Ian McEwan: about Writing, Morality, Science and Love
Ian McEwan is one of the most talented writers of our time. His writings have that unforgettable quality of taking a reader right into his make-belief world, but would do so in the subtlety of reality. He is a superb storyteller.
The following is a transcript of an interview that was recorded by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation at the Edinburgh Festival in September 2002. More than a year old but still is a gem.
Mahbubul Karim (Sohel)
December 29, 2003
One of the finest English writers alive, Ian McEwan speaks to Ramona Koval about writing, morality, science and love.
Ian McEwan’s novels and stories have won the Somerset Maugham Award, the Whitbread Prize and the Booker Prize, and his latest book, Atonement, is widely regarded as his finest work. The early books contained sado-masochism, feral children, murder and incest, while Atonement deals with a writer’s attempts to put right a moral error that she made when on the cusp between childhood and adulthood.
His book 'Atonement', is a story about problems of perception, amongst other things, and attributing meanings to events: the mistakes one makes when trying to work out what other people want or are really saying. I asked him if he is rather bewildered in the world.
Somewhere along the way in 'Atonement', Briony makes what she thinks is a real discovery about fiction, which is that a lot of the problems in life occur through misunderstanding and I think there are two ways to regard language in this respect. You could either see language as a minefield in which all kinds of social and personal calamities can occur precisely because people misunderstand each other; or—and I think these things are not mutually exclusive—you see it as this most extraordinary device whereby you blow air through a little bit of tissue in your throat and you can transfer, telepathically, thoughts from your mind to another person’s.
Now I want to hold faith with that second, miraculous view of language, yet at the same time explore all the comic and tragic possibilities that occur when perfectly well-meaning people can fall foul of each other, simply through misunderstanding. Atonement is really a novel, as you say, about precisely that: problems of perception. Briony witnesses an event which we’ve already been party to—that is Robbie and Cecilia by a fountain—she misunderstands that, her misunderstanding is very much drawn on the literary side from Katherine Moreland of Northanger Abbey. I read Northanger Abbey when I was seventeen and it made a huge impression on me. I was just beginning to ‘get’ literature at that time. And for a long time I thought, there is a way into a novel or a story about someone obsessed by literature, who gets everything wrong.
Briony is thinking about whether other people feel as real to themselves as the she does to herself. She’s playing with that idea that other people really do exist, and that you can actually put yourself in their position. Is writing a novel a way to make people empathetic towards each other?
The novel is supreme in giving us the possibility of inhabiting other minds. I think it does it better than drama, better than cinema. It’s developed these elaborate conventions over three or four hundred years of representing not only mental states, but change, over time. So in that sense, yes, I think that ‘other minds’ is partly what the novel is about. If you saw the novel as I do in terms of being an exploration of human nature—an investigation of the human condition—then the main tool of that investigation has to be to demonstrate, to somehow give you, on the page, the sensual ‘felt’ feeling of what it is to be someone else.
Surely everyone in childhood makes this slow recognition— in little leaps and starts— that other people are as alive to themselves as you are to yourself. It’s quite a startling discovery. I remember, round about the age of ten, having one of those little epiphanies of ‘I’m me,’ and at the same time thinking, well, everyone must feel this. Everyone must think, ‘I’m me.’ It’s a terrifying idea, I think, for a child, and yet that sense that other people exist is the basis of our morality. You cannot be cruel to someone, I think, if you are fully aware of what it’s like to be them. And to come back to the novel as a form, I think that’s where it is supreme in giving us that sense of other minds.
You’ve got inside that little girl’s head really well. I was absolutely marvelling at it. Her writing of the excruciating play, her use of big, clumsy words:
‘This is the tale of spontaneous Arabella, who ran off with an extrinsic fella.’
A taste for the miniature and a passion for secrets, and a need to control small worlds completely. Is that what happens in a grown-up writer’s head too?
You could either see language as a minefield in which all kinds of social and personal calamities can occur precisely because people misunderstand each other; or-and I think these things are not mutually exclusive-you see it as this most extraordinary device whereby you blow air through a little bit of tissue in your throat and you can transfer, telepathically, thoughts from your mind to another person's.
Yes, in a sense. Grown up writers I think don’t abuse the dictionary in quite the same way. But part of the pleasures of writing—which I think are under-emphasised by novelists who in the Romantic tradition want generally to persuade people that they compose in agony—I think that what’s not often said is that many writers, like many artists, are involved in a delicious form of self-pleasuring. When things go well, there’s nothing quite like it, and I think if more people knew how close to ecstasy one comes once you’ve learned how to write this particular novel, then I think everyone would be doing it, and we’d all be suffering a deluge of even more novels than people are suffering from already. And part of that pleasure is that it’s a secret pleasure.
I think all writers experience this strange feeling that never quite wears off that characters you’ve lived with, for two or three or four years and you’ve given names to, exist independently. I have a conversation with you and you’re talking about Briony as if she were a real person. And that transition from privacy to public space for characters, I’ve never quite lost my pleasure in that moment.
Your description of Briony’s reaction when she loses control of her play, of the casting amongst her cousins, of her impulse ‘to run away, to live under hedges, eat berries and speak to no-one and to be found by a bearded woodsman one winter’s dawn curled up at the base of a giant oak, beautiful and dead and barefoot—or perhaps wearing the ballet pumps with the pink ribbons strapped.’ A wonderful evocation of girlhood tantrums. Where did that spring from?
Well boys have tantrums too, and although they don’t—in public—wear ballet pumps with pink straps, it’s not difficult to remember—I find it difficult to forget—the sort of pain/pleasure, sour/sweet feeling of assault. That sort of annihilating, delicious but hellish feeling. It was fun to evoke that.
But it just seemed like another little corner of experience to give a shape to, give a voice to, and certainly my pleasure in reading is not necessarily the witnessing of something new, but of something familiar which I haven’t seen described. I think the novel that does that best of all, still, for me, is Ulysses, full of moments from ordinary life: Bloom buying some kidneys, the coldness of those kidneys through the paper; things you think, yes, yes, I want that given shape to. That’s a real pleasure.
So when people say, how can a male novelist describe a girlie sulk, it seems to me an extraordinary question, because sulking is a human issue, not a girlie issue at all.
By the time I'd written The Comfort of Strangers and The Cement Garden and In Between the Sheets, I think I was writing myself into a corner. There was only so far one could go with that and I was desperate to begin to enlarge.
What sort of a child were you, were you like Briony, did you have an active imagination and ambition to write?
I was very secretive. I was a bit like Briony in that I used to borrow my mother’s typewriter and I loved threading the paper in and then I’d be stuck, because I wanted to be writing, but I didn’t have anything to write, so I kept secret journals, sometimes for days on end and then would forget about them. As a child I was very freckly like Briony’s cousins, pale and very, very shy; very close to my mother, much to my father’s annoyance. He thought I was too much of a mother’s boy. Very mediocre in class, never spoke, hated speaking in public. No-one told me I was clever till I was about sixteen. And then when someone told me I was clever, I started coming on as clever.
Who told you?
I’m one of those writers with a marvellous English teacher who fed me all the books at the right age.
Which books at that age?
First generation Romantic poets were my first big thrill. Keats, Wordsworth, Coleridge. The other big excitement was to read The Wasteland. He persuaded us that it was simply a very accessible jazz age poem and that you needn’t bother yourself too much about what any of it meant. So he had us learn great chunks of it off by heart. So I think the trick, as with many good English teachers, is to say this is not about being solemn, this is about pleasure. Don’t be intimidated, you can own it too. You’re allowed in. And that was the thrill.
What about your time in the orbit of the famous novelist, critic and creative writing teacher, Malcolm Bradbury? You were Bradbury’s first student, in fact for a time his only student.
Yes, there was no class. I was twenty-one, I’d just finished a degree in English at Sussex University. I was looking around to go and do an MA somewhere. It was already September and I hadn’t found a university to go to, and I was thumbing through a pile of brochures and saw that you could do an MA in contemporary literature and literary theory—which wasn’t such a prickly subject in 1970 as it is now—and that you could also hand in a bit of fiction. I phoned the university, at East Anglia, and amazingly got through to Malcolm Bradbury almost immediately, and he said, ‘Well, come and see me.’
I had a very lucky break that year. The course had closed down, that’s what Bradbury said over the phone. He said, ‘This is the first year we’ve run it with this component of fiction. No-one’s applied but if you want to come, we’ll try you out.’
Wordsworth said, memorably, that a scientist was someone who would botanise on his mother's grave - a wonderful insult. But perhaps some very interesting flowers would grow on your mother's grave.
So I was there with a dozen other students who were concentrating mostly on comparative literature and modern American literature. And I simply saw it as my year to write fiction, It was the first real choice I’d made in my young adult life. I wrote like crazy. I was full of a very Romantic sense. I wrote into the dawn. I’d meet Malcolm every three or four weeks, usually in a pub, for twenty minutes—he was always very busy. He never gave any real critical comments, he simply said, ‘That’s fine, I think you’re on the right lines, what are you doing next?’ And I would say, ‘Well, I think I’m going to write a story about a thirteen-year-old boy who rapes his sister.’ And he’d say, ‘Well when can I have it?’
In other words, it was morally completely neutral and at the same time he was putting me in the way of writing that really made a huge impression on me. It was in that year I read all the American writers that I still admire and keep faith with: John Updike, Philip Roth, Saul Bellow; who seem to have dominated, in my mind, fiction in English for the last thirty years.
I also read William Burrows and Norman Mailer. I felt rather impatient with the texture of the standard mainstream English novel, which seemed to me rather grey and unambitious compared to these expressive, explosive Americans with their freedom and boldness with language.
Because they didn’t have that English restraint that you had grown up with?
Yes and they also had a democratic, pluralistic sense of what the novel could be. Saul Bellow’s characters were at ease on the street and yet could think, what he calls ‘deep water thoughts.’ And I like that. There was no sense in which you felt about Bellow’s characters that they were upper-middle, lower, in between class. They were simply twentieth century human beings, and he was exploring the condition.
My stories were tiny things by comparison, but I thought that I did want to be bold. I did want bright colours, I did want something a little savage. And I think that was reactive. For years afterwards, when people would say, well you clearly write to shock, I would deny it. But I now realise that in fact it was probably the case. Not as a conscious ambition, but as a reactive—yes, it was reactive writing against that well-mannered, well-modulated, prevailing style of English fiction at the time. Quite fussily attentive to issues of class and social mobility and what the furniture looked like and how to describe the tapestries and the… I was very impatient with that.
You said that you didn’t want to write with that sensibility about class and description; but in a sense Atonement has got a lot of that in it. What happened?
By the time I’d written The Comfort of Strangers and The Cement Garden and In Between the Sheets, I think I was writing myself into a corner. There was only so far one could go with that and I was desperate to begin to enlarge. So instead of writing any more fiction, I did other things. I wrote a television play, The Imitation Game, which was set in the Second World War. I wrote a movie for Richard Eyre to direct, called The Ploughman’s Lunch. I wrote an oratorio with Michael Berkeley which was really a response to the new shift in the arms race in the early eighties. And allowed a lot more light and breadth into my work.
I've thought for a long time that I would like to write a novel in which the hero is super-endowed with a belief in rationality but he turns out to be right. And the reader, and the police, and his wife, are all wrong.
So all those issues, whether one’s talking about class or social concerns, came back into the fiction. I’d always felt, for example, up until that point, that I should never reveal where any of my characters were, or when. I was very much in the tutelage of the existential novel, and I knew that that was like walking on crutches.
So by the time I got back to writing a novel, which was The Child in Time, it was very much located in a place, in a time which was a sort of a future but also very much the present. And from then on, I suppose, history became the major concern to me. So all the things that I’d discarded, stripped down as a twenty-one-year-old writer, I was anxious to reclaim in a different way.
Enduring Love concerns itself with the ideas of rationality and science versus more intuitive ways of thinking. It was a defence of rationality in a way, at least from one protagonist’s point of view. Delusional beliefs like the erotic delusion of Jed Parry in the book were explored, and the question raised about, how do you know if you’re in love or just simply off your head? Do you believe in falling in love.
Yes. If we could choose who we could fall in love with, we’d never get around to it.
Well, because if it became the slave to our rationality, we’d always think, well is she the wealthiest, more genetically endowed, etcetera … A rational choice would be that there is bound to be someone better. So much the better, in evolutionary terms, if falling in love was out of our hands. Then at least we could get started on providing the next generation. So usefully, I think, there are some things that are not subject to rational choice.
That’s a very rational way of thinking about falling in love, isn’t it?
Yes. But look how rationality then generates a very interesting story. I think rationality gets a terrible press in literature. And I blame Mary Shelley and Keats and Blake. They always thought that rationality was sucking something essential and good out of life. And yet we all know that in our personal lives what annoys us is when people are contradictory or inconsistent or say one thing and do another. We require a degree of rationality, even in our most intimate exchanges with people. You could describe love in evolutionary terms, but still the inside of love, and being in love and what it’s like to be loved, are no less stupendous for one finding a history of antecedents for it.
I’ve thought for a long time that I would like to write a novel in which the hero is super-endowed with a belief in rationality but he turns out to be right. And the reader, and the police, and his wife, are all wrong. It was something of a counter piece for Black Dogs, in which the central figure is someone who is deeply suspicious of the rational. I think we still live in this post-Romantic sense—especially in literature, less so in life. So typically in a novel it’s the character who trusts his or her intuition rather than the cold, abstract rationalist who wins through. But that’s not my experience, actually. I think so many good moments in life are actually produced by clear thinking, by thinking things through. Those things we value, like justice, are surely products of rationality. Frankenstein is the great anti-rational novel. It’s such a marvellous novel. It’s very hard to write a novel as fine as that in praise of rationality, but still I think one has to have a go.
And I still think that comes back to this notion—and there are so many instances, that first generation of Romantics that I said I loved, they had a deep distrust of science. Wordsworth said, memorably, that a scientist was someone who would botanise on his mother’s grave - a wonderful insult. But perhaps some very interesting flowers would grow on your mother’s grave.
...actually it's not necessarily the personality of the scientist that interests me, it's just that science itself seems to me a great tribute to human ingenuity. It's a great mistake to exclude ourselves who are not scientists from it.
You think the achievements of scientists and their intellectual gifts rank with the work of literary genius that we often talk about. Who are your favourite scientists?
Darwin is such an interesting man and Turing, the mathematician and computer scientist from this century. But actually it’s not necessarily the personality of the scientist that interests me, it’s just that science itself seems to me a great tribute to human ingenuity. It’s a great mistake to exclude ourselves who are not scientists from it.
And I think we’re all entitled to embrace science. It’s part of what we’ve achieved. The closest I ever got to any real sense of the difficulty of science was at A-level— all the arts students were encouraged to do one year’s mathematics, even though we were no good at maths. But the good teacher took us, step by step, through the calculus, and I realised I was at the very roof of my intellectual grasp of something. I’ve never, ever, before or since understood something so difficult as something that Newton and Leidenitz invented two hundred and fifty years ago. And the teacher was very good, he said, ‘Is everyone with me so far?’, and half of us would say, ‘No.’ So we’d go back, and finally you’d feel, if I sneeze, the whole thing’s going to go…
And I realised what a lucky life us liberal arts know-nothings have. We never really had to understand anything very difficult. And it was at that point I thought that someone had invented this. Differential equations—the mathematics that would show you the way something changed—to examine something as it changed, seemed to me like a sort of logarithmic quantum leap of the imagination. And I think one has to take it on as part of a celebration of our own ingenuity. I take a humanist view of science. Why the physical world is describable by maths is some delicious mystery to me.
This is an edited transcript of an interview recorded at the Edinburgh Festival in September 2002.