Ian McEwan’s 18th novel, Lessons (Knopf, Sept.), cuts a wide swath through history, from post-WWII to the pandemic, with the story told through the experiences of a single man. McEwan—whose work has stirred controversy, received critical acclaim, made bestseller lists, been adapted for film, and received many awards, including the 1998 Booker—writes with passion, humor, and insight in this ambitious novel.
I tell him that the book especially resonates with me, as it encompasses the span of my lifetime.
“You’re as old as I am?” he asks. “I didn’t know anybody else was.”
With that out of the way, I can say how powerful and affecting the book is—it’s a lens into the way past trauma, parenthood, and global events affect a life.
Roland Baines is an 11-year-old boy at boarding school when he attracts the attention of a predatory piano teacher, which leads to encounters that will haunt him for years: “The teacher sat close by him on the long stool. Round-faced, erect, perfumed, strict. Her beauty lay concealed behind her manner.” And then: “Her displeasure came as a quick exhalation through her nostrils, a reverse sniff he had heard before. Her fingers found his inside leg, just at the hem of his grey shorts, and pinched him hard. That night there would be a tiny blue bruise. Her touch was cool as her hand moved up under his shorts to where the elastic of his pants met his skin. He scrambled off the stool and stood, flushed.”
“This was insomniac memory, not a dream,” McEwan writes, but as the adult Roland’s memories “faded into dreaming” he’s awoken by the cries of his infant son. Roland’s wife has disappeared, overwhelmed by domestic duties and wanting an artistic life. She’s left him a note (“Don’t try to find me. I’m OK”) along with baby Lawrence. “By convention,” McEwan writes, “such notes were left on the kitchen table. She had left hers on his pillow, like a hotel’s bitter chocolate.” Postcards follow, as do visits from Det. Insp. Douglas Browne, “the flesh of whose cheeks hung in swags,” who’s assigned to the case.
As Roland navigates his life, momentous occurrences unspool: the closing of the Iron Curtain, the Suez crisis, the Cuban missile crisis, Chernobyl, the fall of the Berlin Wall. McEwan says he wanted to “scroll out a longer novel that would span a lifetime,” and at the end of 2019 he had some preliminary notes. “As often happens with me,” he explains, “I wrote the opening 1,500 words—a man remembering a piano lesson. Then I sat on it, trying basically to get the prose that would become the prose of the novel, and it went from there. One thing easily led to another, things I had been thinking about—the scope allowed morally to an artist, especially women artists. I was also thinking a lot about chance in our lives, how little control we have, how global events impact us, the ways in which they shape our private lives, and to task it all together.”
McEwan is clear that the book is not autobiographical, but “I raided bits of my own life,” he says, “which I’ve never done before: the family life, my lost brother [at 58, McEwan was reunited with an older brother whom his mother had given up during the war], the boarding school. The piano teacher, though, is totally fictional, and the story of my brother was made to fit the narrative. Narrative always takes precedent. All the events were in the service of the novel.”
He completed the manuscript for Lessons in June 2021, delivered it in October and again in December. “I was working on it all year,” he says. “I had done a lot of traveling in 2019 and told my wife that I wanted to stay at home in London in 2020. Little did I know the whole world would be staying at home!”
But McEwan notes, “It was a great luxury to look in the diary and see blank pages for the weeks ahead, the luxury of uninterrupted time. It was total absorption, a great pleasure of my writing life. I had time to dwell on things. It was an enormous pleasure to write it over three lockdowns. I lived inside the book for two and a half to three years. Then the politics of the lockdowns had to come into the novel, since it ends in 2021.”
Literary agent Georges Borchardt has represented McEwan since the 1970s. “I was his first agent in the U.S.,” Borchardt tells me, adding that “every one of Ian’s books is a surprise. He doesn’t write to any formula.” Also, Borchardt says, “I don’t ask authors what they are working on,” so he didn’t see Lessons until there was a finished manuscript. “I like to approach manuscripts without any preconceived notions. This book is longer [it’s 450 pages] and more ambitious than Ian’s previous ones—a man’s long and complicated life. It’s exciting to have an author whose every word you have read and read as it’s being written. It’s rewarding and wonderful to be a witness, an actor in the success story of a writer.”
McEwan’s other longtime literary relationship has been with editor Nan Talese, who retired from Doubleday in 2020. Borchardt says that both he and McEwan were impressed that she “was so enterprising” and by “how intently she pursued a relatively unknown writer” when she first signed him.
“Nan came into my life when I was teaching at the Iowa Workshop,” McEwan tells me, remembering the beginning of their relationship. “I had published my first book, a collection of stories, First Love, Last Rites, and had written my first novel. I don’t know how she heard about it, but she called and asked if I would send it to her... and I said no.” He laughs. “I wanted to keep it close. And I was 26 years old.”
Talese was very enterprising. She phoned the next day and said, “If I flew out to Iowa and your manuscript was lying on the night table next to your bed and I happened to read it, would that be okay?” The next day, McEwan says, “she flew out to Iowa and she read it.”
McEwan followed Talese each time she moved publishing houses, and when she retired, he began to look around. Knopf publisher Regan Arthur became his editor, and McEwan is delighted. “We had a long chat on the phone,” he says. “She was warm, bright, intelligent, and unpretentious.”
Arthur says she “had read Ian for years. I remember reading The Cement Garden when I was in school. We talked; my becoming his editor happened organically.” When McEwan and Arthur had their conversation in June 2021, she hadn’t read the book. “It was,” she says, “a getting-to-know-you conversation.”
The deal was finalized in August 2021 for U.S. rights, but Arthur didn’t see the manuscript until that fall. Lessons will be published simultaneously with Jonathan Cape in the U.K. and Knopf Canada. Vintage will publish in trade paper the following year. All of the editors sent notes collectively, Arthur says, and “Ian responded by revising.”
Borchardt sums it up: “The head of a French publishing house once told me that in the end it’s about one writer in an attic facing a blank piece of paper. Acts of creation are the only things that matter.”