A change of climate with every book
With each novel, Ian McEwan shifts ground radically and tries to forget what went before. But while his new climate-change comedy is still fresh in his mind, he tells Shane Hegartyabout the Arctic trip that inspired it
EUSTON ROAD is a functional artery through central London, heaving with traffic and lined by blocks of offices dense enough to hide the BT Tower that looms nearby. Yet you step off it a few yards and on to Fitzroy Square and there is little sound other than the crunch of the white gravel that rings the private garden at its centre and the bickering of a couple of French tourists pulling at a map.
There are plenty of offices here too, but the blue plaques on their walls declare the square’s heritage. George Bernard Shaw lived here for a time, as did Virginia Woolf. Ford Madox Brown occupied number 37. And here, since 2002, has lived Ian McEwan, who today is slightly agitated because his roof has sprung a leak and what at first appeared to be just a few loose tiles have turned into a monster job. It’s six storeys up and having experienced its vertiginous terror before, McEwan is not going to do it himself. But the notion of the roof falling in, a changed climate (only within McEwan’s house, admittedly), could offer a tortured metaphor for his latest novel, Solar.
Except that the book is only partly a “climate-change comedy”, as it has repeatedly been described, and more a character study of the carnal, self-obsessed scientist at the centre of it. And for all that Solarcontains recognisable elements of McEwan’s experience, he would prefer the comparisons to end there.
When we meet, it is a couple of days after a slew of reviews in the weekend papers, an experience McEwan claims has only superficial impact – “I get them by osmosis” – although the fact that they’ve been largely positive, sometimes glowing, has clearly allowed him the luxury of serenity.
“I have a general sense of how it’s going down, of whether I’m going to get away with it or not, this crime of writing a book,” he says.
The “crime” of writing a book? “Well, you know, there’s this general sense in the British press, there’s always a readiness – and it’s not the literary press, it’s the news bit – always looking for some angle that will cast some negative spell.”
He’s talking specifically about a report claiming he uses a section of the book as a thinly disguised potshot at artists he went on an Arctic trip with. In reality, he’s always been open about that trip as marking the origins of this novel. And the section is hardly poisonous anyway. “I mean, one’s looking at an industry in its death spasms,” he says. “Readerships are shrinking and these papers are in fierce competition and any negative story about anyone in the public gaze in any given moment seems to be the thing, so there’s always that slight edge to publishing a book. And I’ve just watched Martin go through it. And they’ve got a very special relationship with Martin. His every utterance . . . he makes some quip about euthanasia and it spawns 400 serious thought pieces, and then they phone up the president of Help the Aged and get an outraged comment, and then someone else feeds off that.”
In Solar, the central character Michael Beard stumbles into a media storm. You never quite know what will take, says McEwan, “once these things roll, they become this mad process”. He has some experience of this, thanks to a public and bruising custody struggle with his first wife, a row over plagiarism regarding Atonement, his discovery that he had a long-lost brother. He has seen the media’s unpredictability, its moods, how it is distracted suddenly by something else. “It stops on a sixpence. You think, ‘where have they all gone?’.” Yet he is enjoying this period, when there is little writing to be done other than a screenplay for On Chesil Beachand collaborating on an operatic version of Atonement, and there is lots of reading to catch up on (although he reads even while deep into writing, because he doesn’t hold with the idea that it redirects or reshapes his own efforts).
He rarely reads his own work. “Well, actually, last night, for the first time in years. A journalist said ‘you mentioned such and such in Enduring Love, but I can’t find it, can you find it for me’. And I thought, ‘oh yeah, I know exactly where it is’, but I opened it and it wasn’t there. And it was about 100 pages sooner than I thought, and that’s a strange experience. So I leafed through it, read a few scenes from it and realised that I don’t think I’ve read it since I stopped work on it 13 years ago. How much you forget. I quite liked it actually. But I was astonished by how many references I no longer had fresh in my mind, references to other works and other things.” It doesn’t read like the work of another man, but as “part of the story, I know it’s part of me . . . And Enduring Loveis ’98 and the surprising thing there was that certain thoughts I thought I’d had recently I see that I’d had way back then, or certain versions of them.”
MCEWAN IS ANeager but unhurried conversationalist, who speaks with a sort of Middle England drawl. Judging by his public interviews through the years, he has always been this way, although it would be easy to believe that the tranquillity of the square has somehow seeped into him. In 2007, McEwan and his son spent a lunchtime in the green, handing out 100 novels to anyone who wanted them. Only the women held their hands out, pawing through them, discarding the ones they’d already read.
“The men would say, ‘No thanks, mate’, as if I was handing out yesterday’s vindaloo.”
It’s not new, he points out; it is half a century since Ian Watt’s The Rise of the Novelcharted the ascendance of the female readership from the 18th century onwards. But what future can there be for a form that appeals, on the whole, to only half the population?
“It used to be a sort of staple of literary pages and magazines – you know, ‘is the novel dead?’, and it’s extraordinary how that conversation has faded,” McEwan says. “We still don’t really have a replacement for that small-grained examination of consciousness. You don’t get it in movies or the stage or TV, you can’t quite represent the inside of someone’s head. As long as people are doing that, to some extent or something like that, whether that’s going to now be delivered by e-books or readers or whatever, makes very little difference.”
He uses an e-reader when travelling. “I don’t think format matters. The main thing is the extraordinary miracle by which symbols appearing on your retina convert into a representation of someone else’s thoughts. I mean, that still seems to me the business. And who knows, it might even save a rainforest or two.”
The kernel of Solarcame with the Arctic trip in 2005, but only flourished after On Chesil Beach, when McEwan went to a climate change conference in Potsdam and encountered not just the discussion but a selection of Nobel Prize winners who planted the seed of a character. “They bristle with this grandeur,” he says. “They’re like medieval kings. Some of them had eyebrows like guttering on huge buildings and balconies.”
So Michael Beard sprang into existence, although McEwan “gave him a Nobel Prize before he gave him a character and name”. He connected the character with his experience of the Arctic trip, although Solar’scomic tone came from McEwan’s wariness about being crushed under the weight of the topic – or, worse, crushing the reader. It has resulted in a lively plot, so that anyone whose only experience of McEwan is Atonementwill think this Dan Brown-esque by comparison.
Unlike On Chesil Beach, in which the sexual innocence of honeymooners builds to a pivotal moment, Solar’sMichael Beard is continually propelled by the hope of having sex at the next possible moment. This was not, insists McEwan, a reaction to his previous novel.
“I never write books in reaction to the one before. I sort of forget the one before,” he says. “What happens is that I talk them out of myself. At the moment it’s all still fresh, I’m still interested. But by the end of this year it will have died on me and I won’t be able to say the words ‘Michael Beard’ any more. I’ll be thirsting for something else and I’ll go into an amnesia about it and into another space.
“Repetition helps chase all interest away. I’m still in those early stages, but it will happen sometime, probably when I’m halfway round Germany or Italy in the autumn and I’m just thinking, ‘I’m not doing any of this any more, I’ve had it’. And I’ll break some promises and not do some things I said I would. I’ll say, ‘I’m not talking to anyone else about this any more, thank you’. And that’s the start of another novel.”
IN THE MEANTIME, he’ll bat away approaches from people who have only discovered previous books and who, he says, believe him an expert on their subjects. It is the “aftershock” by which a neurosurgeon in Pittsburgh reads Saturdayseveral years after McEwan has finished writing it and invites him to come and read to a room full of neurosurgeons.
And, as his body of work grows, so the interest in him becomes grander, bounces him through decades and periods and novels he hasn’t read in years.
A metaplot has emerged, he says, with each book he has left on the shelf. A broad consensus has it that he has become less experimental since his earliest novels and short stories, that he has become “mellow” – a term used both as a compliment and, famously by John Banville (and only one dart among a shower of them), as a complaint. McEwan’s own version of this view is simple and delivered with ennui. “Oh, that it all changed in the early 1980s, that I’d written myself into a corner with The Comfort of Strangersand I took a few years off fiction, did movies and other things and then went back and started again with The Child in Time.
“And it’s of occasional but of limited interest, I think, for a writer to go around talking about himself. I mean, I love to go to Reykjavik or Tierra del Fuego, but if it’s only to sit in a hotel room and drone on about my stuff, the interest of that is very weak. Whereas if someone says to me would I like to come to a climate change meeting or come to hear about the latest work on neuroscience and love, and I don’t have to do anything, I say yeah.”
His motivation for each novel, he says, comes from shifting his ground radically, to maintain his own interest. “But it has to be faced at some point that inspiration will fade, the long slow unwinding will begin. My guess is that one of my favourite forms, the novella, will become for me the predominant mode when I start to feel really tired. A novella can be very demanding, but one can take one’s time. Writing novels, for me, feels like it takes physical stamina. I mean the effort of concentration, sustained concentration for two or three years really does knock it out of you. But at the same time, without it I’d be profoundly unhappy. And I don’t know what purpose I’d be serving if I stopped. And there is clearly a decision to be made when I stop. But I don’t feel anywhere near that at the moment.
“And I still feel I haven’t written the novel I want to write, there’s always something just beyond my fingertips and I haven’t really got there. I was a late starter, I spent years writing short stories, two short novels, was very conservative as a young writer. Whatever people say about the content of my stories, I was quite careful and slow and full of self-doubt. I now think – and I don’t quite know what the frame of the thing is – but there’s a sort of cloudy sense of some other thing I haven’t quite done before, something quite central, I can’t quite put my fingers on yet. And it wasn’t the novel just finished, and it wasn’t Atonementand it wasn’t Saturdayand it wasn’t anything else.”