by Ian McEwan.
Cape, 486 pp., £20, September, 978 1 78733 397 0
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It must​ be tough to be an English novelist. Or at least a certain type of English novelist, of a certain English vintage, from a certain English background. There are duties to uphold, expectations to fulfil. It’s easy to be embarrassed to be English, embarrassed by privilege, entitlement and insular prejudice. It’s easy to feel guilt by association. Oddly, this means that the caricature of Englishness – the condition of being awkward, self-abasing, endlessly apologetic – is much closer to the experience of being English than you would expect from a caricature.

Ian McEwan’s new novel is as English as they come. The ‘lessons’ of the title aren’t meant to be lessons in how to write an English novel, but they might as well be: it’s the sort of book only an English man of a certain age would set out to write – and the sort of book such a man will one day inevitably write if he’s fully committed to his role. It’s not an autobiography, but it’s close, much closer than the ‘autobiographical novel’ usually is, or than ‘autofiction’ is. Autofiction typically shows what it’s like to exist in a single period of life through an assembly of indicative moments. Instead, like a biography of Dickens or Byron, this book is nearly cradle to grave: it describes sixty years of a life from the perspective of a man who wants to know what accidents led him to be where and who he is. It’s a reminiscence, sometimes fond, sometimes self-flagellating – and, for large stretches, it’s properly, Englishly, boring.

The protagonist, Roland Baines, was born in June 1948, which makes him the same age as Ian McEwan and a few months older than King Charles. Like McEwan, he spent his earliest years in Tripoli – his father, like McEwan’s, was posted there as a British army officer – and was sent back aged eleven to an England still shaped by the war, for a boarding school education at the hands of teachers who had experienced ‘service’: ‘The world war remained a presence, a shadow, but also a light, the source of virtue and meaning.’ The headmaster is a ‘genial, decent bumbling sort of fellow, a rugby blue who was known to call his wife by the name of George’. These teachers may look formidable in their black gowns but they’re kindly enough, insisting on the spirit of fairness. Of course, as McEwan is keen to let his younger readers know, corporal punishment still took place in this era, and ‘the honourable thing was to take your beating with a look of insouciance and without making a sound.’ The stirrings of the 1960s are beginning to make themselves felt, however, and on an excursion to see the B-52 bombers at the nearby RAF Lakenheath – McEwan’s fictional school, Berners, is just outside Ipswich, on the same spot as his own alma mater, Woolverstone Hall – some of the older boys wear CND badges. This small act of defiance earns them a caning, as it must, but no serious penalty: after all, they were only doing what they thought was right – and that’s all one can ask.

The guiding principles of the school – that you should do your best, that it’s all right just to be good enough, that you should never complain or make a fuss – seem to inform the rest of Roland’s life. It’s a condition of the English boarding school education, as it wishes itself to be, that it should be formative, providing experiences that will stand you in good stead throughout adulthood. Traditionally, of course, these experiences include things like the group masturbation session Roland remembers: ‘The two boys removed their pyjama bottoms. Roland had never seen pubic hair before or a mature penis or an erection. At a shout the two began to masturbate in a frenzy, a blur of pumping fists,’ with the winner being the one to ‘orgasm first, perhaps furthest’. It isn’t obvious what sort of adulthood this particular life lesson is meant to prepare you for – but who’s to argue with education?

The Roland who was formed at Berners will always be a Berners boy at heart. He didn’t excel: ‘At school he was usually two-thirds the way down the class and exam lists, with termly reports of “satisfactory” and “could do better”.’ And mediocrity follows him. As the novel progresses – as Roland moves through his thirties, forties, fifties and sixties, from a Brixton bedsit to a little house in Clapham to a late Georgian villa in Finsbury – it becomes clear that, despite increasing material comfort, in no area of his life will he ever have the success he hoped for. He wants to write poems, and gets a handful published in small magazines – but ends up repurposing lines of inspirational verse for a greetings card company. He tries his hand at journalism – but gets no further than pieces for Time Out and in-flight magazines. He could have been a concert pianist – but ends up playing lunchtime jazz for the elderly regulars at an unfashionable Mayfair hotel. He wasn’t a bad tennis player – but his plans to coach children across the sectarian divide in Northern Ireland come to nothing, so he makes do with giving lessons to the over-eighties at the public courts in Regent’s Park.

Failure, in fiction, is a promise. It’s a promise of action. A person is called a failure when the world has failed them: left them behind, made them invisible, forced them underground, frustrated them at every turn. But because this is fiction they won’t take it lying down. They can’t. You want them to fight, you want them to scream. You want them to get up and bury an axe in someone’s head. At first, there are signs that Roland might be just this sort of promising failure. In the 1980s, when he’s living in ‘a cramped dump of a house’, we’re told that he is ‘precisely and self-pityingly unhappy’. Except is he, really? Maybe he’s having us on. Roland seems strikingly, perplexingly, unmiserable about where he’s landed. He knows he’s ordinary, middle of the road, but bears it stoically, as a Berners boy should. Ten years on, when he’s 47, he reflects: ‘Nothing achieved. What happened to the tune he had started to write more than thirty years ago and was going to send to the Beatles? Nothing. What had he made since? Nothing, beyond a million tennis strokes, a thousand renditions of “Climb Every Mountain”.’ He’s weary, perhaps, disappointed certainly – but that’s just the way things are, and it’s almost nice to accept it. ‘How easy it was to drift through an unchosen life, in a succession of reactions to events,’ he thinks, as if surrendering himself to mediocrity’s warm embrace. He’s a failure even at being a failure. He’s not Oblomov, who turns passivity into an artform – he’s far too sensible and English for that.

Ian McEwan isn’t Roland Baines. Two books of racy, shocking short stories, First Love, Last Rites and In between the Sheets, published by the time he was thirty; one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists at 35; Booker winner at fifty. Atonement (2001) sold two million copies; by the time McEwan was sixty it had become an Oscar-winning movie starring Keira Knightley and Saoirse Ronan. It’s only natural for a man in his seventies who has attained such heights to want to look back at the hill he climbed. He has earned a memoir, and is secure enough to pull it off in modestly fictionalised form, in spite of its being so out of tune with the times: the boarding school upbringing, the tales from the margins of the London literary scene, the dinner party conversations about the end of the Cold War and the coming of New Labour. McEwan is also self-aware enough, and practised enough at reading his audience, to know that if people much younger than him, or less English than him, are to tolerate the inevitable longueurs they have to feel like they’re learning something. A life lived through and beyond the second half of the 20th century is, after all, an opportunity to share an understanding of those decades – or at least of the way they were seen by people of a certain background who moved in certain circles in a certain country on the north-west edge of Europe.

Lessons also seeks to be a history of the age. ‘In settled expansive mood Roland occasionally reflected on the events and accidents, personal and global, minuscule and momentous that had formed and determined his existence. His case was not special – all fates are similarly constituted.’ School, jobs, relationships, the people he has known and the troubles he’s had: all of them are part of what’s made him who he is. But, McEwan wants to say, he’s been shaped just as much – exactly as much – by world-scale dramas, the public happenings we think of as defining the postwar century. So, as the decades roll by, each of these Big Moments gets equal billing with the latest developments in Roland’s mildly disastrous private life.

Suez Crisis, 1956: eight-year-old Roland, in Libya with his father the army major, is confined for his safety to a British military camp and plays football on the grassless pitch and climbs the scaffold towers to chat to the machine-gun crews, though with half a thought to the murderous Arabs who might overrun the place at any moment. Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962: Roland, in his fourth year at school, plants fir trees with the Young Farmers Club while worrying about the fact that, as Mr Corner the biology teacher informed them, their bodies are 93 per cent water and would be vaporised in a flash. Chernobyl, 1986: Roland, at 38, is pinned to a rocking chair trying not to wake his newborn son while unable to dismiss the fear that the plastic sheeting he’s taped over the windows won’t keep out the radioactive cloud currently consuming Europe. Fall of the Wall, 1989: Roland decides to be there as it happens and is swept up in the crowd of West Berliners flowing triumphantly through the breach. This time it’s not anxiety that overcomes him but hope: ‘The grim settlement of the Second World War was ended. A peaceful Germany would be united. The Russian Empire was dissolving without bloodshed … The nuclear menace was over. The great disarmament could begin.’

At least there’s irony in this assessment. Generally, the history lessons inserted to assist the reader are of the sort that might have scraped Roland a pass in his O level: ‘Across the Middle East, Arab nationalism was a growing political force whose immediate enemy were the colonial and ex-colonial European powers. The new Jewish state of Israel, set on land Palestinians knew as their own, was also a goad.’ As an account of the last sixty years, Lessons is an embarrassment – so it’s fortunate that, being a psychologically minded novelist, McEwan has designs for his potted summaries that go beyond their manifest content. Having insisted that the world’s Big Events determine the course of a life as surely as weddings and funerals, he proves his case by making his will-o’-the-wisp of an alter ego more than ordinarily susceptible to the winds of change. Roland is a bundle of nerves. In 1986, not everyone trembled at rumours that the government was lying when it said radiation had settled in the North-West not the South-East, queued up fruitlessly at pharmacies in search of the potassium iodide that was supposed to protect the thyroid against Caesium-137, bought gallons of bottled water because ‘reservoirs would be irradiated, tap water must be avoided.’ Roland admits he’s ‘unhinged’, has ‘joined the retreat from reason’. He’s a scaredy cat because the fiction requires him to be: how else to register the full force of the events that sweep him up?

But threats of radiation poisoning and nuclear Armageddon are peanuts compared to his two most significant formative – or deformative – experiences. One: he was sexually exploited between the ages of eleven and fifteen by his twenty-something piano teacher. Two: shortly after the birth of their child, his wife suddenly disappeared without trace, leading the police to suspect him of her murder. If it weren’t for such dramatically extreme events, Roland would be exactly what he appears to be: a big fat zero. But McEwan has given him two excellent excuses for not having made the most of his life. Roland Baines may not be Ian McEwan – he wishes! – but only Ian McEwan could have created Roland Baines, whose very ordinary existence is abruptly and brutally deranged, twice.

Derangement,​ violence, the startling irruption of danger or threat into what would otherwise be an unruffled life: in one form or another, the unpredicted terrible instant that changes everything is what makes McEwan tick. In The Child in Time (1987), the single moment is the kidnap, on a trip to the supermarket, of a three-year-old girl, which will forever alter her father’s life. In Enduring Love (1997), it’s the balloon accident of the opening pages, a horror that in real time happens in minutes but which in narrative time is described with unbearable slowness, a picture frozen and described from every angle, its every detail indelibly remembered and determining an inescapable future for everyone who was there. In On Chesil Beach (2007) – where the horror is of a different kind, since the disastrous wedding night is only experienced as horror by the wife who can’t even bear the intrusion of her new husband’s tongue when they kiss – the pivotal moment that derails two lives is distended even further, spanning chapters, each awful sexual touch agonisingly described.

But it’s not only their usefulness in a novel – as narrative motor, as accelerator of action – that makes McEwan return again and again to these moments of maximum thrill. It’s more like an addiction. They’ve been central to his fiction from the very beginning, and it’s in his earliest stories that they appear in their purest form. In First Love, Last Rites, one man rids himself of his blabbering wife by twisting her body apart, another casually slips a nine-year-old girl into a canal, and a boy decides to rape his little sister. Simple, vicious, unhesitating and, given that so many women are brutally violated, probably unpublishable now. However it’s complicated or dilated in the later fiction, the startling rupture is always, in essence, a repetition of the same inexplicable impulse: the shock attack – against normality, security, sanity.

McEwan isn’t a psychopath. But he can’t get the violent moment out of his mind. Why? Well, here’s my attempt at fathoming it. A writer of fiction is capable of looking at a situation, and in particular an encounter between people, from more than one point of view. Any assault on a person requires at least two actors: attacker and attackee. Whose mind is a writer occupying when they imagine such an attack? Both. But a writer is human, and (think of S&M) they might find it more natural, more familiar, to occupy one position rather than the other. If I had to call the toss – if it had to be either heads or tails – I’d wager that McEwan is a victim. He’s afraid of the monsters under the bed, the intruder in the night. Maybe conjuring up fantasies of wife-murderers and rapists is a way of summoning his demons in order to exorcise them. In The Comfort of Strangers (1981), set in an unnerving, uncanny version of Venice that might be taken from Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, there’s an actual maniac hiding in a cupboard whom the protagonists dispatch. In Saturday (2005), the successful, self-satisfied neurosurgeon Henry Perowne, who happens to live on the leafy London square where McEwan lived at the time, finds his home invaded, a family gathering despoiled and his daughter stripped naked, by a thug called Baxter and his sidekick, Nige. It’s the ultimate middle-class nightmare. Ian McEwan knows what it’s like to be Henry Perowne, who has everything he wants but can’t dispel the terror that it could be suddenly snatched away. And, despite divergences in worldly fortune, he knows what it’s like to be Roland Baines. A little bit boring, and quite a lot scared.

Lessons repeatedly poses versions of the same basic question: if x hadn’t happened, then would we have y? ‘If Colonel Nasser had not nationalised the Suez Canal, and if British elites were not still immersed in dreams of empire and determined to take back their short cut to the Far East, then Roland would not have spent a rapturous week of play in a military camp.’ Logical enough, that one, but it gets more elaborate: ‘If Khrushchev had not placed nuclear missiles on Cuba and Kennedy had not ordered a naval blockade of the island, Roland would not have biked to Erwarton, to Miriam Cornell’s cottage that Saturday morning.’ It’s all quite Sliding Doors: one missed train, one little thing leading to another in a relentless chain of consequences, until two diametrically opposed possible Gwyneth Paltrows are conjured into being, each the logically inevitable product of that single, fateful, trivial event. One Gwyneth missed the train and one didn’t, and that made all the difference.

Roland himself is always aware of his alternative possible selves. Through the offices of a nice man at the Salvation Army, he finds out that one of them actually exists: Robert Cove, an older brother he never knew, his parents’ illegitimate child, given up for adoption at a time when the darkest English secret was to admit that a serving soldier might be sleeping with another man’s wife. Roland arranges to meet Robert in a nondescript suburban pub. ‘Sitting alone at a table with the remains of a glass of red wine was a version of himself, not quite a mirror image, but Roland as he would have been after a different life, another set of choices.’ They could be twins! Accidents of upbringing and circumstance have left their mark: Roland is a bit tubbier, without Robert’s workman’s hands. ‘It was the Multiple Worlds theory made real, a privileged glimpse into one of the infinite possibilities of himself that were fancifully supposed to exist in parallel and inaccessible domains.’ The chasm between them only makes sense when you take into account the subtleties of English class difference: Robert, a retired carpenter-joiner and fan of Reading football club; Roland, a lounge-bar pianist who drops into the occasional lecture at Somerset House.

But what has really made Roland Roland – not a carpenter-joiner or a world-renowned writer – is wrapped up in a single, vast, life-changing drama, back in those schooldays that turn a boy into a man. Miriam Cornell is his piano teacher, and it begins with a pinch. Roland stumbles on the notes, and Miss Cornell is not pleased. So ‘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.’ Roland submits. This single touch – the schoolboy’s electric fantasy – will stay with him for ever: ‘She had seeded herself into the fine grain not only of his psyche but of his biology. There was no orgasm without her. She was the spectre he could not live without.’ Everything devolves from this sudden, shocking, longed-for moment. Roland, naturally, can’t get enough of it, and he’s soon doing everything Miss Cornell requires: ‘The memory would never leave him. The bed was a double by the standards of the time, under five feet across. Two sets of two pillows. She sat against one set with her knees drawn up. While he was undressing she had taken off her cardigan and jeans. Her knickers, like her T-shirt, were green. Cotton, not silk.’ Oh, the teenager’s shivering dream!

Adult Roland considers the what-ifs. If he hadn’t spent every Saturday jumping into bed with Miriam then he wouldn’t have got eleven Fs at O level. He wouldn’t have spent the next forty years as a serial monogamist, with Diana, Naomi, Mireille, Alissa, Carol, Francesca, Daphne and the rest. He could have been something. But, being English, he’s not going to be all self-pitying and make a meal out of having been sexually abused as a child. After all, the memories are rather nice, and it can be pleasurable to be a victim.

Listen to Daniel Soar discuss this piece with Thomas Jones on the LRB Podcast.

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