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Master Of The Intellectual Unease Packs Embassy


There aren't many novelists who can sell out Wellington's grand single-screen Embassy Theatre. On a recent mid week afternoon Ian McEwan, the English master of intellectual unease, packed the Embassy to its lovely moulded plaster ceiling. He began with an electrifying twenty-minute reading of the wedding bedroom scene from his latest and, for my money, greatest novel, On Chesil Beach. (Much better than his Booker-winning but curiously soulless Amsterdam.)

Ian McEwan

McEwan's precisely pitched intonation carried us right inside the whirling heads of his virginal, attractive, just-married and hopelessly well-meaning protagonists. It was an extraordinary performance. I loved the book, but I got a whole lot more from hearing McEwan voice the anguished, unspoken thoughts of this young, well-educated and utterly uninformed couple as they underwent a rite which (practically) all of us surely experience.

After that bravura reading, the conventional Q&A with an admiring interlocutor might have come as an anti-climax. However, in this case McEwan faced some marvellously needling questions from the piercingly bright Lydia Wevers of Victoria University, to which he responded with urbanity and wit, and also with considerable insight.

Beginning affably by praising the changes since his last visit to Wellington 16 years ago ("One eats so much better now - delicious seafood - very sophisticated city"), he said that a motivation for writing On Chesil Beach was "How little we talk about sex. It's a constant presence in our lives but never a topic." His hapless newly-weds ("quivering souls, wracked with indecision and doubt") could only negotiate their fraught wedding night through body language and roundabout suggestion. "Human relations warmed up a bit in the 1950s. Parents spoke to children in a different way. Since then we've learned how to describe our inner feelings a little better. I wanted to place this novel on the cusp of that change."

Wevers suggested that since his first abstractly nihilistic short stories and early novels, McEwan has come to engage more with real-world subject matter in the manner of Roth, Bellow and Updike. "In my twenties", he agreed, "I liked my characters to be floating in a cloud of non-specificness." These days he says he's much more willing to tackle the everyday social signifiers of class, place and time, but with caution. "No society I know is classless, but the signs vary from one society to another." Anyway, he insisted, "It's not the case that people who don't read novels are blundering idiots. It's perfectly possible to lead the moral life and just watch TV." (Lydia promptly disputed this, but she let it pass.)

Instead she steered the conversation on to McEwan's very real-world and unliterary tendency to incorporate highly detailed technical knowledge in his work, most evidently in his novel Saturday, whose central character is a prominent neurologist. McEwan acknowledged how much he enjoyed researching the medical and scientific background to this subject, to the point where he had read all of the current literature and was made an honorary member of the UK Society of Neurosurgeons. "It's perfectly possible," he said, "if you choose a narrow technical field and read up on it, to become one of the top two percent of experts on your subject, at least for a short while."

It was having children, he said, which "destroyed finally the last vestiges of the reckless pessimism that marked my early work" by giving him "an investment in wishing the human project to continue." Or in other, masterly oversimplified, words. "The world is troubling, but not only troubling."

Finally, Lydia managed to extract some clues about McEwan's forthcoming novel, which its author insisted he'd only just began to write. "It's going to be something to do with climate change." As a subject for fiction, he happily admitted, this was akin to "building your own coffin, then climbing into it, so that a handful of critics can come along and nail down the lid." With his trademark perversity, this made the task ever more appealing. "Pessimism is very intellectually delicious. The subject is fraught with aesthetic disaster - which is why I'm looking forward to it."

Reviews and interviews with McEwan are available in their dozens from his website


Mark Derby is a Wellington writer and researcher. He is editing a history of New Zealand's response to the Spanish Civil War, to be published later in 2008 by Canterbury University Press.

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