Ian McEwan: The difference a day makes

Against a background of war, sickness and menace, Ian McEwan creates a happy hero. He tells Boyd Tonkin about the joys of labour, love - and neurosurgery
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The Independent Culture

Who first said that "Happiness writes white?" Ian McEwan, sitting across the table in the cosy book-lined meeting room of a Soho members' club, thinks it may have been Iris Murdoch. I suspect that, if so, she could have been quoting someone French. At any rate, the idea remains the default setting of so much modern literature, not least in several unforgettably sinister, idyll-smashing works by one I McEwan. Crisis and calamity lends to fiction its edge and drive. Contentment, and the hope that partners it, bleaches the strong shades out of art.

"It's probably an enduring trait of intellectuals to be pessimistic," says McEwan, known for much of his career as the infernally cunning manufacturer of bombs of terror or trauma that blow settled lives to hell. "I don't exempt myself from this: 25 years ago, in my thirties, I was deeply pessimistic about the world because I thought it was about to extinguish itself through nuclear weapons. Now we have a whole other set of global anxieties. At the same time, in our corner of north-western Europe, there's unprecedented peace and prosperity."

As he publishes his twelfth work of fiction, Saturday (Jonathan Cape, £17.99), McEwan's personal stock has reached unprecedented heights. His majestic bestseller, and prizewinner, Atonement imperiously claimed for him a place at the heart of classic English fiction rather than - as before - in its thrilling but dangerous badlands. After many years in Oxford, he has moved to central London, where he lives in Fitzrovia with his second wife, the journalist Annalena McAfee. His younger son Greg is on a gap-year working visit to Brazil, while Will is a third-year biology student at nearby UCL. A sometimes bizarre cross-Channel custody battle with his first wife closed in 1999 with a complete courtroom vindication for McEwan. Even a run-in with post-September 11 paranoia, when McEwan was refused entry into the US last April after a visa mix-up, ended in a rare letter of apology from the federal government.

Now 56, a dedicated hiker ("I can't really imagine my life without it") and keen squash player slowed down of late by a couple of knee operations, this career soldier's son carries an air of trim, compact discipline. Deep stocks of energy seem quietly stored but ready for release. I get the impression that he's talking quite casually, but the tape reveals many tough little nuggets of sardonic eloquence. McEwan, imagining how a post-catastrophe society might look back in wonder and disbelief at our "age of amazing machines", typically says that "One's future descendants might be crouching naked by their peat fires and listening to tales of how one could stand naked in mid-winter under a jet of warm water and cover yourself in amber coloured unguents to make your hair more voluminous."

Henry Perowne, McEwan's neurosurgeon hero, finds repeated cause to bless an era of progress and plenty as he moves through Saturday 15 February 2003. Far from writing white, Henry's day delivers an array of full-spectrum satisfactions. He loves the life of the mind and the life of the city, both crammed with rich and subtle connectivities, and exults in the evolution that created them. "I was very keen to inject some warmth into a position of philosophical materialism," explains McEwan. "I wanted him to be areligious if not anti-religious; atheistic; a thorough kind of Darwinian even though he hasn't read a word of Darwin. I wanted to suggest that, in Darwin's phrase, there's grandeur in this view of life."

In Saturday, a million and more marchers throng central London to protest against the looming adventure in Iraq. Meanwhile Henry has to confront some private outbreaks of violence, invasion and coercion. Without giving too much away about a plot that offsets local and global menace (which we expect from McEwan) with the lovingly-rendered joys of work, sex, family, music, food and sport (which we might not), it's safe to say that readers may rapidly spot that the author "didn't want a novel in which there was going to be a death". We leave Henry as we found him, contemplative at his pre-dawn window, an exhausted, worry-prone but - yes - a happy man.

Within the McEwan canon, Saturday is both a very personal and a coolly detached work. Prompted by the move to London, McEwan decided that he would "let circumstance and event and place pile into a novel in a way I'd never done before". Even the day-in-a-life format had to wait until the great demo before it set: "I work at 500 words a day and events were going at a million words a day. Then I saw that there was a significant moment in which nothing was resolved - the march itself - but into which everything else could be poured... It was very liberating - like deciding to write a sonnet."

The streets, squares, people and hospitals of his new neighbourhood crowd the pages. So, in a less obvious shape, does McEwan's family. Henry drives down the Great West Road for a routine visit to his mother in a home, where dementia has reduced her to an eternal present without memory or expectation. McEwan's mother suffered from vascular dementia; he says "this is absolutely an account of visiting her in her last months." Lily has also forgotten her proud youth as a county-standard swimmer. "My mother wasn't a swimmer," he says. "But by an accident of history, because she was married to a soldier, she was a markswoman. She did win medals with a .22 rifle. It seemed a rather unlikely achievement for a woman in Perivale, so I had to find something else for Lily to be."

Although McEwan admits that "I have let bits of my life pour into the book in a quite deliberate way," Henry's medical mindset remains an ocean apart from his creator's. McEwan's research led him to shadow a dynamic and "incredibly hard-working" neurosurgeon, Neil Kitchen of the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery. The novelist not only witnessed the operations and learnt the language, but shared the makeshift style of the NHS, where consultants hunch over coffee in "such a tacky, tiny little room. And the cleaner is there; and the guy who fills the machine that dispenses Snickers bars - it surprised me. I thought it was going to be a Garrick Club kind of world".

In the focused craft of the operating theatre, McEwan found his model of fulfilling activity in work, art or even sport. "There are moments when self and time dissolve in complete absorption," he reflects. "They usually involve difficulty and the exercise of skills; perhaps teamwork. It's a kind of happiness for which we don't have a name because it's not like joy or pleasure. But it's what, I think, we all long for from work - or even leisure."

However, Henry emerges not only as a progressive but as a philistine. He loves the Bach he chooses as soundtrack to his operations, and enjoys the blues his son Theo performs. But he just can't see the point of the poetry his rising-star daughter Daisy writes, or the novels she forces on him. "It felt like a form of blasphemy," says McEwan, "to write someone from the inside who thinks that Anna Karenina's not much cop and who loathes magic realism. In his little list of magic-realist novels that he couldn't complete is, in fact, my own The Child in Time."

Swayed by his friendship with a tortured Iraqi dissident, Henry accepts the forthcoming war. Did McEwan? At the time, he recalls, "I was against it but not as passionately as many friends and colleagues". He felt aghast at the sidelining of the UN but was still convinced that "perhaps for all the wrong reasons, history was presenting an opportunity to depose a very vile and oppressive regime".

Now, "it's an even greater mess than anyone imagined. I have no doubt that, if a rewind button could be pressed by Tony Blair, if he could bring us back without anyone noticing to February 2003 - he would press it." In the novel, McEwan's ambivalence finds voice in a family row: "One representation of my position is the totality of the argument between Perowne and his daughter; all those thoughts, Daisy's as much as Henry's".

Where McEwan (who has been re-reading that prophet of imperfection, Isaiah Berlin) does share Henry's standpoint is in his distrust of Utopian dreams. Against its threatening echoes of jihadi militancy and the "war on terror", Saturday dramatises the achievements brought about in incremental steps by progress, knowledge and civility. His sceptical surgeon, says McEwan, judges that "people who believe that they have the route to establish Utopia on earth are to be feared because, rationally, there should be no limit to the number of people they would be prepared to kill now, to secure happiness for everyone for ever after. And I think that lies behind our fear of radical Islam, when they say - chillingly, as if it could make us impressed by them - 'You love life, we love death'." The writer once himself accused of being too much possessed by suffering and savagery chuckles over this grim mantra. "I think, 'Yeah, that just about sums it up.'"

Biography: Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan was born in Aldershot in 1948, the son of an army NCO who was wounded at Dunkirk. He studied at the Universities of Sussex and East Anglia. His acclaimed collections of stories First Love Last Rites and In Between the Sheets (1975/77) were followed by the novels The Cement Garden (1978), The Comfort of Strangers (1981), The Child in Time (1987), The Innocent (1990), Black Dogs (1992), Enduring Love (1997) and the Booker Prize-winning Amsterdam (1998). Atonement (2001) won the WH Smith Literary Award and the US National Book Critics' Circle Award. This week, Cape publishes his new novel, Saturday. Ian McEwan lives in central London with his wife and his two student sons.