The sweet taste of success
“I mean, five states of emergency in one parliament. We’d all be in hysterics now if there was a state of emergency. We’d go nuts. We’d think the world was going to come to an end.” Add in the high crime rates, the terrorism, the polarised politics “plus the revolving door of Heath and Wilson, neither of whom could get us out of the jam; both men were very tired, and the cold war was very tired”. He grins. “So. Irresistible, really, this period.”
AT THE ENDof Sweet Tooth, McEwan expresses gratitude “to David Cornwell for irresistible reminiscences”. What role did spymeister John le Carré play in the book’s genesis? “He kindly agreed to meet me for lunch and gave me, not so much specific things, but the atmosphere of MI5 in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The taste and flavour of the office life.”
Did it worry McEwan that if he recreated that flavour successfully, Sweet Tooth would end up tasting like a John le Carré novel? “I’d be very pleased if it would,” he says. “But I suppose my ambition was somewhat different. His novels are often about loyalty and betrayal. I had a slightly different ambition here in writing an account that merges a novel about the imagination as a sort of spying entity in itself, a love story and . . . a story about these overinflated institutions doing things that they didn’t need to be doing at all.”
The plot twist in Sweet Tooth seems designed to send the reader scurrying from the last page back to the first. “That would be very nice,” McEwan says. “When you read for the first time – I speak as a reader now, not as a writer – when you read a novel for the first time, you’re moving through it through eight, 12, 15 hours spread over, say, a week or two, with very little sense of its architecture. The pleasures of architecture are only ever evident on a second reading. That’s why we all would love to be considered twice in a row.”
His writing life has, he adds, been dominated by an awareness of two strands in writing, and two strands of desire in readers. “One is for the kind of novel that Serena loves, in which people recognise themselves and their own environment, and see recreated on the page the socially real. A documentary kind of quality, not fundamentally different in aesthetic from the 19th-century novel. Another strand has its roots in modernism and is postmodern in spirit; it reflects on its processes, interrogates its own meanings, and so on.
“Serena loves one, and Tom Haley loves the other. And I wanted them to love each other. So Sweet Tooth is an attempt to write the book that must please Serena, because there’s a marriage proposal, and that must please Tom, because the question of who holds the narrative power is withheld.”
Woven into the narrative are a number of stories by Haley, which Serena must read before she makes her financial approach to the young writer, and which the reader gets to read, as it were, over her shoulder. Did writing these make McEwan yearn to return to the writing of short stories, where he began with his first published collections First Love, Last Rites and In Between the Sheets? “Not really, no. I feel at the moment I’m too interested in what the novel can do,” he says. “But I do love the novella. The 80-page long story, somewhere between 20,000 and 40,000 words, I think is bliss for both writer and reader. “Publishers hate that length, of course,” he adds with a smile.
McEwan has written four short novels – The Cement Garden, The Comfort of Strangers, Black Dogs, and On Chesil Beach – and in Sweet Tooth he has fun producing a fleet of savagely satirical reviews of his hero’s prizewinning novella, From the Somerset Levels. Real-life reviewers will recognise, in these, their own put-downs of McEwan’s shorter works: “five-finger exercises”, and the like. “With a short book,” he says, “there’s always a faint accusation in the air that it’s a bit unmanly, and slightly dishonest. You get reviewers complaining that there are only 110 pages, and that the words are rather far apart, as if the writer had designed the typeface.