The 18th novel by Ian McEwan, Course (Knopf, Sept.), crosses a wide swath through history, from postwar to pandemic, with the story told through the experiences of one man. McEwan – whose work has been controversial, critically acclaimed, made bestseller lists, has been adapted for film and received numerous awards including the 1998 Booker—written with passion, humor and insight in this ambitious novel.
I tell him that the book particularly resonates with me, because it encompasses the span of my life.
“Are you as old as I am?” ” he asks. “I didn’t know anyone else was.”
With that out of the way, I can say how powerful and moving the book is – it’s a lens on how past trauma, parenthood, and world events affect a life.
Roland Baines is an 11-year-old boy at boarding school when he catches the attention of a predatory piano teacher, resulting in encounters that will haunt him for years: “The teacher sat next to him on the long stool. Round, straight, fragrant, strict face. Her beauty was hidden behind her manners. And then: “His annoyance came as a rapid exhalation through his nostrils, an inverted snort he had heard before. His fingers found the inside of his leg, just at the hem of his gray shorts, and pinched hard. That night, there would be a small blue bruise. His touch was cold as his hand moved up under his shorts to where the elastic of his pants met his skin. He jumped off the stool and stood up, flushed.
“It was an insomniac memory, not a dream,” writes McEwan, but as the memories of adult Roland “turned into a dream,” he was awakened by the cries of his infant son. Roland’s wife has disappeared, overwhelmed with household chores and wanting an artistic life. She left him a note (“Don’t try to find me. I’m fine”) with baby Lawrence. “By convention,” writes McEwan, “such notes were left on the kitchen table. She had left hers on her pillow, like bitter hotel chocolate. Postcards follow, as do visits from Det. Insp. Douglas Browne, “whose cheek flesh hung in garlands”, who is assigned to the case.
As Roland navigates his life, momentous events unfold: the closing of the Iron Curtain, the Suez Crisis, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Chernobyl, the fall of the Berlin Wall. McEwan says he wanted to “scroll through a longer novel that would span a lifetime” and by the end of 2019 he had some preliminary notes. “As often happens to me,” he explains, “I wrote the first 1,500 words – a man remembering a piano lesson. Then I sat on it, basically trying to get the prose that would become the prose of the novel, and it went from there. One thing easily led to another, things that I had thought about – the morally permissible reach of an artist, especially women artists. I was also thinking a lot of randomness in our lives, how little control we have, how world events impact us, how they shape our privacy, and how we all work together.
McEwan is clear that the book is not autobiographical, but “I’ve plundered pieces of my own life,” he says, “that I’ve never done before: family life, my lost brother [at 58, McEwan was reunited with an older brother whom his mother had given up during the war], boarding school. The piano teacher, however, is totally fictional, and my brother’s story was made to fit the narrative. The story always comes first. All events were in the service of the novel.
He completed the manuscript of Course in June 2021, delivered in October and again in December. “I worked there all year,” he says. “I had traveled a lot in 2019 and had told my wife that I wanted to stay at home in London in 2020. I had no idea the whole world would be staying at my house!”
But McEwan notes, “It was a great luxury to look in the newspaper and see blank pages for the weeks ahead, the luxury of uninterrupted time. It was a total absorption, a great pleasure in my life as a writer. I had time to dwell on things. It was a huge pleasure to write it over three confinements. I lived inside the book for two and a half to three years. Then, the containment policy must have entered the novel, since it ends in 2021. ”
Literary agent Georges Borchardt has represented McEwan since the 1970s. “I was his first agent in the United States,” Borchardt tells me, adding that “every one of Ian’s books is a surprise. It does not write in any formula. Also, says Borchardt, “I don’t ask authors what they’re working on,” so he didn’t see Course until there is a finished manuscript. “I like to approach manuscripts without preconceptions. This book is longer [it’s 450 pages] and more ambitious than Ian’s precedents – one man’s long and complicated life. It’s exciting to have an author whose every word you’ve read and read as it’s written. It’s gratifying and marvelous to be a witness, an actor in a writer’s success story.
McEwan’s other longtime literary relationship has been with editor Nan Talese, who retired from Doubleday in 2020. Borchardt says he and McEwan were impressed that she “was so enterprising.” and by “the intensity with which she pursued a relatively unknown writer” when she began. signed it.
“Nan came into my life when I was teaching at the workshop in Iowa,” McEwan tells me, recalling the start of their relationship. “I had published my first book, a collection of stories, First love, last rites, and I had written my first novel. I don’t know how she heard about it, but she called me and asked if I wanted to send it to her…and I said no. He’s laughing. “I wanted to keep him close to me. And I was 26.
Talese was very enterprising. She called the next day and said, “If I flew to Iowa and your manuscript was on the nightstand next to your bed and I read it, would that be okay?” The next day, McEwan says, “she flew to Iowa and she read it.”
McEwan followed Talese whenever she moved to publishing houses, and when she retired he began to look around. Knopf’s editor, Regan Arthur, has become his editor, and McEwan is thrilled. “We had a long conversation on the phone,” he says. “She was warm, bright, smart and unassuming.”
Arthur says she “had been reading Ian for years. I remember reading The cement garden when I was in school. We talked; the fact that I became his editor came naturally. When McEwan and Arthur had their conversation in June 2021, she hadn’t read the book. “It was,” she said, “a conversation to get to know you.”
The deal was finalized in August 2021 for US rights, but Arthur didn’t see the manuscript until that fall. Course will be released simultaneously with Jonathan Cape in the UK and Knopf Canada. Vintage will be published in a specialized journal the following year. All the editors sent in notes collectively, says Arthur, and “Ian responded revising”.
Borchardt summarizes: “The boss of a French publishing house told me one day that it was ultimately a writer in an attic facing a blank sheet of paper. The acts of creation are the only things that matter.
A version of this article originally appeared in the 05/23/2022 issue of Weekly editors under the title: What is a man?