Lessons for Ian McEwan’s book review

Readers who were drawn to Ian McEwan’s brilliant novel “Atonement” 20 years ago may have strayed from the writer’s recent grotesque work.

His last three books were lighthearted fairy tales, friendly with a strange wit. For example, the word “Nutshell” was a homage to the “Hamlet” narrated by an exposed Jenin. Gay Machines tells the story of a man who has been contaminated by a sex robot. “The Cockroach” crushed Boris Johnson and Gregor Samsa together.

It is safe to return now.

McEwan’s new novel, Lessons, is a profound testament to his remarkable skill. While the story does share some tantalizing similarities with the author’s life, it’s not Roman with the key. Instead, it depicts an ordinary man, a failed writer, wracked by intimate international crises over the course of more than seven decades. And for an author best known for his brevity, “Lessons” is also his longest novel. Here, at last, McEwan – winner of the 1998 Booker Prize for “Amsterdam” – luxuriates in all the space he needs to record the mystical interplay of will and opportunity, time and memory.

The man at the center of this story is Roland Baines. For many years he assumed that he considered himself a professional poet – or at least a prospective poet. We met him in 1986 shortly after his wife, a fellow writer, went missing, leaving him and their infant son behind. The police suspect a malicious game, but Roland has no reason to doubt his wife’s explanation. “Don’t try to find me,” she wrote in a letter on his pillow. “I love you but that is fine. I have been living the wrong life.”

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Her sudden disappearance, combined with the exhaustion of caring for a child and anxiety over the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster, pushed Roland’s mind to an earlier betrayal. When he was a 14-year-old student at an English boarding school, his piano teacher, Miss Miriam Cornell, nursed and seduced him and kept him in her home as sex slaves. Roland knows, on some level, that the two women – his former piano teacher and his wayward wife – aren’t the same, nor their actions, but he can’t help but blame them for distorting his life at critical junctures.

What follows is a very skilful depiction of the way in which a very early sexual experience taints Roland’s romantic expectations. In his agonizing memories of those months, we see Miss Cornell’s perverted desires only through the boy’s pride and excitement. To us, she’s a manipulative villain, but to young Roland—plunging into a world preparing for nuclear annihilation sparked by either Kennedy or Khrushchev—Miss Cornell seems like salvation itself.

When their relationship ends, Roland bears the burden of a terrible false impression of his moral involvement and a tattered sense of his personal efficacy. McEwan writes, “It never occurred to him that her behavior was so depraved and despicable,” but years later a deeply impacted lover sees clearly: “This piano teacher . . . has rewired your brain.”

All this unresolved psychological damage is toiled when Roland’s wife abandons him. Various kinds of shame were still hopelessly mixed in his mind, actually making him lukewarm. Nor does it help his absent wife achieve the literary success he had always dreamed of. Even worse, she has become one of Europe’s most famous writers, and a permanent nominee for the Nobel Prize, while Roland and his son fade into the margins of her autobiography.

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But McEwan never lost track of Roland. “Lessons” progress over time the way a rising tide takes shore: a cycle of forward rushes and seeping retreat, giving us a clearer and fuller sense of Roland’s life. He remains unattached, uninvolved, and often unemployed – tragically devoted to the initially invalid teenage fantasy. He believes “how easy it was to be swept up in an unchosen life”.

He became a Zelig personality type going through important changes in the late twentieth century. “In a stable, expansive mood,” McEwan writes, Roland would occasionally reflect on the small and serious personal and global events and accidents that shaped and defined his existence. His case was not special – all fates are the same. ”

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Indeed, even more so than McEwan’s earlier novels, “Lessons” is a story so embracing its historical context that it calls into question the compositional immortality of so many contemporary novels. Roland may be fictional, but he is deeply woven into the social and political developments that have shaped our entire lives, including the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the rearrangement of Eastern Europe, Margaret Thatcher’s transformation of the British economy, and of course the Covid pandemic. .

Roland, who directs 74-year-old McEwan, believes it would be “a shame to spoil a good story by turning it into a lesson.” Looking at his life, “When he asked himself if he wished none of this had happened, he had no ready answer.” But from an aging perspective, the great chain of cause and effect extending behind Roland was clearly beneficial. The cursed marriage gave him the blessing of a wonderful son. Years of loneliness finally led to true happiness. Can any inferior stone in his crumbling life structure be removed without threatening the whole?

Some readers may feel that “Lessons” are too scant with drama, especially given the length of the book, but I think it demonstrates the special power of the novel’s format. There is something close to divine in this process of creating the entire span of a person’s life embroidered with threads graduated in every direction. Here is a narrative that conveys with such patient devotion to the devious details of an ordinary man’s experience that in the end I knew Roland more than I do from my true friends.

Ron Charles Browse books and write Book club newsletter For The Washington Post.

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