By Ian McEwan
496 pp. Jonathan Cape. £20.
What a strange year this has been! After the excellent reading I did in the COVID years, I find that 2022 has found me in something of a slump. I attribute this to three things.
1. Like many others, I’ve been out and about again, venturing to other shores for the first time since 2019, and have accordingly traded time previously spent on reading literature for time spent reading Lonely Planet.
2. Global news has once again felt necessary to keep on top of and my appetite for the latest from Ukraine and, more recently, Iran, is, as yet, unabated.
3. The books I have picked up this year have been something of a mixed bag. I started the year out with Jonathan Franzen’s absolutely amazing “Crossroads” which I followed, a book or two later, with Gary Shteyngart’s absolutely abysmal “Our Country Friends” and the rest of the year has gone more or less accordingly — with one good or even great book followed up by a completely forgettable one.
This leads me to “Lessons,” Ian McEwan’s latest (and perhaps last?) novel. Back in the day, McEwan was one of my favorite writers, and “Atonement” remains one of my all-time favorites. But in the last decade or so, McEwan has churned out a consistent series of ambitious, if ultimately mediocre, titles. He’s better than almost anyone else working today in his ability to string together a lovely sentence, but the execution of his recent works has felt, to me, to be somewhat lacking.
Having read the many glowing reviews, I was hopeful that “Lessons” would break the trend, but once again I find myself greeting the conclusion of a recent McEwan with a shrug. Yes, it’s good, but I find myself unable to summon any enthusiasm for it. It’s a very ambitious novel, perhaps too ambitious, and I think any positive feelings toward it are due more to the scale of what McEwan was attempting to pull off here and less to do with any pleasure I derived from reading it.
It’s not boring, to be sure, but it’s not riveting either. I rarely thought about it when it wasn’t in my hands and I never looked forward to picking it back up again. In other words, it felt so 2022, so post-“Atonement” McEwan.
I think I can use the word “Dickensian” to describe “Lessons,” because its main protagonist, Roland Baines, feels like a rather sad sack David Copperfield. Roland is, for all intents and purposes, drifting through life with no real purpose or intention, never acting, only reacting to things that happen to him but never seeming quite sure what the appropriate response should be. Roland’s the kind of guy who sits at the edge of the party all night, always on the periphery of events both in the world and in his own life.
I couldn’t help but feel embarrassed for the two of us while reading. Embarrassed for him, because of how pathetic he seemed, and embarrassed for myself because McEwan is a good enough writer that I felt I shared in Roland’s pathetic state. I winced and cringed at all the appropriate times, though eventually I came to know in advance, the way perhaps an unfortunate parent does, that Roland would just continue to disappoint and, by my closeness to him, implicate me.
“Lessons” does posit some age-old questions — questions that were far more interesting than the action taking place on the page.
Can we ever truly separate the art from the artist? What sacrifices are worth making in pursuit of great art?
How far does blame extend for our own misdeeds? For how long can we blame our parents, our upbringing, our environment, for our own failures?
What about our own biology? Experiments have shown that, given the ability, rats will continually trigger responses in their brains connected with pleasure, even to their own detriment. Would anything positive come out of getting to live out our fantasies on a never-ending loop? If we were to all give free rein to our pleasures, would society collapse?
The question brings to mind Hesiod who, along with a bevy of others across the ages, warned of the detriment of giving into physical desire and of trying to find a shortcut for labor, arguing that those who accept their duties willingly are more moral and better off.
“Lessons” succeeds at making us ponder again what constitutes the good life and what makes life worth living at all. It just takes far too many pages to do it.