At home with his worries
Rather than arrive too early on Ian McEwan’s doorstep, I walked around the block. There was no one about.
It was absolutely quiet, sequestered, a perfect place in which to write.
In my handbag, heavy as a stone, was McEwan’s new novel, Atonement. It had been weighing on my mind, too, since I finished it. It is, I think, the best thing he has ever written and I read it (at first) as one might drink a good wine, relishing every word, not wishing to swig too fast, not wanting it to be over. I rang the doorbell, stared at blue double doors and waited.
The first thing I would say about Ian McEwan is that he looks well.
Inside, the house is virtuously ship-shape. He shares it with his sons, William (18) and Gregory (15). Their stepmother, Annalena McAfee (journalist and writer), spends the week in her home in London and her weekends in Oxford. Beyond the kitchen, I saw a single magpie on the lawn. One for sorrow. And I wondered about the emotions this house must have seen. For since McEwan won the Booker Prize in 1998 with Amsterdam, the fight over the custody of his sons has earned him even more publicity than his professional success.
It is an ordinary story with extraordinary details, as if a theatrical author had become a little deranged and decided to give it extra colour. McEwan’s marriage to his first wife, Penny Allen, ended in 1995. She blamed his success and the negative pull of the “glitterati”. She worked as a faith healer in Oxford but seemed to have no power to heal family relations. She vilified McEwan’s name, took him to court and lost repeatedly, until, as if by a law of diminishing returns, the courts eventually awarded McEwan sole custody of the children and fined her Â£1Â 000 for defamation of his name.
And still she did not give up. She petitioned the Lord Chancellor (in vain) and published confidential documents about the breakdown of her marriage on the Internet. At one desperate point, she ran away with the younger of the boys in defiance of a court ruling. She lives in France with her partner, a mineralogist who changed his name from Steve Brown to Ismay Tremain because he thought it sounded more distinctive. Brown/ Tremain has played a troubling role throughout the story. Most outlandishly, he turned up at the High Court in London, gagged, brandishing a brief case bearing the words: “Ian Russell McEwan. My next novel is entitled The Destruction of Penny Allen and Ismay Tremain.” You could understand it if, under the circumstances, there had been no “next” novel at all.
We went up to the study on the first floor, a large room with fresh green walls and two sash windows with a desk between them. McEwan apologised for its untidiness. But it is an
intriguing space, the physical equivalent of unrelated thoughts, with no linking plot at all.
We talked, at first, about the book, a front-runner for this year’s Booker Prize. What was the seed from which Atonement (Jonathan Cape) grew? “This book was written on the back of a fragment. I had been doodling for 15 months. I had a number of good descriptions of novels, as if they had already been written.” Then, one February, he took his sons to “of all places, a Dutch Center Parc. I sat and gloomily wrote while they had a fabulous time.” What he produced was only a paragraph and a half (now the beginning of Atonement‘s second chapter).
“It was about a young woman standing in a doorway, with wild flowers in her hand, looking for a vase. She was very aware of the young man who is a gardener. For reasons I couldn’t define I felt really excited.” Like the young woman herself, he sensed that he was on the threshold of a story.
But the novel turned out to centre on a second girl, 13-year-old Briony, sister to the first and a writer in the making. “I was in love with Briony and all her mistakes,” he says, relieved to know I had felt the same way (an American reader has written to him describing her as “monstrous”). “She seemed to walk on to the page unannounced.” He did not know, then, who she was but she will go down in literary history as one of a select band of children. Like Maisie in Henry James’s What Maisie Knew or Leo in LP Hartley’s The Go-Between, Briony is a child who becomes implicated in an adult sexual relationship she does not understand.
The word “know” rings through the book in an admonitory way. Was McEwan implying that we should be more alive to the limits of knowledge and look round the corners of what we think we know? He acknowledges that there is no such thing as “the full story” about anything. He explained that he wanted to look at “the inner life that is not driven by surface rationality but by a spectrum of hints, certainties that have no base ...” He wanted to describe the same experience from several points of view, it would be a “polyphony ... I was writing with as much discipline as I could to give an unruly sense of what the mind is.” For him, novels are not about “teaching people how to live but about showing the possibility of what it is like to be someone else. It is the basis of all sympathy, empathy and compassion. Other people are as alive as you are. Cruelty is a failure of imagination.”
He wrote Atonement with intense fear as well as excitement. He knew he was exploring new ground, another country. He has travelled a long way since First Love, Last Rites (1975), the first collection of stories that won him the nickname Ian Macabre. The private names he gave this book spell out the distance. He thought of Atonement (the first part of it) variously as “my Jane Austen novel, my country house novel, my one-hot-day novel”. He knew it was a book he had been waiting years to write.
He agonised over the writing of a sexual encounter in the country house (upon which much depends): “I knew that the making-love-in-the-library scene had got to be a glorious, transcendent experience. But I told myself: you’re going to have to
describe a fuck.” Should he tackle it like John Updike, who overcomes the problem like a technician? “He names and describes the glistening parts, mucus, membranes ...” His
solution was different and intensely, decorously erotic.
He writes slowly, is “painstaking”. He lies awake at night and worries. He worries about the book, about the characters, about what they will say to each other in the morning. He worries that if he does not sleep well, he won’t be able to write at all.
I suggest, expecting to draw a blank, that there has been much else to keep him awake since 1998. How has he coped? To my surprise, he answers at once, as if he is no longer under the self-censoring constraints of the past: “I rarely close my study door. I am not one of those hush-Daddy’s-working writers. And I don’t take the Freudian view that you get driven by neurosis into art. I work by necessity. But I can’t shut things out; I go on working only because it is torture not to.”
He believes you have to absorb everything into the family, that you cannot enforce a separation between writing and children. “Sometimes, I accept that I will have to write in 25-minute bursts.” It is a “discipline”, he adds. And yet he is still able to find amazing stretches of uninterrupted time: “If I think I am on to something, I’ll just keep going for 12 or 14 hours.” It is a thrilling feeling, everything is accelerated, heightened. Like a love affair? “Yes,” he says.
When he stops writing, he likes to cook because, although “not very good with my hands”, he enjoys it so much. He puts it rather curiously, however: “I like taking a sharp knife to a tomato.”
Almost as an afterthought, I mention “atonement” itself, a difficult concept for an atheist such as McEwan. For him, it is about a “reconciliation with self”. I like the word, I say. He does too. He was looking at it one day when he saw, suddenly, how it came apart: “at-one-ment”. As I left, I felt that at-one-ment is exactly what Ian McEwan has achieved.