Ian McEwan’s Anti-Memoir
The author reflects on a charmed life—and all that could have gone wrong.
Ian McEwan, slumped on a comfortable couch in the large formal sitting room of his Cotswolds manor house, dazzling early-summer sun filtering through the tall, narrow windows, tells me he has been suffering from a protracted bout of pessimism. “I got totally obsessed with Russia invading Ukraine,” he says, an unfamiliar note of pain in his voice. “From February onwards, it filled my thoughts. Massacres in small villages northeast of Kyiv, like curling black-and-white photographs. Suddenly it’s here again—unbelievable, merciless brutality; old ladies shot in their kitchens.” He rubs his eyes (hay fever). A barbaric assault on European complacency, the invasion has reminded him how close we are, all of us, to annihilation.
Aware of his good fortune, of his plush surroundings, he acknowledges “an enormous amount of local happiness” cushioning his geopolitical gloom. Lockdown, perversely liberating, was midwife to his 17th novel, Lessons: “It was one of the most pleasant writing experiences I’ve ever had. The stillness here, the long walks, writing every day, seven days a week, 10 hours a day.” The result is his longest book and among his most engrossing, an exploration of a lifetime and an era, the 70-year stretch from the postwar decade to the present day, the bruised and battered Pax Americana. One of the many questions the novel poses: “By what logic or motivation or helpless surrender did we all, hour by hour, transport ourselves within a generation from the thrill of optimism at Berlin’s falling Wall to the storming of the American Capitol?”
Lessons thrives on the interplay between seismic global events—the Cold War, Chernobyl, Brexit, COVID-19—and private lives, in particular that of Roland Baines, an alter ego whose parents, siblings, childhood, and early education are all minutely modeled on McEwan’s own. On the brink of adolescence, Ian’s and Roland’s paths diverge. The alter ego suffers a trauma that knocks him off course; thereafter, everything he does and everything done to him begs to be measured against the real-life experience of the author. Life and counterlife: Roland’s mid-30s marital disaster is a funhouse distortion of the gradual collapse of McEwan’s first marriage and the bruising, much publicized custody battle that followed. Whereas McEwan moved on and flourished, Roland floundered.
In his early 70s, having drifted ineffectually through several freelance careers, Roland pictures himself as “the bald and porcine nonentity with the disappointed air.” McEwan, whose hairline has retreated and who nurtures, just shy of his 74th birthday, a modest paunch, carries himself with the easy confidence of that rare writer who is both a serial best seller and a prize-bedecked darling of the critics. Calm, rational, unhurried, he fixes you with a steady eye, narrowed occasionally to a quizzical squint, his gaze the physiological equivalent of his lucid, neat, economical prose. His wry good humor suggests that he’s a stranger to disappointment and difficulty.
An anti-memoir, a memoir of the life McEwan might have led, Lessons begins with the memory of a harrowing piano lesson. Eleven-year-old Roland is newly arrived at a boarding school in Suffolk. His parents are 2,000 miles away, in Libya, where his father is a captain in the British army. Here comes the trauma, the genesis of the counterlife. Roland is frightened and confused by Miriam Cornell, his 22-year-old teacher: “Round-faced, erect, perfumed, strict. Her beauty lay concealed behind her manner. She never scowled or smiled. Some boys said she was mad, but he doubted that.” He’s overcome by her rosewater scent. “Her arm was firm and warm against his shoulder, her hands, her painted nails, were right above his lap. He felt a terrible tingling draining his attention.” After he stumbles again and again over the same note, she punishes him, a moment that will change his life:
Her fingers found his inside leg, just at the hem of his grey shorts, and pinched him hard. That night there would be a tiny blue bruise. Her touch was cool as her hand moved up under his shorts to where the elastic of his pants met his skin. He scrambled off the stool and stood, flushed.
Roland doesn’t know it yet, and it will take him half a lifetime to face it, but that hand sliding up under his shorts is a sexual assault. Miriam is grooming him, and three years later, when he’s 14, they embark on a torrid two-year affair—“erotic bliss” for the teenage child, and for Miriam, too. They are in love, or so they believe. At 16, Roland manages to break away, jolted by the creeping realization that Miriam is, after all, mad.
The scene at the piano, an example of the forensic realism McEwan has perfected, is vivid and convincing. It also sows confusion. A young woman abusing a boy? “I wanted to write about the victim,” McEwan explains. “If I’d done it the usual way, I’d have to ‘culturally appropriate’ a woman.” (The quotation marks are audible, just barely.) He adds that there are of course far more instances of boys being abused by older men. “I could have done it that way, but the sex I know from the inside is heterosexual. So I wasn’t going to appropriate gay experience either.”
Not wholly satisfied with his explanation and aware, perhaps, that it might sound impatient or prickly, he begins again: “I want to go deep into this, the actual seduction scene. The permanence of the experience in memory takes its shape from the fact that, inappropriately, love and desire were aroused in Roland—and that longing is always there. However angry he might be with her, or however much he tries to run away from the thoughts, there was at some point a total obsession and desire, which he thought at the time was his own choice.”
After noting that the novel offers no final judgment on Miriam’s actions, McEwan delivers a verdict, slowly, clearly, as if for the record: “Anyone who activates sexual longing in a child is crossing the line into something resembling rape. Even if it isn’t rape, it’s not consensual; it cannot be consensual, because Roland, at 14, is a child.” The damage is enduring. Two decades later, when Roland is told that his piano teacher “rewired” his brain, he recognizes the appalling accuracy of the diagnosis.
The next great turning point in his life occurs soon after he has overcome his trauma-induced aversion to commitment and married a half-German woman, Alissa, an aspiring writer. They have a son, Lawrence, who is only seven months old when Alissa vanishes, leaving a cryptic note saying she’s been “living the wrong life.” She deserts Roland and the baby in order to write, “consumed by an ambition for which she was ready to suffer and make others suffer too.” She goes on to become Germany’s leading novelist, a best-selling author with a formidable international reputation—and a “defiantly realist” voice that might as well be McEwan’s. Lawrence, meanwhile, remains motherless. The child has no memory of Alissa, doesn’t know where she is or why she left. As for poor, jilted Roland, “the common tightly encircled fate of single mothers was his.”
Alissa abandoning her baby boy and years later ending the marriage with bloodless efficiency (“papers prepared by German and English lawyers, paid for by Alissa”) is the opposite of what happened to McEwan. His 13-year marriage to Penny Allen, a spiritual counselor and freelance writer, fell apart in 1994. She fought to keep custody of their two sons, a fight she lost—and in the midst of losing, she absconded with the younger boy, who was then 13. The tragicomic episode was recounted with glee in British newspapers delighted to see a celebrated author endure a grim plot twist straight out of his own fiction: His third novel, The Child in Time (1987), begins with a toddler’s abduction.
In his 60s, Roland goes to a lecture on Robert Lowell and his sonnet sequence The Dolphin—“the larger subject was the ruthlessness of artists,” hence the draw. Roland hears how in these poems Lowell cruelly used and misused the misery of his discarded wife, Elizabeth Hardwick. After the lecture, a woman in the audience argues that Lowell’s cruelty fits a recognized pattern of masculine behavior: male artists who abandon their responsibilities toward their families and hide “behind the demands of their high calling, their art.” Women artists who do the same, she notes, are harshly condemned.
Three pages on the Lowell scandal might seem like an unnecessary digression (or a clunky way to address another gender flip), yet McEwan knits the episode into the fabric of the novel with a characteristic dither from Roland, who decides he will stand up in the lecture hall and say, “I am a male Hardwick.” And then doesn’t do it: “The moment passed … Roland began to doubt himself.” Here again, comparison with McEwan’s experience is instructive. In October 2014, when he was speaking at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, he was heckled from the back of the audience by his ex-wife, fodder for more newspaper headlines.
McEwan didn’t respond to Allen’s heckling and offered no comment to the press. I’ve been interviewing him on and off for 30-odd years, and reading him for longer (a few years ago, he proposed that I write his biography), and I know without asking that McEwan won’t talk on or off the record about his ex-wife. In 1999, a High Court judge in London issued an injunction preventing Allen from commenting on their marriage—and he in turn observes a self-imposed silence with regards to her. The counterlife of Lessons echoes loudly with her absence.
About literature, McEwan is always ready to talk. “Novels at their best name the world,” he tells me, not for the first time. His stubborn devotion to realism is at once a strength and a weakness; it risks making him seem old-fashioned and conventional, too tidy, too slick. He names the world, but of course can’t apprehend it with unimpeachable objectivity, his worldview distorted by the usual suspects: race, gender, sexual preference, socioeconomic status. A militantly empirical, science-minded secular humanist, he’s happy to declare that materialism is “the most freeing of worldviews” and unafraid to bash religiosity: “The word spiritual,” he told me nearly 20 years ago, “I just don’t understand what people mean. I hear that word and I reach for my gun.” His realism rests on certainty tempered by an acute awareness of contingency—and by empathy, a novelist’s indispensable attribute. But can empathy wholly compensate for an ingrained point of view, a nexus of obdurate personal bias and cherished belief? Even assuming that the world he wants to name is one we all recognize, how can he be confident that language carries meaning without spillage or slippage? Readers on the lookout for confirmation of radical, existential doubt and fans of the avant-garde thrilled by the instability of language should pluck books from a different shelf.
But readers who prefer an author who says, in essence, This is who we are, how we live; this is the condition of our modernity will recognize the authority stamped on McEwan’s sentences. Lessons begins, “This was insomniac memory, not a dream.” Even as he explores what might have been, life’s mysterious bifurcations, he’s still saying, We are on firm ground here; the way forward will be clearly signposted. “It’s part of his mastery as a novelist,” says his old friend and fellow novelist Julian Barnes, who read an advance copy of Lessons. “Already, in the first few pages, you think, Ah, I’m back with Ian, back with his high intelligence and his clear style—you know that he knows what he’s doing and you’ll be in good hands.”
After an hour’s conversation, McEwan suggests we take a stroll through the grounds. Below neatly tended terraced gardens—masses of roses, delphiniums, poppies, the riot of color intensified by the buzzing of wild bees—is a large pond with a jetty and a rowboat. Grass meadows spill into an unspoiled, thickly wooded valley. There are nine acres in all and, hidden away, sequestered by tall yew hedges, an infinity pool with a view over the valley. At the edge of the pond he frets over a variety of water lily that’s spread too quickly, then turns back to look up at the house, the limestone glowing warm in the bright sunshine. He bought the property a decade ago with his second wife, Annalena McAfee, a newspaper editor turned novelist whom he married in 1997. Clearly still surprised that he owns it, he mentions the fact that his parents, like Annalena’s, came from working-class backgrounds. It’s a Gatsby moment—McEwan taking note of how far he’s traveled. His father left school to become a butcher’s boy; his mother worked as a chambermaid. He was the first in the family to be educated beyond the age of 16. Growing up, neither he nor Annalena could have dreamed of living in such a house.
Lessons is his way of acknowledging what he calls “the colossal degree of the accidental.” A hard pinch on his thigh and he might have been Roland—who is himself keenly aware that his haphazard life is a fortunate one. Here he is in Berlin, staring down into the white-tiled basement cells of the demolished Gestapo headquarters:
The accidental fortune was beyond calculation, to have been born in 1948 in placid Hampshire, not Ukraine or Poland in 1928, not to have been dragged from the synagogue steps in 1941 and brought here. His white-tiled cell—a piano lesson, a premature love affair, a missed education, a missing wife—was by comparison a luxury suite. If his life so far was a failure, as he often thought, it was in the face of history’s largesse.
Lessons measures the distance between a Gestapo cell and Roland’s cluttered, rotting house in Clapham (McEwan lived in a house in Clapham for five years, some of that time with Allen and her two daughters from a previous marriage). I can’t help measuring the further distance between a Gestapo cell and an infinity pool in the Cotswolds.
Back in the house and nursing a cup of tea, he traces the overlap between his life and Roland’s. “My Libyan childhood; the tension between my parents, never acknowledged; the split in the family—again, no one ever said it was a split in the family—all of that is pretty much as I remember it. I’ve never really written about it, except tangentially.”
The split in the McEwan family predates Ian’s birth. His mother, Rose, was married to a man named Ernest Wort, with whom she had two children. While Ernest was overseas fighting in the Second World War, Rose had an affair with another soldier, David McEwan, a sergeant major who’d been wounded at Dunkirk. She got pregnant and in 1942 gave birth to a baby boy whom she gave away after placing a classified ad in a local newspaper: “Wanted, home for baby boy, age 1 month; complete surrender.” Her husband died in 1944, from injuries sustained in combat, and in 1947 the widowed Rose married David. Their affair and the baby they surrendered completely were kept secret. Ian, like Roland, was born in 1948.
Although for two decades they lived no more than 15 miles apart, neither brother knew of the other’s existence. Then in 2002 a man named David Sharp contacted McEwan and his half-siblings and told them his story, which he’d pieced together first through finding the newspaper ad, then with the help of a tracing service run by the Salvation Army, and finally thanks to Rose’s sister, who confirmed that Rose had handed her baby over to a couple named Sharp on a railway-station platform in 1942. The Sharps, also working-class, had provided young David with a happy childhood. At age 14 he learned that he’d been adopted; the next year he left school to become a bricklayer. No wonder McEwan muses on lives he might have led.
His earliest years (and Roland’s) were spent on army bases abroad, including the six years in Libya, after which he was sent to Woolverstone Hall, a boarding school in Suffolk some 90 miles northeast of London. His parents were eager for him to have the education they’d missed out on. “It was an extraordinary semi-experimental school,” he remembers, “mostly working-class kids from central London, from what they used to call broken families.” It was a selective state school, but the McEwans paid no tuition. His piano teacher was a woman and his playing showed promise. (“She never laid a finger on me,” he says flatly.) He gave up the piano, a fork in the road, as he sees it: “If I’d continued, I might never have become a writer. I was so shy, I would have sunk into the piano.”
Woolverstone Hall provided a solid education. “In 1966, at the age of 18, I was well grounded in the canon as it then stood, unchallenged, from Chaucer through to T. S. Eliot.” He might have gone on to study English at King’s College, Cambridge, except for a humiliating stumble in his interview. (He tried to bluff his way through a question about Macbeth, which he’d yet to read; asked point-blank if he’d read the play, he confessed, and was so mortified that he refused to say another word.)
Instead he went to the University of Sussex, newly established and with fresh ideas about how to read literature: Interdisciplinary study was encouraged, historical context taken into consideration. “I got things at Sussex I never would have got at Cambridge: Kafka, Freud, Bruno Schulz, and historiography—Frederick Jackson Turner and Jacob Burckhardt.” It was his reading of Kafka, Freud, and Schulz, with Thomas Mann and others thrown into the mix, that started him writing. He was admitted to a brand-new master’s program in literature at the University of East Anglia, where he had the option of submitting a creative-writing thesis. During his year there, he wrote most of his first book, a collection of stories called First Love, Last Rites (1975).
Published just after he turned 27, the stories thrust McEwan into the thick of mid-1970s literary London. Barnes recalls, “I reviewed First Love in the New Statesman with such enthusiasm that I ended up in Private Eye’s Pseuds Corner”—where the satirical magazine reprints pretentious, pseudo-intellectual quotations plucked from elsewhere in the media. “Fortunately,” Barnes adds, “I hadn’t met him at that point, but I met him shortly afterwards. We were both hanging around Ian Hamilton’s New Review. I was writing a column, and Ian was sending in brilliant short stories that were too disgusting for other outlets to print.”
Barnes isn’t kidding about the stories being disgusting. Rape, incest, pornography, rotting corpses, bestiality, child abuse, more child abuse (the vulnerability of children is one of McEwan’s great topics), murder, murderous fantasies—this is the stuff of his first four books, two of which, The Cement Garden (1978) and The Comfort of Strangers (1981), were novels. These sensational early works were designed to shock, and did. The biographer Hermione Lee, McEwan’s exact contemporary, recalls “a breathtaking talent leaping into the literary world. Everyone was talking about it; everyone was astounded by it.” Lee attended one or two of the Friday lunches at the Pillars of Hercules on Greek Street, the unofficial headquarters of The New Review, where an “affable and competitive” coterie of male writers (among them McEwan, Barnes, Hamilton, Martin Amis, Craig Raine, and Clive James) ate and talked and drank and drank some more. She remembers “the rough and tumble of Clive James holding forth and Ian Hamilton being sour and dour and brilliant, and McEwan always quietly, beautifully polite and thoughtful. It was a paradox: There was the gentle, attentive, mild-seeming person that one met, and the scalpel-like, ghoulish precision of that early work.” Wowed by the black humor, the kinkiness, the menace, the British press bestowed a nickname: Ian McAbre.
Four books in the space of six years, great reviews, respectable sales—when I mention this fast start, McEwan seems to sink deeper into the couch. “The gothic early works,” he says wearily. “They were like baby steps, a small dark patch I inhabited for a while—and then got very claustrophobic. I had to move on. It has no interest for me now.”
During an astonishing 20-year stretch from 1987 (The Child in Time) to 2007 (On Chesil Beach), he published eight novels, nearly all extravagantly praised best sellers. Little trace of the gothic remained, in its place a new engagement with the wider world. Mature McEwan was morally aware, socially responsible, politically committed. In the 1980s, as part of the European Nuclear Disarmament movement, he visited Eastern Bloc countries with the left-wing historian E. P. Thompson and met with Russian antinuclear dissidents, a trip that informed his thinking-person’s thriller, The Innocent (1990), set in Cold War Berlin. (Roland, too, joins the movement; he attends lectures by Thompson.) In 1998, McEwan won the Booker Prize for Amsterdam; a couple of years later, the Queen appointed him Commander of the Order of the British Empire.
During those same two decades, films were made of The Comfort of Strangers, The Innocent, Enduring Love, and Atonement. More recently, On Chesil Beach and The Children Act (2014) have been adapted for the screen, with McEwan himself writing the scripts.
As if to assure us that his long winning streak is significant, that McEwan will enjoy a healthy literary afterlife, the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas paid $2 million for his papers in 2014. So far the archive consists of 71 document boxes, 12 computer discs, and a hard drive.
Some McEwan novels seem to me unlikely to last: the absurdly plotted Amsterdam ; Solar (2010), overstuffed with heavy-handed humor; and the glib and tricksy Sweet Tooth (2012). If McEwan has staying power, I believe it will be fueled by two novels from that golden 20-year span: Black Dogs (1992), a neglected gem, and Atonement (2001), widely hailed as his masterpiece. And now, Lessons.
Black Dogs is a novel of ideas pitting rationalism against spiritualism and encompassing the Holocaust and the fall of the Berlin Wall. It also harkens back to the author’s gothic phase. At the climax of the tale, McEwan zooms in on the open jaws of the eponymous canines with signature hyperrealism: “the alien black gums, slack black lips rimmed by salt, a thread of saliva breaking, the fissures on a tongue that ran to smoothness along its curling edge.” The dogs are incarnations of evil, “spirit hounds”—symbols of man’s stunning capacity for merciless cruelty, and yet they remain stubbornly real, a flesh-and-blood threat. The novel ends with a prophecy that has, alas, already been fulfilled: “They will return to haunt us, somewhere in Europe, in another time.”
Atonement, McEwan’s finest, most complex novel, is about love, war, and storytelling. A triptych followed by a coda, it begins on a crushingly hot summer’s day in 1935 on the grounds of an English country house. Then suddenly we’re in Northern France, witnessing the British Expeditionary Force’s shambolic military retreat to Dunkirk in May 1940. Our last stop is a London hospital ward filled with grievously wounded Allied soldiers. The three panels, all gorgeous, are radically different from one another, though the writing is uniformly rich, elegant, and precise.
The wizardry of Atonement is only fully revealed in the coda, where we discover that all of the marvelous writing that precedes it is the lifework of Briony Tallis, whom we first met as a precocious 13-year-old on that summer’s day in 1935. Although just a child at the time, Briony committed a terrible crime: She bore false witness. Her lifelong project, the book we’ve just read, is an attempt at atonement requiring bold, imaginative engagement, a fearless leap into bighearted empathy. Or, as she puts it in describing the project of the realist novel, “Like policemen in a search team, we go on hands and knees and crawl our way towards the truth.” With the coda, McEwan transforms the triptych into one sumptuous tapestry and reaffirms the author’s moral imperative, as he sees it: the duty to write well, in good faith, and to bear truthful witness.
Lessons bears witness to another crime and its consequences. If Miriam Cornell hadn’t slipped her hand up under Roland’s shorts, he might have had a career as a concert pianist. Instead he plays “munch music” in the tearoom of a Mayfair hotel, “old favorites discreetly rendered so as not to disturb tranquil chat over Earl Grey tea and crustless sandwiches.” When Alissa absconds, he’s trying to establish himself as a poet; instead, he writes for in-flight magazines. Later he works for a start-up greeting-card company, “pouring out wised-up doggerel—on behalf of birthdays, anniversaries, newly-weds, retirees, recovering drug addicts and alcoholics, ingoing hospital patients, outgoing neonates.”
A worse fate awaits. Three and a half years after she disappears, in an alleyway in East Berlin, as the Wall is falling, Alissa hands him the English proof of her first novel. A few hours later, back in his hotel room, he reads the first paragraph. “He paused, read it again, and groaned. He read five pages and stopped, went back and read them again—and groaned.” The book is excellent. “How much easier it would have been if she had deserted her son and husband to write a mediocre novel.” He sees at once that she will achieve a kind of greatness. “The prose was beautiful, crisp, artful, the tone from the first lines had authority and intelligence. The eye was exact, unforgiving, compassionate.” That description points to a further irony: The wife who abandoned poor Roland writes like the author who consigned him to a career cranking out wised-up doggerel. I ask McEwan whether he had in mind a model for Alissa and her “rich and warm-blooded rationality.” He confirms my suspicion, a faint smile playing on his lips: “I would love to have the reader of Lessons have Roland’s response to reading Alissa.”
Despite the envious groans, despite the thwarted ambition, despite yet another tragic twist in the tale of his protracted sentimental education, Roland’s life is not a misery. Uncomplaining, he endures the common fate: aging parents, dying parents, his own aging body betraying him, aching knees, a cardiac scare. With a light touch, McEwan captures the condition of late middle age: “These grown-up children were at that hinge of life when parents must begin to shrink and fold.” The source of Roland’s greatest satisfaction is his loose-knit family, his son and his son’s children, late-acquired stepchildren and their children—he’s a paterfamilias, loved and loving. As McEwan points out, “I gave Roland my schizoid sense of private happiness and public foreboding.” Here’s Roland in his 70s having supper with his son and daughter-in-law, the children already tucked in bed:
The windows were open to the warm night air. The three spoke and listened easily, intimately. It often happened like this, Roland thought, the world was wobbling badly on its axis … Parts of the world were burning or drowning. Simultaneously, in the old-fashioned glow of close family … he experienced happiness that could not be dispelled, even by rehearsing every looming disaster … It made no sense.
McEwan, too, basks in the old-fashioned glow of family. Both of his sons are fathers now, and he remains close—his troubles with Allen notwithstanding—to his two stepdaughters. Unlike the reclusive Alissa, he has never had to suffer for his ambition. He’s had his cake and eaten it. Lessons reckons with his great good luck—not smugly, but with the same forensic detachment he displayed as Ian McAbre. Back then he was dissecting depravity; now it’s our capacity for contentment and our stubborn urge to create.
Ray Dolan, McEwan’s close friend, a neuroscientist at University College London, says Lessons has a “valedictory” air. Barnes agrees: “It’s a summing up of Ian’s life”—a startling claim, given the gulf between Roland and Ian. Barnes wrote a running commentary as he read, emailing McEwan four times with updates. In his final email he wrote, “I won’t say Lessons feels like a Last Novel, but it wouldn’t be the worst thing if it were. Not that I wish death or ideas failure upon you, of course.”
McEwan is certain he will write another novel—maybe several more—before death or ideas failure silences him. He’s not yet done naming the world—taking stock, as Roland so often does, of life trajectories and the blind rush of history.
This article appears in the October 2022 print edition with the headline “Ian McEwan’s Counterlife.”
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