Ian McEwan’s Lessons and The Empty Chair
Lessons is Ian McEwan’s best novel since Atonement, a true late major work, perhaps a late masterpiece. He handles an armada of complex interlocking threads with breathtaking aplomb, from broad historical strokes through to microscopic dissections of human emotions and perceptions. Take an early scene in which a detective visits Roland at home, where he is caring for his seven-month-old son after the dubious disappearance of his wife, Allissa. During the conversation — perhaps an interrogation — the baby squawks, demanding attention. And then the infant’s point of view is given, speculatively, in considerable detail:
A shaded emptiness, a grey winter sky against which impressions — sounds, sights, touch — burst like fireworks in arcs and cones of primary colour, instantly forgotten, instantly replaced and forgotten again.
And presently, there’s more speculation on the effect of the mother’s desertion on her young son, the nature of the ‘scar tissue’ it is forming. Reading Lessons, one is constantly aware one is imbibing writing of an exceptionally elevated calibre.
Though the novel is long and minutely detailed, there is absolutely no flab or superfluous padding — everything counts in this slowly evolving portrait of a life, one which spans McEwan’s own, naturally, as he is dabbling in the genre of mixed autobiography and fiction, or autofiction. In some ways Lessons and Atonement are strikingly similar, in that they take a profoundly negative event affecting the late childhoods of each protagonist, Roland and Briony, which reverberates throughout the remainder of life, requiring many iterations of attempted repair.
In this autofictive treatment, the seduction of fourteen-year-old Roland by music teacher Miriam is fictional, but his background story is the author’s own: child of a military family, stationed in Tripoli, boarding school in England from age eleven, a bombastic army captain father who sometimes becomes physically abusive in drink, but with the wife as the target — no mention either in life or novel of the boy being similarly mistreated, beyond non-specific references to smacks to bottom and legs. It is the beautiful drawn, borderline crazy Miriam who is made to carry the full freight of abusive culpability — the ‘thing’ that propels Roland off the rails.
From my point of view, Lessons is also strikingly similar to my latest novel The Empty Chair, again a big autofictional book encompassing a whole life to date, paralleling the real author’s, whose childhood ‘bad things’ similarly reverberate. In fact, Lessons could almost be The Empty Chair, if you subtract Miriam and make the father the villain of the piece. In both novels, once the terms of the childhood abuse are set out, the issues then become recovery from the effects and confrontation with the abuser — with a constructive aim in mind, détente, rapprochement and healing. This necessarily happens many years after the incidents, a corollary to mapping out the trajectory of the damage, manifesting within the intervening years.
In The Empty Chair there are four confrontations with the father — two natural, one fictional and another supernatural — and the message here is that it’s ultimately a never-ending process. In Lessons Roland eventually hunts down Miriam in the internet age, and after initial avoidance her denials are broken down by a carefully plotted threat. Of course, we want her side of the story and when she gives it, she seems considerably less mad than she did from the boy’s point of view earlier.
The ongoing father confrontations in The Empty Chair lack complete satisfaction, hence the need to proceed to the next and so on. Though the Miriam confrontation in Lessons is pretty conclusive, McEwan the novelist is seemingly itching for another, and so he stages another — this time between Roland and his estranged wife, at her behest rather than his. The two verbal ‘tennis matches’ have a similar feel, with the novelist’s imagination in overdrive to provide satisfactory resolution. My own feeling is that confrontations, both in life and fiction, can become addictive, and in The Empty Chair there is a fifth — fully fictional — between the Author and his rival in love, which contains the element of murderous intent.
And guess what? McEwan also includes such a confrontation, this time between Roland and a man of his age, a long-time ‘friend’ who isn’t really a friend, because of that very same love rivalry, just like the Author and Trevor in The Empty Chair. It would be spoilerific to say too much more, but it’s extremely good fun and recalls other late-narrative altercations in Saturday and Solar, not to mention the euthanasia stand-off in Amsterdam.
I first met Ian McEwan in September 1987, in a bookshop in Bath, where he was a doing a lunchtime reading of The Child in Time, just published. Back then we were both relatively young men — he was thirty-nine and I was thirty-two — and we were both paunch-free and in possession of most of our hair. I was then pursuing an unexceptional career in television and writing in my spare time. Ian was already hugely famous, a literary superstar who radiated palpable charisma and energy. Of all the many famous people I’ve met in the course of my media career, only one other has matched Ian’s charisma and energy, and that was Richard Branson.
Not only charismatic but also a superbly performative reader of his own work, Ian went on to read the road-traffic accident sequence from The Child in Time, giving us a dazzling display of high-definition, slow-motion literary virtuosity. The audience, packing every square inch of bookshop floorspace, were rapt, enthralled, spellbound…chose your own clichéd adjectives. Afterward, when I took my copy to Ian to be signed, I mentioned a traffic accident I’d been involved in, and we entered into a fulsome conversation, firstly about accidents, then about fictionalising such material and finally about Ian’s technique of summoning such troublesome events and using writing in a magical way to neuter their stings — a method also employed by Stephen King.
Driving back to the TV studios, very overdue on my lunch break, I felt on a high, a cloud nine sensation of having made this definitive contact with a ‘real writer’, a famous writer, and talked to him as though we were equals. I’d read and adored Ian’s two collections of stories and previous two novels, and now I had a third in my hand and I’d met the man! What came next? It certainly felt like the beginning of something, but of what exactly I wasn’t quite sure.
Nearly three years later in 1990, I saw Ian again at another event for the publication of his next novel The Innocent. This took place on a May evening at the Watershed in Bristol, and included an in-depth interview by the critic Marion Glastonbury — a much bigger event than the one in Bath, with a large audience. Much to my delight, Ian chose as his reading passage the sequence where Leonard and his lover Maria dismember the corpse of the latter’s husband, who died in the process of a vicious three-handed fight. Just like in the car-accident sequence, the descriptive power and visceral recreation — literally! — of Ian’s delivery totally gripped the audience, and at one point a poor young woman stood and rushed out, hand held to mouth.
Ian has since somewhat disowned this passage, regarding it as too gruesome and supererogatory to the story. I disagree, thinking it essential to what the whole novel is about — trauma. The later dream sequence, where the corpse reassembles itself, is one of the finest pieces of Gothic writing ever.
Hearing the passage cemented my feelings of identification with Ian, for I am a huge fan of Gothic and horror fiction and film, and in 1990 I was commencing a ‘horror phase’, writing such stories myself, some of which were published in small press horror fiction magazines. I particularly admired Ian’s terrifying cautionary tale ‘Pornography’, fronting the collection In Between the Sheets, and this plus The Innocent reading confirmed my opinion he was a master of this particular art.
By 1990 I was also into a second phase of psychotherapy, exploring the manifold issues arising from physical abuse at the hands of my father, which are set out, semi-fictionally, in The Empty Chair. I fully connected my connoisseur taste for the macabre with this unfortunate history, and seeing Ian as a kindred spirit, I wondered if he’d suffered something similar. Thinking that, when the question-and-answer session commenced, I tried to formulate an inquiry based on the idea — the connection between writing about horrible things and their actual experience in life. But at a crowded event with many informed questioners putting up their hands and taking up time, I missed the moment. In Lessons, Ian explores this very issue, when Roland vacillates at a literary talk and fails to pose his question concerning the poet Robert Lowell.
Putting up your hand and speaking, your voice starting from cold, in front of several hundred people, all listening to you and you alone, is not an easy thing to do for the unpractised, and the fear of stumbling or losing your thread magnifies the longer you wait. How much better to express yourself in a one-to-one chat, such as Ian and I had in the Bath bookshop, where he continued to sign other people’s copies as our conversation progressed. Striding up to the novelist at The Innocent signing, I went for a rematch of that previous time, but my conversational gambit fell utterly flat, the atmosphere cloying and embarrassing for some reason, and I had no choice but to take my signed copy and move along, feeling a deflation that was the exact antithesis of two and a half years back.
As the ’90s progressed, I developed something of a part-time literary life alongside my TV work, writing those Gothic stories for magazines and also critical articles, reviews and literary journalism, such as features and interviews. This created an opportunity to write to Ian, in something beyond a mere ‘fan’ capacity, reminding him of our previous interactions and inviting him to be interviewed for a writing magazine, but I received no reply. A couple of years later, I wrote an article entitled ‘The Horror in Ian McEwan’, for a fantasy and horror-inclined magazine called The Third Alternative, now defunct. It dealt with the Gothic tendencies in Ian’s work up to Black Dogs, then his latest novel. Again, I sent Ian a copy, also inviting him to give me an interview, and again I received no reply.
Shortly after this, Enduring Love came out, considered a breakthrough work, which dealt with the subject of stalking, then very prominent in the zeitgeist and explored extensively in the media and in novels and films, such as Fatal Attraction and Misery. For me, it totally fulfilled Ian’s brief of summoning bad things in writing in order to lay their ghosts, and in his handling of the torment and anxiety of being a victim of stalking, the prose was never better.
It intrigued me that he had chosen neither an ‘obsessed fan’ variety of case — such as in Stephen King’s Misery — nor one that was unequivocally sexually orientated, but instead had come up with a particularly nauseating brand of male-on-male love that was based on ‘attempted religious conversion’, something unknown to clinical study. In order to bolster this rationale, he even added a cod ‘case history’, in clinical jargon, implying the events had been drawn from life, something which a proportion of readers believed! Also, I saw further parallels between my own and Ian’s creativity, because I had some notes and a few passages written for an inchoate stalker novel, Literary Stalker, which would eventually come to fruition twenty years later.
The next big event in the Ian McEwan story was, of course, the publication of Atonement, his most successful and popular work, which has established and maintained his status as the country’s premier living literary novelist. I reviewed Atonement for one of my regular magazines, and in The Empty Chair the Author reads his advance copy, on a topless beach in Cannes, in late August 2001, his attention divided between Dunkirk and another stimulus! Atonement, a novel full of intertextuality — Northanger Abbey, The Go-Between, A Passage to India — is itself intertextualised in The Empty Chair, alongside another favourite metafiction, The French Lieutenant’s Woman.
I didn’t send my review to Ian, and I’ve no idea if he read it, and to tell the truth my interest in him faded somewhat. I didn’t even read On Chesil Beach and Solar when they first came out, instead getting the paperbacks sometime later. But in 2012, Ian came back onto my radar, because of advance publicity concerning his upcoming new novel Sweet Tooth, which is set in the 1970s.
Somewhat over two years previously, I had published an extensive memoir of my experiences as an art student in the hippy-alternative scene of that decade, entitled: The Mad Artist: Psychonautic Adventures in the 1970s. Because I knew Ian had undergone similar experiences at a slightly earlier time, I wondered if we would again have a coincidence of interests. No, Sweet Tooth didn’t turn out to be about the hippy scene, but it did have a much more remarkable coincidental feature regarding my memoir — the meta-twist endings of both books are identical.
I summed up my impressions at the time in this blog post: Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth Twist Ending: It’s Been Done Before
Looked at now, from the perspective of Lessons, Sweet Tooth appears as Part One of Ian’s foray into memoirising his life within fiction, and the later book is Part Two, the Prequel, so to speak. Lessons gives us the author’s history up to adolescence and then diverges into a fictional continuation where Roland doesn’t become a successful writer. Sweet Tooth gives us author Tom Haley’s climb up the greasy pole of literary recognition within the exact same ’70s London scene that Ian himself inhabited. Haley’s stories have names that are very flimsily fictionalised versions of Ian’s own — ‘Pawnography’ — and the referentiality to the ‘real author’ is obvious — classic metafictional nudge-winking.
Tom’s writerly ‘origin story’ mirrors my own as expressed in The Mad Artist, and my folding of my internal ‘ongoing novel’ into the actual memoir you are reading, Möbius strip-fashion, mirrors Tom Haley’s folding of Serena Frome’s first-person narrative into his authorship of the novel you are reading, Sweet Tooth. In this respect, the methods employed in the two books are exactly the same. (Click on inset below)
The mixture of amazement and disbelief this brought about took me on a renewed Ian McEwan-based quest and I looked into past instances of questionable similarities between his and other authors’ works, as detailed in my 2012 blog post. The most famous is the case of Ian’s use of the wartime nursing memoir No Time for Romance by Lucilla Andrews in Part Three of Atonement, which details Briony’s wartime nursing service, and covers very similar ground to Andrews’ memoir, both in terms of aspiring writership and in hospital routines and medical procedures. The story surrounding these similarities broke in a Daily Mail article in 2006 and caused quite a furore. Ian defended himself against any wrongdoing and the literary establishment backed him to the hilt. (Click on inset below)
Anyone can see that there are similarities between the two works, so the question is one of how legitimate are such borrowings? Ian credited Lucilla Andrews in the Acknowledgements section of Atonement, and argued that he was only appropriating factual information about historical hospital life, something which historical novelists always do as a matter of course. The counter argument is that on a page-to-page comparison, the similarities are eyebrow-raising close.
The same was said in an earlier controversy surrounding similarities between Ian’s 1978 first novel, The Cement Garden, and the 1963 novel Our Mother’s House by Julian Gloag. Indeed, the plots are most similar, involving in both cases a group of child siblings whose single mother dies, and who hide her corpse within the home and try to carry on as normal. Again, on a page-to-page comparison, the common ground is most apparent. (Click on inset below)
Ian denied any prior knowledge of Gloag’s work, but Gloag himself was convinced he’d been plagiarised and later even wrote a revenge novel, Lost and Found, where a writer loses a manuscript on a train only to see it published by another author, years later, to huge acclaim. But Gloag never invoked the law to take the matter further.
Pursuing any kind of legal action for plagiarism against a famous figure is a thankless task. We all know that in the arts everybody ‘borrows’ or is ‘influenced by’ others in their field. Picasso declared that ‘good artists borrow, great artists steal’, and his appropriation of African art gave rise to masterpieces such as Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. In a dispute between a big guy and a little guy, the court of public opinion and people generally tend to favour the former.
Take the recent case where Ed Sheeran was accused of copying phases in his song ‘Shape of You’. Sheeran won and the judge declared he had ‘neither deliberately nor subconsciously’ plagiarised the material. And in another ‘shape’-titled case, film director Guillermo del Toro successfully defended claims that he’d stolen the plot of The Shape of Water from an earlier play, Let Me Hear You Whisper. Here the judge ruled that ‘the basic premise of an employee at a scientific facility deciding to free a creature that is subjected to scientific experiments’ is ‘too general to be protected’. So there you go.
A reality-novel Möbius strip twist ending is doubtless too general to be protected also, but the uncanny similarity between Ian’s and mine continued to niggle me. In September 2014, I had the chance to do something about it — another of those blessed confrontations. I was filming in the Cotswold village of Bouton-on-the-Water and Oxford was only a short drive away, and that evening Ian McEwan was doing a reading and talk with Craig Raine for his new novel The Children Act. It was held at the Sheldonian Theatre, a magnificent circular baroque edifice designed by Sir Christopher Wren in the 17th century. I arrived early and sat in the centre near the front, with the aim of posing a question about the etiology of the Sweet Tooth twist ending. But the venue was packed and many people were eager to ask questions, and a suitable gap never quite presented itself — just like with The Innocent event and also Roland’s Robert Lowell event in Lessons.
Feeling frustrated afterwards, I needed a quick drink, so I left hurriedly to visit a favourite Oxford ‘local’, The White Horse, almost bumping into Craig Raine outside the theatre, who was hungrily smoking a cigarette. When I came out of the pub, Ian and Craig were standing on the Sheldonian steps, chatting and laughing, perhaps waiting for a lift. I felt outnumbered and at a disadvantage and I looked the other way.
The ‘encounter’ appeared largely negative at first, but it yielded some interesting things. Only a month later, at the Cheltenham Literary Festival, Ian was confronted by another person with issues, his ex-wife Penny Allen. Her grievance concerned the ease with which Ian wrote about marital difficulties in The Children Act contrasted with her inability to speak about their own case, due to the injunctions and super-injunctions he’d taken out against her. Seemingly this mania for having it out with Ian at public events was floating in the air at the time. The Author in The Empty Chair would have put it down to ‘Jungian synchronicity’.
And on reflection, I got some ideas from seeing Ian for that old novel Literary Stalker, which I was now writing, having picked up the meta-thread from my memoir and turned it into a metafictional black comedy pastiche, about a bitter small-time writer who dreams up a plot to murder his enemies in the manner of the Vincent Price horror film Theatre of Blood. Yes, seeing Ian again, twenty-seven years on from that first encounter in Bath, was intriguing. I was now fifty-nine and he was sixty-six. His slightly bouffant hair had turned silver-grey and receded to leave an almost-bald section at the front. His face was significantly lined and he had the demeanour of an older man. As for me, my hair had thinned, I’d put on weight and I’d taken to wearing varifocal glasses, all of which gave me a most middle-aged air.
In Literary Stalker, this auditorium viewing of someone from the past after long absence was used in a later scene, where the bitter writer contemplates murder of the famous writer at a literary event. And Ian used it too. At the Sheldonian, there was a moment when my gaze and my mind were wondering and I was glancing away. I turned my head back towards the stage and Ian was looking right at me, a sardonic smile on his lips, but he quickly broke the eye contact.
The 2017 movie version of On Chesil Beach, scripted by Ian himself, concludes with a moving sentimental scene, set in 2007, forty-four years on from Florence and Edward’s disastrous wedding night at the hotel by the beach, after which they split and never saw one another again. Florence, now an acclaimed violinist, is playing in a string quartet at the Wigmore Hall. During a pause, she looks into the audience and sees Edward, hideously aged with a wispy grey wig and prosthetic makeup, and he smiles at her, before breaking into tears. She continues stoically, but at the concert’s conclusion tears break free from her eyes too, and then there’s an Atonement-like cut to the young couple on the beach, underlining the tragedy. In the book, there is no such final encounter, with Edward preferring to keep his old memories of Florence unimpaired.
Moving on from the Sheldonian, the question remains of what does Ian himself think of these cases of ‘borrowing’ that have been levelled against him — such as those complied by Christopher Priest, which include not only the aforementioned earlier cases, but also borrowings in Solar and The Children Act?
In March 2016, Ian released a new novella, first published in The New Yorker, and titled My Purple Scented Novel, which very much answers that question. It concerns a rivalry between two writers, a major figure, Jocelyn Tarbet, and a minor figure, Parker Sparrow who narrates. Sparrow, jealous of Tarbet’s success, steals his friend’s novel-in-progress and has it vanity published. When Tarbet’s version comes out, Sparrow then has the ammunition to accuse him of plagiarism and the tables are turned!
This story of ‘unrepentant or guiltless theft’ is a light, humorous piece, and it deliberately contains uncanny similarities to another: Martin Amis’ novel The Information, which basically has the same plot, greatly extended. But Ian and Martin are friends, and Ian has some more fun by highlighting the intertextuality, mentioning The Information and having Sparrow refer to the real author of the text you are reading — in classic metafictional fashion — as the novelist ‘with the Scottish name and the English attitude’. What larks! Ian is wallowing in a warm bath of irony here, piling irony on top of irony to create a veritable Jenga tower of irony, nudging and winking so much it’s practically a case of literary Tourette’s:
A wild storm surged through my house and Jocelyn’s. All the correct ingredients. A wretched villain, a quiet hero. A national treasure knocked flying from his pedestal, dishonest fingers deep in the till […] Then, as the dust settled, and with my book still “flying” off the shelves, thoughtful articles on the nature of literary kleptomania, the strange compulsion to be caught, and acts of artistic self-destruction in late middle age.
Ian can afford to write such a story, for despite the many instances of borrowings and similarities in his work, his standing and reputation as Britain’s premier literary novelist remain unharmed. People just don’t really care. He’s gone from ‘enfant terrible’ to ‘grand old man’ and he’s achieved something which all writers dream of but very few attain — to be considered ‘serious’ and ‘literary’ and to be popular and bestselling at the same time.
I had written most of Literary Stalker when My Purple Scented Novel appeared, so it didn’t influence one of the plot strands — where the bitter small-time writer seeks revenge on the famous writer for taking his amorous fan letters and using them in a novel about a troublesome obsessed fan — but again I felt a tingly sensation over this kind of Vulcan mind link between our ideas. I got that sensation again, whilst I was reading Lessons and comparing it to The Empty Chair.
Both novels make pivotal events in 1986 into narrative base camps for movements backwards and forwards in time — Roland’s desertion by wife Allissa in Lessons, and Steve Penhaligon’s entry into psychotherapy in The Empty Chair. Roland’s childhood story, including abuse at the hands of Miriam, comes through in the form of reveries or ‘insomniac memory’, and Steve’s by means of the therapy sessions; both then flesh out into full narrative flashbacks. Later, when Roland discusses the abuse with Allissa, she says that it ‘rewired’ his brain, something which Steve concludes about himself during therapy, citing various texts including those of psychiatrist Arthur Janov, of Primal Scream fame.
I’ve already outlined the similarities regarding the various confrontations with respective abusers, but in the latter parts of Lessons there are yet more similarities regarding the experience of late middle-age and older age. This is a time when ageing children customarily have to cope with the terminal decline of their own parents, which can be sudden or gradual. With Roland’s father, it is sudden, and — satisfyingly for me! — there is a single inclusion of the phrase ‘the empty chair’ in Lessons, referring to the father’s now permanently vacated armchair in the family home. But Roland’s mother’s slow fade-out due to dementia is still more fascinating for me.
The whole of the long Part Five in The Empty Chair is structured around the hospitalisation and eventually death of the father due to Alzheimer’s, and the Author keeps a detailed journal of events, including some uncanny outpourings from his dad, which contain nuggets of flesh-creeping truth within the surreal mumbo-jumbo word salad. And in Lessons, Roland too writes down his mother’s more poetic demented sayings, and later he uses them within her funeral brochure. In both works there are viewings of parental corpses, and details of the strange thoughts that accompany them, plus ruminations on the afterlife, religion and funeral etiquette. All undoubtedly autobiographical. From Lessons:
He felt anxious, as if his father’s death had not yet happened. A suspended outcome, as for Schrodinger’s cat. Only the son’s presence before the corpse could collapse the wave function and kill the father.
In another wry scene, Roland finds himself the victim of murder-by-novel — something which happens four…or maybe five or six times in Literary Stalker. Roland is understandably perturbed that the character based on himself is made unjustly villainous, and too much real information is imparted within the characterisation. When the character is dispatched by his partner with a kitchen knife — almost a replica of the Literary Stalker scene where the bitter writer stabs his ex with a big Sabatier — that is the limit for Roland, and he brings it up when he sees the author. She retorts with the classic ‘it’s-only-fiction’ defence, though she has past form for similarly stitching up a parent in an earlier work.
I would speculate that the processes of composing Lessons and The Empty Chair ran along almost identical lines. In the past, Ian has often spoken about writing a memoir, but wanting to make it different, a bit more sexed-up or jazzed-up, as Martin Amis did in Experience. As for myself, I wrote several memoir drafts of The Empty Chair, but I encountered a seemingly insurmountable problem: beyond my crazy youth, delineated in The Mad Artist, my life has been too boring to merit literary garlanding (exempting the abuse/bad father/therapy parts), and in addition I didn’t wish to reveal personal and relationship details of more mature adulthood.
Ian seems to have had the same issue, only inverted. His more mature life as a ‘famous writer’ is already well documented, so to go over it again, as in one of those coy celeb memoirs where they pretend to be ‘normal folk’ wouldn’t satisfy him. Having dabbled in using the beginnings of his literary fame in Sweet Tooth, in Lessons he invents an unexceptional everyman life in Roland’s which the author can do anything with, a blank canvas. And in place of my average filmmaker’s life, I substitute that of a Palme d’Or and Oscar winner who hangs out with Madonna, Martin Scorsese and Uma Thurman. What’s not to like?
This genre of mixing up real life and fiction is a toothsome one, where we can cherry pick the best parts, discard the chaff and introduce improvements through confabulation and pure invention. In fact, Martin Amis’ latest book Inside Story does this also, giving us straight accounts of Martin’s friendships with Saul Bellow and Christopher Hitchens, and inserting a semi-fictionalised tongue-in-cheek strand concerning his father Kingsley, Philip Larkin and an affair of youth which is followed up with a later-life confrontation — de rigueur, so it seems.
For Ian McEwan, now seventy-four, the size and scope of Lessons represent a marvellous achievement, his creative energy seemingly undiminished with advancing years. One of the late themes in Lessons is the joy of grandfatherhood — a recurring and deeply ironic theme in The Empty Chair — and the lesson here is that it’s possibly a greater attainment than literary sainthood, and more widely available. Having now discharged his ‘memoir’ propensities and with plenty of juice left in the tank, one wonders what Ian will do next.
Lessons at IanMcEwan.com
The Empty Chair at RogerKeen.com
Ian McEwan’s Anti-Memoir by Adam Begley
Review of The Empty Chair by Noel Megahey