Ian McEwan, Lessons (Jonathan Cape 2022)
This is a tentative experiment in a different way (for me) of blogging about books: take page 75 and write whatever comes to mind about it. After my next birthday, if I keep this up, I’ll take page 76.
Page 75 of Lessons would probably have a red line drawn through it by someone turning writing a film script. It’s mainly a minor character’s backstory.
By this stage of the novel, the main character, Roland Baines, has been abandoned by his wife, Alissa, with no warning and no real word of explanation, leaving him to care for their infant son. He has received a couple of postcards from European addresses, the most recent saying she is about to visit her parents in Germany. Page 75 begins with his wondering why she is visiting her parents and imagining that if she tells them what she has done, ‘the row would be like no other’. McEwan delivers on this tease later when Roland hears the mother’s account of that row, which is quite different from what he imagines. Later still, that account is confirmed by Alissa herself.
The rest of the page begins the back story of Alissa’s mother, Jane: born in 1920, educated in a grammar school, and by the end of the page nursing literary ambitions working as a part-time typist at Cyril Connolly’s prestigious literary magazine Horizon (a real magazine):
She later told her son-in-law that she was seated in an invisible comer and given the dullest correspondence. She wasn’t beautiful or well connected and socially adroit like many of the young women who passed through the office. Reasonably enough, Connolly barely noticed her but occasionally she was in the presence of literary gods. She saw, or thought she saw, George Orwell, Aldous Huxley and a woman who may well have been Virginia Woolf. But, as Roland knew, Woolf had been dead for two years and Huxley was living in California.
There are many passages like this in the book: passages that fill us in on someone’s background, or summarise a novel or (in one case) a children’s picture book. As here, the writing keeps the main narrative in sight: we’re getting Jane’s story, but it’s as told to Roland, and commented on by him. There are plenty of dramatic scenes in the novel – Roland visits Berlin as the wall is coming down; he has a weird physical struggle with a conservative politician in the wilds of Scotland; in his 70s, he confronts a woman who sexually abused him as a 14 year old – but even in undramatic passages like this, there’s plenty of complexity to hold a reader’s interest. There’s also a version of one of the novel’s recurring motifs: a life lived in the shadow of fame.
The novel tells the story of Roland’s life, from early childhood in Libya, his time at boarding school where he has a deeply troubling sexual experience with his piano teacher, through years of drifting, his shortlived marriage to Alissa, single parenthood, some years of happiness in a new relationship, to old age. His early promise as a pianist is blighted by the early quasi-consensual sexual abuse: that and his abandonment by Alissa are the two intimate experiences that shape his life. The Suez crisis, the Cuban crisis, the building and fall of the Berlin wall, Brexit and Covid 19: each of these also has a direct impact. The novel is immensely satisfying as the story of an ordinary life that covers, as it happens, almost exactly the same period as my own. I feel as if I know Roland.
Rereading page 75 makes me realise that his story also functions as a conduit for other stories, mostly stories of women: his mother, the piano teacher, Alissa, Alissa’s mother Jane, Daphne who is a good friend and confidante in the early chapters and later become much more, and finally, briefly, his granddaughter Stefanie. Each of these stories can be seen as holding lessons for Roland, and for us, or at least they can be seen as posing questions: about adults’ responsibility to young people in their care, about complex issues of consent, about how to face death, about the competing demands of art and personal relationships, about ways to assess success and failure. Not that it’s didactic. When Roland reads Tomi Ungerer’s Flix to his granddaughter, he tries to make it a teaching moment by asking her if the story ‘is trying to tell us something about people’:
She looked at him blankly. ‘Don’t be silly, Opa. It’s about cats and dogs.’(Page 481-482)
He saw her point. A shame to ruin a good tale by turning it into a lesson. That could be for later.
Lessons is a good tale, or a whole entwined mass of good tales. One of them is the tale of a man who is offered many lessons and learns some of them. If there is one overarching lesson, it’s that the more you know about someone’s life, the less easy it is to make a sharp moral judgement.