Books: Flashes of inspiration

Ian McEwan, master of burning images, chills out in Amsterdam. Robert Hanks talks to him
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The book is only just in the shops, but already the game of who's who has begun. Just who is Ian McEwan getting at in his new novella, Amsterdam (Cape, pounds 14.99)? Private Eye has authoritatively stated that the two central characters, the composer Clive Linley and his friend Vernon Halliday, editor of a declining broadsheet, are portraits of Michael Berkeley and Will Hutton. Other reviewers, no less confidently, have identified Halliday's newspaper, The Judge, as the Times and Hutton's Observer. Meanwhile, it seems obvious to me that the unpleasant right-wing foreign secretary Julian Garmony borrows his CV and aspects of his public persona (though not, I should point out for the lawyers, his complex sexuality) from Michael Howard.

McEwan is delighted to be the cause of all this speculation, but denies everything. Berkeley, for instance, he greatly admires, while Linley is supposed to be a pompous failure. As for Garmony, McEwan's one concern was to minimise any resemblance to Douglas Hurd, who occupied the post at the time of writing. With Hurd chair of this year's Booker panel, that looks lsuspiciously like foresight. "The one thing it isn't is a roman a clef," McEwan says. "But I hope that the institutions and the characters have a sort of recognisable twang. What broadsheet hasn't tried to go downmarket at some time in the last 10 years?"

The title and the central idea of Amsterdam grew out of a private joke between McEwan and a psychiatrist friend. "We were talking about rapid- onset Alzheimer's - we were hiking - and we had some sort of joke about if one or the other of us had Alzheimer's, the one who didn't would get him across to Amsterdam to save him a humiliating end. And `Amsterdam' then became a short-cut remark to `You're losing your mind'. So we would set off walking, and I'd forgotten my mac, and he would say `Well, it's Amsterdam for you'."

It would be hard to say more without compromising the book's final twist. What can be said is that the real surprise has nothing to do with the plot. The light, brittle satire of Amsterdam is a decisive break from the past.

McEwan himself says that, after writing Enduring Love, the new book felt like a kind of relaxation, "a real holiday". The four novels that preceded it, starting with A Child in Time and ending with Enduring Love, he regards in hindsight as a quartet, characterised by their experimental nature. "I don't mean experimental formally, I mean having that quality of putting characters through things, to see what will become of them". Now, "I feel I've come to a bit of an end of something."

Not that the territory of Amsterdam is entirely unfamiliar. At one point, Linley finds himself caught up in an interview at a police station not unlike the one Joe Rose undergoes in Enduring Love. Like Joe, he finds the certainty of his memory called into question. Garmony, whatever his relationship to real-life politicians, is clearly first cousin to the de-sexed prime minister in The Child in Time who nurtures a guilty passion for one of his/her ministers. And the final pages - again, I don't want to give too much away - may well put you in mind of The Comfort of Strangers.

But at a deeper level, things have changed. One charge sometimes levelled against McEwan is that he is something of an intellectual fashion-victim. Look, runs this argument: take the stereotypical left-liberal agenda of The Ploughman's Lunch and Or Shall We Die?, the flirtation with quantum physics in The Child in Time, the evolutionary biology that underpins Enduring Love. Isn't he just picking up on the fads of the day? The plot of Amsterdam, with its careful ethical agenda (invasion of privacy, euthanasia, private pleasures versus public responsibilities), just looks like further evidence for the prosecution.

There may be a degree of truth in the accusation; but what is more striking, taking his work as a whole, is the continuity of certain preoccupations. The scientific modishness that has infuriated some readers is really just one aspect of a deeper current of materialism: a conviction that we are, in the end, mere matter. But he qualifies this: "I think that rather begs the question of what matter is. It clearly is far beyond anything the imagination could ever conceive." That belief finds its most powerful expression in the notorious dismemberment scene in The Innocent. Critics were put off by what they saw as gratuitous gore.

McEwan now says: "I often wonder what would have happened to that novel if that scene had not been in it. It would have forced everybody to have discussed the rest of the book." To me, it reads like a more chilling version of the climactic scene in Heller's Catch-22 when Yossarian unzips the jacket of the wounded airman Snowden and watches his guts spill out. This is all we are: the spirit gone, man is garbage.

The flipside of this rational, materialist philosophy is the romanticism that runs through his work. Sex is sanctified as the moment that allows us to break through the barriers of flesh and make contact with another person, and few British writers have described sex as tenderly and movingly as McEwan (though in the novels, as in life, the sex starts to get more perfunctory later on). The four novels that preceded Amsterdam all have at their heart a marriage, or something like a marriage; and marriage is even presented as a kind of salvation - its role in A Child in Time.

Amsterdam doesn't tackle these themes. Linley and Halliday are older, sadder, lonelier men, beginning to feel that mortality is a little too close to home to be a subject for philosophy, and sex has been left behind. So has childhood, another of McEwan's long-term preoccupations. And the lower-middle-class heroes of the earlier books - socially ill at ease, struggling to control their vowels and sometimes to edit their own past - have now moved up a notch. Amsterdam is set in the world of the great and good, who live in large houses in west London and run into cabinet ministers at social events. Though he baulks at the notion that hispersonal circumstances have affected his writing, it is hard not to trace in the lives of his characters the curve of McEwan's life - in particular, the end of his marriage five years ago (he has now remarried).

Having disposed of one set of preoccupations, he seems to be working in something of a vacuum. Private Eye, while it may have been wrongheaded in identifying the protagonists of Amsterdam, hit the nail on the head when it picked on the adjective "Dahlish". This is a tale of the unexpected, as opposed to the startling.

McEwan has had plenty of stick from critics who think that the short story is his forte, and when it comes to novels he loses his way. He doesn't accept this. When I ask him what flaws he sees in his books he replies, reasonably: "I don't think there's anything wrong with them, otherwise I'd do something about it." Actually, this charge won't stand up: the plotting may sometimes seem haphazard, but at the level of ideas the novels cohere marvellously.

What nobody has ever questioned, though, is his ability to create the ineradicable incident, the burning image: the dogs in Black Dogs, the dismemberment in The Innocent, the ballooning accident that opens Enduring Love, the vanishing three-year-old in The Child in Time. (In our house, "Uh-oh, Child in Time" is what we shout when a child goes missing.) Amsterdam lacks any such flashgun moment.

McEwan would probably dispute this idea, but that vacuum is surely the product of uncertainty.

Having finished one phase of his creative life, he admits: "I just feel restless, I don't want to do that any more. And Amsterdam, although its tone is comic, is not really like that ... I'm not quite sure where it's leading. In fact, I've got a feeling that I've got to write one more Amsterdam- like novel, smallish; but it's marking some other direction." All we can hope is that he gets himself orientated soon.

Ian McEwan, a biography

Born 1948 in Aldershot, son of an army NCO. After a first degree at Sussex, he took a literature MA at University of East Anglia, where he wrote the stories in First Love, Last Rites (1975), which brought him the Somerset Maugham award; followed by a second collection, In Between the Sheets (1977). His novels are The Cement Garden (1978), The Comfort of Strangers (1980), The Child in Time (1987, Whitbread Prize), The Innocent (1990), Black Dogs (1992) and Enduring Love (1997). He has written a children's book, The Daydreamer (1994); the anti-nuclear oratorio Or Shall We Die? (music by Michael Berkeley); and the screenplays The Imitation Game (1980) and The Ploughman's Lunch (1982). He has three children and lives in Oxford.