Ian McEwan begins “Lessons,” his 17th published novel, with the “insomniac memory” of a piano lesson. Eleven-year-old Roland Baines sits at the keyboard in an Ipswich boarding school where his father, a captain in the British army posted in Libya, has deposited him. As Roland struggles with the complexities of Bach, Miriam Cornell, his stern but seductive music teacher, pinches the boy near his crotch, leaving ambiguous sensations that resonate across the years. From the time he is 14 until he is 16, she will use him as her sex toy.
Memory yields to awareness of present circumstances. The year is 1986, and, as anxiety radiates throughout Europe over fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear accident, Roland’s wife is missing. In the note she leaves behind, Alissa, who has recently given birth to their son, Lawrence, explains that she felt suffocated by the demands of family life. “I know mthrhd would have sunk me,” she scrawls. Alissa despises her own mother as a failure, a promising young writer who, after marrying Heinrich Eberhardt, an associate of the audacious White Rose, a clandestine clique dedicated to overthrowing the Nazi régime, settles with him for “a safe life and a dull marriage.” Absconding to Germany, where she grew up, Alissa refuses any contact with her husband or son. She had proclaimed “that her ambition was to be the greatest novelist of her generation.” Liberated from domestic responsibilities, she is able to fulfill that dream.
Jumping back and forth in time, McEwan’s generous, ambitious novel — his longest — tracks Roland through more than 70 years. He is not quite the historical chameleon of a Forrest Gump or a Zelig, although he manages to be present for the jubilant fall of the Berlin Wall. For other global events, including the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Falklands War, Brexit, and the COVID pandemic, his reactions are a barometer to the zeitgeist. The happenstance of history casts doubt on personal and collective agency. Is anyone in control?
While Alissa’s disappearance frees her to write, it obliges her husband to raise their son alone. Financial need forces Roland to put aside his own poetic aspiration and settle for composing greeting-card verse. He also makes do by digging ditches, coaching tennis, and playing piano in a hotel tea room. He might have been a concert pianist but for the fateful decision to walk out on Miriam and his entire formal education. “She rewired your brain,” concludes Alissa after Roland confides in her about the two years he spent living out his teacher’s erotic fantasies.
Much later, a middle-aged Roland tracks down and confronts Miriam. The scene — like Humbert Humbert’s meeting with pregnant Dolores Haze long after she has ceased to be his “nymphet” — is a masterpiece of modulation among pathos, fury, and affection. Should he press charges against the lovesick woman for corruption of a minor? Can he recognize any lingering feelings for her? Can he come to terms with how irrevocably their relationship and his decision to sever it changed his life?
Other consummate set pieces include a poignant account of how Roland’s beloved second wife, Daphne, diagnosed with terminal cancer, spends her final weeks and hours. The physical struggle between Roland and Peter Mount, a smarmy MP who was Daphne’s first husband, to seize her ashes and empty them into a rustic river is a tragicomic gem. The story of how Roland smuggles “Animal Farm,” a Velvet Underground album, and other contraband to friends in East Germany is a miniature, flawless thriller.
Roland admires Alissa’s writings, though when her fictional protagonist flees an abusive husband, he is concerned that readers might erroneously take him for a wife-beater. But, accurate or not, it is the writer who usually gets the last word. In the final section of McEwan’s 2001 work “Atonement,” 77-year-old Bryony Tallis, a successful novelist, reveals herself to have been the novel’s narrator, and to have presented her version of events as atonement for the harm she caused. In McEwan’s 2005 novel “Saturday,” literature reveals its charms to soothe the savage breast when a thuggish home invader is pacified by the recitation of Matthew Arnold’s poem “Dover Beach.” However, presented from Roland’s limited third-person perspective, “Lessons” lacks the same authority wielded by either the novelist in “Atonement” or the reciter in “Saturday.” Confined to each day’s vantage point, the diaries that Roland keeps and later burns offer few lessons. He imagines writing a history of the 21st century, but, without knowing how things will end, realizes it is an empty dream.
In septuagenarian retrospect, Roland sees no pattern to the varied experiences that constitute his life. “There were no obvious themes, no undercurrents he had not noticed at the time, nothing learned. A grand mass of detail was what he found and events, conversations, even people that he could not remember.” McEwan’s richly textured novel offers cryptic lessons, but what they teach leaves Roland, “an ardent autodidact,” bewildered. The literary artistry leaves this reader in awe.
By Ian McEwan
Knopf, 448 pages, $30
Steven G. Kellman’s books include “Rambling Prose” (Trinity), “Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth” (Norton), and “The Translingual Imagination” (Nebraska).