The previous time novelist Ian McEwan was interviewed by a journalist from the FT for a profile, something unexpected happened. Reader, he married her.
McEwan’s wife, writer and former literary editor Annalena McAfee, is, in fact, one of the reasons we are at Moro in central London. She used to be a regular at this chic but informal restaurant in Exmouth Market, known for its Moorish food. Also, McEwan recalls, fellow novelist Julian Barnes “had a very nice birthday party here”. He apologetically pre-empts any marital hopes. “I usually marry my FT interviewer but I can’t do it this time.”
I had predicted that McEwan, known for his calculated, precise prose, would arrive on time. In fact, he is 10 minutes late. A slight man, who would not stand out in a crowd, he wears a grey Italian suit with a crumpled blue linen shirt, with oddly folded cuffs. He looks straight at me with an air of calm, engaged curiosity; at ease with intimate talk, he asks equally direct questions back. Within minutes we dart from marriage to Barack Obama and The West Wing, from solar power to predicting the fall of the Berlin wall in a novel. “I was well ahead of the CIA,” he says.
At 64, he has just published his 13th novel, Sweet Tooth. His writing ranges from collections of macabre stories, such as First Love, Last Rights (1975), to novels Enduring Love (1997) and 2001’s Atonement (made into an Oscar-winning film). He has been nominated six times for the Man Booker prize (winning once, for Amsterdam, in 1998), and a New Yorker profile in 2009 hailed him as “England’s national author”. He doesn’t lack critics, however. John Banville in The New York Review of Books dismissed Saturday (2005) as “dismayingly bad”.
After 10 minutes, I reluctantly suggest we look at the menus. He looks up brightly. “Whenever I see the word ‘beetroot’ it looks so appealing. The word looks its colour, so I’m going to have that. What are you having?” Lamb, I think. “Why are we so fooled by words like ‘wood-roasted’? It’s just meat. I devised one of those menus, ‘Served on a ceramic plate with a side order of salt’ ,” he says. “Anyway, I’m going to have wood-roasted pork because I’d never have it at home.”
Just as many of McEwan’s novels revolve around life being transformed by a sudden event or a plot twist that prompts a rethink of the novel (“Don’t give away my ending!” he pleads), so our conversation orbits around the revelation of a family secret that forced him to recast his own history.
In 2002, an elder brother David, whom he had not known existed, appeared. The child was born during the second world war when his parents met and began an affair. His Scottish father, also David, was in the army; his mother Rose, was already married with two children. (Her first husband eventually died in the war.) “The baby was given away, never to be talked of again. They both suffered, I realise now, in silence.”
In a moment worthy of a soap opera, the two brothers nearly met two years earlier in Mallorca. “My brother was there [in the same hotel] one week before and I wonder, had we been there the same week, would the boys have said, ‘There’s a bloke who looks just like you, Dad’?”
By the time David met their mother, she had dementia. “He said to her, ‘I’m the baby you gave away,’ and she didn’t know what he was talking about. She was too far gone. She called everyone ‘Auntie’. Had he come just a year earlier ... ” a too-long pause, “she would have felt completely different right at the end of her life.”
The family was haunted by absent children. His half-brother was sent to a grandmother’s “emotionally cold” household; his half-sister to a “severe charitable institution”, while McEwan went to boarding school. “Against all their instincts, especially my mother’s, my mother’s four children were dispersed, disposed of.”
There is a huge sense of regret when McEwan talks about what might have been, had his parents made different choices. “We could have been a family.” In 2001, he wrote “Mother Tongue”, a moving account of his mother’s social awkwardness with words. It is, he says, the first chapter of his unwritten autobiography. “A lot of my mother’s life was cleaning the house and wrapping up presents for the family – the absent family,” he recalls. “If they’d known about David [trying to find them] ... It’s a very big thing. I think they were always in flight from that act.”
. . .
By now, we are so deep into stories that I have forgotten about ordering food and the waitress’s arrival feels like an intrusion. We both order beetroot with pine nuts. I choose the lamb with lentils. Forgetting the pork, McEwan picks sea bass. He shuns wine but recommends a citron pressé, “no sugar”. “They’re really nice.”
I tell him there are strange consonances in our childhoods. We were both born in the army town of Aldershot. My father also left school early and became an officer via an untypical route. His father rose through the ranks, always remaining conscious of the class divide and feeling closer to his working-class soldiers. I say I related to McEwan’s disassociated upbringing in grey army camps. “Really, this is getting spooky,” he says.
He eats by switching his fork into his right hand, and happily declares the beetroot “an excellent invention”. We continue on the army. Although his father had a chance to retrain in the 1950s, he chose exile in Germany as a retired officer for 20 years. McEwan describes a childhood of longing to escape, with daily walks to “this bleak fluorescent-lit NAAFI asking, ‘Has my Rolling Stones record come in yet?’ I had this feeling that, by 1963-64, life was elsewhere.”
He went on a military ski trip but, lacking money for the ski lift, bleakly plodded up the same stretch of snow on foot. “There was this life up in the slopes but it’s not mine. There was a lot of yearning for some other life that was either in London or England or up a mountain; a lot of lonely fantasising.”
He attended the University of Sussex to read English before graduating from the University of East Anglia’s creative writing course in 1971. On rare visits home he recalls noting “the minute planning, the carefulness of life, the polished spotless quality of it all, but the madness! And I would feel very strange after a day or two but I would retreat to my bedroom and write. The end of the evening would be about the best time when I would sit and drink with my dad – my mum would go to bed – and talk about his favourite subject, the Labour party.”
McEwan is surprisingly at ease talking about emotional issues, although he occasionally looks away, out of the window, when he reminisces. His father was sometimes violent to his mother, although he never saw it. McEwan wrote a letter for her to use if she was hit but she ripped it up. “She couldn’t bear it in the house; felt it glowing in the dark. I don’t know what to think about it now. I suppose I could have confronted him head on, but then I would leave again [for London] ... My mother was beseeching me not to mention it.”
This sense of something aloof and emotionally detached is evident in McEwan’s early short stories, First Love, Last Rights. They have no sense of place or community. “Philip Roth once said to me, this was in the 70s, ‘You must write as if your parents are dead.’ I knew just what he meant. You mustn’t worry about upsetting your parents.” The subject matter of his stories – incest, paedophilia – suggests he had no such problems (his father still proudly shared them in the officers’ mess).
. . .
In the early 1970s, McEwan arrived in London from Norwich, a “country mouse”. How did that change? “How did I become a lion? By roaring!” He entered a buoyant literary scene, embracing Ian Hamilton at the New Review, and writers Martin Amis, Christopher Hitchens and Barnes. “The conversation was hilarious and quick; the company irresistible. In a way it was like finding a home, a world in a set of contemporaries.”
This era forms the backdrop for Sweet Tooth. Amis, Hamilton and his publisher appear in the novel. McEwan worries that people will dislike it because he has “put some of my chums in. It’s very self-indulgent.” What’s the difference between naming them and exploiting their characters anonymously, I say? “Exactly, you’ve snatched my words of defence. I’ll refer them [any critics] to you,” he says with a collaborative smile.
Sweet Tooth is ostensibly about MI5 but is also a forensically plotted novel about fiction. It centres on a novelist, Tom Haley, and is narrated by a spy, Serena Frome. “I wrote it A to Z. I knew where I was going. When I have Serena say her name rhymes with ‘plume’, I was telling myself this was a story about who is controlling the narrative, who is holding the pen.”
There are lots of insider jokes. Some of Tom’s short stories are adapted from McEwan’s own dystopian tales from In Between the Sheets (1978). The novel contains a debate about how men and women read fiction: a female reader prefers social realism and loves to recognise herself in a book, “which I sympathise with. You’re reading the book that Serena would like to read but you’re reading the book that Tom would like to read. This is the book that unites them, that’s the idea. You are reading a book which has a love story, it has social realism as its message but you’re also reading a postmodern book.”
Long fascinated by deception, as a child he spied on himself, inventing a judge who interrogated him: “Why did you cross the road, why did you?” Yet he never wanted to become a spy. “I couldn’t work for the state in that way,” he says. As part of his research, however, he and his son applied online for a job at MI5. It included answering oblique questions about “the migratory patterns of Canada geese”. They failed.
McEwan also read Stella Rimington’s memoirs and talked to John le Carré about MI5. He admires le Carré for reflecting “the human condition seen through the prism of office politics”. There is also a feminist curiosity. “MI5 clung to an unexamined assumption – and quite a profound one – that a woman couldn’t keep a secret. Nothing could dissuade them, however many secrets men gave away.” He is intrigued by a women’s revolt in 1972, when they demanded proper careers. “There is a whole other novel here – the meetings for the women’s revolt were bugged. Why not? It’s MI5.”
What does he feel about being a “great British novelist”? “I’d rather be more light-footed and less burdened.” But is it really a burden? His instinct is to rummage for a humorous riposte. “It would be [a burden] if I thought of myself as a national model, like being a kind of one-man Marks and Spencer,” he says.
In fact, although his books often have political themes – from terrorism to climate change – he seems personally disengaged, eschewing the chance to use his status to grandstand as a public intellectual. He has never joined a political party and says he is more drawn to how “power is dispensed and what people do with it, how dreams are built up and then collapse”. He was more moved at the Olympics, for example, by a Pakistani cleaner who felt privileged to sweep the gravel. “I was touched by that detail, as much as the rest.” The most political he gets is to admit that he is relieved the Olympics weren’t ruined by terrorism or a cynical press. “It was great watching the [Daily] Mail slowly collapse and realise it was on the wrong side of the argument.”
. . .
His work has spawned dozens of theses. I hand over a list, pointing to one exotic title, which he reads out loud, faintly embarrassed: “Mimesis and the Imaginable Other – Meta-fictional Narrative Ethics ... ” (He stops reading before it gets to: “In the Novels of Ian McEwan”.) As if to deflect attention, he mordantly adds: “Well, at least they’re not out killing people, I suppose.” His novels also appear on the school curriculum. He has found essays at home by his 16-year-old son Greg “referring to me as McEwan – ‘Here McEwan distances himself from something’ – it was very odd. I wish I had gone along to the school and said, ‘Can’t he write about Coriolanus?’”
For all his success, he admits he can be thin-skinned. In 1981 when Craig Raine was blunt about The Comfort of Strangers (advising him to “put it in a drawer and forget about it”), they didn’t speak for two years.
“I was completely in the wrong,” McEwan concedes: “It was the darkest thing I ever wrote.” As for a bad review, “It can bother me, but not for long. I don’t hold grudges. I often don’t read reviews. Reading reviews makes you thin-skinned. It’s like waves washing layers off your skin.” Not exactly the analogy of an insouciant novelist? “It’s like being blasted with radiation, peeling you away, and I don’t find that a good idea,” he adds.
It is hard to find any topic that riles him – politics, critics, letters from readers pointing out mistakes – so it is a relief to hear he is famous at home “for getting very irritated by bits of technology. Annalena’s parody of it is me muttering, ‘Fucking piece of shit,’ to some bit of telephone. What do I do? I get Annalena to fix it.”
By now he is running very late. “My driver has sent me three texts, which I ignored.” He goes out but returns for an espresso. After two and a half hours of constant conversation, I barely noticed our food. My plate is piled with uneaten lentils and nibbled lamb. He politely supplies an excuse. “I wondered if that lamb was a sheep. It looked so big!”
So, how was his food? “All the cells in my body crave beetroot and they’re very happy now and they’re singing. The sea bass was great; absolutely lovely. But, then, we were talking so intensely, I looked down and it had all gone and I assume I was the one who ate it.”
Caroline Daniel is editor of FT Weekend
34/36 Exmouth Market
London EC1R 4QE
Beetroot and pine nut salad x2 £17.00
Charcoal grilled lamb chops with chermoula, grilled pepper and onion salad £19.50
Wood-roasted sea bass with braised celery, green olives and chard £19.50
Fresh lemonade x2 £5.00
Sparkling water £3.25
Total (including service) £77.34