Ian McEwan’s 20th Century

An Entire System

Ian McEwan’s 20th century.


Early in Ian McEwan’s new novel, Lessons, an 11-year-old Roland Baines witnesses a terrible traffic accident as he and his father stroll through the streets of mid-20th-century London. Seeing the alacrity with which the onlookers—men who “had been in the war and knew what to do”—come to the victims’ aid, he is overwhelmed by a sudden wave of gratitude. As an ambulance carries away a man who might be fatally injured, young Roland is moved to tears by the idea that he lives in a society supported by “an entire system, just below the surface of everyday life, watchfully waiting, ready with all its knowledge and skill to come and help, embedded within a greater network of kindness…. It would embrace and contain him kindly, justly, and nothing bad, really bad, could happen to him or to anyone, or not for long.”

The passage may remind some readers of Robert Musil’s novel The Man Without Qualities, which opens with a similar episode. In Musil’s version, an anonymous pair of stylish passers-by watch as an ambulance promptly bustles an unconscious victim away and are struck, as Roland is, by the efficient operation of civil society. They eventually leave the scene “justified in feeling that they had just witnessed something entirely lawful and orderly.” But there is one noticeable difference between the two episodes. In Musil’s Vienna of 1913, the events unfold in a few wryly cutting paragraphs that underscore the irony of these onlookers’ sentiments: They may thoughtlessly assume that the response to the accident demonstrates the underlying stability of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but as Musil’s readers know, that empire is at its decadent end, primed for an imminent plunge into war and dissolution. McEwan, on the other hand, describes the accident in Lessons in breathless detail, making sure we know that we have witnessed a seminal event in our hero’s existence: “What Roland saw…remained with him for the rest of his life. At its end it would feature in the dying forms and whispers of his retreating consciousness.”

This moment is a primer for everything to come—from the novel’s air of maudlin self-importance to its nostalgic yearning for a vanished social order. For McEwan, and for his protagonist Roland, the scene depicts the kind of solidarity and faith that once existed in Britain’s postwar welfare state, which has been all but drained of both public resources and emotional resonance in today’s post-Brexit London. Musil’s unfinished novel of ideas, written mainly in the years between the two world wars, took a particularly ironic view of history as a series of philosophical quarrels and disingenuously civic-minded nonevents that were not to be looked back on fondly but that only emphasized the creeping unwellness of a society. McEwan, on the other hand, communicates a wistful sense of irony closer to Alanis Morissette’s than to Musil’s: Isn’t it unfortunate and slightly ridiculous—don’t you think? While the broad scope of Lessons, which follows Roland from the 1950s to the present, occasionally indicates the author’s vague desire to take his fellow baby boomers to task, the novel is primarily a lenient and sincere depiction of one man reconciling himself to his own historical smallness, while wishing that the past was not entirely past.

McEwan has not always been prone to such mellow generational contemplation. Many of his earlier works are constructed around daring central gimmicks. From the shocking set piece that opens Enduring Love (probably the most harrowing hot-air-balloon accident in literary history), to the metafictional twists of Atonement and Sweet Tooth (in which late revelations about authorship make readers reevaluate the whole novel), to outlandish conceits like the fetus narrator of Nutshell, McEwan has always been drawn to the use of flashy narrative devices to pose big questions about life, the universe, and everything in between. There have been some exceptions: On Chesil Beach, for example, offers a quiet, uncharacteristically restrained meditation on love and its limits. But mostly McEwan has taken big stylistic swings, offering unsubtle morality plays that are, at best, devastating and, at worst, daddishly pedantic.

Lessons, as its title promises, has more than a little daddish pendaticism, but it is mostly gimmick-free. Unlike with many of his previous novels, McEwan cultivates a careful distance here from the showy drama of form and content. Instead of setting off the tempting narrative bombs he has placed in Roland’s story and life, he offers a set of earnest meditations on the anticlimactic drift of real life. It’s an intriguing gambit, especially for a writer whose early gruesome dramatics earned him the nickname “Ian Macabre.” But McEwan does so for a reason. One gets the feeling that this is his big soul-searching book, especially since Roland is, in some respects, an only slightly altered version of McEwan: They are the same age and share the same trajectory, from their fathers’ military posting in Libya to their time in an experimental boarding school (the one in Lessons is closely modeled on McEwan’s alma mater, Woolverstone Hall School), and both discovered long-lost siblings late in life. In contrast with McEwan’s other recent work, Lessons is not just an exercise in acting out dramatic issues in current affairs or in historical scenarios; here he seems to want to use his own trek through the 20th and 21st centuries to ruefully look back at a Britain that no longer exists and then to gently interrogate the role his generation played in its undoing.

One can’t help but admire the restraint it takes to do this in such a fashion that does not overwhelm the book with either a nostalgia overload or overt preachiness—but in the cautious balance that McEwan achieves here, he ends up providing readers with a novel that lacks dramatic and emotional tension. The problem, simply, is this: Lessons is a very boring book. One can appreciate the intellectual exercises it undertakes and the diligence with which it rehearses them, but in the end, a good idea does not a good novel of ideas make. In its attempt to work through its overabundance of muddled thoughts, Lessons neglects what another Roland B. called “the pleasure of the text.”

The literal “lessons” of the title are first administered to a preadolescent Roland by Miriam Cornell. Described as at once hard and soft, terrifying and irresistible, Miriam is a sadistic piano teacher who eventually entraps young Roland in an abusive, obsessive sexual relationship that derails his early education and life. Despite everything that happens to Roland in the next 60 years, much is determined—about his character as well as his circumstances—by this formative period. Though the novel ping-pongs through time, visiting and revisiting Roland’s memories, Miriam is one of two figures to whom his thoughts always return. In the period of their intense affair, which begins when Roland is 14, she maintains strict control over both his musical and his emotional education, hoping to groom him into the successful concert pianist she never was and an obedient child-husband.

Roland finally does reach a breaking point at age 16. But to run away from Miriam, he must also run away from the possible futures that both he and his parents have imagined for him. He does not finish school or go to university, nor does he fulfill Miriam’s fantasy and go to music college. Instead, he enters into a decades-long semi-adulthood, living a blurrily sketched bohemian life. At some points he wants to be a poet or an “intellectual”; at others he makes ends meet as a musician. His liberation from Miriam comes with its own burdens: He spends his teens and 20s wending his way through assorted freelance jobs and unsuccessful love affairs, always chasing a “hopeless dream” of a thrilling passion that he can never again attain, even though, when he had it, it was not always happily.

By his late 20s, Roland is still adrift, but he is partly guided by a desire to make up for his lost education, and so he seeks out another strong-willed woman to play the part of teacher. She is Alissa Eberhardt, his instructor in a conversational German class. Roland’s return to a routine of “lessons” lays the ground for a new life: Alissa eventually becomes his wife, and they have a child together, Lawrence, and embark on a generic suburban family existence. But this attempt at stability ends before it ever really begins. If Roland’s relationship with Miriam provides the perpetual undercurrent of anxious memory and thwarted potential that courses through Lessons, the unhappy aftermath of his marriage gives the novel its loose chronological structure, the initial present-day from which his wandering memories depart. When we first meet Roland, it’s 1986, and Alissa has just disappeared from their home in London, abandoning him and 7-month-old Lawrence to pursue her own dreams of becoming the greatest novelist of her generation. Caring for the baby single-handedly, Roland is plagued by his dreams and memories of Miriam, the other woman who wronged him two decades ago. From there, we follow Roland through single parenthood, further romantic entanglements, and a constant stream of memories of the Britain of yore, even as we march up to the present.

Considering the nature of his relationships, it’s no wonder that Roland clings to the brief episodes of perceived human kindness and optimism that he witnesses, whether in the postwar British welfare state or in early ’80s East Berlin, where he smuggles Bob Dylan and Velvet Underground records through Checkpoint Charlie at the request of a couple he befriends in the GDR. In these moments, we begin to see Roland’s understanding of the world take shape. While he prides himself on his interest in broader systems and on his autodidactic understanding of topics ranging from contemporary politics to quantum mechanics, his own actions are often driven only by his ephemeral passions. Despite this, Roland always manages to get by: Whether it is through luck or something else, he never knows, though he is painfully aware of his own lack of self-determination. “How easy it was to drift through an unchosen life, in a succession of reactions to events,” McEwan writes. “He had never made an important decision.”

Instead of investigating his own sense of hapless non-agency, Roland often muses about the decisive moments of history taking place around him. Even before he has his first piano lesson, he is preoccupied with romantic memories of the Suez Canal crisis and how, as an 8-year-old in British-occupied Libya, he and his fellow expat children were sent briefly to an army camp until they could be evacuated back home, in the midst of the growing antipathy toward Britain as a result of its actions in Egypt. As Roland gets older, world-historical events take up more and more space in the narration of his story, often inextricably linked—sometimes with unbelievable coincidence—to the major events of his personal life. His sexual enthrallment to Miriam is tied to the apocalyptic angst of the Cuban missile crisis. Alissa’s vanishing heralds the post-Chernobyl panic about nuclear clouds spreading across Europe. Roland and Alissa meet again at the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Beyond these moments of peak historical and personal drama, Roland’s story is also interwoven with lengthy disquisitions on all of the other notable events that happened along the way, sometimes jarringly mixing the personal and the (entirely unrelated) political in the same breath. When his mother dies, we are informed that “the funeral…was the day after the general election, the reckoning of New Labour’s landslide victory.” The intermingling of personal biography and dry historical context might have been interesting in theory, but it feels extremely contrived in practice. It also becomes repetitive: Of the 14-year-old Roland, McEwan muses that “this was what the far-off belligerent gods, Khrushchev and Kennedy, had arranged for him,” while of the seventysomething Roland he observes, “Those angry or disappointed gods in modern form, Hitler, Nasser, Khrushchev, Kennedy and Gorbachev may have shaped his life but that gave Roland no insight into international affairs.”

So what are the lessons of Lessons? This is where things get a little fuzzy. The book seems interested in exploring the failings of Roland’s sense that his personal life has been inexorably directed by the course of history. This might be, the novel appears to suggest, both an act of wishful self-exoneration and the cause of his mostly unproductive life. But McEwan often seems to let Roland off the hook, allowing for the possibility that his course in life was indeed set by the winds of history. Part Two of the novel opens with a chain of “events and accidents, personal and global, minuscule and momentous” that reads like a gloss on the old proverb: Instead of a kingdom being lost for want of a horseshoe nail, Roland meets Alissa because Hitler had invaded Poland. It is, he thinks, “commonplace and wondrous.”

This faith in an unseen chain of causality is what allows Roland to maintain his particular sense of political idealism. Despite the doubled trauma of sexual abuse and abandonment that shapes first his childhood and then his entry into adulthood, he holds on to a lingering version of the same Candide-like sense that had struck him in the aftermath of that traffic accident: that the world is tending inevitably toward moral rectitude and goodness. This faith is perhaps most clearly elaborated in his exhilaration at the end of the Cold War; it is also seen in his later confidence in Tony Blair’s third-way politics, and earlier in his ill-advised speculation that Margaret Thatcher’s rise “might, just possibly, advance the cause of women’s empowerment.” Through a happy accident, Roland finds himself in Berlin at the fall of the wall, buffeted by crowds flowing from west to east, east to west. From his giddy standpoint, he muses: “The Cold War’s nuclear menace was over. The great disarmament could begin. History books would close with this…. The new century would be fundamentally different, fundamentally better, wiser.” If there is a tinge of humor to be found in Lessons, it is of a weary and wearying kind. Knowing, as we do, that history famously did not end with the Cold War, we are expected to give an indulgent half-smile to the earnest naivete of Roland’s unbounded optimism.

Unbounded, but not exactly unfounded—and this, too, is one of the lessons Roland eventually learns. His optimism is not entirely unjustified. It is, McEwan tells us, the product of Roland’s historical luck, his oft-commented-on good fortune at being born in the right place, at the right time, and of the right race and gender. Thanks to this fluke, Roland is uniquely set up to drift through life sanguinely. Despite his personal misfortunes and his aimless life as a failed writer, single father, and semi-employed lounge pianist, history almost always seems to come to his rescue. For much of his life, “the greater network of kindness” that he saw at work on the day of the accident does support him; he begins life at an idealistic, experimental, state-funded boarding school and approaches its end on a government pension, albeit an insufficient one. Indeed, one of the main lessons he receives over the course of the novel is that the same is not true for the generations that preceded or succeeded his: “It was common enough for Roland and his cohort as they turned adult in England to wonder at the dangers they never had to face…. His generation were also more fortunate than the one that followed. His lot lolled on history’s aproned lap, nestling in a little fold of time, eating all the cream.”

This awareness comes relatively early in the novel and in Roland’s life, but it takes decades to truly sink in. By the end of Lessons, Roland has come to terms with the end of his generation’s run of luck and the consequences of its blinkered worldview. His gradual arrival at this realization is enacted heavy-handedly, by a bathetic scene of fisticuffs between the elderly Roland and the closest thing the novel has to a villain, a former friend turned Brexiteer politician and general Tory evildoer. This long-delayed reckoning with the damage done to the world over the course of his lifetime, from which he and those of his class have benefited, parallels his eventual reckoning with the damage done to him by both Miriam and Alissa—a double realization that is most clearly illustrated by Roland’s final meeting with Alissa, who is now at death’s door and suffering from a range of ailments, from lung cancer to social media cancellation. Seeing her, Roland is forced to take stock of everything that has happened to each of them, and to decide what can be forgiven and what cannot. This belated awareness is reinforced in the novel’s final chapters with the undramatic, genuinely sad refrain that resonates quietly through its later sections: “That was the nature of the harm.”

But what exactly was the nature of the harm? The obvious answer can be found in the various minor or major failings of Roland’s life, all the missed chances and scuttled possibilities. The reader is never left entirely sure, though, because Roland’s way of processing (or refusing to process) all the harm that has been inflicted on him is not by acting but by always remaining acted upon. This habit creates an intriguing problem for the book: We have to wonder whether Roland would have lived a different life without these traumas, or whether this passivity is not a dysfunctional coping mechanism but his actual character. Although Roland remains the tight focus of the third-person narration’s limited perspective throughout the novel, we never get a truly intimate sense of his inner self. Often it seems that Roland does not have a sense of it either. Near the end of the book, as he moves through his 60s and 70s, he does begin to know himself in one sense, and we with him: Much attention is paid to the everyday dangers of domestic life that threaten the aging body. In these scenes of physical discomfort and anxiety about how to respond to the material reality of old age, McEwan provides us with many of the novel’s finest, most moving moments. But by the time we get there, it’s too late—perhaps not for Roland, but certainly for the readers, who have spent upwards of 400 pages waiting to get under his skin.

The absence of a real intimacy with Roland might have been remedied by the presence of compelling and believable secondary characters, but Miriam and Alissa are the only two other figures who are given the opportunity to account for themselves in any way, which they both do in brief scenes that are, admittedly, effective and affecting: Miriam is given a couple of pages to explain her mad sexual obsession with the teenage Roland, and Alissa has a fleeting opportunity to narrate their split from her perspective. One cannot help but feel from quite early on that they are both thought experiments in the reversal of gender roles. As the police detective investigating Roland’s abuse by Miriam notes, it is far more common for an adult man to abuse a juvenile girl. Likewise, as we are reminded through an awkward digression on Robert Lowell’s treatment of Elizabeth Hardwick, we are all too familiar with the story of a male artist who takes advantage of and then abandons a female partner. But, McEwan asks, with perhaps a little too much glee, what if the tables were turned?

There are other characters who pique both Roland’s interest and the reader’s, such as Alissa’s mother and his own—women whose fascinating wartime stories are, by necessity, only partly revealed. But throughout the book, they seem to be as much ciphers for the World War II generation as Roland, Alissa, and Miriam are for the postwar one. The same goes for Roland’s millennial son and daughter-in-law. At times, the representative sketchiness of the novel’s social world approaches the comic; McEwan describes Roland’s diverse network of unnamed friends in the heyday of Tony Blair’s New Labour as

a shifting, ill-defined group. Many worked in the public sector—teachers, civil servants, a GP…. There was also a cello maker, an independent-bookshop owner, a builder and a professional bridge player. The average age was around forty-five. Most were parents, none was rich, though everybody earned more than Roland. Most were heavily mortgaged, many had been married twice and had complicated families and complex weekly arrangements. Almost all had been educated by the state. There was a fair national and racial mix. The two schoolteachers were third-generation Caribbean. The bridge player was of Japanese extraction. Occasionally, Americans, French and Germans passed through.

We don’t get any explanation of how Roland came by these friends, and none of them get speaking lines. The idealized model of 1990s middle-class multiculturalism played out here feels so on the nose that it might be a joke—but by now the reader is well aware that deadpan jokes are not the style of this novel.

The humorlessness of Lessons is made all the more apparent when we come back to the comparison McEwan all but forces on us—a comparison we are invited to make at the beginning of the novel as well as at its end, when we find Roland in his 70s, deciding to read The Man Without Qualities in the original German as he waits out Britain’s first Covid lockdown. The comparison is not always kind. If Musil’s story offered an ironic and knowing postmortem of the pre–World War I years, is there any biting social commentary or criticism to be had in McEwan’s more earnest and often self-indulgently loitering account of the second half of the 20th century and the first decades of the 21st? Lessons ends with Roland emerging from his pandemic isolation, feeling older and wiser. And yet the ultimate lesson articulated by the novel’s final paragraphs is the most hackneyed, obvious one of all. Looking at his young granddaughter, Roland muses that “he loved her and in the liberated moment he thought that he hadn’t learned a thing in life and he never would.” In short: Life is simply for living.

This is an unsatisfactory, too-neat conclusion to McEwan’s necessarily messy project—and one we can imagine the Austrian novelist almost certainly sending up. Musil’s Man Without Qualities may be incomplete, generically noncommittal, and, in various ways, inaccessible—but what it lacks in these areas it makes up for in charisma, wit, and sheer unexpectedness, leaving an idiosyncratic philosophical account of its time. McEwan’s Lessons, on the other hand, is straightforward and painstaking in its comprehensiveness, but it ultimately aspires to teach us too much of what we already know.

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