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The disquieting lessons of Ian McEwan

  • 14 June 2023
Content warning: This article contains references to abuse and sexual themes.   The publication last Christmas of Ian McEwan's ambitious novel Lessons, radically different from anything he had done previously, is a chance to look at his whole literary career, not least because of its combination of lameness and ambitious realization.

The Child in Time is a good place to start with Ian McEwan because it did so much to indicate, back in 1987, that he was a major novelist. The elegance and energy of the prose — its coloration and also its bravura — stands in contrast with a lot of what came after it, not least this new and confounding book, Lessons. The language of The Child in Time is the language of a writer who can conjure worlds and who is the master of a realism he can disnature as well as bring to fulfilment.

Jigging and weaving to overtake Stephen remained as always, though barely consciously, on the watch for children, for a five-year-old girl. It was more than a habit for a habit could be broken. This was a deep disposition, the outline experience had stencilled on character. It was not principally a search, though it had once been an obsessive hunt, and for a long time too. Two years on only vestiges of that remained: now it was a longing, a dry hunger. There was a biological clock, dispassionate in its unstoppability, which let his daughter go on growing, extended and complicated her simple vocabulary, made her stronger, her movements surerer…

This novel is a kind of dream image of modern late 80s Britain and the tightly pulled yet exuberant lineage which McEwan inhabits like a cloak of rhetoric a bit the way (to compare distinguished things with ultimate yardsticks) Shakespeare is a master of a thousand rhetorics plain and fancy which he can lift, when he wants to transfigure things into poetry. And the pressurized formal intensity of McEwan’s language in The Child in Time works to enable us to have a provisional faith in the strangeness of the story he is telling and the way its reality (its high mimetic achievement) is not separate from McEwan’s ability to dislocate his formal realism which is both highly accomplished and capable of effects of defamiliarisation, of ostranenie — all that Russian formalist abracadabra which was fashionable at the time. And it also tallies with a sense of modernist injunctions to