A review of Lessons by Ian McEwan

Reviewed by Ruth Latta

by Ian McEwan
September 2022, Hardcover, 448 pages, ISBN-13: 978-0593535202

Warning: This review contains spoilers.

One of the advantages of growing older is an ability to comprehend literature that seemed puzzling or irrelevant in younger days.  I read Mrs. Dalloway when in my twenties, but it was not until years later, after reaching the age of the central character in Woolf’s novel, that I could relate to her emotions and concerns.

Some reviewers of Ian Mc Ewan’s new novel, Lessons, suggest that the central character, Roland Baines, is a whining, privileged loser who never really got his act together, and claim that the novel lacks action and includes too much history. (The time frame extends from World War II  to the present day.) Other reviewers criticized Lessons for being too realistic – not sufficiently innovative or experimental.

Readers familiar with the great realistic novels of the 19th and 20th century, in which historical events affect the characters’ fates, will be able to appreciate Lessons.  (One thinks of how the Napoleonic Wars and British imperialism in India feature in W.M. Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, for example, or Thomas Hardy’s depiction of 19th century agricultural mechanization destroying the old rural social code in Tess of the D’Urbervilles.)  

In Lessons, the Second World War and the Cold War (especially the nuclear threat) hover over Roland’s generation. Like all human beings, he shapes his own destiny, but under circumstances created by the past.  In particular, the Cuban Missile Crisis, German war guilt, and the Chernobyl disaster influence his actions, with life-changing consequences.

The story begins in medias res, with Roland Baines, in his home in Clapham, waking from a nightmare about his boyhood piano lessons, and realizing that he is now a grown man taking care of his infant son, Lawrence.  Roland is “the baby’s bed and his god.”  Alissa, Roland’s wife,  has vanished, leaving a note telling him not to find her. “I have been living the wrong life. Please try to forgive me,” she wrote.

When Roland reports Alissa missing, he is questioned by a constable who seems to suspect that he has murdered her, but postcards from her show that she is alive but does not want to be found.  In the weeks that follow, Roland leads the life experienced by many mothers with small children deserted by their husbands.  No longer able to leave the house to earn a living, he applies for social assistance. (He has cobbled together several jobs: part-time journalist, lunchtime piano player in a hotel and tennis instructor. He continues to write poetry when time and inspiration permit. Luckily, the baby, Lawrence, “is more a comfort than a chore.” 

Roland not only blames his deserting wife for his plight, but tries to assess the effects of his boyhood piano teacher, Miriam Cornell, on what he has done with his life so far. Then the greater world intrudes in the form of the Chernobyl disaster. The headline, “Radiation Cloud Reaches Britain,” spur him to seal his windows with plastic to protect himself and the baby.

One of Roland’s commendable qualities is his determination to be a good father, a contrast to his own.  His dad, a World War II veteran who remained in the army and rose in the ranks, is a domestic bully. Roland’s mother has two older children living in England by her first husband, a sailor killed in the war.   

When the Suez Crisis breaks out in 1956, the family is stationed in Libya and Roland’s mother is visiting her son and daughter.   Since Roland’s father is in charge of  evacuation plans for all British and American families, he puts his son in a temporary camp with other mothers and children.  Instead of feeling deserted, Roland feels liberated  from his father’s bossiness and the “unspoken family problems.” The experience gives him the hope that there is always “some emancipated life just beyond reach.”

This feeling sustains him in 1959, when, at age eleven, he attends boarding school in England. Previously, he had “flourished in a barely visible mist of events,” but now there are many rules to follow. Roland copes with this “transition into adult time and obligation” and makes friends with his fellow students, who are “as bewildered as he was, and friendly.” At boarding school, he often feels free.

His only problem is his piano teacher, a young woman about ten years his senior.  She criticizes his sloppy appearance and ridicules him when he makes mistakes. Over the next eight months she treats him in a way that confuses him; she pinches his bare leg, smacks him with a ruler, puts her hand on his thigh and finally, to his surprise, kisses him on the lips. She then arranges that he take his piano lessons from the man who heads the school music department. Roland is going through puberty and Miss Cornell becomes the object of his fantasies, though he rarely sees her in person any more.

Then an outside event leads him to seek her out. His school is located near an American airforce base with planes equipped with nuclear bombs. When the Cuban Missile Crisis hits the news in 1962, he and his schoolmates realize that the base will be a prime target for Russia and that they, along with everyone in the vicinity, may be annihilated.   Roland doesn’t want to die without having had sex, and goes to Miss Cornell’s village on the weekend with this in mind.  For many years afterwards he will brood over the relationship that results. To what extent was he complicit?

After dropping out of school, he works at various gigs, (construction, photography and music) has a series of relationships, and travels.  He takes a German literature course at the Goethe Institute in London, where Alissa Eberhardt is his instructor. Of English and German parentage, she has “something dangerous and unruly in her manner,” which attracts him.    After the course is over, they lose track of each other,  then cross paths four years later and fall in love.

Complicity is a theme that concerns Alissa, too.  Her English mother rose from humble beginnings to secretarial work for a  prestigious magazine publisher.  Aspiring to a writing career, she was elated when her boss sent her to Germany in 1946 to interview survivors of the White Rose (anti-Nazi) movement. There, she fell in love with a German law student who had been on the fringes of White Rose, and her writing plans get lost in marriage and motherhood.

Although Alissa has an easy childhood compared with that of her parents, her awareness that her mother resents her existence makes her feel guilty and angry. She also sees that her father, a country lawyer, serves some clients who were low level Nazi supporters. She realizes,too, that the tragically short-lived White Rose movement is being used by German officialdom to create the impression that there was a resistance to Hitler, when in reality it was neither widespread nor strong.  Faced with a baby, she feels doomed to repeat her mother’s unfulfilled life.

Because of Alissa, Roland spends time in Germany where he meets a young couple who like the forbidden popular music of the capitalist world.  When they run afoul of the law, Roland blames himself. The aftermath of the Second World War looms larger in Lessons than in novels by North Americans set in the same period.

Human foibles bring humour to the novel.  One situation involves a musician buddy from Roland’s early years who subsequently finds success in a different field but leaves his wife carrying the weight of the household and a job.   Many years later, when he and Roland are in their seventies, they get into a physical fight over the scattering of her ashes.

Another recurring funny situation is Roland’s inability to resist reading Alissa’s novels as they come out.  He wants to see if each work is good enough to justify her leaving him, and also to  see if he appears as a character.  For many years he does not appear, and feels disappointed, as if he wasn’t important in her life, or as if she has denied him her version of his short-comings.  

The question that impels us forward in Lessons is whether or not Roland will eventually find satisfactory answers to how much fault he bears, if any, in his life-changing relationships with Muriel Cornell and Alissa Eberhardt?  McEwan gives readers (and Roland) the satisfaction of confrontation scenes with them, and the one with Alissa is hilarious and heart-rending:

“Have I really got to give you a lesson in how to read a book? I borrow. I invent.  I raid my own life. I take from all over the place. I change it, bend it to what I need….Everything that happened to me and everything that didn’t.  Everything I know, everyone I ever met – all mine to mash up with whatever I invent.”

To this, Roland replies, “Then listen to my humble request. One extra tiny bit of invention. Move that shithole house out of Clapham.”

In the end, Roland has gained closure in some relationships and reconciliation in others; he has gained insights into puzzles of the past, including his  parents’ unhappy marriage, and he is happy in his own family life.  Achievement in the world’s terms doesn’t matter.

Incidentally, in his Acknowledgements, Ian McEwan writes: “No such piano teacher as Miriam Cornell was ever there” [at the boarding school he attended.]

About the reviewer: Ruth Latta’s new novel, A Striking Woman, about a Canadian trade union leader, will be published in 2023.