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'Lessons' finds some familiarity with author Ian McEwan's own life


How do you take the measure of a life?

In Ian McEwan's expansive new novel, a man assesses his life's trajectory from childhood to old age, focusing especially on what he considers his wrong turns and disappointments. Set against the backdrop of 70 years of major global events, including the Cuban Missile Crisis, Chernobyl, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the Covid pandemic, Lessons displays both breadth and depth. It ranks among McEwan's best work, including Atonement.

Roland Blaine, the novel's effete protagonist, feels he never lived up to his potential — careerwise or otherwise — beginning with his dismal academic performance. We eventually learn why. Intent on self-improvement, Roland strives to make up for his aborted formal education with an ambitious self-directed reading course, but he still rues his inability to cobble together more than a subsistence living with watered-down versions of his talents — playing piano in a cocktail lounge instead of a concert hall, teaching tennis instead of competing in it, writing greeting cards instead of great poems.

In the novel's opening pages, McEwan deftly introduces Roland and the two life-changing experiences inflicted on him two decades apart: sexual predation at boarding school, and marital abandonment as a new father. Additional issues come into focus later, including the art/life tradeoff and questions about whether genius can co-exist with happiness — or ever justify bad behavior. Some of the novel's answers may surprise you.

When we meet Roland in 1986, his wife, in a sort of Doris Lessing move, has just left him and their 7-month-old son without warning because she felt she was living the wrong life and feared repeating her mother's mistake of sacrificing her literary aspirations to a constricted, domestic existence.

Newly deserted, with no idea where Alissa has disappeared to, Roland must fend off police investigations into his possible culpability. The sleep-deprived, newly single parent recalls an earlier experience of extreme disorientation: one of his first piano lessons at the progressive English state boarding school to which his parents sent him from their home in Tripoli at age 11, in 1959. Shy and homesick, he didn't know what to make of his pretty young teacher when, after he hit a wrong note on a Bach prelude, she pinched his bare inner thigh hard enough to leave a bruise. That pinch turns out to be the first of Miss Cornell's increasingly inappropriate physical and emotional transgressions, from which it takes Roland much of his adulthood to recover, in part because of his guilt at his enjoyment of the sex.

Despite his personal trials, Roland knows enough about political persecution and global privation to count his blessings. During the Margaret Thatcher years, he muses in a passage that showcases McEwan's perspicacity: "His lot lolled on history's aproned lap, nestling, in a little fold of time, eating all the cream. Roland had had the historical luck and all the chances. But here he was, broke in a time when the kindly state had become a shrew."

Because Lessons is such an interior narrative that spans so many decades, it sometimes feels like it channels Roland's journals, which ploddingly summarize his days. But his story — like life itself — is periodically punctuated by more riveting confrontations, including reckonings with the two most influential women in his life.

One of the more striking aspects of Lessons is its many salient parallels with McEwan's life — which is unusual in his work. McEwan and Roland were both born in 1948 to mothers who had a wartime extramarital affairs while their first husbands were at the front. Both his mother, Rose Moore, and her fictional counterpart, Rosalind Morley, gave up a son conceived from this liaison before their first husbands were killed in combat — a secret kept for nearly 60 years in both novel and real life, where it was giddily covered by the British press in 2007. McEwan's father, like Roland's, was a career army officer whose posts included East Asia, Germany, and North Africa, including Libya. The author and his protagonist also share strong Labour Party leanings, as well as "[religious] disbelief, which was so complete that even atheism bored him."

In a rare autobiographical detail in his 1987 novel, The Child in Time, McEwan wrote about the jolt of being sent 2,000 miles from his home in Libya to Woolverstone Hall School in Suffolk — an experience he recaps in The Lesson through Roland's eyes. Although Berners Hall, the stand-in for Woolverstone, is relatively benign as British boarding schools go, it is hardly cozy.

Yet should you insist on reading Lessons as a thinly veiled autobiography, McEwan has a lesson for you — which he has Alissa deliver when Roland objects to what he sees as an evil version of himself in one of her novels. Alissa, one of Europe's most acclaimed writers, shouts at him, "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." Her books, Alissa adds, encompass "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."

It's an apt description not only of this multivalent novel, but of the art of literary fiction.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.
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