So continues my love/meh relationship with Ian McEwan. There’s no doubt this is a huge book, a deep immersion into an Englishman’s life from childhood to old age. Our narrator, Roland, is a decade-and-a-half older than me so what happened in his formative years went on to form me. Ian McEwan covers all the big political issues of those years through Roland’s eyes, from war-damaged parents and Arab nationalism to the threat of nuclear destruction, the Gorbachev years and the end of the cold war, women’s liberation, Thatcher, Major, and then Blair’s Britain (remember that huge positivity that the world was, finally, coming right?), and on to financial crises, corporate greed, global warming and covid. McEwan/Roland is intelligent, left-wing and an interesting political commentator. The problem is, though I think I probably like McEwan, I don’t like Roland at all.
Roland is eleven, sent away by his parents to boarding school (his father, the Captain, had them stationed in Lybia with the army) is kissed and fondled by his piano teacher, a woman a decade older who wears a seductive perfume. He is confused and awakened and a few years after the lessons cease he goes willingly, seeking her out, desperate to have sex before the world ends in nuclear destruction. He cannot die a virgin. This is the most obvious lesson in this Book of Lessons, and we see his self-destructive life path in the aftermath of this abuse. He learns other lessons from his parents, the way a mother can abandon a child to keep a marriage or hide a secret, and also from his wife, who vanishes in the second chapter leaving Roland to raise their child alone. A husband and child would cramp her style, she says and tells him not to look for her.
Yes, we could all take lessons from childhood and learn from them. Sexual confusion, possession, abandonment; these are traumatic. Unfortunately, Roland doesn’t learn any lessons. He is always searching for those happy days when he was waiting to be evacuated from a camp with other army kids and they were left to run wild for a week or so, all friends together and no responsibility. He’s a very talented pianist (thank you, seductress music teacher), a writer, pro tennis player, sensitive, highly intelligent. I’m wondering if this character is McEwan himself, but with added unresolved issues that prevent him becoming the successful man he is. His ‘there but for the grace of God’ alter ego. Instead of an prize winning author, a man so lacking in confidence from childhood issues that he, with all his gifts, is unable to form a perfect relationship or play in concert hall or win Wimbledon or write a Booker prize winner.
Is McEwan suggesting these failings are due to the women in Roland’s life? If so, get over yourself, man. There are no real answers in this story as to why Roland is so unfulfilled and drifts, letting life happen to him, taking no agency, achieving no great things. We are led to believe he is living a missed parallel life. Even when he is offered the chance to resolve things (with the teacher, with his wife, with an upset urn of ashes) he still does nothing. But most of the time Roland seems happy enough; he has a series of women he seems attached to, enough money to get by (he plays piano in a hotel), he has a good relationship with his son as he grows, a caring family group, convivial friends, later in life he finds love that is meaningful. Perhaps the passion he spent on the piano teacher has knocked the intensity out of his life and he can never achieve that high point again.
In contrast to his wife, who becomes the pre-eminent writer of all Europe, Roland spends years scribbling down his life thoughts, only to find, in the end, they’re banal and worthless and better burnt than read by anyone else. Perhaps this scene sums up the 483 pages of this story. It would have been truly terrific – if told by a narrator with a bit more funk.