Why should memory dazzle us? Take us by surprise? But it does. Listening to older people talk about the past, you hear the accents of disbelief. That such things should have happened! To me! How astonishing!
These are also the accents you hear when a certain kind of novelist, no longer young, writes an autobiographical novel. “What was wrong with Napoleon Street?” wonders Saul Bellow’s Moses Herzog, brooding on his earliest memories of Depression-era Montreal. “All he ever wanted was there.”
Lessons is Ian McEwan’s Napoleon Street novel. It gathers up its author’s dazzlements and remixes them – gives them shape and lustre. Not enough shape, perhaps. But plenty of lustre. It mixes modes – realism, political essay, social history, memoir. It is capacious, chock-full. It constitutes a late argument in favour of the mainstream realist novel as a tool for thinking – the mainstream realist novel, which, at is best, both represents and interrogates consciousness itself. Consciousness here defined as the feeling of what happens; McEwan’s true subject, throughout his corpus.
In summary, Lessons sounds like a chore: a man’s life, told from childhood to senescence in roughly chronological order. Not again! Well, there are some chore-like patches here – dead spots, plodding interludes. But this is oddly true of even quite short McEwan novels – Saturday, Amsterdam. (He’s a writer of setpieces, Good Bits; which means also of dud-pieces, Boring Bits.) It’s also true of life. And to say that Lessons tells the story of a man’s life is to raise more interesting questions, to wit: Which man? Which life? Told how?
The man is Ian McEwan, or a fictionalised version thereof. Roland Baines, with whom we keep uninterrupted company for all 483 of Lessons’s pages, shares some key biographical details with his creator. McEwan’s army-brat childhood is here synecdochised by a spell in Libya. Like McEwan, Roland then moves home to England and attends Woolverstone Hall School in rural Suffolk (named in the Acknowledgments). Like McEwan, Roland discovers a long-lost half-brother late in life. There are other correspondences.
Unlike McEwan, Roland does not attend the University of East Anglia’s nascent Creative Writing programme in 1971; he does not write First Love, Last Rites or The Cement Garden or Enduring Love or Atonement… Instead, Roland’s life is derailed by illicit adolescent passion. Aged 14, he encounters Miriam Cornell, a 25-year-old piano teacher. During the Cuban Missile Crisis (October 1962) they begin a sexual relationship which assumes, in Roland’s memory, the tinctures of paradise. He spends his adult life seeking its echo.
Thinking he has found what he wants, Roland marries Alissa, a German-English woman; they have a child. But Alissa promptly decamps, leaving Roland and the infant Lawrence to fend for themselves in Thatcher’s Britain.
This is where the novel opens, with Roland under vague police suspicion. It is April 1986. News of the Chernobyl disaster has leaked through, or across, the Iron Curtain. The foundations of McEwan’s fictional method are laid: Roland’s crises, set against the larger crises of postwar history. The prose swerves from lyrical intimacy to flat historical accounting – from Roland writing a poem (“To follow the obscure trail of an exquisite idea that could lead to a lucky narrowing, to a fiery point…”) to Previously on The Crown (“When President Nasser of Egypt nationalised the British-run Suez Canal in late July he became a hero to the nationalist cause”).
Once the macabre visions of his early fiction faded, McEwan has always worked in the dead centre of the realist tradition (psychology department); here he leavens George Eliot’s chatty essayism with microdoses of Virginia Woolf’s riverine inwardness. Like Saul Bellow’s, McEwan’s is a tamed modernism, brought to heel by the conventions of realism (plot, precise observation, mild satire). Lessons therefore works partly via thrillerish plotting and partly via the associations of memory; McEwan knows that our pasts do not sit neatly filed inside us in chronological order but seem jumbled, ordered less by simple time than by some hidden principle of emotional contiguity. It is Roland’s hidden principle – his affair with Miriam Cornell, in all its shades of moral and ethical ambiguity – that gives Lessons its own loose order.
It’s a summing-up sort of novel, a life-and-times sort of book. These things happened! To me! Can you believe it? It’s written out of the “settled expansive mood” in which Roland “reflected on the events and accidents personal and global, minuscule and momentous that had formed and determined his existence”. It’s excellent; or mostly excellent. But McEwan is almost always excellent. His reputation among younger readers now seems shaky – he is too old, too white, too straight, too middle-class, too aesthetically traditional… His rational humanism, his luminously precise high-formal prose, his intricately ensnaring plots: all of these things are now out of fashion, as we re-embrace mysticism, plain style and fiction as radical political posturing. His loss or ours?
Kevin Power’s latest novel is White City. He teaches in the School of English at Trinity College Dublin