Chance plays a role in all of our lives.
In his latest story, Lesson, Ian McEwan shares his own intimate background with its central character, Roland Baines. That is, until a twist happens that leads young Roland down a path that is very different from McEwan’s own. From the desert camp in Libya, to the end of the war in Britain, to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Brexit crisis – McEwan follows his fiction throughout a life marked by historical events.
McEwan is one of the most famous British writers, known for his compelling fiction that connects with reality and problems. His 17 novels have won the Booker Prize Amsterdam and very popular Atonement, which became an award-winning film starring Keira Knightly. Many of his other titles have also been adapted for the screen, including The Concrete Garden, The Comfort of Strangers, The Chastity, Eternal Love, On Chesil beach and Juvenile Law.
McEwan spoke to Eleanor Wachtel on stage in September 2022 before an audience at the Toronto International Festival of Authors.
“I always like character.
“It’s an interesting process how we get from real people to symbols on a page that creates in your mind a sense of the truth of a person. page – from Jane Austen right to Gustave Flaubert, to George Eliot, Anthony Trollope, Dickens and others.
I thought that if we could follow and truly live inside a person throughout life, then remove the whole business of personality and their own feelings – that sense of self that changes.
“I thought that if we could follow and really live inside a person throughout life, it would destroy the whole business of personality and their own sense of self – that sense of self. change it.
Dream of what could have been
“I’ve always been interested in the role of adversity in our lives. A biologist said to me, ‘If your parents had made love two seconds later, you wouldn’t be here.’
“Lesson this is my truest story. When I had my first dream thoughts about this story, I thought of the tape, if I could just call it that, an example of the way major world crises or international crises, big things, it penetrates our lives and disturbs us. . Maybe throw them another way. And even if we are not news, they can shape the quality of the cultural and political belief or uncertainty that is in the air.
“So my first thought about this story was, ‘What if I just weave together all the events of my life in the life of a fictional character as a kind of alter-ego – the life I would have lived if I had left school at 16. ?'”
“My father was wounded in Dunkirk and was no longer fit for the war, so he was in a small garrison town in the south of England, there he met the e mother, who was married at the time but her husband was fighting in the war. My mother has already had two children and she conceived a boy with the man who will one day be my father.
“So he gave a baby to his brother’s company on Reading Station. And 60-odd years later, that baby came into our lives – my whole brother.
“That mystery filled my understanding of the sadness that surrounded my mother.”
It’s a disappearing image
“In a box, in my study that is gathering dust, there is an old brown envelope with black and white photographs. Go to war in North Africa.
“On either side of him sits a two-year-old and a four-year-old boy, who has long black hair and looks very straight, sure, straight to the camera. and he has a real sense of resilience about him.
“I never knew that woman. That woman disappeared on Reading Station when she delivered a baby.
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Life changing things
“For Roland inside Lesson, the Cuban Missile Crisis is about feeling like the world might end and she’s a virgin. It leads to a set of circumstances that one can see as the most destructive for him because he, at the age of 14, started a relationship with his piano teacher. It lasts two years and it doesn’t destroy him, but it scares him.
“His life goes on a different path.
“There are many things about that relationship. First, I wanted something to happen in life. I already thought that he would meet her one day. I don’t know what will happen. happened there, but I also knew that I had written a very long story, and keeping these stories alive until he was 70 years old was very important.
“It’s a fundamental problem, it’s very strong. One of its important characteristics is that Roland believes that he is the one who has the agency. But in fact, he has already been decorated in 11 of his years, three years ago. His mind was already made up by him, as it were.
“For a long time, he runs away from it. He doesn’t think about it, or he can control it, and then it starts to interfere with his relationships with friends and women.”
It’s a rural life
“I think hindsight is something we have all our lives. I think the disease forced that kind of thinking about who we are, how we got here, what our childhood was like, what our parents were like – whether they loved us enough. or too much – and so on.
For all of us, there are the darkest moments, for sure, that will trouble us.
“For all of us, there are dark moments, of course, that will trouble us. What interests me is how we write or rewrite in our minds. It is not they look the same to you when you’re 30 as they do when you’re 60.
“If you become a parent, you may be more forgiving of your own parents and there may be parts of your life that are dark for a long time, just as there are things that happen that are very bright. yes, but it looks different. over time, and I think, just like when you die but still have socks that don’t fit in your sock, you won’t classify your life.
It will always be a work in progress.”
Ian McEwan’s comments have been edited for length and clarity.