Book review: Lessons, by Ian McEwan

Lessons may not be Ian McEwan’s sharpest novel, but it is certainly one of his most humane and agreeable, writes Allan Massie

Ian McEwan PIC: Anthony Harvey / AFP via Getty Images
Ian McEwan PIC: Anthony Harvey / AFP via Getty Images

Ian McEwan has been the most consistently successful of the novelists who were famous as young writers in the 1970s and 80s. His novels were slim and elegant, his characters credible, their problems both personal and public; McEwan was alert to social and political issues. So there was always something discussible. They had subjects people would argue about. The characters might be somewhat lifeless, as if they had been framed to make a point. Moreover the writing was clear and elegant. You might say McEwan’s range was limited, but this after all has been the case with many fine novelists who mark out their own territory, however narrow it may be. Then, McEwan has always been a moralist; his novels engaged in moral argument.

In one sense Lessons is no different. Somerset Maugham once brought out a collection of stories with the title The Mixture As Before; very reassuring for his faithful public, even if not perhaps likely to attract new readers. Well, Lessons is indeed the mixture as before, or even more so, but on a different scale. Perhaps Covid and lockdown are to blame. Instead of a slim, stylish novel, we have an old-fashioned, baggy, discursive work. There’s some resemblance to the later novels of Margaret Drabble. This is rather agreeable.

Roland, who is at the heart of the novel, is an apparently unheroic hero, though, more fairly perhaps, there is a quiet heroism in his acceptance of failures and determination to keep on going. We meet him first as a schoolboy at a state boarding-school, where he endures the abusive attentions of the twenty-something woman who is his piano teacher. Then there is a quick cut to the grown-up Roland whose half-German wife, a young woman with literary ambitions, has just left him, also abandoning their infant son. Perhaps he has disposed of her? As for the piano teacher, the changed climate about such things in recent years – McEwan has always been alertly up-to-date – will lead the reader to expect some development.

Lessons, by Ian McEwan

The novel moves back and forward in time, reflecting Roland’s memories of his experience: childhood in Libya where his father, an army officer risen from the ranks, was serving; reflections on his parents’ difficult, often perplexing marriage. All the personal family side of the novel is good. Roland, though failing at much, deserves respect. He is quite an agreeable, if low-spirited, companion through the years.

McEwan’s treatment of this life story shows how much more difficult this kind of novel is for the writer today than it used to be for the Victorians. They could easily, if they pleased, ignore public events in the world beyond the private lives of their characters. This is hard to do in our time, when we are bombarded by information. So, for instance, we have to see how Roland reacts to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, even though there is nothing new or interesting that can be said about this, nothing new or interesting about Roland’s response, which doesn’t even tell us much about him. For much of the novel he becomes the model modern citizen, less acting than acted upon. How, at one point he wonders, can he be so poor when his income is a little above the national average?

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Somewhat surprisingly, Lessons has failed to make the Booker longlist. Perhaps in its talkative humane way it seems rather old-fashioned. This is, of course, the fate that threatens the darlings of decades that are now well in the past, but not sufficiently so as to be seen as fascinating but no longer immediately relevant history. The wheel of fashion turns and yesterday’s stars shine only dimly. Perhaps Ian McEwan has arrived at that time when the swing-door of fashion sends an author stumbling into a cold dark street. If so, it’s sad and a shame. Lessons may not be McEwan’s sharpest novel, but it is one of his most humane and agreeable. It is continuously interesting and pleasing, and that is more – much more – than an be said for many novels that by their determined oddity impress the judges of many book prizes.

Lessons, by Ian McEwan, Jonathan Cape. 483pp. £20