The jokes began in March 2020: what would come first, a vaccine or Ian McEwan’s pandemic novel? His reputation for topical fiction, hardly an obvious destination when he first broke out in the 1970s with grisly tales of incest, bestiality and paedophilia, owes everything to Saturday (2005), which mulled the pros and cons of invading Iraq through the eyes of a bouillabaisse-simmering neurosurgeon in London: a strenuous yoking of spheres that spoke of nothing so much as the pressure McEwan felt to catch the moment, especially since the book’s acknowledgments made clear he’d been shadowing a brain doctor long before the events the book portrayed.
Signs that McEwan was wearing his mantle more lightly – with a counterfactual history of modern Britain told as a love triangle involving a robot (Machines Like Me) and a Brexit-era satire about an insectoid PM (The Cockroach), not to mention a novel written from the point of view of a foetus (Nutshell) – are dispelled by the arrival of his longest novel yet. Lessons covers eight decades in the life of Roland, a twice-married tearoom pianist at “a second-rank London hotel”. From his postwar military childhood in Libya (not the only detail he shares with his author) through the Thatcher years, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the rise of Blair, 9/11, Brexit and, yes, Covid; from schoolboy masturbation to arthritic widowhood; from the hard yards of childcare to the pang of the empty nest, the everyday milestones of Roland’s life tick by to the inescapable rhythm of the headlines: “How could he complain… when his son [Lawrence] was not at risk from smallpox or polio, or from snipers hidden in the hills above Sarajevo?”
It opens in May 1986, when Lawrence is a baby and Roland, 37, is busy sealing up his London home in the wake of the news from Chernobyl, which stirs unwelcome memories of how, at 14, the Cuban missile crisis led him into the bed of his sinister piano teacher, Miriam – a terror right out of McEwan’s early tales and in whose presence the book snaps to life. The psychosexual crisis she provokes – the novel’s radioactive core – puts much-needed heat under an otherwise scrappy soup that rather whiffs of possibly autobiographical projects abandoned and repurposed; like McEwan, Roland is sent to boarding school in Suffolk by a violent army father and learns of his older brother only in adulthood – matters of record, which McEwan has spoken of before, plundered right down to the wording of the advert by which that child was given up for adoption as a baby.
But instead of becoming a writer, Roland is a failed poet who, when, the book opens, has just been ditched by his wife, Alissa, soon to be a world-famous novelist who achieves publication only at the cost of abandoning her child to start afresh in her native Germany, where her father was on the fringe of the anti-Nazi White Rose movement, a thread that inspires much musing about Roland’s “fortune… to have been born in 1948 in placid Hampshire, not Ukraine or Poland in 1928”.
That’s McEwan’s fortune, too, but you can’t help feel that for him, at least as a writer, it comes tinged with regret that his work somehow lacks moral seriousness as a result. The notion seems to be at the heart of his urge to depict not only characters but their times, to comic effect; when Roland muses on the “violently irrational” western response to 9/11, just as he’s planning to turn up on Miriam’s doorstep some 40 years after they last met, he thinks the consequences of bombing Baghdad “could be hell. So too could meeting Miriam”. Not even Lawrence’s decision to drop sixth-form maths goes without global commentary; when Roland tells him not to, Lawrence says he “wasn’t even the best at school. Ah Ting was always ahead. She didn’t even try.” “China rising,” his father thinks. “Nothing could prevent it.”
As in Saturday, the desire for geopolitical profundity generates some ludicrously symbolic violence. Roland, emotionally tied to Germany and named (we infer) after a farmer who came to his father’s aid in Dunkirk, stands as a kind of one-man European Union: of course there’s a climactic hiking scene in which a key architect of Brexit pushes him off a precipice. And the multigenerational storyline couldn’t function without a series of convenient run-ins to oil the cogs, above all when Roland re-encounters his ex-wife in freshly unified Berlin. Overall, though, Lessons made me long for the more melodramatic turns of McEwan’s other books. No agonisingly drawn-out dismemberment (The Innocent); no pivotally gloopy money shot (On Chesil Beach): instead, with eight pages left, and the reader on tenterhooks as to how McEwan will play his hand, we’re told of how lockdown taught Roland “that he did not mind a little housework”.
Only the Miriam episodes offer the tension of sustained dialogue rather than the arm’s-length synopsis in which the rest of the novel unfolds. Yes, she ruins Roland’s future relationships with women, but it’s something we’re told, never shown: Alissa walks out leaving only a note; Roland’s second wife – a barely there cipher repeatedly praised for her organisational skills – breaks off their initial engagement exactly the same way. Why not let some crockery fly?
Maybe the Mogadon prose is a stroke of psychologically incisive genius – a way to evoke the haunted stasis of Roland’s emotional life – but it’s a hell of a gamble with our patience. The weirdest thing is, if you do find yourself enjoying it, McEwan seems to end up saying you’re a bit of a mug. Roland, in lockdown, pores over his notebooks since 1986, when Lessons begins, only to find them “a grand mass of detail” lacking the “logic”, “tension” and “vital gleam of intelligence” he so admires in Alissa’s wartime epic The Journey, with its “far superior” scene-setting.
Why spend pages summarising a better novel we can’t actually read? McEwan once said his temperament wasn’t icy enough to write fiction about his ex-wife, Penny Allen, a healer who absconded with his son in defiance of a legal ruling; then he published 2014’s courtroom drama The Children Act, after which she harangued him at a literary festival. Lessons shows us a divorcee learning, among other things, to live with an ex-spouse’s celebrity (“In 45 languages she took up space in the minds of several million people”). Sure, he scours each new release for references to himself – vexed when he finds none and vexed too when, at last, he does – but ultimately he swallows his annoyance with good grace (no book talk heckler, he) and understands above all that, in fiction, the only important thing is how good it is, not whose feelings it hurts. Maybe that innocuous-looking title has more teeth than it seems.