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.
is a British writer and photographer based in Chiang Mai, Thailand.