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Ian McEwan: Lessons

This is Ian McEwan’s longest novel to date though perhaps not the most complex. Our hero is Roland Baines. Like Mc Ewan, he was born in 1948 and like McEwan he is the son of a military man who travelled around in his career. There are other aspects of his life that show that, in part, but definitely only in part, this book has elements of autobiography in it. Roland’s mother Rosalind had been married before, to a man who was something of a vagrant and who was killed in World War II. She had two children, Henry and Susan, but they were mainly brought up by their paternal grandmother. During the war Rosalind met a sergeant, Robert Baines. She was initially scared of him but they ended up marrying. Roland was their only child. He was brought up in Libya where his father was stationed.

Mother and son had to temporarily leave during the Suez crisis as there was a lot of anti-British feeling in North Africa. Eventually he had to return to the UK for his education, being sent to a boarding school at age eleven.

We learn of three traumatic events in his life early in the book, two taking place when he was still a child. The first was when he and his father witnessed a car hitting a motorcycle with the motorcyclist being badly injured.

The second is one of the eponymous lessons and is also shown on the cover. His parents thought music lessons would be good for him and so he was taught the piano by Miss Miriam Cornell. He pretended that he practised but, in fact, he did not. On one occasion, she pinched his thigh, leaving a small bruise. On one another occasion, however, she kissed him, her lips full on his, a soft prolonged kiss. He was sexually aroused She later invited him to lunch.

The third event occurs much later. He has married a German woman, Alissa Eberhardt. They have a son, Lawrence. Both parents work though not at very well-paid jobs. One day he finds a note on the pillow telling him that she has left him: It’s not your fault. I love you but this is for good. I’ve been living the wrong life. She sends him postcards from her travels as she seems to be journeying across Europe. The police, not surprisingly, think he has murdered her. Bringing up a one year old as a single parents will be a challenge for him.

The book is about how our lives are changed by the actions of our parents and by random events that occur in our lives, whether at the personal level or because of larger events such as war.

For Roland there were various events but a key event is his relationship with Miriam Cornell. They have an affair when he is underage and this effects him in various ways but, in particular, it leads him to essentially give up school work, even though he is very bright and could have done well with a bit of application. Eventually he ends up drifting. He avoided salaried employment in order to be available. He had to remain at large – in order not to be. The only happiness and purpose and proper paradise was sexual. A hopeless dream lured him from one relationship to the next.

As well as being bright, he is an excellent pianist, thanks to Miriam Cornell, and could have done well. He does join a jazz band where he makes a lifelong friend but his musical career will primarily involve playing the piano at second-rate hotels for the entertainment of the guests. He is also an accomplished poet but his success is limited to writing poems for greetings cards. He is also an accomplished tennis player and earns his living in part as a coach.

We follow his drifting both before and after Alissa, though, being a single parent, his drifting comes to mean not having a steady job.

We also learn of others in the book who are influenced by their parents and events. The main example is Alissa. Her mother, Jane, had worked in a fairly menial role for Horizon, a well-respected literary magazine founded and run by Cyril Connolly, a well-known writer and critic of the day. Jane persuades him to let her go on a journey to write a story about White Rose, a non-violent, intellectual resistance group in Nazi Germany whose leaders had been executed by the Nazis but of whom there were some survivors. She meets several but the last one she meets was a peripheral figure in the group, Heinrich Eberhardt. They will fall in love, marry and have a child, Alissa.

Alissa will grow up feeling that her mother had abandoned a promising literary career to become just a wife and mother and that she, Jane, very much resented it. Mother and daughter argue continually. Alissa is determined not be her mother and but have her own life and be a successful novelist, something she cannot be with a husband who seems to drift around and a young son.

World events have also influenced the main characters and this is explicitly outlined. Roland’s parents were very much influenced by the war as regards their relationships. Roland continually refers to various key events in British and world history which seem to affect him. A prime example is the fall of the Berlin Wall when, entirely by chance, he happens to be in Berlin and, quite improbably, bumps into Alissa.

Three of the characters – all women – do things that, by normal standards, would be considered unacceptable. Two abandon minor children, leaving others to take care of them, while Miriam Cornell seduces an underage boy an even tries to abduct him. All three explain their actions and it is up to the reader whether to accept their explanations.

Some of the men are far from being saints, with wife-beating and infidelity being two of their flaws. The focus is, of course, on Roland and while his relationship with Miriam Cornell is foolhardy, he is technically the victim. He subsequently makes what, objectively, we might consider poor decisions, certainly as far as his career goes, but he is never violent or unfaithful. Indeed, McEwan stresses more than once the fact that he is monogamous in his relationships.

McEwan said, about this book, I’m going to plunder my own life so we must assume that some of Roland’s story is McEwan’s story though there is an interesting bit at the end when Alissa, in a novel she writes,seems to refer to Roland and others make this assumption as well. She, however, points out that, while clearly some of the details make seem similar to what happened to Roland, a great deal of the story is very different from Roland’s, his girlfriend in Alissa’s novel becoming German Chancellor, for example. Similarly while there are episodes from McEwan’s life in Roland’s story – the boarding school, living in Libya, his wife leaving him, for example, much of Roland’s story is very different from McEwan’s. McEwan has pointed out that there was no Miriam Cornell in his life, which is not to say that he did not fantasise about an older woman when he was fourteen.

He even manages a dig at the British writers of his era: They busied themselves with social surfaces, with sardonic depictions of class difference. In their lightweight tales, the greatest tragedy was a rumbled affair, or a divorce. None but a very few seemed much bothered by poverty, nuclear weapons, the Holocaust or the future of humankind or even the shrinking beauty of the countryside under the onslaught of modern farming. I could certainly argue that as regards some British writers but space forbids.

Overall McEwan tells an excellent story of Roland and others whose lives are shaped by both world events and what their parents did and did not do, though those angry or disappointed gods in modern form, Hitler, Nasser, Khrushchev, Kennedy and Gorbachev may have shaped his life but that gave Roland no insight into international affairs. We follow Roland up to the present day – the covid pandemic but before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. There are hidden family secrets that emerge and various relationships, some of which work, quite a few that do not, though Roland more or less manages with the inevitable ups and downs. He clearly was most affected by Miriam Cornell – that woman rewired your brain a later lover tells him. Ultimately life is messy, everybody makes mistakes because we’re all fucking stupid.

There is a guiding book to this novel and it is L’Éducation sentimentale (Sentimental Education ), Flaubert’s tale of Frédéric Moreau living through troubled times and having a romantic life. Whether Roland’s life can be called a sentimental education or, indeed, whether the lessons he received can be called lessons learned is open to discussion.

Publishing history

First published in 2022 by Jonathan Cape