Ian McEwan: Here's the twist
He is puckishly funny and approachable, generous with praise and down-to-earth
Saturday 20 January 2007
Happy endings have never been Ian McEwan's style. His first novel The Cement Garden concluded with the arrival of the police to take away the children from the house where their mother's corpse lay concealed in the basement. The Comfort of Strangers ended with the double murder of an English couple in Venice. At the end of The Child in Time, the little girl abducted in the opening chapter stays unsaved. His Booker prizewinning Amsterdam ends with the mutual murder of two friends, Clive and Vernon. Enduring Love closes with the death of the love-crazed stalker in the grip of de Clerambaut's Syndrome. It would, frankly, be difficult to confuse any of McEwan's moody, troubling works with Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.
Until recently, that is. McEwan's Saturday surprised readers by its unexpectedly positive tone: the portrait it offered of a middle-aged brain surgeon confronted by the horror of the modern external world drew ecstatic notices from reviewers, but smacked, some said, of complacency. The novel opens and closes with the well-heeled Henry Perowne in bed, nuzzling against his warm, comfortable, sleeping, wife; you can hear the voice of the bourgeois gentilhomme counting his blessings, his wealth and professional skill. During the day he has been tested by a confrontation with a violent, implacable man, a walking symbol of the new random violence at large in the post-9/11 world, but instead of fighting or fleeing, he identified a fatal illness in his attacker and tried to cure him.
McEwan's own most violent attacker, the Irish novelist John Banville, laid into the book, saying that this hymn of reassurance could have been commissioned by the Blair government, to soothe a population alarmed by war.
Had the former anatomist of humanity's chilly soul really gone soft? Had this scary-looking young storyteller from the 1980s, the dealer in inventive cruelty and casual violence, started telling us that all will be well, that love is all you need - well, okay then, love and a colossal salary and an agreeable house off the Tottenham Court Road? Were there going to be only happy endings in his work from now on?
One happy ending landed on him five years ago, when he discovered that he had an older brother. Their meeting came to light last week. McEwan's long-lost sibling was Dave Sharp, a 64-year-old bricklayer, who tracked him down without knowing a thing about his reputation.
The story was a classic wartime affair. In 1942, a married woman called Rose Wort became pregnant while her husband was away at the war. Desperate to get rid of the baby before her husband found out, she put a small-ad in the newspapers saying, with the utmost pathos: "Wanted, home for baby boy, age one month: complete surrender." The ad was answered; the baby handed over at Reading railway station. But her husband, Ernest, never came home. He died after the D-Day landings.
Rose married the baby's father, Regimental Sergeant Major David McEwan and the future novelist, Ian, was born in 1948. Dave, meanwhile, was brought up by Percy and Rose Sharp and, at 14, was told that he was adopted. He was in his 50s when he approached the Salvation Army's family tracking service, who found an aunt prepared to spill the beans about Rose's secret. David met Rose before she died in 2003, and then encountered McEwan, who welcomed him into the family.
It's a tale with several fictional (at times near-Dickensian) elements: the brothers lived just a few miles apart for years; the scenes when their conversations were interrupted by McEwan fans seeking autographs, to Mr Sharp's bemusement; the physical differences between them - Ian the thin-faced intellectual dealer in words and ideas, Dave the large, florid man of action, dealing in bricks and walls.
McEwan's early, Dave-less, family life was not very warm, by all accounts. His parents were unloving and distant. "They just sort of fed and monitored you, so it was a pretty lonely place to be," he says. He went to boarding school and, after university, signed up to the just-created MA course in creative writing at East Anglia University, the brainchild of Malcolm Bradbury. It did not teach him much, he has said, but it gave him the best thing for a writer: time.
His first collection of stories, First Love, Last Rites, was a smash hit, extravagantly praised by Al Alvarez and others, but their unflinching portrayal of incest, pregnant rats and pickled penises won him the soubriquet of "Ian Macabre". His private life was picturesque. His first marriage, to Penny Allen, broke down publicly (she ran off to France with one of their sons; he won sole custody of the children) and he subsequently married Annalena McAfee, the journalist.
He and his sons, Will and Greg, get on better than Ian did with the sergeant major. "We have," he says, "a fantastic relationship." His later novels moved from themes of simple menace into broader considerations of human amorality (The Innocent), collective evil (Black Dogs,) psychological obsession (Enduring Love) and, most recently, forgiveness.
With the arrival of Dave, has the public decided to forgive him for the last contretemps in which he was involved, the plagiarism scandal of last autumn? The international row concerned his 2001 novel, Atonement, and the use he made of some passages from No Time for Romance by Lucilla Andrews, a 1977 memoir of time as a nurse in St Thomas's Hospital during the Blitz.
McEwan openly acknowledged his use of Andrews' book at the end of Atonement; and when she died last year, he went on the Radio 4 Today programme to say how much he admired her writing. But then Julia Langdon, a journalist and acquaintance of Andrews, wrote an obituary, drawing attention to the similarity of material in the books, and all hell broke loose.
The Daily Mail didn't muck about. The headline read "Plagiarism (or why I need Atonement) By Ian McEwan". Glenys Roberts, a fan of Andrews, pointed out passages that had been adopted for the hospital scenes, and described Andrews' uniquely harsh and tragic life.
What really annoyed the Andrews faction, it seems, was McEwan's irritating successfulness. "While Lucilla has had little acclaim for her writing, McEwan earned glowing reviews and a coveted Booker nomination," wrote Roberts, "For all her hard work Lucilla never basked in the literary limelight." The implication was clear: Ian McEwan is a smug, rich, complacent, lazy git, casually pinching the fruits of other people's labours like the sleazy fat-cat owner of an Oldham sweatshop.
This was not a view that stood up for a second in the writing community. McEwan is well-liked and admired by peers and readers, despite his galling high sales as well as good reviews. He is puckishly funny, approachable, generous with praise and down-to-earth, with a fondness for gossip and pub rock bands.
When the Mail came out fighting, and the story reverberated around the world and was picked over at length in the New York Times, his fellow writers closed ranks around him. Spurred into print by Dan Franklin, the boss of McEwan's publisher, Jonathan Cape, a platoon of top writers declared their support - and admitted to being guilty of occasional "borrowings" themselves: "There is a natural limit to the ways in which one can describe, say, an air raid," wrote Sarah Waters. "It is silly, not to mention injurious and incorrect, to claim that he did this," declared Margaret Atwood. "Historical fiction - as opposed to historical fantasy - cannot be written without help from historical sources," argued Martin Amis.
In an amazing coup, the legendarily reclusive Thomas Pynchon, a man not given to public pronouncements, opined that "Memoirs have borne indispensable witness, and helped later generations know something of the tragedy and heroism of those days. For McEwan to have put details from one to further creative use, acknowledging this openly and often, merits not our scolding but our gratitude."
And McEwan himself? He told The Times that his conscience was "absolutely clear", that he'd used Lucilla Andrews's "unique" war record in the interests of realism and accuracy, and that was that. Except of course it wasn't. The Mail returned to the fray, scoffing at how McEwan's "literary cronies" were crawling to his aid. Julia Langdon wrote that she had never accused McEwan of plagiarism, but of a failure of "simple courtesy and professional etiquette" in not telling Lucilla Andrews what he was doing with her researches.
It was a humdinger of a battle, and McEwan was in the middle - apparently guilty of several things from heartlessness and discourtesy to straightforward theft and subterfuge. But beneath it all lay that simple accusation: "You're too damned successful, you and your lie-telling, lah-di-dah, literary pals. You think you're better than ordinary mortals. You don't know what suffering is."
Thank heaven, therefore, for Dave, the long-lost brother. Into the pressure cooker of literary London enters a non-bookish, straight-shooting relative who never read a line of McEwan in the past but was happy to embrace him as a brother. In Dave's company, McEwan looks like a perfectly okay bloke, not a bit smug, bloated or larcenous of intellectual copyright. For a moment, you could almost imagine he might have been a bricklayer himself.
So his troubled story has, for the moment, found a happy ending. The only cloud on the horizon is the news that Dave has himself now written a book, about his life and his search for his family. It's called Complete Surrender. Let us pray he didn't use anyone else's writings on adoption, or there'll be hell to pay.
A Life in Brief
BORN 21 June 1948, son of Sergeant Major, David and Rose
EDUCATION Woolverstone Hall School; Sussex University; University of East Anglia (creative writing)
FAMILY: Twice married: Penny Allen (m. 1982, dissolved 1995), two sons, two daughters; Annalena McAfee (m. 1997)
BOOKS First Love, Last Rites (1975 Somerset Maugham Award); The Cement Garden (1978); The Comfort of Strangers (1981); The Innocent (1990); Black Dogs (1992); The Daydreamer (1994); Enduring Love (1997); Amsterdam (1998 Booker Prize); Atonement (2001); Rose Blanche (2004); Saturday (2005)
HE SAYS "The writer of a historical novel may resent his dependence on the written record, on memoirs and eyewitness accounts, in other words on other writers, but there is no escape: Dunkirk or a wartime hospital can be novelistically realised, but they cannot be re-invented."
THEY SAY "The passages alleged to be plagiarism are few and legitimate borrowings, as I read them, and in no way a discredit to this brilliant author." - author John Updike
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