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.
“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.
“But it’s an honourable form. I just re-read, for about the seventh or eighth time, Joyce’s The Dead, which is probably the perfect fiction, in my estimation. Well-observed, emotionally raw, tinged with the political. A 200-page, or 400-page, or 1,000-page novel couldn’t be perfect in the way that story is perfect. The Aspern Papers, The Turn of the Screw and Death in Venice all have a kind of perfection that can’t be reached in the novel.”
He pauses, and offers a grin that is more of a grimace. “Well, you can tell I’m thinking about writing another novella.” It’s a tantalising prospect from a novelist at the height of his powers. But meanwhile, there’s the guilty pleasure that is Sweet Tooth. Once more, from the beginning . . .
'Solar' power: McEwan's thoughts on . . .
Climate change after Solar:“We’ve made no progress. The figures on the summer ice melt in the Arctic are as dire as anything we’ve ever seen, and are now beginning to outstrip expectations.
“I don’t know what’s going to make us wake up. Something catastrophic, and identifiable as climate-related, but in the West. White people like us suffering might wake us all up. [Incidences of] people disappearing under thousands of cubic metres of sludge in far-off places doesn’t actually change things.”
His passion for hiking:“I came to it very slowly. For years I thought of carrying a backpack as really naff. Or drinking water. Or having boots. Now I have all those things. It’s wonderful to be hiking with a friend, up on some high ridge; crack open a bottle of wine, pour it into stainless steel cups and feel as if you are in – and of – the landscape. That’s a great feeling.”
Comic novels:“I wish I’d never said to anyone that Solar was meant to be funny. It’s a novel that has comedy in it. I think all good writing should be funny, without being knockabout or up-ending expectations or whatever comedy is supposed to do.
“When something is crystallised, recognisable as the truth, that can be very amusing. But I’m not ever going to write a comic novel again, or let anything of mine be called a comic novel. It’s a burden I can’t bear.”