Writers

Add to researchIan McEwan

Ian McEwan

Eamonn McCabe

Born
Aldershot, England
Genre
Short Stories, Libretto, Fiction, Drama, Children
 
 
Biography
Ian McEwan was born on 21 June in 1948 in Aldershot, Hampshire, England. He spent much of his childhood in the Far East, Germany and North Africa where his father, an officer in the army, was posted.

He returned to England and read English at Sussex University. After graduating, he became the first student on the MA Creative Writing course established at the University of East Anglia by Malcolm Bradbury and Angus Wilson. He is a Fellow of both the Royal Society of Literature and the Royal Society of Arts, a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and was awarded the Shakespeare Prize by the Alfred Toepfer Foundation, Hamburg, in 1999. He was awarded a CBE in 2000.

In 1976 his first collection of short stories, First Love, Last Rites (1975), won the Somerset Maugham Award. A second volume of stories, In Between the Sheets, appeared in 1978. These stories - claustrophobic tales of childhood, deviant sexuality and disjointed family life - were remarkable for their formal experimentation and controlled narrative voice. His first novel, The Cement Garden (1978), is the story of four orphaned children living alone after the death of both parents. To avoid being taken into care, they bury their mother in cement in the basement and attempt to carry on as normal a life as possible, and an incestuous relationship develops between the two eldest children as they seek to emulate their parents roles. It was followed by The Comfort of Strangers (1981), set in Venice, a tale of fantasy, violence and obsession. The book was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for Fiction.

His next novel, The Child in Time (1987), won the Whitbread Novel Award, and marked a new confidence in McEwan's writing. The story is centred on the devastating effect of the loss of a child through abduction. The Innocent (1990) is a love story set in post-war Berlin. Black Dogs (1992) visits the most significant events of modern European history, ranging from Nazi death camps to post-war France and the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Enduring Love (1997), begins with the death of a man in a ballooning accident, an event that triggers a tale of stalking, fixation and erotomania. Amsterdam (1998) is described by McEwan as a contemporary fable. Three men, a composer, a newspaper editor and a politician, meet at the funeral of their former lover, sparking off a bitter feud. It was awarded the Booker Prize for Fiction in 1998. 

Atonement (2001), shortlisted for the Booker Prize for Fiction and the Whitbread Novel Award and winner of the W. H. Smith Literary Award, begins in 1935 and tells the story of Briony, a young girl and aspiring writer, and the consequences of the discovery she makes about Robbie, a young man destined to play a part in the Dunkirk evacuations. This novel was adapted for the screen, and the film released in 2007. Saturday (2005), set on one day in February 2003, won the 2006 James Tait Black Memorial Prize (for fiction).

In addition to his prose fiction, Ian McEwan has written plays for television and film screenplays, including The Ploughman's Lunch (1985), an adaptation of Timothy Mo's novel Sour Sweet (1988) and an adaptation of his own novel, The Innocent (1993). He also wrote the libretto to Michael Berkeley's music for the oratorio Or Shall We Die? and is the author of a children's book, The Daydreamer (1994).

Film adaptations of his own novels include First Love, Last Rites (1997), The Cement Garden (1993) and The Comfort of Strangers (1991), for which Harold Pinter wrote the screenplay, and Atonement (2007).

Ian McEwan lives in London. His novel On Chesil Beach (2007), was shortlisted for the 2007 Man Booker Prize for Fiction, and winner of the British Book Awards Book of the Year and Author of the Year Awards. Recent books are For You (2008), the libretto to a new opera about an ageing conductor/composer, with music by Michael Berkeley; and the novel Solar (2010), a satirical novel focusing on climate change, winner of the 2010 Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize. His new novel is Sweet Tooth (2012).

Critical Perspective

Ian McEwan is one of the finest writers of his generation, and amongst the most controversial.

He has achieved unbroken popular and critical success since, on graduating from Malcolm Bradbury’s Creative Writing Programme, he won the Somerset Maugham Award for his collection of short stories, First Love, Last Rites (1975). Nominated three times for Britain’s most prestigious literary award, the Booker Prize for Fiction, he finally secured the honour with Amsterdam (1998), confirming his position with Graham Swift, Julian Barnes and Martin Amis, at the forefront of contemporary British writing. Although primarily a novelist and short story writer, McEwan has also written three television plays published as The Imitation Game (1981), a children’s book, a libretto Or Shall We Die? (1983), a film script The Ploughman’s Lunch (1985), and a successful film adaptation of Timothy Mo’s novel Sour Sweet (1988). Across these many forms, his writing nonetheless retains a distinctive character, perhaps best summed up in Kiernan Ryan’s phrase, ‘the art of unease’.

McEwan’s early pieces were notorious for their dark themes and perverse, even gothic, material. Controversy surrounding the extreme subject matter of the first four works, which are concerned with paedophilia, murder, incest and violence, was exacerbated by their troubling narrative framework, the way in which conventional moral perspectives are disrupted or overturned, the reader frequently drawn into prurient involvement with the characters. McEwan’s perpetrator-narrators draw us into complicity with their crimes, whilst his victims seem strangely collusive in their own exploitation and destruction. The three tales in First Love, Last Rites recount episodes of child sexual abuse: an adolescent boy’s rape of his younger sister; a man’s molestation and murder of his neighbour’s nine-year-old daughter; and a schoolboy’s submission to his aunt’s transvestite fantasies. In Between the Sheets (1978), offers further exploration of sado-masochistic, vicious and exploitative sexual relations, extending the range (in ‘Psychopolis’), into a troubling examination of the moral contradictions within so-called ‘consenting’ relationships. McEwan’s first novel, The Cement Garden (1978), is the story of siblings who bury their mother in the cellar rather than acknowledge her death, then slowly revert to a feral state, avoiding the outside world until, in a powerful conclusion, the authorities simultaneously discover the body, and the elder children locked in incestuous climax. McEwan evokes a disquieting sense of inevitability in the unfolding of these events, generating an odd suspension of standard moral and narrative expectations. In the final work of this period, the exquisite short novel The Comfort of Strangers (1981), McEwan also crafts an eerily convincing tale from bizarre materials. A haunting account of the murder of an English couple during their holiday in Venice, it is striking for its portrayal of the victims’ dreamlike collusion with their charismatic assassin.

Although McEwan’s subsequent writing has moved away from the more disquieting of these themes, he continues to explore the impact on ordinary people of unusual or extreme situations, as they face sudden, shocking violence, or slip into acute psychological states. At the same time, his writing has begun to address broader themes, examining how social and political issues determine our personal lives. In The Child in Time (1987), which centres on the abduction of the narrator’s own child, a further subplot explores the psyche of a (fictitious) senior politician, and a repulsive Margaret Thatcher figure makes a memorable appearance. The Innocent (1990), and Black Dogs (1992), both set in Berlin, probe the impact of the Cold War, the former (set at the outset of the division of Europe), representing McEwan’s unique approach to the spy thriller genre; the latter following the story of a man struggling to compile his memoirs as the Wall comes down. McEwan has also focussed increasingly on issues of sexual politics, most prominently in the television plays published as The Imitation Game, which specifically addresses the position of women in contemporary society. This aspect of his work has generated some disapproval: Adam Mars-Jones, for instance, teasingly described McEwan as ‘one of the few successful literary examples of the New Man’. In fact, such comments ignore the consistency of McEwan’s writing. In these texts, his preoccupation with unexceptional protagonists wrenched from their conventional sense of reality or self is reiterated, even magnified, as the claustrophobic settings of the early pieces are extended into the familiar but dislocated contexts of modern life.


Despite its success, Amsterdam occupies a curious place in McEwan’s oeuvre. Finely if rather predictably plotted, it functions almost as a pastiche of those common themes: two lifelong friends/rivals conspire to murder each other, each convinced that he is in fact fulfilling the other’s real desire. The novel is readable, even entertaining, but lacks the moral menace and disconcerting mood of the previous tales. Its flavour is a sort of ‘McEwan-Lite’: the approval of the Booker jury seemed, in effect, to signal the domestication of the artist formerly known as ‘Ian MacAbre’, the integration of a radical presence into the comfortable contemporary mainstream.

Atonement (2001), however, is an altogether more challenging and ambitious work. Hugely acclaimed, this is writing on a new scale, recognisably McEwan in the well-wrought prose and fine articulation of character, the cool precision of moral nuance, the adept and surprising effects of plot, but also a revelation in the new and powerful sense of history, of the pattern of individual lives and actions within the sweep of great events – in this case, the 1939-45 War. The narrative voice itself is an astonishing achievement: we read the words of an elderly novelist, in 1990, writing the perspective of her own younger self in first 1935, then 1940. Her story hinges on a crucial error of perception, which may have been an act of malice, with which she effectively destroys the harmony of her childhood home. The atonement to which the title refers becomes the goal of her life, and her text, as she struggles somehow to make amends for the irrevocable damage she has caused. The dark, closing ambiguities of the book call into question the very possibility of achieving such grace, and express a troubled awareness of the complexities of responsibility and agency – in writing as in life. Few British novelists have matched the seriousness and sustained force of Atonement: it is the work of a unique imaginative voice demanding our attention and respect.


Dr Sean Matthews, 2002

For an in-depth critical review see Ian McEwan by Kiernan Ryan (Northcote House, 1994: Writers and their Work Series).

 

Bibliography

2012
Sweet Tooth, Cape
2010
Solar, Cape
2008
For You, libretto, Vintage
2007
On Chesil Beach, Cape
2005
Saturday, Cape
2002
On Modern British Fiction, contributor: 'Mother Tongue - A Memoir', Oxford University Press
2001
Atonement, Cape
1998
Amsterdam, Cape
1997
Enduring Love, Cape
1995
The Short Stories, Cape
1994
The Daydreamer, Cape
1992
Black Dogs, Cape
1990
The Innocent, Cape
1988
Sour Sweet, film script based on the novel by Timothy Mo, Faber and Faber
1987
The Child in Time, Cape
1985
The Ploughman's Lunch, film script, Methuen
1983
Or Shall We Die?, libretto for an oratorio set to music by Michael Berkeley, Cape
1981
The Imitation Game, three plays for television: Jack Flea's Birthday Celebration; Solid Geometry; The Imitation Game, Cape
1981
The Comfort of Strangers, Cape
1978
The Cement Garden, Cape
1978
In Between the Sheets, Cape
1975
First Love, Last Rites, Cape

Awards

2012
Jerusalem Prize
2010
Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize, Solar
2008
Good Housekeeping Book Award, On Chesil Beach, best author
2008
British Book Awards Book of the Year Award, On Chesil Beach
2008
British Book Awards Author of the Year, On Chesil Beach
2007
Man Booker Prize for Fiction, On Chesil Beach, shortlist
2007
Man Booker International Prize, shortlist
2006
James Tait Black Memorial Prize (for fiction), Saturday
2005
Man Booker International Prize, shortlist
2003
National Book Critics' Circle Fiction Award (USA), Atonement
2002
WH Smith Literary Award, Atonement
2002
WH Smith Award for Fiction, Atonement, shortlist
2002
Los Angeles Times Book Prize (Fiction), Atonement, shortlist
2001
Whitbread Novel Award, Atonement, shortlist
2001
James Tait Black Memorial Prize (for fiction), Atonement, shortlist
2001
Booker Prize for Fiction, Atonement, shortlist
2000
CBE
1999
Shakespeare Prize (Germany)
1998
Booker Prize for Fiction, Amsterdam
1997
James Tait Black Memorial Prize (for fiction), Enduring Love, shortlist
1993
Prix Fémina Etranger (France), The Child in Time
1987
Whitbread Novel Award, The Child in Time
1981
Booker Prize for Fiction, The Comfort of Strangers, shortlist
1976
Somerset Maugham Award, First Love, Last Rites

Author Statement

'I have contradictory fantasies and aspirations about my work. I like precision and clarity in sentences, and I value the implied meaning, the spring, in the space between them. Certain observed details I revel in and consider ends in themselves. I prefer a work of fiction to be self-contained, supported by its own internal struts and beams, resembling the world, but somehow immune from it. I like stories, and I am always looking for the one which I imagine to be irresistible. Against all this, I value a documentary quality, and an engagement with a society and its values; I like to think about the tension between the private worlds of individuals and the public sphere by which they are contained. Another polarity that fascinates me is of men and women, their mutual dependency, fear and love, and the play of power between them. Perhaps I can reconcile, or at least summarise, these contradictory impulses in this way: the process of writing a novel is educative in two senses; as the work unfolds, it teaches you its own rules, it tells how it should be written; at the same time it is an act of discovery, in a harsh world, of the precise extent of human worth.'