Lessons by Ian McEwan Review – The Epic Life and Times of Born Weak Boomer | Ian McEwan

IMcEwan’s latest book, 2019 cockroachThe Brexit myth was Kafka’s frivolous and cynical. Instead of a man waking up in the body of an insect, a bug wakes up in the body of the British Prime Minister. Kidnapped at Number 10, the Prime Minister sets out to create a filthy paradise for his fellow creatures – a decaying island. It’s not hard to downplay the UK’s role in filth and ruin: just give stupid humans exactly what they want.

The Cockroach was nothing more than satire, a book that aims to solidify rather than question the divisions that led to Brexit. It was all armor, without valor: a testament to easy comforts isolated from self-righteousness. McEwan seems to have finally succumbed to that arrogant old vulgar, and the maverick young man has become sad and indifferent. And so, when it was announced that the veteran author’s new novel would be a 500-page social and political epic – Chronicle of Our Time – it was hard not to be wary. Even the title sounded like a reprimand: Lessons.

McEwan’s seventeenth novel is old-fashioned, discursive and loosely long. The gold-plated trembling hero, and the story begins with a teenage girl (some books are enhanced by painful emotional masturbation). But the lessons are also very generous. He’s compassionate and gentle, and, bereft of irony, he almost seems radical. Could seriousness be a form of literary rebellion?

In October 1962, at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, an English schoolboy arrived without warning at the home of his piano teacher. Standing on her doorstep in his drainpipe pants and sharp fingertips, he suffers from sexual terror. The boy Roland Pines is 14 years old; His teacher, Miss Cornell, is 25 years old. Roland fears the world is about to end, and a virgin dies. Miss Cornell does not reject him. What happens between them in that quiet hut will determine the course of Roland’s life. It is “the moment when everything springs upward with the profusion of the peacock’s tail”.

Smells of meeting schoolchildren’s fantasies: an insatiable old woman giving physical guidance, then kitchen repairs to a Sunday roast. But that annoyance is McEwan’s point. Roland will forever struggle to give moral form to his meeting with Miss Cornell, to determine the “nature of the damage.” He will not trust his memory, intentions and desires. “You will spend the rest of your life looking for what you have here,” Miss Cornell warned him. “This is an expectation, not a curse.” It is both.

Roland will be swept into an unselected life – a creature of reflexes. He would drift into marriage and parenthood, he would drift from one profession to another, and he would drift across post-war Britain. reunification of Europe; Glasnost and perestroika. Thatcherism and the AIDS crisis; The New Labor Party and the invasion of Iraq; Brexit and the pandemic: the hard-earned Roland will get through it all. “By what logic, impulse, or helpless capitulation we have all moved ourselves, hour by hour, through one generation from arousing optimism at the fall of the Berlin Wall to the storming of the US Capitol?” He asks for lessons. Roland is McEwan’s answer – a man forever mistaking his indecision as impotence, and his comforts for luck. Lessons are a picture of social and political entropy, a lesson in waste.

McEwan’s scenes are aimed squarely at his generation: the post-war children who “relaxed in the lap of history, lived in a little barn of time, and ate all the cream.” Roland is a baby boomer prototype: raised by war veterans, lovable at arm’s length, educated in “fine rudeness.” At his state boarding school, young Roland watches his classmates learn to be the “preservative custodians of the present order,” mastering the tools of their influence: satire, parody, and irony. As an adult, these same bully boys view a weapon of such disdain. However, other than smuggling Bob Dylan’s recordings to East Berlin in his twenties, Roland didn’t have to do anything. He is complicit in his satisfaction. He voted the right way, after all: his conscience is clear.

The courage of self-examination that was conspicuously missing from The Cockroach here. So does humor, too (fighting with a junior minister – two silver-haired men wrestling over cremation ashes – is a last-gasp). Lessons is McEwan’s answer to William Boyd What human heartJohn Williams stoneror Richard FordThe Bascombe Trilogy: Narratives Shattering History Through One Man’s Life. They are time-proven novels, but in their intimacy they also emphasize something fundamental. Lessons is the book he hopes to be: a hymn to “The Familiar and the Marvelous,” a story of human grace.

But it is the female characters – from cheerful children to art monsters – that give this novel its weight and vitality (and perhaps its title). And by their side, all of McEwan’s men feel a little grumpy and grey. There is, of course, Miss Cornell with her piano lessons and her terrifying worship. and Roland’s shy mother, whose cast-iron silence conceals a story of wartime disgrace. There is Roland’s best friend who teaches him how to die. And his mother-in-law, who – for the shortest moments – is living the life she wanted. Then there’s Alyssa, Roland’s first wife, who chose her literary ambitions over motherhood, leaving him in bitter awe.

From them all, Roland learns, lesson after lesson, everything from the requirements of genius to the virtue of a clean kitchen table. It’s a stressful metaphor: women as tools and catalysts for masculine insight. But as Roland’s granddaughter reminds him: “It is a shame to ruin a good anecdote by turning it into a lesson.”

Lessons by Ian McEwan published by Jonathan Cape (£20). To support the Guardian and Controller, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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