Sex and guilt, lust and death are themes that have featured prominently in Ian McEwan's books since the beginning of his career. There's the incest between brother and sister in 'The Cement Garden' (1979) while the mother's concrete-cast corpse rots in the basement.
In the world bestseller "Atonement" (2001), which was filmed with Saoirse Ronan and Keira Knightley, a 13-year-old accuses her sister's secret lover of rape and thus destroys his life.
First sex before nuclear war
The new novel by the successful British author entitled "Lessons" begins with an oppressive scene: the piano teacher Miriam Cornell grabs eleven-year-old Roland Baines' shorts and pinches him painfully on the inside of his thigh. The year is 1959. At the end of the disturbing one-on-one lesson, she kisses the boy and tells him to visit her. In fact, the boarding school student agrees, but only three years later. Roland rides his bike to visit the single 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 will change his relationship with women forever. "That piano teacher... She rewired your brain," his girlfriend Alissa says to Roland about 25 years later. The couple is with Alissa's parents in Liebenau, Lower Saxony, where they father their son Lawrence, marry shortly thereafter, and buy a house in London. How Alissa disappeared one morning and left 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'm his shadow," said the 74-year-old writer in an interview with the "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 author told the "Spiegel".
"Lessons" is not only more personal, but also more extravagant than earlier 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 just one issue among many. It's also about how our parents' experiences and traumas shape us, how relationships can succeed and whether artists have to break out of family commitments in order 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 one would like to shake or at least nudge the main character Roland Baines: He makes ends meet with small articles, as a tennis teacher and bar pianist - the women who injured 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 harshly judge his generation. "We've gotten used to the disappearance of hope that our children will be better off than ourselves," the 74-year-old told the Süddeutsche Zeitung. "What I'm ultimately describing 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 catastrophe."
In old age, McEwan takes the liberty of packing a great deal of material into one work and thus also teaching his readers "lessons". The father-in-law in Liebenau belonged to the wider circle of the Munich resistance group "White Rose", which gives McEwan the opportunity to tell in detail about Hans and Sophie Scholl's fight against the Nazis and their execution in 1943. Other topics include the Chernobyl disaster, the fall of the Wall in Berlin, attitudes towards life after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and 2005 in London, and Brexit.
McEwan has been telling stories in an entertaining and gripping way for decades. In his struggle to get through every day in a reasonably decent way, his hero Roland Baines is a sympathetic main character who, despite all the personal and global catastrophes, finds a little hope at the end of the novel. With that, McEwan doesn't leave his readers completely discouraged.
Ian McEwan: Lessons, Diogenes Verlag, 720 pages, ISBN: 978-3-257-07213-6, 32 euros, also available as an e-book or audio book.