The inner life of a 1940s-born dilettante records filial emotions with fidelity but doesn’t quite earn the scale on which it is portrayed
The protagonist of Ian McEwan’s new novel is Roland Baines, a “rootless” man, who, having “drifted through scores of jobs”, is a part time tennis coach, piano player, poet, and full-time father. Roland, like McEwan, was born in the late 1940s, and belongs to the generation that “lolled on history’s aproned lap, nestling in a little fold of time, eating all the cream”.
As a boy at an English boarding school, Roland was sexually abused by a young woman who happened to be his piano teacher. The incident marks him for life, and is a recurring trope through the novel.
As Lessons opens, we find Roland, who has just become a father, in a state of dismay and dizzying bewilderment. His wife has abandoned him and his infant son, leaving only a note behind. As Roland tries to come to terms with this catastrophe, we are given — looping back and forth in time — an account of Roland’s life: his childhood in Tripoli; his boarding school days in the English countryside; his itinerant existence in London; his marriage and its breakup; fatherhood, and his relationship with his parents, particularly his long-suffering mother.
Running alongside this story are the echoes of world historical events that impinge directly or indirectly on Roland’s life: the Chernobyl disaster; the birth of the word processor; the fall of the Berlin Wall; the collapse of the Soviet Union; Tony Blair and New Labour breaking the stranglehold of the Conservatives in Britain. It is an ambitious ploy aimed at revealing how one life, despite its particularities and uniqueness, can embody and reflect the changing history of the world.
But it does not always come off. McEwan’s attempt to pack all this in often results in passages reading too much like arid, potted history. “Two years passed, the Falklands War was fought and won, somewhere, beyond most people’s awareness, the foundations of the Internet were laid, Mrs Thatcher and her party won a 144-seat majority in Parliament. Roland turned thirty-five.”
McEwan’s descriptions, be they of a London evening or a small German town, are as vivid as ever. Here he is on Roland, suddenly in funds, taking his son on a holiday: “Mortgage paid off, son brightly clothed, two weeks together on an overlooked Greek island reached by a three-hour speedboat dash across a flat cerulean sea.”
Lessons is at its strongest while portraying relationships, especially filial ones. McEwan’s account of Roland’s new fatherhood and its enchanting mysteries and unconditional love, how he “often marvelled at the mere fact of his son’s existence” is moving. It recalls the American writer, Marylinne Robinson’s wonderful line: “…it’s your existence I love you for, mainly.”
He is equally good at showing the dwindling of one’s ageing parents, and what effect that has on their adult children. “Now, little bits of their lives were beginning to fall away or fly off suddenly… Then larger parts came away and needed to be gathered or caught mid-air by their children.”
In a 2014 interview with The Telegraph (London), McEwan had said that “very few novels earn their length”. He had gone on to describe how much he adored shorter novels that can be read in one sitting “like enjoying a three-hour movie or opera”. The majority of McEwan’s novels — from the disquieting early ones to the Booker Prize winning Amsterdam to the exquisitely crafted On Chesil Beach, to name just a few — fall in that category. Lessons does not earn its length. As a long-time admirer of his work, I can only hope that McEwan reverts to type in his next work.
Lessons By Ian McEwan
pp. 483, Rs 699