Review of the book “Lessons” by Ian McEwan
It’s sure to come back now.
McEwan’s new novel, “Lessons,” is a profound demonstration of his remarkable talent. Although the story shares some tantalizing similarities to the author’s life, it is not a roman à clef. Instead, he portrays an ordinary man, a failed writer, rocked by intimate and international crises over more than seven decades. And for an author famous for his brevity, “Lessons” is also his longest novel. Here, finally, McEwan – who won the Booker Award in 1998 for ‘Amsterdam’ – basks in all the space he needs to record the mysterious interplay of will and chance, time and memory.
The man at the center of this story is Roland Baines. For many years he claimed to consider himself a professional poet – or at least a potential poet. We meet him in 1986 shortly after the disappearance of his wife, a fellow writer, leaving him and their baby behind. The police suspect foul play, but Roland has no reason to doubt his wife’s explanation. “Don’t try to find me,” she wrote on a note on her pillow. “I love you but it’s for good. I’ve lived the wrong life.
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His sudden disappearance, combined with the exhaustion of caring for a baby and the anxiety of the disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, pushes Roland’s mind back to an earlier betrayal. When he was 14 at an English boarding school, his piano teacher, Miss Miriam Cornell, groomed, seduced, and kept him in her home as a sex slave. Roland knows, on some level, that the two women – his former piano teacher and his wandering wife – are not analogous, nor are their actions, but he can’t help but blame them both for misrepresenting his life at crucial moments.
What follows is an extraordinarily deft depiction of how too early a sexual experience permanently stains Roland’s romantic expectations. In her painful memories of those months, we see Miss Cornell’s perverted desires only through a boy’s pride and excitement. To us, she’s a demoniac of manipulation, but to young Roland – adrift in a world bracing for nuclear annihilation by Kennedy or Khrushchev – Miss Cornell looks like salvation itself.
When their relationship ends, Roland is plagued by a terrible mistaken sense of his moral culpability and a fractured sense of self-efficacy. “It never occurred to her that her behavior was depraved, despicable,” writes McEwan, but years later, a grown lover clearly sees the impact: “That piano teacher . . . she rewired your brain.
All of this unresolved psychological damage is exhausted when Roland’s wife abandons him. Different kinds of shame remain hopelessly mixed up in his mind, effectively rendering him listless. It doesn’t help that his absent wife achieves the literary success he’s long dreamed of. Worse, she becomes one of Europe’s most famous writers, an eternal Nobel contender, while Roland and his son fade into the footnotes of his biography.
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But McEwan never loses track of Roland. “Lessons” progresses in time like a rising tide takes the beach: a cycle of forward thrusts and seeping retreats, giving us a clearer and fuller sense of Roland’s life. He remains alone, unengaged, often unemployed – tragically dedicated to a teenage fantasy that was never valid in the first place. “How easy it was to drift into an unchosen life,” he thinks.
He becomes a sort of Zelig character going through momentous changes at the end of the 20th century. “In a well-settled expansive mood,” writes McEwan, “Roland occasionally reflected on events and accidents, personal and global, minute and large, which had shaped and determined his existence. His case was not special – all fates are made in the same way.
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Indeed, even more so than McEwan’s earlier novels, “Lessons” is a story that embraces its historical context so fully that it challenges the synthetic timelessness of much contemporary fiction. Roland may be imaginary, but he is intertwined with the social and political developments that have shaped all of our lives, including the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the redevelopment of Eastern Europe, the transformation of the British economy by Margaret Thatcher and, of course, the covid pandemic. .
Roland, clearly channeling McEwan, 74, thinks it would be “a shame to spoil a good story by turning it into a lesson”. Looking back on his life, “when he asked himself if he wished none of this had happened, he didn’t have a ready answer.” But from the perspective of old age, the great chain of cause and effect stretches behind Roland with instructive clarity. A cursed marriage gave him the blessing of a wonderful son; years of loneliness finally led to true happiness. Could a bad stone in the rickety structure of his life have been removed without threatening the whole?
Some readers may think “Lessons” is too sparing of drama, especially given the length of the book, but I think it demonstrates the particular power of the novel form. There is something close to the divine in this process of creating a person’s entire lifespan embroidered with threads trailing in all directions. Here is a narrative that moves with such patient dedication into the twisted details of an ordinary man’s experience that by the end I knew Roland better than I know most of my current friends.
Ron Charles book reviews and writing Book club newsletter for the Washington Post.
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