“You hit your sixties and seventies and there is the danger of becoming less thought-rich,” Ian McEwan said in a 2018 interview. Published in his mid-seventies, his 496-page new novel abundantly displays that this is an impoverishment he hasn’t yet experienced.
Thought — “the brief privilege of consciousness”, as the hero of his 2005 novel Saturday calls it — has long been McEwan’s signature subject. Saturday, his study of rationality and unreason, focused on a neurosurgeon, expert at repairing damage — tumors, blood clots — to the lobes and hemispheres of the brain. Placed round him were instances of minds impaired in other ways: corroded by Alzheimer’s, disabled by Huntington’s disease, warped by malignant ideologies. The thought processes of a Nobel laureate physicist, a young girl’s hyper-literary cast of mind and the legalistic reasonings of a High Court judge were central to other McEwan novels.
Recurringly his fiction juxtaposes differing mental dispositions: religious and secular in his tale of Nazi aftermath, Black Dogs (1992), romantic and scientific in his stalker story, Enduring Love (1997), the mind games of secret service operatives and those of creative writers in his Cold War novel, Sweet Tooth (2012). Machines Like Me (2019) wove sardonic comedy around robots fitted with artificial intelligence. Playing with the notion of Hamlet as a fetus eavesdropping on the plot to kill his father, Nutshell (2016) inventively slipped you inside literature’s most famous consciousness.
Where that book was a master feat of compression, Lessons, his 18th novel, is a tour de force of breadth. Written during the Covid lockdowns, it ranges widely across place and period, propelled by the memories and meditations of its central figure, Roland Baines. Opening on a tense night in 1986 just after he has discovered that his German-born wife, Alissa, has abandoned him and their baby son, it zigzags back as far as the Second World War and advances as far forward as 2021, unrolling a panorama of momentous global happenings against which his personal life is silhouetted.
Written during the Covid lockdowns, Lessons ranges widely across place and period, from the Second World War to 2021.
Heightening the strain of the fraught days after Alissa absconds is the “continent-wide radioactive cloud” spreading from the Chernobyl disaster. Earlier, the Cuban missile crisis looms over events shaping the young Roland’s future. Attracting the predatory attentions of a disturbed young woman who is his piano teacher at boarding school, he is seduced by her, when aged 14, into an intensely sexual and possessive affair that lasts until she all but kidnaps and attempts to marry him two years later.
This freakish early experience is the least involving element in the book, only matched in improbability by Alissa’s metamorphosis, after abandoning her husband and child, into “Germany’s greatest writer. Bigger than Grass had been … Almost as big as Mann”. Summaries of the novels she produces as a celebrated but increasingly crabbed and reclusive author struggle to confirm this tribute.
Where Lessons excels is in its 70-year-long social and domestic cavalcade of Roland’s life. Several parts of it mirror McEwan’s: childhood in Libya where his martinet soldier father was stationed along with the timid wife he’d met in Aldershot; relocation from Tripoli’s hot white glare to the “golden treacly thick” light and “rich reds and greens” of a London summer before his installation in a boarding grammar school in rural Suffolk; much later, the slow decline of his mother into dementia and the discovery after her death that he has a brother, given away for adoption at birth to hide a family scandal.
Unlike McEwan, Roland drifts through a medley of occupations: photographer, tennis coach, would-be poet, researcher of recherché quotations for quirky greeting cards, pianist in the tearoom of a Mayfair hotel playing “munch music … old favorites discreetly rendered so as not to disturb tranquil chat over Earl Grey tea and crustless sandwiches”.
Thought — “the brief privilege of consciousness”, as the hero of his 2005 novel Saturday calls it — has long been Ian McEwan’s signature subject.
What he shares with him is a fascination with German politics. Regularly crossing to East Germany in the 1980s, Roland smuggles through Checkpoint Charlie Animal Farm inside a jacket of Dickens’s Hard Times, plus Velvet Underground LPs in the sleeves of Shostakovich symphonies. Later he is on the scene when the Berlin Wall comes down amid wild celebration.
Roland exultantly sees the reunification of Germany as the start of unstoppable liberal democratic progress to European unity. The novel’s closing sections disabuse him as what at first seemed a negligible clownish circus of “right-wing cranks determined on the fantastical project” of taking Britain out of Europe brings about what he views as a national tragedy of unreason.
Although the final stages of this vividly detailed lifetime chronicle are clouded, too, by “the long business of modern old age” and its attendant ills, the novel is far from dispiriting. McEwan writes with invigorating alertness about social and political shifts over the past 70 years.
Whether observing the exodus from the fractured Soviet empire of crowds “intent on a larger mental space” or watching with keen-eyed tenderness the unfurling intelligence of Roland’s son, he keeps reminding you of his central fictional concern: “the pure luck of consciousness”.
One of Alissa’s novels is hailed for its impressive advocacy of “rich and warm-blooded rationality”. It’s an accolade McEwan’s book deserves.
Peter Kemp is the chief fiction critic of The Sunday Times