It is about sexual abuse, the contradiction between art and life and the impact of global disasters on personal life. The new book by the successful British author McEwan covers a very wide area.
Hanover – Sex and guilt, desire and death are themes that have played a major role in Ian McEwan’s books since the beginning of his career. There is incest between brother and sister in “Cementhaven” (1979), while the mother’s concrete corpse rots in the basement.
In the world bestseller “Atonement” (2001), which was filmed with Saoirse Ronan and Keira Knightley, a 13-year-old woman accuses her sister’s secret lover of rape, ruining his life.
First sex before nuclear war
The new novel by the successful British author entitled “Lessons” begins with a crushing scene: piano teacher Miriam Cornell grabs eleven-year-old Roland Baines’ shorts and pinches him painfully on the inner thigh. The year is 1959. At the end of the disturbing one-on-one lesson, she kisses the boy and asks him to visit her. In fact, the boarding school student agrees, but only three years later. Roland cycles to see the lonely teacher – the Cuban Missile Crisis scares him, and the 14-year-old doesn’t want to die in the event of a nuclear war without ever having had sex.
The next two years would change his relationship with women forever. “That piano teacher… She rewired your brain,” his girlfriend Alissa tells Roland some 25 years later. The couple stay with Alissa’s parents in Liebenau, Lower Saxony, where they father their son Lawrence, marry soon after and buy a house in London. How Alissa disappeared one morning, leaving Roland alone with the baby is another powerful scene at the beginning of the 700+ page novel.
The author’s shadow
Lessons is McEwan’s 17th novel, it is longer than his previous books and contains far more autobiographical elements. “Roland is in a way my shadow – or maybe I am his shadow,” said the 74-year-old author in an interview with “Süddeutsche Zeitung”. McEwan describes the main character as a kind of alter ego. “Some of what he experiences is exactly what happened to me, some of his feelings are 100 percent mine. Nevertheless, and fortunately, he has a completely different life than I do,” the writer told “Spiegel “.
Like Roland Baines, McEwan spent part of his early childhood in Libya, the son of a British officer, and was then sent to boarding school in England by his parents. But according to the acknowledgments of the new book, there was never a piano teacher like Miriam Cornell at his school.
“Lessons” is not only more personal, but also more extravagant than previous works by the award-winning author. The novel does not revolve around a central theme such as artificial intelligence in “Machines Like Me” (2019) or stalking in “Love Delusion” (1997). Sexual abuse is only one problem among many. It is also about how our parents’ experiences and traumas shape us, how relationships can succeed, and whether artists must break away from family obligations to create great works.
He describes a long decline
The plot stretches from the post-war years to the Corona pandemic, at many points in the novel you want to shake or at least hug the main character Roland Baines: He makes ends meet with small articles, as a tennis teacher and bar pianist – the women who hurt him, he generally forgives. There is optimism about human relations, but the assessment of the world political situation is gloomy.
McEwan also uses his novel to judge his generation harshly. “We have gotten used to the loss of hope that our children will be better off than ourselves,” the 74-year-old told the Süddeutsche Zeitung. “What I ultimately describe in my book is a long decline. From the fall of the Berlin Wall, which seemed to open up so many possibilities, to the storming of the Capitol in January 2021 and the climate disaster.”
At an advanced age, McEwan takes the liberty of packing a great deal of material into one work and thereby also teaching his readers “lessons”. Liebenau’s father-in-law belonged to the wider circle of the Munich resistance group “White Rose”, which allows McEwan to detail Hans and Sophie Scholl’s fight against the Nazis and their execution in 1943. Other subjects include the Chernobyl disaster, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the attitude to life after the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 and 2005 in London and Brexit.
McEwan has been telling stories in an entertaining and poignant way for decades. In his struggle to get through each day in a somewhat decent way, his hero Roland Baines is a likable protagonist who, despite all the personal and global disasters, finds a little hope at the end of the novel. Thus, McEwan does not leave his readers completely discouraged.
Ian McEwan: Lessons, Diogenes Verlag, 720 pages, ISBN:
978-3-257-07213-6, 32 euros, also available as e-book or audiobook.