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Ian McEwan

•→Conversations with Ian McEwan  ⇐[London, 2008]

Born on 21 June 1948 in Aldershot, England, he studied at the University of Sussex, where he received a BA degree in English Literature in 1970. He received his MA degree in English Literature at the University of East Anglia.

McEwan’s works have earned him worldwide critical acclaim. He won the Somerset Maugham Award in 1976 for his first collection of short stories First Love, Last Rites; the Whitbread Novel Award (1987) and the Prix Fémina Etranger (1993) for The Child in Time; and Germany’s Shakespeare Prize in 1999. Amsterdam, described by McEwan as a contemporary fable, was awarded the Booker Prize for Fiction in 1998.

¤  Atonement  (2001)  [click icon for text]

Shortlisted for the Booker Prize for Fiction and the Whitbread Novel Award and winner of the W. H. Smith Literary Award, the novel 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.

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).

¤   Solar  ↓  [2010]

A satirical novel focusing on climate change, winner of the 2010 Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize
. . .  Ian McEwan reads ‘Solar’ ↓ [from count – 15 min]

[…15 min]

An early sign of Beards distress was dysmorphia, or perhaps it was dysmorphia he was suddenly cured of. At last, he knew himself for what he was. Catching sight of a conical pink mess in the misted full-length mirror as he came out of the shower, he wiped down the glass, stood full on and took a disbelieving look. What engines of self-persuasion had let him think for so many years that looking like this was seductive? That foolish thatch of earlobe-level hair that buttressed his baldness, the new curtain-swag of fat that hung below his armpits, the innocent stupidity of swelling in gut and rear. Once, he had been able to improve on his mirror-self by pinning back his shoulders, standing erect, tightening his abs. Now, human blubber draped his efforts. How could he possibly keep hold of a young woman as beautiful as she was?

Had he honestly thought that status was enough, that his Nobel Prize would keep her in his bed? Naked, he was a disgrace, an idiot, a weakling. Even eight consecutive press-ups were beyond him. Whereas her lover, Tarpin, could run up the stairs to the Beards master bedroom holding under one arm a fifty-kilo cement sack. Fifty kilos? That was roughly Patrice’s weight.

She kept him at a distance with lethal cheerfulness. These were additional insults, her sing-song hellos, the matinal recital of domestic detail and her evening whereabouts, and none of it would have mattered if he had been able to despise her a little and plan to be shot of her. Then they could have settled down to the brief, grisly dismantling of a five-year childless marriage. Of course she was punishing him, but when he suggested that, she shrugged and said that she could just as easily have said the same of him. She had merely been waiting for this opportunity, he said, and she laughed and said in that case she was grateful to him.

In his delusional state he was convinced that just as he was about to lose her he had found the perfect wife. That summer of 2000 she was wearing different clothes, she had a different look around the house faded tight jeans, flip-flops, a ragged pink cardigan over a T-shirt, her blonde hair cut short, her pale eyes a deeper agitated blue. Her build was slight, and now she looked like a teenager. From the empty rope-handled glossy carrier bags and tissue paper left strewn on the kitchen table for his inspection, he gathered she was buying herself new underwear for Tarpin to remove. She was thirty-four, and still kept the strawberries-and-cream look of her twenties. She did not tease or taunt or flirt with him, that at least would have been communication of a sort, but steadily perfected the bright indifference with which she intended to obliterate him . . .

[… 17 min…]

Beard was not wholly sceptical about climate change. It was one in a list of issues, of looming sorrows, that comprised the background to the news, and he read about it, vaguely deplored it and expected governments to meet and take action. And of course he knew that a molecule of carbon dioxide absorbed energy in the infrared range, and that humankind was putting these molecules into the atmosphere in significant quantities. But he himself had other things to think about. And he was unimpressed by some of the wild commentary that suggested the world was in peril, that humankind was drifting towards calamity, when coastal cities would disappear under the waves, crops fail, and hundreds of millions of refugees surge from one country, one continent, to another, driven by drought, floods, famine, tempests, unceasing wars for diminishing resources. There was an Old Testament ring to the forewarnings, an air of plague-of-boils and deluge-of-frogs, that suggested a deep and constant inclination, enacted over the centuries, to believe that one was always living at the end of days, that ones own demise was urgently bound up with the end of the world, and therefore made more sense, or was just a little less irrelevant. The end of the world was never pitched in the present, where it could be seen for the fantasy it was, but just around the corner, and when it did not happen, a new issue, a new date would soon emerge. The old world purified by incendiary violence, washed clean by the blood of the unsaved, that was how it had been for Christian millennial sects death to the unbelievers! And for Soviet Communists death to the kulaks! And for Nazis and their thousand-year fantasy death to the Jews! And then the truly democratic contemporary equivalent, an all-out nuclear war death to everyone! When that did not happen, and after the Soviet empire had been devoured by its own internal contradictions, and in the absence of any other overwhelming concern beyond boring, intransigent global poverty, the apocalyptic tendency had conjured yet another beast.

But Beard was always on the lookout for an official role with a stipend attached. A couple of long-running sinecures had recently come to an end, and his university salary, lecture fees and media appearances were never quite sufficient. Fortunately, by the end of the century, the Blair government wished to be, or appear to be, practically rather than merely rhetorically engaged with climate change and announced a number of initiatives, one of which was the Centre, a facility for basic research in need of a mortal at its head sprinkled with Stockholms magic dust. At the political level, a new minister had been appointed, an ambitious Mancunian with a populists touch, proud of his citys industrial past, who told a press conference that he would tap the genius of the British people by inviting them to submit their own clean-energy ideas and drawings. In front of the cameras he promised that every submission would be answered. Brabys team half a dozen underpaid post-doctoral physicists housed in four temporary cabins in a sea of mud received hundreds of proposals within six weeks. Most were from lonely types working out of garden sheds, a few from start-up companies with zippy logos and patents pending. . .

With wine and water they raised a toast to magical thinking, then they continued a conversation they had been having by email for some months. To an eavesdropper it would have sounded like the essence of commercial tedium, but to the two men it was a matter of urgency. How many orders for panels were necessary to bring the unit cost down to the point at which they could feasibly claim that a mediumsized artificial-photosynthesis plant could generate electricity as cheaply as coal? The energy market was highly conservative. There was no premium for being virtuous, for not screwing up the climate system. Orders for seven thousand panels, this was their best calculation. Much would depend on whether they could reliably power Lordsburg and its environs night and day for a year, through all kinds of weather. And it also depended on the Chinese, how fast they could move, and how plausibly they could be threatened by the prospect of losing the business. In that respect, the recession helped, but it would also depress demand for panels, if not for energy. They went round this topic a few times, quoting figures, plucking others from the air, then Hammer leaned forward and said confidentially, as though the sole waiter on the far side of the restaurant might hear him, But, Chief, you can be straight with me. Tell me. Is it true, the planet’s getting cooler?


You keep telling me the arguments are over, but they’re not. I’m hearing it everywhere. Last week some woman professor of atmosphere studies or something was saying so on public television.

Whoever she says she is, she’s wrong.

And I’m hearing it everywhere from business people. It seems like its building. They’re saying the scientists have gotten it wrong but don’t dare to admit it. Too many careers and reputations on the line.

What’s their evidence?

They’re saying a point-seven-degree rise since pre-industrial times, thats two hundred and fifty years, is negligible, well within usual fluctuations. And the last ten years have been below the average. Weve had some bad winters here that doesnt help our cause. And theyre also saying that too many people are going to get rich on the Obama handouts and tax breaks to want to tell the truth. Then there are all these scientists, including the one I was talking about, whove signed up to the Senate Minority Report on Climate Change you must have seen that stuff.

Beard hesitated, then called for more wine. That was the trouble with some of these Californian reds, they were so smoothly accessible, they went down like lemonade. But they were sixteen per cent alcohol. He could not help feeling that this conversation was beneath him. It wearied him, like talking about or against religion, or crop circles and UFOs for that matter. He said, Its zero point eight now, it’s not negligible in climate terms, and most of it has happened in the last thirty years. And ten years is not enough to establish a trend. You need at least twenty-five. Some years are hotter, some are cooler than the year before, and if you drew a graph of average yearly temperatures it would be a zigzag, but a rising zigzag. When you take an exceptionally hot year as your starting point, you can easily show a decline, at least for a few years. Thats an old trick, called framing, or cherry-picking. As for these scientists who signed some contrarian document, they’re in a minority of a thousand to one, Toby. Ornithologists, epidemiologists, oceanographers and glaciologists, salmon fishermen and ski-lift operators, the consensus is overwhelming. Some weak-brained journalists write against it because they think its a sign of independent thinking. And theres plenty of attention out there for a professor who’ll speak against it. There are bad scientists, just like there are rotten singers and terrible cooks.

Hammer looked sceptical. If the place isn’t hotting up, were fucked.

As he refilled his glass, Beard thought how strange it was, that after being associates for all these years, they had rarely discussed the larger issue. They had always concentrated on the business, the matter in hand. Beard also noticed that he himself was close to being drunk.

Here’s the good news. The UN estimates that already a third of a million people a year are dying from climate change. Bangladesh is going down because the oceans are warming and expanding and rising. There’s drought in the Amazonian rainforest. Methane is pouring out of the Siberian permafrost. There’s a meltdown under the Greenland ice sheet that no one really wants to talk about. Amateur yachtsmen have been sailing the North-West Passage. Two years ago we lost forty per cent of the Arctic summer ice. Now the eastern Antarctic is going. The future has arrived, Toby.

Yeah, Hammer said. I guess.

You’re not convinced. Heres the worst case. Suppose the near impossible the thousand are wrong and the one is right, the data are all skewed, there’s no warming. It’s a mass delusion among scientists, or a plot. Then we still have the old stand-bys. Energy security, air pollution, peak oil.

No one’s going to buy a fancy panel from us just because the oils going to run out in thirty years.

What’s wrong with you? Trouble at home?

Nothing like that. Just that I put in all this work, then guys in white coats come on TV to say the planets not heating. I get spooked.

Beard laid a hand on his friends arm, a sure sign that he was well over his limit. Toby, listen. It’s a catastrophe. Relax!

. . . Ninety minutes later he was disturbed by the ring of his palmtop, and came properly awake with it already pressed to his ear as he listened to the voice of the girl whose existence he had done all he decently could to suppress. But here she was, Catriona Beard, as irrepressible as a banned book.
Daddy, she said solemnly. What are you doing?It was six o’clock on Sunday morning in England. She would have been woken by the early light and gone straight from her bed to the sitting-room telephone and pressed the first button on the left.
Darling, I’m working, he said with equal solemnity.
He could easily have told her he was sleeping, but he seemed to need a lie to accommodate the guilt he immediately felt at the sound of her. Many conversations with his three-year-old daughter reminded him of dealings over the years with various women in the course of which he had explained himself implausibly, or backtracked or found excuses, and had been seen through.
You’re in bed because your voice is croaky.
I’m reading in bed. And what are you doing? What can you see?
He heard her sharp intake of breath and the sucking sound of clean tongue on milk teeth as she considered which part of her newly acquired net of language to cast about her. She would be by or on the sofa which faced the large bright window and a cherry tree in leaf, she would see the bowl of heavy stones which always interested her, the Moore maquette, the neutral colours of the sunlit walls, the long straight lines of oak boards.
Finally she said, Why don’t you come in my house?
Dearest, I’m thousands of miles away.
If you can go you can come.
The logic of this made him pause, and he was beginning to tell her that he would see her soon when she cut across him with a cheerful thought.
I’m going in Mummy’s bed now. Bye. The line went dead.

¤  Ian McEwan introduces  ↓  ‘Sweet Tooth’

Serena Frome, the beautiful daughter of an Anglican bishop, has a brief affair with an older man during her final year at Cambridge, and finds herself being groomed for the intelligence services. The year is 1972. Britain, confronting economic disaster, is being torn apart by industrial unrest and terrorism and faces its fifth state of emergency. The Cold War has entered a moribund phase, but the fight goes on, especially in the cultural sphere. Serena, a compulsive reader of novels, is sent on a ‘secret mission’ which brings her into the literary world of Tom Haley, a promising young writer. First she loves his stories, then she begins to love the man. Can she maintain the fiction of her undercover life? And who is inventing whom? To answer these questions, Serena must abandon the first rule of espionage – trust no one.

•  Ian reads an excerpt from his latest book ↓ ‘Sweet Tooth’

• Chapter #1 . . .1

My name is Serena Frome (rhymes with plume) and almost forty years ago I was sent on a secret mission for the British Security Service. I didn’t return safely. Within eighteen months of joining I was sacked, having disgraced myself and ruined my lover, though he certainly had a hand in his own undoing.

I won’t waste much time on my childhood and teenage years. I’m the daughter of an Anglican bishop and grew up with a sister in the cathedral precinct of a charming small city in the east of England. My home was genial, polished, orderly, book-filled. My parents liked each other well enough and loved me, and I them. My sister Lucy and I were a year and a half apart and though we fought shrilly during our adolescence, there was no lasting harm and we became closer in adult life. Our father’s belief in God was muted and reasonable, did not intrude much on our lives and was just sufficient to raise him smoothly through the Church hierarchy and install us in a comfortable Queen Anne house. It overlooked an enclosed garden with ancient herbaceous borders that were well known, and still are, to those who know about plants. So, all stable, enviable, idyllic even. We grew up inside a walled garden, with all the pleasures and limitations that implies.

The late sixties lightened but did not disrupt our existence. I never missed a day at my local grammar school unless I was ill. In my late teens there slipped over the garden wall some heavy petting, as they used to call it, experiments with tobacco, alcohol and a little hashish, rock and roll records, brighter colors and warmer relations all round. At seventeen my friends and I were timidly and delightedly rebellious, but we did our schoolwork, we memorized and disgorged the irregular verbs, the equations, the motives of fictional characters. We liked to think of ourselves as bad girls, but actually we were rather good. It pleased us, the general excitement in the air in 1969. It was inseparable from the expectation that soon it would be time to leave home for another education elsewhere. Nothing strange or terrible happened to me during my first eighteen years and that is why I’ll skip them.

Left to myself I would have chosen to do a lazy English degree at a provincial university far to the north or west of my home. I enjoyed reading novels. I went fast—I could get through two or three a week—and doing that for three years would have suited me just fine. But at the time I was considered something of a freak of nature—a girl who happened to have a talent for mathematics. I wasn’t interested in the subject, I took little pleasure in it, but I enjoyed being top, and getting there without much work. I knew the answers to questions before I even knew how I had got to them. While my friends struggled and calculated, I reached a solution by a set of floating steps that were partly visual, partly just a feeling for what was right. It was hard to explain how I knew what I knew. Obviously, an exam in maths was far less effort than one in English literature. And in my final year I was captain of the school chess team. You must exercise some historical imagination to understand what it meant for a girl in those times to travel to a neighboring school and knock from his perch some condescending smirking squit of a boy. However, maths and chess, along with hockey, pleated skirts and hymn-singing, I considered mere school stuff. I reckoned it was time to put away these childish things when I began to think about applying to university. But I reckoned without my mother . . .

• Read another excerpt: →

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