Reflections on Ian McEwan's novel, Lessons
Way back in the 1970s, when I was in my 20s, I chanced upon a book that affected me profoundly. Here at last, I thought, is a writer who lives in my world, with all its weirdness and complexity, and can convey it beautifully in prose.
The book was First Love, Last Rites, a collection of short stories by a guy called Ian McEwan, and I became an instant fan. Since then, I’ve read most, though not all, of his work – most recently his longest novel of all, Lessons.
Lessons is basically a biography of Roland Baines, who has much in common with McEwan – same age, same upbringing, same boarding school education – though presumably McEwan was never tutored at the piano as is Roland, with a complete sex education thrown in.
The wonder of Roland, a ‘serial monogamist’, is that he’s not a superhero, just an average guy who muddles his way through life, reacting to situations such as being abandoned by his wife and left with their tiny baby while she goes off to become a famous writer. In a way, Roland is summed up by his part-time professions – tennis coach for the elderly, greeting-card writer and piano player of ‘munch music’ in fancy London hotels; a jack of all trades but master of none.
Yet Roland’s a likeable guy, and we tend to root for him as he tries to lose his virginity at the age of 14 before the Cuban missile crisis destroys the world because he doesn’t want to die a virgin. He also smuggles books and records into East Germany before the Wall comes down, avoids using the London Underground after terrorist bombs go off and sits out several lockdowns due to the Covid pandemic.
It’s a strange feeling when you’re reading about a fictional character and suddenly think “The author’s writing about me!” So it was as I read about Roland near the end of Lessons: “He was plausible within the digital age, like a man in a cunning disguise, but he remained a citizen of the analogue world.”
The epic scale of this novel brings to mind the marvellous Any Human Heart by William Boyd, which follows the life of a writer against a similar backdrop of world events during the 20th century. These references to shared problems of the past help us as readers to sympathize with the protagonist’s inability to steer a comfortable course through his existence.
As for the ‘Lessons’ of the title, like the rest of us Roland doesn’t seem to learn from his experiences, whether they be joyful or painful, though he does revisit the most powerful emotional connections from his past, namely the piano tutor and his estranged wife, for poignant end-of-life reunions.
On another level, I wonder whether McEwan is hinting that we humans should learn lessons from the tragic world events that chart the course of this book. Towards the end, his concerns are with the unchecked future of Artificial Intelligence and the fact that we are now beyond preventing a 1.5-degree temperature rise that many say will signal the end of our species.
I can’t help but think that McEwan wanted to publish this work before it is too late and we are expelled from Planet Earth for not learning our lessons.
For anyone unable to attend my recent Teak Talks in Chiang Mai, I have prepared a YouTube presentation of the same content. Just click on the link below and enjoy!
Upcoming talks in Chiang Mai
If you are going to be in Chiang Mai in the near future, please come along to my TEAK TALK at the Suriwong Bookstore (25 Feb) or at Payap Lifelong Learning Center (1 March). Details below. Also, here's a link to a short interview (7 mins) about the book TEAK LORD with Pim Kemasingki of Chiang Mai CityLife magazine:
Now that my novel Teak Lord is flying off the shelves of bookshops and zipping sightlessly into Kindles and other e-readers, I feel it's time to offer a bit of insight to the background of the book. For that reason, I'll be posting a few short articles that go behind the scenes of the novel, beginning with Tracking the Teak Lord – Part one: the tree, the history and the characters.
Teak Lord and Shangri-La FREE for 5 days only!
Fancy an exciting Christmas read? Or need some tasteful presents for friends? The ebooks of TEAK LORD and SEARCHING FOR SHANGRI-LA will be available for FREE on AMAZON for 5 DAYS ONLY: DECEMBER 1–5. Don't miss this opportunity to join the teak tycoons on a romp through the teak forests of North Thailand and/or to join Ron on his quest for the perfect place to live.
I've been watching heated arguments recently in the UK Houses of Parliament that remind me of kids squabbling over sweets in a school playground, and I'm thinking "These are the people that run my country!"
I'm reminded of a passage in a novel I'm re-reading at the moment – News from Nowhere by William Morris. Written in 1890, it's about a man named William Guest who falls asleep and wakes up in the 21st century to find the grimy, stinky, noisy London of the Victorian era transformed into a peaceful, friendly, unpolluted utopia, where society is so enlightened and advanced that there is no need for money, policemen, prisons, or – get this – government!
As Guest is walking around with Dick, his companion from the future, he says "Why, there are the Houses of Parliament! Do you still use them?" Dick answers, "Use them? Well, yes, they are used for a sort of subsidiary market, and a storage place for manure. "
Let's hope that the recent antics in this hallowed building are an indicator that we're well on the way to Morris' utopia, and that eventually this building will serve its rightful purpose – for storing manure.
If you're interested in Southeast Asian history, I hope you'll check out my brief reviews of five of my favourite books that explore colonialism in Southeast Asia, which is posted on a newish website for book lovers called shepherd.com. The website seems to be making a big effort to put titles that readers will relish in front of their eyes. One small warning; the bookshop.org links don't actually link to most books!
I'm happy to announce that my historical novel, Teak Lord, has been published on Amazon. The ebook is available for pre-release at just $0.99 until 10 October 2022, when it will revert to the list price of $4.99.
The paperback and hardback editions will also be released by Amazon on 10 October, while residents of Thailand can order these directly from me. Full details on the next page.
I understand that for a self-published book to be successful, it needs a dozen or more positive reviews, so PLEASE help it on its way if you enjoy this gripping tale.
Venerating Mae Phosop
It was one of those magical evenings that happen once in a while – a balmy evening at the height of the rainy season (but no rain!), in an idyllic location, with a heartfelt performance from a group of talented actors and dancers.
As I had recently written a story for the South China Morning Post about rice farming in Thailand and the importance of Mae Phosop, the Rice Goddess, I was curious to see how she was portrayed.
She appeared as a longhaired, attractive woman dressed in a gold, satin dress, clutching a sheaf of rice stalks and attended by a group of long-eared nymphs.
The dance was a wonderful example of how performance art keeps Thai traditions alive.
Fortunately, the Goddess has been kind to us this year, and whatever catastrophes may occur in the coming months, at least we will not go hungry.
is a British writer and photographer based in Chiang Mai, Thailand.