More like a lecture

“Lessons” is Ian McEwan at his worst

Lessons, Ian McEwan (Jonathan Cape, £20)

Towards the end of this overly-long and self-reverential novel, the central character Roland Baines says to himself: “Make a choice, act. That’s the lesson. A shame not to have known the trick long ago.” A shame, too, for the reader that McEwan himself didn’t act more ruthlessly on his own prose, cutting out not just sentences that lead nowhere except up themselves, but also the plot lines that go nowhere and, perhaps most exhaustingly of all, the endless socio-political contexts that often reduce his characters to faint outlines against a crowded historical backdrop.

This urge to link every idea and action to a wider series of related events, going ever outwards and back in again to the original, seemingly domestic action is of course well-known to anyone familiar with McEwan. In passages such as the memorable opening to Enduring Love, or in the chapters which describe the retreat from Dunkirk in Atonement, McEwan’s ability to work the “commonplace and wondrous” together, finding the profound in the prosaic, is often intellectually and stylistically impressive. But in Lessons, McEwan’s eighteenth and longest novel, it too often reduces human interactions to secondary elements in a series of political positions that the author wants to lecture us on. 

The most obvious example of this happens in the novel’s pivotal event when Roland, as a 14 year-old boy at a boarding school, is sexually abused by his 25 year-old female piano teacher, a “lesson” that “rewires” the boy’s brain. This reversal of the more common abusive relationship would, in itself, be arresting enough, but not in this novel. Instead, leading up to the climax of this action we have fourteen pages on the Cuban missile crisis. The importance of the events are consciously weighed down with sentences that tell us that “flying their U2 reconnaissance jets at impossible heights, using cameras with exciting telescopic power, the Americans had revealed to the world Russian nuclear missiles in Cuba, only ninety miles from the Florida coast”. Do we need to be told of the link between those priapic symbols of power and potency locked in their silos just before Roland loses his virginity? Either way, McEwan leaves us in no doubt that, once again, greater forces conspired to bring Roland to his fate. 

When did telling the reader what to think become a novelist’s primary role?

At times it feels as if this is one very long in-joke by McEwan: an extended self-satire of his own writing style and preoccupations. Is McEwan, in his description of Roland’s ex-wife’s award-winning novel as “Tolstoyan in sweep … Nabokovian … in the formation of pitch-perfect sentences” a hopeful self-commentary on Lessons? Possibly. He is, in this, his most autobiographical of novels, aware that his generation of writers have less credibility than ever (“Screw the lot of them. Comfortable white men of a certain age. Their time is up,” Roland writes). McEwan is comfortable in writing this because he knows it’s not true.

Inevitably, his adoring fans in the liberal left media have fawned over the novel, with the New York Times describing his reference to events including “Chernobyl, Hitler, Nasser, Khrushchev, the Cuban missile crisis, Northern Ireland, the Balkans, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, John Major, the Freedom of Information Act, 9/11, Enron, Karl Rove, Gordon Brown, Nigel Farage, Covid” as “judicious”. For that critic McEwan’s political longueurs are convenient reminders that “history is occurring”. She concludes, “maybe some readers do, in fact, require that reminder”. But do we? When did telling the reader what to think, what to believe, what to support and campaign for, become a novelist’s primary role? Why the need to teach us lessons on every page? Shouldn’t a novelist tell us stories about people? Philip Roth once wrote that “politics is the great generalizer and literature is the great particularizer, and not only are they in an inverse relationship with one another — they are in an antagonistic relationship”. That antagonism is evident on every page of Lessons.

McEwan is incapable of not connecting ideas, but what was once cultured and illuminating now seems forced and unnecessary. Every action has to be loaded with wider cultural and political significance, rather than being things in themselves: a ceremonial burning of A level books, done to mark a break with his piano teacher, sees Roland hoping that Dryden’s All for Love burns the most quickly. Love, for the adolescent Roland, is not something to be explored anew, a thing in itself, but is a Kantian “Ding an sich”. Later, when Roland sits up in bed quickly, about to learn something about himself and his past, a copy of Flaubert’s Sentimental Education hits the floor. Another cultural thud in a novel full of them. 

Perhaps it was Brexit that rewired McEwan’s brain

There are moments of that younger McEwan, capable of capturing a moment with precision. In particular, his ability to describe how we try to make sense of ageing and death or, more accurately, of sudden absence, remains as powerful as the strongest passages in The Child in Time. There are passages here which, freed from that Keatsian “wreath’d trellis of the working brain”, allow the characters to mourn, to stand apart. Their emotions have their own unique, human, individual integrity unlinked to, say, Brexit or the abolition of Clause 4. 

Perhaps, as with so many on the left, it was Brexit that rewired McEwan’s brain (certainly it is the only novel I’ve read which makes reference to Kate Hoey) rendering him incapable of considering this country’s place in the world without linking it to the referendum. A younger, less jaded McEwan could have written about the Nazi’s annexation of German society in a way that is not a clumsy attempt to see a parallel with that and Brexit, but how else can we read passages written by the author of The Cockroach without seeing it as another attempt at telling us we were all idiots conned by Boris, Dom and Farage:

Nothing is so dishonourable in a civilised nation as to permit itself to be “governed” without resistance by a reckless clique that has surrendered to depraved instinct. 

Where such tendentious reasoning becomes laughable is in the novel’s final pages, when Roland fights with a Brexit-supporting Conservative minister over the ashes of a shared love — a set piece so comically one-dimensional and clumsily symbolic that one has to think that if any other writer had submitted it, whole sections would have been deleted by an editor not cowed by the author’s reputation. 

When Roland reads the manuscript of his wife’s novel he quotes Auden to himself, saying that he must forgive her “for writing well”. This could be yet another reference to himself, a plea to us to read the novel in the right spirit. Perhaps, in the past, we did forgive McEwan such jarring moments because the writing elsewhere, on a sentence-by-sentence level, was often so brilliant. Now, too often (to paraphrase from that Auden poem on Yeats) he’s just silly like us: McEwan has become his admirers, indistinguishable in his views and tone from the sanctimonious op-ed pages of New York Times and the Guardian

When Roland re-reads the journals he has kept for much of his life, they do not bring him any new understanding of that life. Knowingly or unknowingly, in-joke or not, how true is this now of McEwan? His prose is, like Roland’s, filled with “‘summaries … hasty [and] without interest”. That he includes such comments suggests that this should be a shared joke: we know he knows why he’s writing that. Even so, sometimes the joke falls flat, and the audience’s empty laugh reveals an all-too cruel truth.

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