Lessons by Ian McEwan review – life-and-times epic of a feckless boomer

McEwan takes aim at the postwar generation in this old-fashioned but generous and humane portrait of individual indecision against the backdrop of history

Ian McEwan’s last book, 2019’s The Cockroach, was a petty-hearted Brexit fable and Kafka spoof. Instead of a man waking in the body of a bug, a bug wakes in the body of the British prime minister. Ensconced at No 10, the insect PM sets about creating a squalid paradise for his fellow critters – a septic isle. It’s not hard to reduce the UK to filth and ruin: just give the idiot humans exactly what they want.

The Cockroach was less a satire than a sneer, a book that set out to entrench rather than interrogate the divisions that led to Brexit. It was all carapace, no guts: a testament to the easy, insular comforts of self-righteousness. It seemed McEwan had finally succumbed to that curmudgeonly old cliche, the young renegade turned sour and incurious. And so, when it was announced that the veteran author’s new novel would be a 500-page sociopolitical epic – “a chronicle of our times” – it was hard not to be wary. Even the title felt like a scold: Lessons.

McEwan’s 17th novel is old-fashioned, digressive and indulgently long; the hero is a gold-plated ditherer, and the story opens with a teenage wank (few books are improved by an achingly sentimental wank). But Lessons is also deeply generous. It’s compassionate and gentle, and so bereft of cynicism it feels almost radical. Can earnestness be a form of literary rebellion?

In October 1962, at the height of the Cuban missile crisis, an English schoolboy arrives unannounced at his piano teacher’s house. He stands on her doorstep in his drainpipe trousers and sharp-toed winklepickers, twitchy with eroticised terror. The boy, Roland Baines, is 14; his teacher, Miss Cornell, is 25. Roland fears that the world is about to end, and he will die a virgin. Miss Cornell does not turn him away. What happens between them in that quiet cottage will score a line across Roland’s life. It is “the moment from which all else fanned out and upwards with the extravagance of a peacock’s tail”.

The encounter reeks of schoolboy fantasies: an insatiable older woman who offers carnal instruction, then repairs to the kitchen to prepare a Sunday roast. But this discomfort is McEwan’s point. Roland will forever struggle to give his encounter with Miss Cornell moral shape, to pin down “the nature of the harm”. He will mistrust his memory, his intentions, his desires. “You’ll spend the rest of your life looking for what you’ve had here,” Miss Cornell warns him. “That’s a prediction, not a curse.” It is both.

Roland will “drift through an unchosen life” – a creature of reaction. He will drift into marriage and fatherhood, he will drift from career to career, and he will drift through postwar Britain. The reunification of Europe; glasnost and perestroika; Thatcherism and the Aids crisis; New Labour and the Iraq invasion; Brexit and the pandemic: feckless Roland will drift through it all. “By what logic or motivation or helpless surrender did we all, hour by hour, transport ourselves within a generation from the thrill of optimism at Berlin’s falling wall to the storming of the American Capitol?” Lessons asks. Roland is McEwan’s answer – a man who is forever mistaking his indecision for powerlessness, and his comforts for luck. Lessons is a portrait of sociopolitical entropy, a lesson in squandering.

McEwan’s sights are aimed squarely at the generation to which he belongs: those postwar children who “lolled on history’s aproned lap, nestling into a little fold of time, eating all the cream”. Roland is a prototypical baby boomer: raised by war-haunted veterans, loved at arm’s length, and schooled in “nuanced loutishness”. At his state boarding school, young Roland watches his classmates learn to be “conservative guardians of the existing order”, and perfect their tools of influence: satire, parody, mockery. As an adult, he watches as those same bullyboys weaponise that scorn. And yet, beyond smuggling Bob Dylan records into East Berlin in his 20s, Roland is never quite impelled to do anything; he’s complicit in his complacency. He’s voted the right way, after all: his conscience is clear.

The self-interrogative courage that was so palpably missing from The Cockroach is here. So, too, is the humour (a fight with a junior minister – two silver-haired gents wrestling over cremation ashes – is a last-act delight). Lessons is McEwan’s answer to William Boyd’s Any Human Heart, John Williams’s Stoner, or Richard Ford’s Bascombe trilogy: novels that refract history through the life of one man. They are novels pinned to time but, in their intimacies, they also affirm something elemental. Lessons is the book it hopes to be: a hymn to the “commonplace and wondrous”, a tale of humane grace.

But it’s the female characters – from joyful children to art monsters – who give this novel its heft and verve (and perhaps its title). Next to them, McEwan’s everyman feels a little gormless and grey. There’s Miss Cornell, of course, with her piano lessons and her terrifying thrall; and Roland’s timorous mother, whose cast-iron silences hide a story of wartime shame. There’s Roland’s best friend, who teaches him how to die; and his mother-in-law, who – for the briefest of moments – lives the life she wanted. And then there is Alissa, Roland’s first wife, who chooses her writerly ambitions over motherhood, and leaves him in embittered awe.

Roland learns from them all, lesson after lesson, everything from the demands of genius to the virtue of a clean kitchen table. It’s a wearying trope: women as instruments and catalysts of male insight. But as Roland’s granddaughter reminds him: “A shame to ruin a good tale by turning it into a lesson.”

  • Lessons by Ian McEwan (Vintage Publishing, £20). To support The Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.


Beejay Silcox

The GuardianTramp

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