A long journey of thought

by Bron Sibree / 15 March, 2008
It was a desire to join the "sort of giant conversation" of literature that compelled Ian McEwan to start writing in his late teens. After 40 years of writing, his boundless curiosity is as sharp as ever - and he's onto his next novel.

Spend a few moments with Ian McEwan and you'll find yourself embroiled in a discussion about everything from atheism to the nature of sexual repression. Endlessly curious about anything and everything, the man renowned as one of the finest British novelists of his generation exudes a rare kind of relaxed ease. It's a willingness to engage that is as seductive and compelling as any of his 11 acclaimed novels.

One moment, he'll happily talk about his love of cinema and reluctance to walk away from the filming of his most celebrated novel, Atonement. Then in the next, he'll remind you that he has problems with the term atheist. "We all do. I mean, it's not as if I'm against God any more than I'm against the Tooth Fairy. They don't come into my scheme of things."

Mention his latest Man Booker Prize-shortlisted novel, On Chesil Beach, which tells the story of an English couple and their disastrous wedding night in the early 1960s, and he instantly quizzes, "Don't you think we rather exaggerate to ourselves the extent to which all that repression is behind us? We have a mass media that's presenting so constantly everybody having a wild and fulfilling time. Yet we know that there are these shivering individuals full of apprehension, and their fears and self-doubt are not represented. People say, 'Well, you couldn't write On Chesil Beach set in the present.' I think you could."

McEwan should know. He has had truckloads of letters about On Chesil Beach since it was first released last year. Many are from young people, others from those who married in the 1950s. One letter that struck him in particular was about a couple whose wedding night was so disastrous, their ignorance so total, that when they got back from their honeymoon they went to see a doctor and asked him to tell them what to do. "There's something rather touching about that," he says. "It makes you think, 'How did the species survive and how did we come this far?'"

Then he adds, "Living in very ethnically mixed, culturally mixed London, I could well imagine that you could write a similar novel about a young Muslim couple suddenly left alone on their wedding night to sort it out for themselves. I could think of many other communities in which that might be the case. All the social and cultural expressions would be different, but I think the underlying matter is universal, that we're not quite as bold and free as we make out."

It's perhaps no surprise - given the extraordinary success of Atonement, his 2001 novel about lying, guilt, reparation and the nature of perception and writing, together with its Golden Globe-winning film incarnation - that McEwan has already been approached by several film-makers about a screen version of On Chesil Beach. Not that Atonement is the first of his novels to be filmed. But for McEwan, Atonement trumps a list of adaptations that includes The Innocent, The Cement Garden and Enduring Love. He took on the role of executive producer of Atonement so he could have some say in the process. "I didn't want to do the screenplay, yet I couldn't quite walk away."

Despite the immense pleasure he takes in Atonement, which was nominated for seven Academy Awards, he has reservations about adapting On Chesil Beach. "My response is always, if someone wants to, fine. But it's very hard in movies to represent that inside quality, the thoughts and the seeing self from the inside. The difficulty, I think, is to get right the swirl of feelings, the emotional truth of what each character is privately thinking set against what they are actually doing and saying out loud. The distance between what they want and what they appear to want. That's the thing, I guess, that only novels can really do."

For a 166-page novella, On Chesil Beach certainly packs a powerful emotional punch. Written in taut, mesmerising prose, it captures one night, an entire era and two lifetimes in a few scenes. Yet its hardback and paperback sales look set to eclipse those of Atonement, which before the release of the film sold more than a million copies. His fifth novel to be shortlisted for the Booker - which his 1998 novel, Amsterdam, won - On Chesil Beach confirms McEwan's abilities as that rare kind of novelist who can convey the complexities of a moment, a character or an entire age with a few strokes of his pen.

He's also the kind of writer who can find himself at the centre of controversy without trying. He made international headlines when he discovered he had a brother, and found himself at the centre of a short-lived global media blitz when he was erroneously - and somewhat ridiculously - accused of plagiarism in writing Atonement. Along with the critical accolades and his ever-increasing popularity in Europe has come endless speculation about his private life, the nature of his divorce and remarriage, and what he describes as "obligatory for anyone writing a review", a continual harping on about the dark themes of his earlier novels. "I've learnt to live with it. But I find it tedious. It does seem to take up a lot of time and space."

In particular, McEwan's 2005 novel Saturday was seen by some as an open invitation to speculate on his personal life, with some critics mistaking the views of his central character, Henry Perowne, for his own. "It comes with the territory. No novelist is going to escape being pissed on every time he publishes a book. I mean, it's how it is; there's no way you can avoid it. And just as you shouldn't take that too seriously, nor should you take the praise too seriously, either. You can't just take one seriously without the other. It's better to be wary of both."

There's no doubt that his reputation as an outspoken atheist owes much to Saturday, in which he deliberately presented a kind of humane, atheistic view of the world. Then there are his many public utterances on the subject, including his essay in friend Christopher Hitchens' latest book, The Portable Atheist.

"It's the term I'm going to have to live with," he concedes. "I'd no more wish to be called an atheist than a southern American Baptist would want to be called an A-Darwinist, but I think it's perfectly possible to live a moral life without a god. And I think actually most Christians, most people with strongly held religious beliefs, actually operate on a moral system that is not selected from sacred texts, but largely from a kind of moral sense that we have of the world, for which religion is just an expression."

Henry Perowne "might not like literature but he loves music", says McEwan. "And my sense of things is that we can get through literature and music, through architecture and landscape, a great sense of awe, a sense of being deeply moved and a sense of being small in the face of the revealed world. And we can have all those feelings without having to subscribe to a lot of Stone Age nonsense."

In recent years, the 59-year-old author has also spoken out about the environment, even engaging in public debate with Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, special environmental adviser to German Chancellor Angela Merkel. "The situation is getting desperate, and I'd say the window to do something about it is narrowing. But it's a great leveller, the problem. The rich will suffer, too. Everyone will. So the powerful elite will have to get their minds around this as much as everyone else. So we shall see. But I think things are very much in the balance."

In some senses, it was a desire to join the "sort of giant conversation" that literature came to represent for him that compelled McEwan to start writing in his late teens. That and his unholy love of sentences, their indefinable logic and, all importantly, the implied space in between them.

Already at work on a new novel, about which he remains tight-lipped, he describes the genesis of many of his novels as "a kind of restlessness. A feeling that I won't be free unless I start to write, and that only by writing it will I start to find out what it is. And in there is some notion of mental freedom, that when I've reached the end I will have made my mind, my consciousness, a little larger.

"I've been writing now for 40 years, and writing is a kind of long journey of thought. One novel slightly affects the next one that you do. There's a kind of meta-plot to one's writing life - that plot is the 18 inches or so on a bookshelf that your life's work will take up."

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