The elegant extremist

From The Critic:

Imagine a parlour game where the aim is to cite two practitioners in one field who are such polar opposites to each other that they make us doubt that it really is one field at all. In cinema, for example, one could offer everything-explodes merchant Michael Bay and nothing-happens master Andrei Tarkovsky.

In fiction, one extreme might be Ian McEwan, the young author who shocked literary London.

. . . .

And the far side would be occupied by Ian McEwan, darling of the twenty-first century prize lists and bestseller shelves, whose novels have appeared on the Queen Consort’s Reading Room book club, and who once said with a straight face, “It’s an aspect of getting older that I find in my social circle a handful of judges.”

How does one become the other? When did Ian McEwan stop being a risk-taker, the enfant terrible of nasty sex (“Ian Macabre” was Private Eye’s nickname for him), and start being the grandfather of the well-plotted English literary novel of ideas? The answer is that he always was both at the same time. 

A bearded, lank-haired 26-year-old McEwan, looking very Generation Z, loomed out of the publicity materials for his first collection of stories, First Love, Last Rites, published in 1975 (first edition, left). Even the positive reviews of these stories of murder, child abuse and cat-roasting, McEwan recalled later, “were scandalised. What monster had come among us?”

With The Child in Time there was a sense almost of relief among critics that McEwan was finally putting his talents to less ugly uses. “The McEwan you and I have been waiting for,” offered The Guardian, while The Listener affirmed that the book “attains a new level of seriousness”. Yet this overlooks that The Child in Time was still a deeply eccentric book, set in the future during an unprecedented heatwave, where one character is of unspecified gender and another plot strand involves an MP literally reverting to childhood.

And despite their smoother, maturer surfaces — “To call The Innocent a spy novel would be like calling Lord of the Flies a boys’ adventure yarn,” said The Sunday Times — these were still novels where bad things happen to people excitingly: missing children (The Child in Time), a fight to the death (The Innocent), being terrorised by Nazi-trained dogs (Black Dogs) or victimised by a mentally-ill stalker (Enduring Love). 

The blend was perfect: uneasiness delivered with aplomb, and at least two or three virtuosic set pieces of action in each book. Zoë Heller called him “the master clockmaker of novelists”. But there was comedy in them too — comedy that readers had overlooked since McEwan’s early stories, and the lack of response to which may have led him to make his next novel the much broader comedy (featuring, naturally, forced euthanasia), Amsterdam (1998).

By now the transition for McEwan to Master of the Universe (English Literary Fiction Division) was complete. Amsterdam — not uncontroversially, as an unapologetic bagatelle among his works — won the Booker Prize, and kick-started what we might call his imperial phase. 

His next novel, Atonement (2001), was fast-tracked to modern classic status. It had everything — spanning 60 years, incorporating country-house romance, war and a twist that meant that, as Claire Messud put it, “complicatedly, this novel is both itself, and a novel about itself”. The twist irked almost as many readers as it delighted, showing that even in his crowd-pleasing pomp, McEwan could still kick against the pricks.

Link to the rest at The Critic