Lessons, by Ian McEwan

People either love or hate Ian McEwan's novels. To the extent it sometimes feels like there's no middle ground. Luckily (for me), ever since I picked up Saturday, I firmly joined the former side.

'Lessons,' Ian McEwan's latest novel, spans vast stretches of time and generations, unfolding as a gargantuan creation that delves into the intricacies of a single lifetime against the backdrop of global events shaping and reflecting our collective experience. To my surprise, as I progressed through the book, I found myself inevitably pondering its autobiographical elements. This suspicion was ultimately confirmed during the final encounter between the main protagonist and Alissa.

‘Have I really got to give you a lesson in how to read a book? I borrow. I invent. I raid my own life. I take from all over the place, I change it, bend it to what I need. Didn’t you notice? The abandoned husband is two metres tall with a ponytail you wouldn’t have been seen dead with. And blond, from the Swedish guy I knew before you, Karl. Sure, he hit me a couple of times. But he didn’t have a scar and nor do you. That was from a farmer near Liebenau, an old Nazi, friend of my father. And Monika, the chancellor, is drawn a little from me thirty years ago. Also from your sister, Susan, who I loved. Everything that ever happened to me and everything that didn’t. Everything I know, everyone I ever met – all mine to mash up with whatever I invent.’

The title 'Lessons' is packed with suggestions, starting from the self-explanatory piano lessons received by the young Ronald Baines, which, at the tender age of 14, lead him to an experience of intimacy never to be replicated. The narrative then extends to the historical lessons that remain unlearned, as echoed in recent global events.

He had thought 1989 was a portal, a wide opening to the future, with everyone streaming through. It was merely a peak. Now, from Jerusalem to New Mexico, walls were going up. So many lessons unlearned. The January assault on the Capitol could be merely a trough, a singular moment of shame to be discussed in wonder for years. Or a portal to a new kind of America, the present administration just an interregnum, a variant of Weimar.

And while writing this summary, not really a review, I too have to wonder (like Roland Baines) about the boring, no insights and passive summary of my life. My own journals being weak compared to the master work of story telling.

Reading back since 1986 did not bring him any fresh understanding of his life. There were no obvious themes, no undercurrents he had not noticed at the time, nothing learned. A grand mass of detail was what he found and events, conversations, even people that he could not remember. In those sections it was as if he was reading of someone else’s past. He disliked himself for complaining onto the page – about living hand to mouth, not having the right kind of work, not making a long and successful marriage. Boring, no insight, passive. He had read many books. His summaries were hasty, without interest. How weak compared to Jane Farmer’s journal. She had something to write about: European civilisation in ruins, heroic young idealists beheaded, while he was a child of a long peace. He remembered the lift and twist in her prose. Hers, like his, was unrevised last-thing-at-night stuff. Her way of setting or unfolding a scene was far superior, so were the logic and tension that lay between one sentence and the next. Her knack of knowing how one good detail could illuminate the whole had the gleam of vital intelligence. This was also the way of Alissa’s prose. Where he simply listed experiences, mother and daughter gave them life.

Rating: ★★★★★ ?

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