The sweet taste of success
Ian McEwan’s new work weaves espionage and love into the decadence and decay of 1970s London and it forms a kind of personal memoir of a time he found magical, he tells ARMINTA WALLACE
IAN McEWAN ARRIVES into the bright, book-filled boardroom at publishers Random House, smiling despite the fact that it’s mid-afternoon and he has had a day of being grilled about his new novel, Sweet Tooth. He is affable and courteous. He speaks in complete, beautifully formed sentences. But he also has a way of repeating certain questions slowly, sotto voce, while raising his eyes to the well-appointed ceiling and, on occasion, adding an apparently innocent but faintly disparaging “mweh” to the mix that makes the interviewer’s heart sink to the equally well-appointed floor.
The interviewer, of course, might simply be intimidated by her own head, which is crammed with brilliant snippets from McEwan’s back catalogue. The eerie scene at the opening of Enduring Love, when the hot-air balloon floats silently across the sky. The body chopped and crammed into a suitcase in The Innocent. Almost any passage from the dazzling climate-change extravaganza, Solar. There is, however, an added problem in talking about Sweet Tooth: with his 15th slice of fiction, McEwan has written a novel about which it’s difficult to say anything at all without giving the narrative game away. He laughs.
“Well, you can just treat it as ‘Serena’s story’,” he suggests.
Let’s do that. Sweet Tooth is the story of Serena Frome (“rhymes with plume”, as the opening paragraph observes tartly). The beautiful daughter of an Anglican bishop, she is recruited by MI5 and sent off to sweet-talk a young writer called Tom Haley into accepting secret-service sponsorship as part of a delightfully hare-brained battle in the cultural cold war.
McEwan’s fictions tend to be rich in cognitively interesting non-fictional stuff – evolutionary psychology in Enduring Love, the mechanics of musical composition in Amsterdam, neuroscience in Saturday – and Sweet Tooth is full of real-life spy stories such as the second World War caper, Operation Mincemeat. “It was devised and executed by a string of novelists,” McEwan explains. “The idea came from a novel that was read by Ian Fleming and was passed on to another novelist on a secret committee in Whitehall. It was executed in Spain by an Oxford don who wrote detective novels. It had all the ingenuity and forward movement of something really invented for a purpose.”
By the 1970s, however, something was rotten in the British secret services; hence the title, Sweet Tooth. The plan to secretly fund a group of academics, plus a historian and a novelist, has “a kind of pointless whiff of corruption” about it, says McEwan.
Although it is gloriously readable and, at times, wickedly funny, Sweet Tooth is not – or not just – an espionage thriller. It is also a love story; and, on top of that, “a muted, or transmuted, memoir of myself as a young writer”.
Like his fictional novelist Tom Haley, McEwan graduated from Sussex University in the 1970s. Was he ever approached by a beautiful female spy? “No,” is the blunt reply. “I don’t know whether you believe me – there’s no reason you should – but I was not employable. I would probably have been rather brusque in my refusal of the security services.”
In full-on McEwan fashion, the novel evokes the sociopolitical ambience of the decade. “The archaic word ‘strife’ was in heavy use in those rackety days, with inflation provoking strikes, pay settlements driving inflation, thick-headed, two-bottle-lunch management, bloody-minded unions with insurrectionary ambitions, weak government, energy crises and power cuts, skinheads, filthy streets, the Troubles, nukes. Decadency, decay, decline, dull inefficiency and apocalypse . . .”
Given the grottiness of the period, wasn’t the author at all reluctant to spend a couple of years back there, researching and writing a novel? He smiles fondly. “Well, I was 22 in 1970,” he says. “So my 20s were all played out in the 1970s.” He emerged from college, went travelling in Afghanistan, and published his first book of stories. In 1974, he moved to London, and fell in with the literary group that revolved around the poet and publisher Ian Hamilton at the Pillars of Hercules pub in Soho. “I met Martin Amis and the New Statesman crew; Julian Barnes, James Fenton and Christopher Hitchens. Nearly all the friendships that are important to me now were made in those times. So for me it was a magical time; but that magic was played out against a backdrop of almost perpetual crisis.