By Ian McEwan
431 pages. Alfred A. Knopf. $30.
Nobody is better at writing about entropy, indignity and ejaculation — among other topics — than Ian McEwan. He specializes in the mental life of one particular, culturally endemic type: the contemporary middle-class British male. His characters are occasionally lecherous, often bitter and always secularly human.
“Lessons” begins with one such specimen. Roland Baines and his parents arrive in London from Libya in the late summer of 1959. Roland’s father is part of the British Army contingent in North Africa; his mother works at a Y.M.C.A. in Tripoli. Roland is 11 years old and it is time he received a proper education: Latin, French, cricket, rugby, piano. His piano instructor is the rosewater-scented Miss Miriam Cornell, a pretty sadist who pinches Roland’s thigh when he biffs a section of Bach. Then she plants a kiss on his mouth, and invites him — orders him — to visit her at home during the next school holiday.
He doesn’t make that journey until a bit later, when he is 14 and Miriam 25. A mutual sexual obsession begins. Intercourse with Roland is the queasiest but not the only expression of Miriam’s monstrosity. She locks the boy’s clothing and money in a shed, keeping him hostage. At dinner one night, she slides an envelope across the table containing marriage paperwork. It’s not a proposal but a command: Roland is to show up at the registry office, pen in hand, and do her bidding.
After a passel of potential last straws, the marriage dictum does the trick. Roland begins to understand that Miriam is a lunatic, and that her flavor of lunacy is not the kind that can be sprinkled over his life as a zesty enhancement but the kind that leads directly to squalor and despair.
One of McEwan’s talents is to mingle the lovely with the nasty. Most of the lovely-nasty images I yearn to cite are not printable here, but I’d refer you to the scene in his short novel “On Chesil Beach” that involves the phrase “emptied himself over her in gouts” or all of “The Cement Garden” or much of “Nutshell,” in which the writer reworked “Hamlet” from the perspective of a baby in utero. McEwan can make a reader feel as though she has bent forward to sniff a rose and received instead the odor of old sewage. That is a compliment.
Interspersed with the Miriam scenes are sections that take place throughout Roland’s future, starting in 1986. Miriam is gone. Roland has married a German woman, Alissa, who vanishes shortly after the birth of their infant son. The disappearance is voluntary; a note on Alissa’s pillow instructs Roland not to look for her: “I’m OK. It’s not your fault. I love you but this is for good. I’ve been living the wrong life.” She leaves her house keys on the bed.
Roland enters automaton mode. He cares for the baby, eats, sleeps, shops and cleans. Postcards from Alissa arrive. Motherhood, she tells her husband, “would’ve sunk me.” (The “would’ve” is indicative of Alissa’s cleverness; by a trick of grammar her desertion is rendered both complete and inevitable.) Years later, Roland stumbles upon his estranged wife in a cafe and learns that she has had a novel accepted for publication. She gives him a copy. If the novel were bad, Roland might have enjoyed the meager pleasure of contempt. Unfortunately, it is brilliant. The poor man has been cuckolded by … literature. Once published, Alissa is compared to Nabokov and Tolstoy. As a German she stands above Günter Grass; she is “almost as big as Mann.”
Roland never saw it coming. The earth teems with unsung geniuses; the business of mass recognition is a fickle one. But most undercover geniuses — and if you’re lucky, you’ve met one! — are at least held in awe by those who know them. So what does it say about Roland that he wed a miraculous mind without noticing? Is it an aesthetic lapse? A marital felony? Or simply an indictment of his mediocrity?
McEwan’s use of global events in his fiction tends to be judicious and revealing. Upon Roland he cropdusts excessive quantities of names and dates: Chernobyl, Hitler, Nasser, Khrushchev, the Cuban missile crisis, Northern Ireland, the Balkans, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, John Major, the Freedom of Information Act, 9/11, Enron, Karl Rove, Gordon Brown, Nigel Farage, Covid.
These all serve as reminders that history is occurring. And maybe some readers do, in fact, require that reminder. But Roland is so passive that one gets the sense he’d be exactly the same guy in any other century, only with a different haircut. In all dimensions he is a recipient and not a bestower — of checks, mail, phone calls, confidences, advice, instructions, orders. In the absence of much physical description it’s easy to picture Roland as a mythical hybrid of man and shopping cart: a wheeled receptacle shoved by unseen hands across the asphalt of life.
Critics have observed that McEwan likes to slice time into “before” and “after” segments by building his plots around a decisive event. Here he delicately transfers the task to Roland, who is ever scrambling to identify his own turning point. That passivity, for example — is it the outcome of Miriam’s early meddling? The eternal inability to thrive — could it originate in Alissa’s abandonment? Did one barbaric woman sketch a blueprint for the second? His attempt to reconcile causes with effects is a consummate failure.
One way to read “Lessons” is as a self-repudiation of the maneuver at which McEwan has become virtuosic. More authors should repudiate their virtuosity. The results are exciting.
Decades after Roland’s last sighting of Miriam, a police officer appears at his door. “A whole new culture” has arisen, the cop explains. Miriam could go to jail for her crimes. But Roland isn’t sure the proposed punishment fits the crime. His mind is a “tipping falling tumult” of contrary notions: The relationship provided joy and erotic purpose; it corrupted him; he was complicit; no, not complicit — complicity is shorthand for a victim’s customary self-blame. Did Miriam destroy him? Was it possible to be destroyed and not know it?
And, title in mind, what lessons has Roland learned? From women, perhaps not much. From the newspapers, that history’s unfurling exists independent of a novelist’s desire to plot and signify. Lucky, then, that Roland has McEwan on his side.