind to look after their newborn son.
Under slightly different circumstances, McEwan appears to be saying, Roland could have been me. Lessons is a discourse on how terrifyingly contingent our lives can be.
And from time to time, it works. The novel contains some vivid passages. The most effective scenes occur early on in the text when McEwan is describing Roland’s ambiguous “romance” with Miriam, which she initiates by combining the prospect of sex with Roland’s piano tuition:
That evening they played the Mozart again and this time he was more expressive and followed the dynamic markings. In the slow movement he tried to imitate her smooth and seamless legato touch. He thundered his way through the allegro molto and the cottage seemed to shake. They laughed about it. At the end she hugged him.
Lessons is a reminder, too, that empathy is a consistent thread in McEwan’s writing. Roland rarely makes an intelligent decision; Alissa abandons her baby and refuses to see him even after he has grown up; Miriam is predatory and resentful. Yet the faults that define these characters are always plausibly human, and McEwan allows them to develop organically over the course of the novel.
But character depth cannot compensate for (or compete with) the indigestible chunks of historical exposition that McEwan giddily superimposes onto this book. This is how he describes the political events of successive years. First, 1989:
The grim settlement of the Second World War was ended. A peaceful Germany would be united. The Russian empire was dissolving without bloodshed. A new Europe must emerge.
Next comes 1995:
Recent by-elections predicted that Tony Blair would sweep away the tired government of John Major. Peace in Northern Ireland. A Welsh Assembly. A Scottish Parliament.
Followed by 1997:
It was the day after New Labour’s landslide victory. A 197-seat majority. The right’s long hold on power had become tired, divided, soured by scandal. Blair and his ministers were young, they had a thousand new ideas.
We get further bullet-point summaries of 2010 (“New Labour had run its course. The Project was exhausted. Iraq. . . . A deregulated financial sector and greedy bankers”) and finally 2021 (“The third lockdown began, the US president was replaced amid turmoil, and at midnight on 31 January Europe was left behind”).
Such passages, scattered throughout the novel but particularly prominent in its looser later stages, serve no dramatic purpose. They exist solely to facilitate McEwan’s often cursory editorial interventions. No issue is allowed to go unreferenced. Trans rights, censorship, house prices, Merkelism, the minimum wage — any half-relevant political controversy that can be shoehorned into the narrative is.
A Bloated Swan Song
Inevitably, Brexit once again bolts itself onto McEwan’s creative vision. In one egregiously silly scene, Roland is knocked into a river by a wealthy donor to the Vote Leave campaign who also happens to be the ex-husband of his second wife, Daphne. “That was me feeling I was defeated by Brexit,” McEwan told the Guardian in an interview this September. Lessons, he added, is “a sort of post-Brexit novel.”
Is it? What is McEwan telling us about Brexit in Lessons that he hasn’t already said in The Cockroach, or in one of the dozens of interviews he has given since the Brexit referendum took place six years ago? Haven’t his views on the subject already been exhaustively aired?
The compound effect of all this relentless signposting is disastrous. By the end of the book, Roland has become yet another cipher for McEwan’s ideological grievances; McEwan’s famously uncluttered prose has become congealed; and many of the novel’s most appealing characteristics — including its refusal to enforce pointless moral binaries — have been buried beneath a mountain of unnecessary denotation.
Roland and McEwan slowly blend into one another, the former’s fictional convictions progressively indistinguishable from the latter’s very publicly articulated opinions. Meanwhile, the emotional dynamics that made the early part of the book compelling are left to rot. McEwan’s storytelling is swamped by archival history, its pathos replaced by rigid political description.
Lessons does feel strongly valedictory. Perhaps McEwan was trying to write a Philip Roth–style state-of-the-nation novel, anchored around his own core biographical details. If so, he has landed some way wide of the mark. This book sprawls along aimlessly, touching on every flash point of modern British and European history without elucidating any of them. Late McEwan is bloated and spent. He displays all the signs of generational fatigue.