All novelists are scholars of human behavior, but Ian McEwan pursues the matter with more scientific rigor than the job strictly requires. On a recent hike through the woods surrounding his new country house—a renovated seventeenth-century brick-and-flint cottage, in Buckinghamshire—he regularly punctuated his observations about Homo sapiens with the citation of a peer-reviewed experiment. After discussing his many duplicitous characters—such as Briony Tallis, the precocious adolescent of his 2001 novel, “Atonement,” who ruins two lives when she makes a false accusation of rape—McEwan pointed to a “study in cognitive psychology” suggesting that “the best way to deceive someone is first to deceive yourself,” because you’re more convincing when you’re sincere. (“She trapped herself, she marched into the labyrinth of her own construction,” McEwan writes of Briony. “Her doubts could be neutralized only by plunging in deeper.”) Speaking of the way that the brain surgeon Henry Perowne, of his 2005 novel, “Saturday,” struggles with the impulse to take revenge on a man who invades his home, McEwan made reference to brain scanners: “When people take revenge, the same reward centers of the brain are activated that are associated with satisfying hunger, thirst, sexual appetite. It was rather bleak, the perception.”
Writers have long been content to generate such insights on their own—somebody without the aid of a brain scanner came up with “revenge is sweet”—but McEwan is wary of relying too much on intuition. He has what he calls an “Augustan spirit,” one nourished equally by the poems of Philip Larkin and by the papers in Nature. Indeed, he told me that his 1997 novel, “Enduring Love,” in which a relentlessly rational man defeats a relentlessly irrational stalker, was conceived as a reply to the “unexamined Romantic assumption that still lingers in the contemporary novel, which is that intuition is good and reason bad.”
McEwan’s interest in science isn’t antiseptic; it sets his mind at play. He is surely the only novelist who owns a tie patterned with images of a craniotome—a tool for drilling holes in the skull. When he spots an opportunity, he will conduct an amateur experiment. After he wrote the Nabokovian coda to “Enduring Love”—a pastiche of an academic case study of Jed Parry, the stalker—he mailed it to one of his best friends, Ray Dolan, who directs the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging, in London. “The package appeared to be from a psychiatrist in Dublin,” Dolan recalls. “It said, ‘I just had this article published in the British Journal of Psychiatry.’ It was formatted just like pieces in the journal, with two columns and a header. I sat down that evening to read it. I was halfway through before the penny dropped.” Three years ago, McEwan culled the fiction library of his London town house, in Fitzroy Square. He and his younger son, Greg, handed out thirty novels in a nearby park. In an essay for the Guardian, McEwan reported that “every young woman we approached . . . was eager and grateful to take a book,” whereas the men “could not be persuaded. ‘Nah, nah. Not for me. Thanks, mate, but no.’ ” The researcher’s conclusion: “When women stop reading, the novel will be dead.”
McEwan’s empirical temperament distinguishes him from his friends Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, and Julian Barnes. McEwan recalls a recent afternoon spent with Barnes: “Julian was reading an article in the Guardian about a ship that, in 1893, got frozen in the polar ice. The explorers had set up a primitive wind turbine for electricity, and the captain’s log described how they’d got it running just before the final sunset that marked the beginning of the dark Arctic winter. Julian handed the story to me. I read it and said, ‘That’s amazing. A wind turbine in 1893!’ He said, ‘No, no, I mean the captain’s description of the final sunset. What a beautiful piece of prose.’ And I said, ‘Oh. Yeah, yeah.’ ”
Perhaps the one thing that McEwan shares with his more Romantic peers is a love of the long walk. At sixty, he has probably rambled more miles than any English writer since Coleridge. For four decades, he has canvassed the Lake District and the Chilterns—the chalk hills between London and Oxford. Outside England, McEwan has conquered swaths of the Bernese Oberland, the Atlas Mountains, and the Dolomites. Usually, he walks slightly ahead of a companion, and his knapsack contains two stainless-steel cups and a very good bottle of wine. McEwan’s journeys have grown even more exotic since the international success of “Atonement,” which has sold more than four million copies since it was published. In the winter of 2007, after McEwan completed publicity rounds for the novella “On Chesil Beach” and the film of “Atonement,” he and his wife, Annalena McAfee, a former editor at the Guardian, travelled for three months; they trekked the Himalayas, the Southern Alps of New Zealand, and the coast of Tasmania.
Our hike, on a breezy summer day, began in a sloping field of wildflowers behind McEwan’s cottage. He had worked hard to create the pastel plot, now waist high. “A wildflower meadow is a matter of incredible artifice,” he confessed at one point. “It’s hard for flowers to defeat grass. I had a local farmer help me.” A German gardener assists in maintaining the grounds.
McEwan was spending much of the summer in Buckinghamshire, trying to settle into a new novel. He said that “On Chesil Beach,” which is about an English couple’s disastrous wedding night, in 1962, had “struck a nerve in France,” and interviewers were pursuing him in London again. At a moment when the hardback novel seems endangered, McEwan’s work is almost scandalously popular. Although his novels headily explore ideas, and his gift for visual detail approaches that of John Updike (Briony’s cousin, fondling a suitcase: “The polished metal was cool, and her touch left little patches of shrinking condensation”), his international success has a lot to do with an old-fashioned talent for creating suspense. His plots defy what he calls the “dead hand of modernism.” (Even “Saturday,” which takes place in a single day, has enough incident to rival “24”: a plummeting plane, a car crash, a break-in, a tumble downstairs, lifesaving surgery.) McEwan said that one of his goals was to “incite a naked hunger in readers.” He discussed his technique reluctantly, as if he were a chemist guarding a newly filed patent. “Narrative tension is primarily about withholding information,” he said.
McEwan is a connoisseur of dread, performing the literary equivalent of turning on the tub faucet and leaving the room; the flood is foreseeable, but it still shocks when the water rushes over the edge. That’s how it is with the hounds that descend upon a woman in the 1992 novel “Black Dogs”; the orgiastic murder in the 1981 novel “The Comfort of Strangers”; the botched sexual initiation in “On Chesil Beach.” At moments of peak intensity, McEwan slows time down—a form of torture that readers enjoy despite themselves. In “The Child in Time,” from 1987, a man’s little girl is kidnapped at the supermarket, and his rising panic is charted with the merciless precision of a cardiogram. In “The Innocent,” a 1990 tale of espionage in postwar Berlin, McEwan spends eight pages conjuring a corpse’s dismemberment. And “Saturday” keeps the reader jangled for nearly forty pages, wondering along with Perowne if an airplane descending on London has become a terrorist missile. Martin Amis says, “Ian’s terribly good at stressed states. There’s a bit of Conrad that reminds me of Ian. It’s ‘Typhoon,’ when the captain is heading into this terrible storm and Conrad is in the position of first mate. Going into the captain’s cabin, he notices that the ship is yawing so that the captain’s shoes are rolling this way and that across the floor, like two puppies playing with each other. You think, Wow, to keep your eyes open when most people would be closing theirs. Ian has that. He’s unflinching.”
Page-turning excitement has long been a suspect virtue in a literary novel, and some critics have disparaged McEwan as a hack with elegant prose. He does lean on noirish tropes—the climaxes of “Enduring Love” and “Saturday” both involve a deranged man, a trembling woman, and a knife. But McEwan believes that something stirring should happen in a novel. Though he is animated by ideas, he would never plop two characters on a sofa and have them expound rival philosophies. The opening to “Enduring Love” offers a crisp illustration of game theory: when a balloon becomes untethered, each of the five men holding a rope is forced to make a decision without knowing what the others will do. But most readers enjoy it as a thrilling set piece. On our walk, McEwan twice cited Henry James’s dictum that the only obligation of a novel “is that it be interesting.” Later, McEwan declared that he finds “most novels incredibly boring. It’s amazing how the form endures. Not being boring is quite a challenge.”
It is now a commonplace that McEwan has edged past his peers to become England’s national author. The London press pursues McEwan with an avidity otherwise reserved for Amy Winehouse. Shortly after “On Chesil Beach” was published, David Cameron, the leader of the Conservative Party, was photographed reading the novel on the Tube. After McEwan noted, in an interview, that a bookshelf in his study was adorned with some pebbles from Chesil Beach—a protected site—the Daily Mail wondered whether this behavior was befitting an exemplar, and McEwan gave them back. In June, McEwan mentioned the subject of the new novel, at a literary festival in Wales. The next day, the Guardian front page declared, “CLIMATE CHANGE PLOT FOR MCEWAN NOVEL.”
A lawnmower had carved a silvery-green path through McEwan’s wildflowers, and we headed toward a hillside planted with wheat. McEwan has papery skin that reddens at the slightest solar provocation, and when the sun suddenly glared forth he trotted back to the cottage to retrieve a wide-brimmed hat. He also turned up the collar of his gray work shirt. Even with this covering, his eyes squinted behind his oval spectacles. His weathered cheeks etched parentheses around his mouth. The knees of his pants had a dusty patina suggesting recent grindings in the dirt. All that was missing was a spade: he looked less like a literary titan than like an older version of Robbie, the gardener in “Atonement.”
We ascended the crop field; behind us, solar panels on the roof of McEwan’s cottage glistened in the sun. Entering a fern-carpeted wood, McEwan joked that he places his friends along a divide: those who enjoy hiking (Barnes, Michael Frayn) and those who consider it a fatuous premodern practice (Amis, Christopher Hitchens). McEwan relishes the mental restoration that comes from being in nature. “The sensual pleasure of it traps you fiercely in the present,” he said. “It has knock-on effects when you go back to work.”
Much of McEwan’s best writing can be tied directly to a long walk. Ray Dolan, McEwan’s most frequent hiking partner, recalled an excursion along the western coast of Ireland. Whipping winds reminded Dolan of a story that he’d read in a foreign newspaper. Somewhere in Europe, a balloon had become unanchored, and a boy was pulled skyward on a rope; he let go and died. (McEwan searched in vain to locate the incident. After “Enduring Love” was published, someone at a reading supplied the answer: Bavaria.) The climactic encounter of “Black Dogs” is a dark echo of a hike that McEwan took in France with his friend Jon Cook, a professor of literature at the University of East Anglia. Cook recalls coming across two dogs as big as ponies: “We felt quite menaced. It was a solitary place, particularly silent—no birdsong—and it felt uncanny, almost supernatural. Afterward, we felt we’d frightened each other as much as anything else.” When McEwan was writing “Atonement,” he struggled for months with the Dunkirk section. How could Robbie’s drama possibly register amid such chaos? He was strolling in Andalusia with McAfee when it came to him: “I realized, It’s a hike. I’m not going to write about the Dunkirk evacuation. I’m going to write about Robbie trying to get to the beach.”
McEwan’s novel-in-progress was inspired by the most magnificent hiking trip he has ever taken, along a frozen fjord in Spitsbergen, a group of Norwegian islands in the Arctic Ocean. He went there in March, 2005, as part of an expedition with Cape Farewell, a British organization concerned about climate change. “Honestly, the hikes were the reason I went,” he says, laughing. Accompanied by a guide with a gun, McEwan walked for miles on snow-scabbed ice. “There was a constant danger of polar bears,” he recalls. “We saw only tracks, but it was a thrill to think that there was something out there that wanted to eat me.” There were twenty-five people on the expedition, all berthed on an icebound ship. Climate scientists mingled with artists, including the British sculptor Antony Gormley.
“The air was the cleanest I’ve ever breathed,” McEwan recalls. “One manifestation of this was the light—the hyperreal clarity of things. It was as if you had twenty-twenty vision, and someone said, ‘Here’s an extra pair of glasses.’ Everything was pinprick sharp.” That winter, the ice in Spitsbergen had formed months later than usual, but it was still laceratingly cold. A photograph that Gormley took of McEwan shows him standing atop a plateau of shale shards. Enveloped in a puffy purple snowsuit, McEwan stretches out his arms in a putative gesture of exultation, but he looks more like a desperate explorer, frantically waving for help as the rescue helicopter comes into view.
McEwan knew that global warming was precisely the kind of grand, public-spirited subject that a national author is expected to take on. “Who would be for the planet becoming degraded?” he said. “What reader wants to be told what attitude to strike?” Yet the subject tugged at him. Climate change offered a particularly potent source of dread.
In Spitsbergen, McEwan found the catalyst that he needed. He recalls, “On the boat, we were asked to store outer clothing—heavy shoes, splash suits, goggles, balaclavas, gloves—in a boot room. I spent seven years in boarding school, and I took one look and said, ‘I’m putting my stuff under my bed.’ Within three days, the boot room was chaos. People were losing their stuff, stealing things. Meanwhile, we’d be sitting inside our little ark, with the whole of the planet’s population below us, talking about how we were going to save the world. These were motivated, decent, kind people. I thought, Ah. The interesting thing here is human nature. Global warming suddenly wasn’t an abstract issue, because humans had to solve it—untrustworthy, venal, sweet, lovely humans.”
McEwan was walking slightly ahead of me, amid beech trees. He started work on the new book, as yet untitled, in December, 2007. “On Chesil Beach” is historical fiction, and he likes to alternate between novels set in the past and those set in the present. “Enough time has now gone by since ‘Saturday,’ ” he said. “The present has aged a bit, developed new neuroses.”
He foresaw the new novel as having “three acts, thirty thousand words each.” (McEwan envisaged “On Chesil Beach” as a forty-thousand-word book; it came in at thirty-nine.) He promised that the novel would not be didactic. “I’ve given a false impression that it’s about climate change,” he said at one point. “It will just be the background hum of the book.” The novel is a character study of the kind of idealist who’d steal somebody else’s splash suit. Its protagonist, Michael Beard, is McEwan’s third to have a science background—he’s a Nobel Prize-winning physicist. (“I like to have them be rational, or at least to like rationalism,” McEwan says.) But Beard is far less admirable than Henry Perowne. He has been coasting on his Nobel for twenty years, and he’s screwed up several marriages. “He’s much dodgier,” McEwan said. “He’s an intellectual thief. He’s sexually predatory. He’s a compulsive eater, a round and tubby fellow who has profound self-belief. He has this weird boldness in asking women out to dinner. Able to take a slap on the face and say, ‘Better luck next time.’ ” Beard seemed to have crystallized in his mind, but he wasn’t sure yet what would happen to him. Some critics have called McEwan’s plotting schematic, but he says that his characters lead the way: “What happens to people is so much a function of who they are.”
It had taken months, McEwan said, to establish the “tone of the implied narrator. I feel comfortable now with a certain ironical voice.” He added, “The difficulty is, when you have a character like this, you don’t want to disgust the reader. It’s written in free indirect style, so you travel closely to his thoughts.”
Beard, whose specialty is the physics of light, makes a discovery that might help save the planet. “He’s definitely hit on something,” McEwan said. “The question is whether his personality is going to get in the way—which, in a sense, is our shared problem.” He was thinking of embroiling Beard in a public scandal. “It isn’t angels necessarily who are going to save us,” he said. “Michael Beard is rackety, quarrelsome, competitive, greedy, ambitious, politicking. But, somehow, behind all this there could be some goodness.”
The book’s first act, which focusses on Beard’s personal life, was nearly complete. At the literary festival in Wales, McEwan had read a comic excerpt in which Beard boards a train with a bag of potato chips. He is incensed when his seat mate opens the package and starts eating. (“One of those guys in their mid-thirties with a shaved head and a gym-thickened neck,” McEwan told me. “Millions of them in Britain.”) Beard notices that the man has a bottle of water and retaliates by grabbing it and taking a sip. Upon disembarking, McEwan said, “Beard puts his hand in his pocket and his package of crisps is in there, untouched.”
After McEwan finished his reading, an audience member observed that a similar riff had appeared in Douglas Adams’s “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” series. The next day, the British press halfheartedly raised the question of plagiarism—a pale retread of a furor two years ago, when the Mail on Sunday revealed that several phrases in “Atonement” resembled medical descriptions in a nurse’s wartime memoir. (McEwan had thanked the nurse in his acknowledgments.) McEwan claimed to be unfazed by the Wales incident. The chips story, he said, was an urban legend dating to the nineteen-twenties. “The scene is partially about what happens if you have an experience, and then you’re told it’s an urban legend. Your life is suddenly rendered inauthentic. Now, one of Beard’s friends can say, ‘But I read that in a Douglas Adams novel!’ So it’s even better.”
Some of the later portions of McEwan’s novel will delve into Beard’s profession. In preparation, McEwan was reading up on “oil and solar technologies.” He was thinking of visiting solar-panel installations in New Mexico and Spain. The Spanish site, he said, was a “beauty”: “It’s an enormous tower with huge mirrors focussed on its top. That’s the gathering point for all the heat. So you have a spire with a glowing orb.” Field research was necessary, he told me, whenever his characters had complex jobs. “It’s worth knowing about ten times as much as you ever use, so you can move freely,” he said.
McEwan had sifted through alternative-energy technologies and concluded that “artificial photosynthesis” was the most promising arena for Beard’s potential breakthrough. “Leaves are basically solar panels converting photons to create new chemical bonds,” he told me. “Some of the best-endowed labs in the world are trying to replicate what your humble pavement-crack weed does all day.” McEwan hoped that the scientists wouldn’t take too long. “If current curves hold, in fifty or sixty years’ time we will have a Mediterranean-type climate here,” he said.
We entered a sunlit glade. McEwan immediately pointed out what was missing: a profusion of frogs, wildflowers, orchids, dragonflies. He had read a naturalist’s account of the Chilterns from the forties, and found it depressing. He said, “In the past, in late June, on these beds of nettles here you would see clouds of butterflies. I see not a one.”
His eyes suddenly widened. “A cabbage white!” he said, pointing. “O.K., then. One.”
Fitzroy Square, a few streets west of Bloomsbury, is the kind of imperious London address that is studded with plaques naming illustrious former residents: Virginia Woolf once lived there, as did George Bernard Shaw (“From the Coffers of His Genius He Enriched the World”). Completed in 1835, the square is bordered by four-story mansions, painted along the spectrum between cream and white. A circular central garden is sequestered by an iron gate bearing the announcement “PRIVATE GARDEN / RESIDENTS ONLY.” Outside the garden, pressed gravel, newly restored by Polish laborers, adds a menacing crunch to one’s footsteps. McEwan’s house, which he bought in 2002, does not yet have a plaque.
Fitzroy Square is where Henry Perowne and his wife, Rosalind, live in “Saturday.” Neil Kitchen, a brain surgeon whom McEwan shadowed while researching the novel, told me that he’d been a guest at McEwan’s house, and had been served the same fish stew that Perowne prepares in “Saturday.” (It was delicious.) Alas, a real British neurosurgeon couldn’t afford to live in Fitzroy Square. “I live in a smaller house in Islington,” Kitchen said. “I ride a collapsible bike to work. I don’t have a big Mercedes.” Perowne combines the fine motor skills of Kitchen with the granular self-consciousness of McEwan. (Perowne, a “habitual observer of his own moods,” is given to reveries about his mental processes which suggest William James and Henry James rolled into one: “His eyes are wide open in the dark; the exertion, his minimally raised blood pressure, is causing local excitement on his retina, so that ghostly swarms of purple and iridescent green are migrating across his view of a boundless steppe, then rolling in on themselves to become bolts of cloth, swathes of swagged velvet, drawing back like theatre curtains on new scenes, new thoughts.”) Kitchen said that McEwan’s descriptions of operations were “extremely accurate,” requiring almost no corrections. Many medical students find brain surgery hard to watch, but McEwan never winced: “He sat in the corner, with his notebook and pencil.” Kitchen loved “Saturday,” but didn’t see much of himself in Perowne; though he is a man of science, he would never look at nurses crossing a square and think of them as “hot little biological engines with bipedal skills.”
During his apprenticeship, McEwan played one of his scientific games. “One day, Neil was operating on an aneurysm,” he said. “I was all scrubbed up, and two sixth-year students came in. They said, ‘Doctor, what’s going on in this procedure?’ I took them over to the light box and explained the route Neil was taking. They were very respectful.”
On the first of several visits to Fitzroy Square, McEwan greeted me at the door in a state of genial distraction. He was throwing a party that evening—it was June 20th, the day before his sixtieth birthday—and, like Clarissa Dalloway, he needed to run some errands in the West End. McEwan took me downstairs into the kitchen to prepare coffee. The house has so many floors that each domestic act necessitates a stair climb. There are two sitting rooms, two studies, two libraries, and a room for watching movies. When I read “Saturday,” I was surprised that a pre-dawn trip that Perowne takes from his kitchen to his bedroom made him alert enough for a bout of lovemaking; the daunting staircase expelled my doubts.
Walking upstairs with our mugs, we passed McAfee. They married in 1997; it was the second marriage for both. They met when she profiled him for the Financial Times; their “very first words” to each other are still preserved on tape, he says. The marriage is, by all accounts, tranquil: they like to cook and listen to chamber music at Wigmore Hall, which is in walking distance. McAfee, who is fifty-six, has light-brown hair, green eyes, and a composed wit. She later told me that she was “scientifically illiterate,” adding, “I’ve forced myself to work up to a certain level to be able to participate in family conversation.” She said that she often felt outnumbered by McEwan and her stepson William, a twenty-five-year-old graduate student in genetics at the University of Glasgow. McAfee told me that William’s research focussed on “these lions who have the AIDS virus but no symptoms. He apparently gets sent a lot of lion blood in the post.”
McEwan led me into the ground-floor sitting room and sat on a brown leather sofa. Mirror-image Bridget Riley prints, just like the ones in Perowne’s house, framed the mantel. On a lacquered side table, a collection of liquor bottles propped up an unframed eight-by-ten photograph: McEwan, Hitchens, and Amis, their arms thrown around one another. The picture was taken in 2004, McEwan said, during what the men call “the Refulgencia”—an extended reunion in Uruguay, where Amis was living at the time. Hitchens recalls that the location held special appeal for McEwan: “We met on this part of the coast near José Ignacio, where the Beagle, Darwin’s ship, had put in. We went to see where he put ashore and took samples.”
In the seventies, Amis presided over the “Friday lunch,” a weekly gathering at a restaurant in Bloomsbury. McEwan and Hitchens were among the regulars. Fuelled by alcohol, the men peacocked for hours, competitively spinning variants on clichés such as “cruising for a bruising.” (Amis: “Angling for a mangling.” Hitchens: “Aiming for a maiming.”) The talk was often lewd. Amis later told me that McEwan was “more evolved” than the others. “There was a higher standard around Ian about being empathetic. You could have disgusting conversations with other friends. That wasn’t Ian’s style. He wanted to talk intimately, but not the sort of ‘Come on, darling, you know you love it’ chat that I’m definitely capable of.”
Adjoining the sitting room is McEwan’s poetry library. His friendship with Amis, he told me, was forged, in part, by a shared love of verse: “We would sit around in the seventies, drink a bit, get a bit stoned, and talk about poetry. Larkin came up a lot. Stuff by friends—Craig Raine, James Fenton. Sometimes Shakespeare. Pulling books off shelves and just tasting things.” As for prose, both men had a strong affection for writers living in America—Nabokov, Roth, Bellow, Updike—and a contempt for what McEwan calls the “overstuffed, overfurnished English novel.”
Amis told me that McEwan and he, for all their affinities, have little in common as prose stylists. “I am more surface and he is more undercurrent,” Amis said. “I am very caught up with how words sound and he smooths it out more. He’s more interested than I have ever been in very subtle gradations.” McEwan, when told this, said, “I’m less expansive and musically performative than Martin, but in terms of the pulse of a sentence I care as much as anyone. I like Bach more than I like Wagner, chamber music more than orchestral music. I like a certain kind of terseness into which the occasional image will shine brighter. Style is an extension of personality.”
He went on, “When I’m writing, I don’t really think about themes.” Instead, he keeps in mind a phrase of Nabokov’s: “fondle details.” McEwan explained, “Writing is a bottom-up process, to borrow a term from the cognitive world. One thing that’s missing from the discussion of literature in the academy is the pleasure principle. Not only the pleasure of the reader but also of the writer. Writing is a self-pleasuring act.”
He spoke of a passage that he was still polishing, in which Michael Beard reunites with a lover whom he hasn’t seen in months. McEwan said that Beard reflects “on what a wealth of sensual data he’s forgotten—on how much of her had emptied out of his mind. Although he has thought about her, he’s forgotten the feel of her body, the springiness of her fingers, the particular smell of her scalp, which he likes.” Beard concludes that this is “one of the pleasures that our feeble memory affords.” McEwan said, “These little asides are one of the writer’s great pleasures. You write a dialogue passage, and you’re allowed to write in a commentary—squeeze in a generalization—between statements made only seconds apart.”
Greg, McEwan’s younger son, entered the sitting room in a bright-blue bathrobe. He had spiky black hair and his father’s slitted eyes. McEwan chatted briefly with him about Argentina—in two days, Greg was beginning a semester abroad. Now twenty-two and a graduate student in international relations at the University of London, Greg was a source for Theo, Perowne’s guitarist son in “Saturday.” Greg later told me that he had a persistent virus that kept him at home, “under observation,” when his father was writing the novel. Though he had Theo’s loping grace, he noted a key divergence: “I definitely don’t wear tight black jeans!” He recalled, “I used to play the guitar a lot, and I think he foresaw me going into music. I used to really like the blues.” His father, he noted, plays the flute and is also a blues fan. “He gave me loads of instruction. He taught me my first chords. He’d play Oasis with me.” Some reviewers found the father-son relationship in “Saturday” dubiously chummy, but not Greg. “I’m not sure if we’ve ever argued,” he said. “He walked us to school and picked us up, yeah. He’d drive us to my friends’, and watch out for us when we went to skate parks.” His father didn’t “close himself off with the work,” he said. “I could walk into his study at any time of the day.”
The portrayal of familial contentment in “Saturday” was meant as a provocation. “No one ever says, except in conversation, that they’re actually enjoying their children, that they might be a source of interest and pleasure,” McEwan said. “I thought there was some bad faith in omitting that as a possibility.” The book is equally rosy about marriage; Perowne has sex with his wife twice in one day. John Banville, in The New York Review of Books, seized upon that detail, writing, “Apparently in the purlieus of north London, or at least in McEwan’s fantasy version of them, no one suffers from morning breath, and women long-married wake up every time primed for sex.” McEwan says, “The critic was revealing far more about himself and his wife’s teeth-flossing habits than anything about the book.”
McEwan grew up in a very different kind of household than the one he celebrates in “Saturday.” He is from a military family that, he says, had almost no books. “It used to drive me crazy,” he recalled. “I’d be reading a book, and I’d go out of the room and come back half an hour later. I’d say, ‘Where’s my book?’ My mother had tidied it away, because the table was polished and it interrupted the view.”
He was born in 1948, in Aldershot, southwest of London, but he spent most of his childhood abroad, at military bases. The family’s longest posting was in Libya. For a time, they stayed on a peanut farm. His father, David, a career Army officer, worked long hours, and McEwan was often alone with his mother, Rose, a housewife. From the start, he enjoyed contemplating his brain. “The moment in ‘Atonement’ when Briony is crooking her finger and wondering at which point the intention is actually resolved into a movement is something very much from my childhood,” he says.
McEwan’s mother was on her second marriage. Her first, to a housepainter named Ernest Wort, produced a son, Jim, and a daughter, Margy. Wort served in the Second World War, and died from combat injuries in 1944. Three years later, Rose married David McEwan, who wanted little to do with his stepchildren. Jim was raised by Ernest Wort’s mother; Margy was enrolled at a boarding school for soldiers’ orphans. As a result, McEwan felt like an only child.
His parents, who both left school at fourteen, had few literary interests, but, he says, “The writer in me is from my mother. She was a great worrier, which requires an imagination. She was always convinced that she left the iron on.” In a tender essay, “Mother Tongue,” McEwan writes about Rose’s intense intellectual anxiety. Ashamed of her working-class accent, she spoke with absurd slowness in front of posh women, treating the English language “as something that might go off in her face, like a letter bomb.”
McEwan’s father was domineering and temperamental, but he loved Ian fiercely; they hunted for scorpions in the desert with a jam jar, and roughhoused in the Mediterranean. “I used to stand on his shoulders, which were very slippery because the sea would wash his Brylcreem off his hair,” he recalls. David McEwan, an acutely intelligent man—he received the highest test scores in his school district before his mother asked him to drop out and start earning a wage—served in the Second World War, and was wounded at Dunkirk; the Army offered to send him to college, but he declined. “He was too cautious,” McEwan said. “It used to drive me to despair, his love of doing the same thing each day. Each Saturday, he’d go to the same pub and have a pint of beer while my mother went and did the vegetable shopping. She was to come back half an hour later, and if she took longer he’d start looking at his watch. And she would know that he’d be looking at his watch, so she’d be hurrying—a tightness around the heart. She couldn’t bear his disapproval. And then she would have a sherry, and then he would ask her if she wanted another one, and she would say no, and he would say, ‘Well, I’ll have another beer,’ and then he would have another beer, and then they would drive home.” The marriage was “quite troubled,” and there were episodes of domestic violence, McEwan recalled. “There was always a sense of exile and boredom, a lack of ordinariness.” He never understood why his parents remained abroad, as they had no zest for travel. From 1961 to 1981, they lived in Germany, watching television each night without understanding a word.
“Mother Tongue,” McEwan’s attempt to understand his mother’s “timorous” life, was published in October, 2001, when she was succumbing to dementia. It’s especially moving to read now, because he was only a few months away from a discovery that cast a new light on her clenched unhappiness. In February, 2002, McEwan learned from a family-tracing service that he had an older brother.
Evidently, Rose and David McEwan had begun an affair while Ernest Wort was fighting in North Africa.* She became pregnant, and in December, 1942, they placed an ad in the Reading Mercury: “Wanted, Home for Baby Boy, age 1 month; complete surrender.” Two weeks later, Rose and her sister stood on the platform of the Reading train station, and handed the baby off to the first couple that had answered the ad. Afterward, she could not offer her sister an explanation for her act; “I just had to,” she repeated. McEwan’s father may well have demanded that Rose give up the child. The British Army would likely have dismissed him for committing adultery with another soldier’s wife.
McEwan made contact with his brother, Dave Sharp, who lives in Oxfordshire. Sharp told McEwan that he was a “brickie”—a bricklayer—who had been raised by loving parents. They met at a hotel bar near Oxford and soon figured out that they were, as Sharp puts it, “chalk and cheese.” An outgoing man who favors broad jokes, Sharp told McEwan that he was a football fan; his brother confessed to little interest. Sharp was surprised when someone waylaid McEwan for an autograph while McEwan was ordering drinks at the bar. Sharp had only just learned of his brother’s books. In an essay published in the Guardian, McEwan writes that they soon found common ground “that could not be accounted for by experience alone: an aversion to tobacco, a tendency to develop basal cell carcinomas, and the interesting fact that we had stayed at the same hotel in Spain the preceding summer. A gene for hotel preference awaits expression.”
Since the meeting, there have been tense moments, especially in 2007, when Sharp told the story of his adoption to a British tabloid without informing McEwan. Last summer, Sharp, with the help of a ghostwriter, published a memoir, “Complete Surrender,” and McEwan reluctantly contributed a foreword. “At first, I thought I’d have nothing to do with it,” he said. “Then I realized that that would become a story, too, so better to write something.” Nevertheless, the brothers have learned to enjoy each other’s company. Sharp told me that he had just laid a brick wall outside McEwan’s Buckinghamshire cottage. “Ian brought out a sandwich, we got to chatting and mucking around, and he decided to lay a few bricks,” Sharp recalled. “Believe me, he will never be as good a bricklayer as me, as long as he has a hole in his rectum! So I wrote, on one of the bricks, ‘IAN.’ He said, ‘What’d you do that for?’ I said, ‘I don’t want to get the blame for that.’ ”
Though McEwan says that he’s happy to have found a brother—he likens it to “a Shakespeare comedy”—the discovery entailed a pained “recalibration” of his family history. His parents’ life had been tyrannized by a single act. By living abroad, the McEwans had been hiding from their past, and from Rose’s first two children, who were seven and five at the time of the accidental pregnancy. McEwan said, “In a slow-drip way, it was quite upsetting, because it threw into focus the terrible divide that occurred between the world of my mother’s first husband and the world of the second.” He recalled that, in 1989, he had interviewed his father about his life. His dad, who died in 1996, spoke freely into a tape recorder about the horrors of Dunkirk. “The story had always been that he had met my mother toward the end of the war,” McEwan said. “We’d been going about three hours in the evening, both drinking but not drunk. And I said, ‘Tell me about the time you first met Mum,’ thinking it was a fairly innocent question. He hit the roof. ‘How dare you ask me this question? Turn the damn thing off!’ I had hit a very sensitive point. Clearly, he met my mother in 1941, not 1945.”
Critics have noted that many McEwan novels hinge on a single, transformative event: the balloon, the abduction, Briony’s accusation. (In “Black Dogs,” in what may be a self-inoculating gesture, McEwan has his narrator tweak the idea: “Turning points are the inventions of storytellers and dramatists, a necessary mechanism when a life is reduced to, traduced by a plot.”) Yet the story of his parents conforms to this template. It may be true that some of McEwan’s novels are overplotted; it is also true that some lives are overplotted.
His mother plainly felt the loss of her son. When McEwan was seven, she told him that he was about to have a new brother. The McEwans had petitioned to adopt a child. Rose even told McEwan his brother’s name—Bernard—and said that he would arrive as Ian’s Christmas present. But, at the last moment, the adoption agency told the McEwans that a life of foreign postings was unstable. McEwan now wonders if the agency had learned of the trail of abandoned children. In 1982, he wrote an essay about his anticipatory fantasies concerning Bernard—his first fictional character. After learning that Bernard wasn’t coming after all, he writes, “I adopted him as an invisible playmate.”
The act of giving away one child, McEwan believes, set in motion a perverse pattern. When Ian was eleven, his parents enrolled him at an English boarding school. “I was sent away,” he said. “David was given away at a railway station. My half brother and half sister were sent away. Not till my brother appeared did all that come into focus.”
Ian Russell McEwan (muhk-YEW-uhn) was born on June 21, 1948, in the military town of Aldershot (southern England), to Rose Lillian Violet (Moore) McEwan and David McEwan. His mother was a war widow with two children; his father, later to become a major, had joined the army in face of the bleak employment situation in Glasgow. As a soldier’s son, Ian spent a significant part of his early childhood at military outposts in Singapore and Libya. In an interview with Ian Hamilton, he remembered life in Africa with “very open air, a great deal of running free, swimming, exploring the coast and the desert.” At the age of eleven, McEwan was sent to a state-owned British boarding school, Woolverstone Hall in Suffolk, where he stayed until 1966. Shy and quiet, he was a mediocre student unnoticed by teachers. In his late teens, however, he became competitive and developed a serious interest in English literature and the popular culture of the 1960’s.
On completing his secondary education, McEwan went to London, where he read voraciously and worked as a garbage collector for Camden Council. He went on to study French and English literature at the University of Sussex, and received his honors B.A. in 1970. The following year he earned an M.A. in creative writing at the celebrated University of East Anglia, where he studied under novelists Malcolm Bradbury and Angus Wilson.
In 1972 McEwan’s short story “Homemade” was published in New American Review. Following his publication debut, the young author joined a somewhat disappointing hippie-trail trip to Afghanistan. Back in England, he spent time writing notes and teaching English as a second language. After successfully selling his short story “Disguises” to New American Review, McEwan was inspired to further work: “I wrote ‘Last Day of Summer’ and ‘Butterflies’ and ‘Solid Geometry’ on a wave of confidence,” he told Ian Hamilton.
McEwan settled in London in 1974. Two years later, he published his first collection of short stories, First Love, Last Rites, which received the Somerset Maugham Award. The collection, based on his M.A. thesis, explores the themes of childhood and adolescence, focusing on the intimate workings of the protagonists’ minds. The year 1976 also marked McEwan’s television debut, with the airing of the play Jack Flea’s Birthday Celebration on BBC-TV. McEwan’s second short-story collection, In Between the Sheets, was published in 1978. As in the case of First Love, Last Rites, critical response to the volume concentrated on the violently sexual content of the stories, neglecting the formal experimentation that had been the author’s primary concern. Thus, McEwan became labeled as the author of the morbid and the perverse, a classification that was to follow him throughout most of his career.
McEwan’s first novel, The Cement Garden, continued the mode of his short stories with its closely observed psychology, its fascination with childhood, and its macabre gothic mood. Following the success of The Cement...
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