British novelist Ian McEwan has penned two new works: a fictional one about the life of one Roland Baines, and a truncated history of the last 75 years spanning World War II to Covid. The problem is that both are contained within the same novel, “Lessons.”
McEwan has gracefully straddled literary acclaim and popular embrace for an impressive portion of those years. Adaptations of his award-winning novels, including “Atonement,” also make surprisingly frequent appearances at the movie house, with three adaptations released in 2017 alone.
“Lessons,” his 18th novel, opens with some light sadism while introducing us to Roland as an 11-year-old, nervous-fingered piano student in 1959, cursed with an “idiot thumb.” He is intimately pinched by his imperious piano teacher Miriam Cornell, leaving a metaphorical bruise that will last his whole life.
That relationship becomes an erotic obsession for both. Demanding, jazz-hating, perhaps insane, Miriam’s relationship with the boy may or may not have warped him for life. Much space is devoted to Roland trying to answer that question.
After Egypt’s Col. Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, Roland and his British Army family are forced to flee Libya to England. McEwan’s own military family traveled in similar fashion. He says “Lessons” is his most biographical novel.
Once in England, Roland is hastily placed into boarding school, dragooned into piano lessons, and then has his brain forever “rewired” by his piano teacher, who eventually initiates him into sex, a macabre event hastened by Roland’s teenage fatalism over what he fears may be the end of the world (the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis). Throughout “Lessons,” McEwan is reminding us how large-scale historic events also irrevocably affect individual lives. But is that thought as profound as McEwan tries to make it?
Roland is ceaselessly summing up his aimless life — tennis coach, hotel lounge pianist, writer of cheeky greeting card verse — and finding it wanting. Frankly, it doesn’t sound like a riveting read, although McEwan’s genius with sentence-making takes us far, as when Roland lifts himself from his navel-gazing long enough to marvel over his squalling infant son Lawrence, after his wife Alissa has disappeared on them both: “Were Lawrence’s joys and sorrow separated by the finest gauze? Not even that. They were wrapped up tight together.”
He has conflicted feelings about Alissa’s debut novel, which he must admit is fabulous: How can someone so awful write so wonderfully, “and are we more tolerant the greater the art?”
McEwan’s previous novels, often short, cast readers into exquisitely rendered milieus paired with an incisive understanding of his characters. That understanding still abides, but this time the author is squeezing over half a century of history into a single novel, and even at 431 pages there’s not enough room to air things out properly. Roland himself is no mover or shaker, merely providing internal dialogue by rendering secondhand news accounts of major events, although he does accidentally pop up in Berlin for a fateful reunion the very night the Berlin Wall tumbles.
The historical knowledge is not properly stirred into the narrative, but instead pools awkwardly on the cooling surface, although close attention is repaid by descriptions like this one mocking Roland’s own soft generation: “His lot lolled on history’s aproned lap, nestling in a little fold of time, eating all the cream.” A recollected scene of a chocolate bar and single red rose at the end of a triumphant piano concert in his youth has a Proustian feel.
There have long been suspicions among the leftist literati that Ian McEwan is some kind of neo-con, and “Lessons” features some welcome jabs at the hard left. There are haunting insights into surviving within a communist dictatorship, the psychological horrors wrought by the Stasi even in the supposedly gentler mid-1980s. That gripping section could have supported a novel by itself.
Roland is an impressively filled-out and realistic character but not a particularly compelling one, which is probably McEwan’s perverse intent. However, this choice adds an extra degree of difficulty to the task of holding readers’ attention. There’s nothing particularly arresting about Roland’s thoughts, which after the fall of the Berlin Wall betray an optimism readers will recognize as dramatic irony, given that that historic event did not actually mark an end to history.
Inevitably, his own father’s funeral is pegged to a major event, the day after “New Labour’s landslide victory” in the U.K. general elections of 1997. But while the award-winning “Atonement” mined World War II and its echoing aftermath to poignant effect, embedding the history within a long-running family travail of guilty secrets, “Lessons” is akin to watching newsreels while waiting for the movie to start. The narrative’s genuine power is being constantly diverted by the constant interruption for a news update, circa 1962, or 1979, or 1986. Even when surrounded by relative domestic bliss, Roland is obsessed with “the ice-melt data from Greenland.”
Is McEwan guilty of sociology? It’s a serious charge, and he’s far too perceptive to resort to messaging. But while in previous novels the strands of historic events and plotting were seamlessly intertwined, in “Lessons” McEwan’s plotting is more fat-fingered and unsubtle.
McEwan first came to attention with his dark-bordering-on-dank mid-1970s short stories (itself a dark, dank time in England) and those same sorts of fevered imaginings appear in “Lessons” in less explicit form.
Besides the piano teacher who locks young Roland’s clothes in her backyard shed, there’s a darkly absurd, late-in-life fight on a bridge in the Lake District, which does not end up in the mortifying mishap you might expect or even perversely welcome. Even an ominous boarding school (whose hierarchy is finely laid out) turns out not to be a Dickensian hive of cruelty. McEwan’s quest to make Roland true to life may have hemmed in his formidable imagination.
But McEwan does capture the long-tail chanciness of life. Even do-no-wrong novelist Alissa starts losing her grip on the zeitgeist, landing in hot water by insulting radical transgenders (as McEwan himself did in the real world).
An unstated theme of “Lessons” might be “to understand all is to forgive all,” perhaps even Roland’s abusive piano teacher Miriam. The author is especially good with the surprising subtleties of that relationship, and Roland’s eventual confrontation makes for a sweaty, compelling segment.
At 74, McEwan is closer to the end of his career than the beginning, and one wonders if he’s trying to make a grand, world-encompassing gesture here. Unfortunately, the title of “Lessons” risks being a literal description. At one point Roland wonders if it would be “a shame to ruin a good tale by turning it into a lesson” — an observation that might be more revealing than McEwan intended.