The master of literary menace
Interview: The anti-war demonstration in London on February 15th, 2003, was the biggest in the city's history. It was also the catalyst for Ian McEwan's new novel, he tells Penelope Dening.
Like the neurosurgeon at the heart of his new novel, Saturday, Ian McEwan appears to defy his chronological age.Although now closer to 60 then 50, he lopes ahead of me up the stairs with the ease of a 15-year old.
We meet in London in an upper room of a Soho Club whose clientele is as hard to pin down as McEwan himself.The master of literary menace, whose early novels made one fear for his long-term sanity, takes possession of the sofa with the self-assurance of a tennis coach, not a twitch of tension in his body, a happy, contented man.
In this, as in most everything else in Saturday, McEwan resembles his protagonist, neurosurgeon Henry Perowne.Both men may be past their physical prime but, in every other respect, life couldn't be better:squash players still, skilled amateur cooks living in some style in central London, uxorious hushands, fathers of two independent children. Both are at the peak of their profession: one earns his living dissecting diseased brains, while the other dissects the human psyche.
Until now, McEwan admits to having rather disdained novelists who write about their own lives. "Surely, I thought, the whole business is to make things up. But then I decided to do what Saul Bellow did in Herzog, which is a novel I have huge admiration for. People around Bellow at the time were very upset - his ex-wife, his lawyer - they're all in there. But it doesn't bother us, because they're all faded in history and distance." Perowne, he concedes, is "a slightly transmuted" version of himself, albeit 10 years younger.("We all want to be 10 years younger.")
But McEwan's friends and family need not fret: his alter ego's children are gifted and charming, his wife as intelligent, accommodating and loving as any man could desire. ("What a stroke of luck," McEwan writes "that the woman he loves is also his wife.")
Domestic peace and harmony may mean more to McEwan than most after the particularly difficult breakdown of his first marriage. Having lived in Oxford for many years he now lives in central London with his second wife, journalist Annalena McAfee, and has two sons from his first marriage, Will, the oldest, who's at university, and Greg, who's on a gap year in Brazil and on whom the character Theo in Saturday is based.
After the decades-spanning sprawl of his bestseller, Atonement, McEwan's aim was to write something utterly different,"a discursive novel set exactly in the present, locked firmly in the consciousness of one character's head. I was writing in the shadow, as it were, of 9/11, and I had a very strong sense that he would worry about the world, and therefore I would make his private life very happy so that slate was clean.I didn't want him to be yet another figure in an English novel worrying about a divorce or a love affair or his children taking drugs".
Instead McEwan wanted to challenge the notion that writing about happiness is doomed, writing about animated pleasure "without in some way driving people nuts".
"If the moments of happiness are threaded on a string between other things, and are surrounded with a rich enough layer of other concerns, I think it's perfectly possible to convey some of the pleasure of going to hear someone playing the guitar, or waking up in bed next to someone they love, or peeling an onion while watching the seven o'clock news." And then there's the pleasure to be found in work, so often absent, McEwan believes, in literary novels today, "with people too busy fighting each other or divorcing each other to actually do much else".
"Kipling's stories teem with bridge builders and ships' captains and, of course, soldiers.He gets in there, gets his hands dirty with the things they do, with the objects they pick up.There's quite a lot of Kipling in my ambitions about neurosurgery.And I did get in there and I spent a lot of time with a neurosurgeon.Hours and hours.Every now and then he would straighten up and say 'come and have a look' and then take me by the elbow and steer me across to the lightbox."
As befits a novel concerning a neurosurgeon, the reader inhabits the mind of Henry Perowne, following every train of thought, every digression.The action takes place over one day, February 15th, 2003, when London witnessed the largest political demonstration in its history with many thousands converging on the capital to protest against the invasion of Iraq. "The march gathered not far from my house, and it bothered me that people seemed so thrilled to be there."
McEwan's own feelings were more ambivalent and in Saturday he allows Perowne to be both hawkish (with his anti-war daughter) and dove-ish (with his American squash partner).
Henry wakes to the prospect of an ordinary Saturday:the weekly visit to his senile mother, a game of squash with a work colleague, a family reunion for which he buys and prepares a fish stew.But, this being McEwan, it is not an ordinary Saturday, and the clock starts ticking when Perowne, in trying to avoid the anti-war mob, scrapes the side of his top-of-the-range Merc on a red BMW,survives the ensuing,showdown with its owner, a thug called Baxter, but who - as any McEwan veteran might predict - eventually reappears to terrifying effect.
"I couldn't resist making something happen," McEwan says, his face breaking into that ready grin."I can't write Mrs Dalloway.I had to have something really specific to happen to his day."
The violence, however, is purely imagined.The closest McEwan has ever come to the real thing was in a north London pub."I went to hear a young black American guitarist, and his girlfriend - a frail pretty girl - was standing right next to the table selling CDs, and in the break between the sets two guys in heavy leather coats went up to the table and said to her: 'Fuck off, you black bitch,' and then punched her right in the face.And immediately the room - it was almost comic - turned into one of those fights in a bar in a Western."
McEwan's delight in detail is everywhere - Perowne's precision in the operating theatre, the you-won't-need- another-recipe detail of the fish stew, his mother's bizarre utterances - and they are indeed his own mother's. "I got to the point where I used to come away from seeing her, having listened to her ramble, trying to remember precisely what she had said, but I couldn't, so then I would go with a notebook. There isn't a single word which isn't my mother's," he says.
As if in counterpoint, McEwan revels in the arcane vocabulary of neurology which, with no lay explanation, confirms the sense that you are in the mind of a neurosurgeon and not a novelist.
IF THE HUMAN lifespan was 150 years,would he be tempted to change tracks and become one himself?
"I don't think so, oddly," he says. "Because the glorious thing about being a novelist - and Henry James said this very well in The Art of Fiction - 'art is all life, all feeling, all observation, all vision' - the real world, the imagined world, all experience.In other words, he's describing the cumulative freedom that the job entails. It's everything.Whereas being a neurosurgeon is only about doing neurosurgery. Writing a novel is not only about writing a novel, it's about content, so you can never tire."
Has McEwan reached a level where, like Iris Murdoch in later years, no editor dared edit her work?
"I have a suspicion that editors and agents are reluctant to say anything," he says. "They may think 'he's older than me and he must know what he's doing'. But my wife is a writer so she sees it first, and she really objected to the way I had the whole scene with Rosalind and Daisy [ wife and daughter]. She said: 'There's not enough terror. You've made her too feisty.' And as soon as she said it I thought: she's absolutely right. So I rewrote it."
His readers also include"a handful of old friends", including the poet, Craig Raine, a neighbour when he lived in Oxford,whose poetry he borrows and makes Daisy the author of in Saturday.
"I gave him A Child in Time, and at one point I described a character sitting by 'a flickering log fire', and Craig underlined it with a wavy line," McEwan says. "And after that 'FLF' became shorthand for anything lazy. Sometimes you're so intent on getting the content and the feeling right, or you've got an interesting twist at the end of a sentence, that you don't notice at the beginning that you've got a noun/adjective coupling that is really dull and boring.So FLF is just to suggest I need to think a bit harder, that this is the one you'd expect."
Presenting the reader with the unexpected is McEwan's stock in trade. And, in Saturday, he deliberately didn't think about what would happen when Baxter reappeared until writing the final scenes.
As for why McEwan writes about terror at all, he says it is a form ofmagical trickery."I discovered as a child that universal truth that nothing ever happens as you expect it to, therefore if you imagine something bad, you block that channel, because you've thought of it.I wrote an oratorio once and one of the lines was that deep love breeds fear of loss.Dreaming up bad outcomes is probably a very handy mechanism for avoiding danger."
Having written about the disappearance of a child in A Child in Time did not, however, prevent McEwan's former wife removing his younger son to France in 1999, part of a custody tussle that ended with vindication for McEwan. At that time, how unnerving was it to be no longer in control in real life?
"It was unnerving for obvious reasons that I don't want to go into. I might give the impression in the novels of being in control, but most of my life is lived outside novels, and I have about as much control over my life as anybody else."
Would he use the experience in his writing? "Never."
Saturday, by Ian McEwan, is published by Jonathan Cape, €13.99. Eileen Battersby's review is also in this section.