An interview with lan McEwan
Liliane Louvel*, Gilles Ménégaldo* and Anne-Laure Fortin**
Université de Poitiers
Gilles Ménégaldo Mr McEwan, you seem to privilege, in your short stories in particular, the perspective of children and/or adolescents or adults who are immature and sometimes have a limited approach of the world why this constant and renewed interest in children's perspective and discourse?
lan McEwan Well, I should answer the question in terms of my own situation at the time these stories were written, in the early seventies, when I was in my early twenties and looking for both a voice and a subject.
I was very much in reaction against a certain kind of English writing which took the form of social documentary, and which was principally interested in the nuances of English class. To me it seemed like a stuffy, over-furnished room. Round about that time, when I was twenty-one I began to read Freud and Kafka, and also Thomas Mann, and they seemed to offer freedom. In retrospect, I can't quite understand how I saw Mann as someone detached from a definable social world, but I certainly thought Kafka was. My point of departure was to look for de-socialised, distorted versions of my own existence. Many of those early stones were like dreams about my own situation: they carried only a little biographical content, but they bore the same structural relationship to my own existence that a dream might. Often I understood this only long after a particular story was written.
I found in the voices of adolescence a detachment, which was useful rhetorically. I had read stories in the literary tradition of 'crossing the shadow line,' of emerging into young adulthood, and since I'd emerged recently into young adulthood myself, it was a natural
subject. Adolescents were a useful presence in the short story form, because they were full of adult desire, and childish incapability, a useful tension fictionally, and one I probably felt in my own life. The eye of the child gave me somewhere else to stand, a different way a colder regard, perhaps a way of looking at the adult world, of describing, it as though one came from another planet.
So First Love, Last Rites and to a lesser extent the second collection of stories, In Between the Sheets, were a dream-like recapitulation, as it were, of my life up to then. All kinds of conflicts, all kinds of frustrations were enriched with fantastical, rather outrageous situations. By choosing the short story form, and having the stories narrated in the first person, I opted for an intense and enclosed fictional universeworld and that way took my first tentative steps as a writer.
GM Could you specify the kind of problems that were raised by this attempt to identify with the point of view and the discourse of a child? I noticed, for instance that the adolescent in "Homemade" is much more literate than the one in "First love, last rites"; you obviously try different kinds of adolescent language, according to the social background but also the mental fram-up of your characters.
IMcE - Yes, I tried out a lot of different voices with these stories. Many of the stories in First Love, Last Rites were written in one year, when I was a student at the University of East Anglia. I was immersed in post-war American fiction at the time which was all new to me. I used the short story form as a way of trying on different clothes writing pastiche. The form is particularly useful for a writer at the beginning of a career. You can spend five or six weeks pretending to be Philip Roth, and if it's a disaster, then you know, you can move off and go and pretend to be Nabokov.
So my head was filled with other people's voices and I didn't find it a problem. Pastiche was my own way of finding my own voice. "Homemade," for example, was a rather flamboyant story, written after reading Tropic of Capricorn. I wanted both to honour Miller and make fun of him by describing, a rather foolish, miserable and hilarious episode of lovemaking, rather than a triumphant sexual conquest. That story also borrowed something of Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint. "Disguises" owed a little to Angus Wilson's "Raspberry Jam," a strange and quite vicious story of his early writing. I don't remember now all the literary sources of those stories, but I certainly patrolled other people's territory in order to come back with something, that I could start to call my own.
GM A related aspect is that a number of these stories deal with specific situations and with characters who are marginal, alienated and excluded from society in other ways. You attempt to express another kind of restricted universe, that of people who have some kind of psychological problem for instance, such as in "Butterflies", or "Conversation with a cupboard man" in other words, you express the point of view of otherness, and of course there are very often provocative subject matters, dealt with in an unusual way (I'm thinking, for instance, of "Butterflies"). Could you comment on that?
IMcE Well, these narrators were alienated figures, outsiders, sociopaths. They must all, I have to admit, bear some relationship to myself. I think they were dramatisations of my sense not only of exclusion, but of ignorance, profound ignorance about the world. I had no clear idea of where I stood in relation to British society generally. Nor did I have an artistically worked up romance about myself as an outsider; in fact, I wanted to join in. But my own background was rather déclassé: both my parents came from working-class backgrounds hard-working, very poor. My father became commissioned as an officer when I was fairly young, and that involved the whole family in a certain kind of strange displacement. My father became an officer in the British Army, but not an officer of the middle class. He was what was called a 'ranker.' That gave us a curious kind of dislocated existence. Then I went to a boarding-school which was itself an experiment in social mobility: most of the kids were working-class, very bright, from the Inner London area, exported to the countryside to see if they could improve themselves with a state-funded English public school education. So that too was a kind of vacuum. Then straight into a newly constructed university, having spent a pretty alienated year myself, doing the most appalling kinds of jobs I worked mostly as a dustman.
So I really didn't know where I fitted in. As I said earlier, when I read the fiction of Angus Wilson or Kingsley Amis or John Wain or Iris Murdoch figures who were central to English writing at the time I could find no way in for me there. I didn't really understand the middle-class world they described. Nor did I recognise the working-class world described by David Storey or Alan Sillitoe. I had to find a fictional world that was socially, and even historically disembodied. So these characters carry with them something of my loneliness, as it was, and something of my ignorance of social texture, and something also of my longing for social texture, social connection. That's why they've come out in this strange way.
At the same time I wanted to give these stories a surprising quality - I mean, I was often accused, later, when these stories were published in volume form, of writing to shock, and although I've always denied it, it is the case that I did want them to be vivid.
I was struck by the uniform greyness of English writing at the time. Kafka could have a man wake up to find himself transformed into a giant bug. He takes it for granted, worries about how he's going to get to work, worries about what his parents might think, but isn't worried by the fact that he is a giant bug. I loved that mixture of fantasy mediated by emotional realism. That was what I was looking for, and that was what I wanted to write.
Anne-Laure Fortin Do you intend the reader to give a moral response to your works?
IMcE Well, that's a very difficult question. I don't really know how to begin to answer this.
ALF In an interview, you said: "Through restraint one will generate a degree of compassion for the right people."
IMcE Generally the question of morality and writing, is difficult for writers to answer, unless they write with a specific sense of moral purpose, which in turn of course poses problems of imaginative freedom. One could take the view that writing is drenched in morality, that language is a repository of moral values and there's no escape from it. Well, that's true, but it doesn't seem to me very significant, it doesn't say anything. Slowly I've come to the view that what underlies morality is the imagination itself. We are innately moral beings, at the most basic, wired-in neurological level. We've evolved in society. During the seven million years since we branched away from the chimpanzees, our evolution has taken place in each other's company. We have shaped each other. We've probably become clever because we've had in part to try and outwit each other or to cooperate with each other or seduce each other. Social behaviour is an instinct with us, coloured of course by local cultural conditions. Our imagination permits us to understand what it is like to be someone else. I don't think you could have even the beginnings of a morality unless you had the imaginative capacity to understand what it would be like to be the person whom you're considering beating round the head with a stick. An act of cruelty is ultimately a failure of the imagination. Fiction is a deeply moral form in that it is the perfect medium for entering the mind of another. I think it is at the level of empathy that moral questions begin in fiction.
Liliane Louvel A set of stories and novels are concerned with the notion of passage and thresholds, in the broad sense, not in the restrictive one. So could you comment on that, when we look at the emphasis on ritual which is in your work, and perhaps we could see a sort of homology between the itineraries of characters and some recurrent spatial structures, such as mazes or labyrinths or the tunnel or maybe the tree in The Child in Time. So could you speak about that and the use of space?
IMcE Well, I'm often asked about rites of passage in my work, and labyrinths, tunnels, mazes. It's difficult for me to respond. I don't consciously set out to write rites of passage. I don't ponder the metaphorical possibilities of labyrinths or tunnels. Perhaps therefore I am the true innocent of my novel The Innocent.
GM - What is also very perceptible in your work is the problematic identity of characters in search of their own self, in search of a new, different self. That is all enduring topic, I think, not only in the short stories but in the novels as well. There is a certain emphasis on the notion of mask, disguise, shift of identity, of sexual identity as well. Maybe this could be paralleled with your fiction, that may also in a way borrow different disguises and be subjected to different readings. In other words, in the same way as you raise problems of identity in your fiction, you also raise the problem of the identity of your novels, of the type of novel there are gender problems or identity problems in the same way as there are genre problems. For instance, some critics refer to the neo-gothic element in your work, for instance in The Comfort of Strangers, or the way in which you use the spy-novel model in The Innocent, etc. Would you like to comment on that?
IMcE Yes, different kinds of genres become a kind of resource. I am not an enthusiastic reader of spy-novels. Nor have I ever been remotely interested in the Gothic tradition. And yet I've been described as a writer who draws on these traditions, or is part of them. I've been toying, for some years now with writing science fiction. If I could just find the right way in, I'd be happy to do it. But again, I don't read science fiction. They say you can be most profoundly influenced by the books you haven't read. Perhaps in the same way you are swayed by the literary genres which you are too impatient to read.
There are notable exceptions of course, but genre writing is so passionately committed to bad prose. By convention the detective novel sets itself free from considerations of originality. Well, that's not the kind of fiction I'm interested in, but I am intrigued by the detective novel. I don't want to read one. I want to write one. It interests me because I've
been thinking a greal deal recently about the scientific as opposed to the mystical or religious world-view. Or, put another way, the head and the heart a familiar polarity in Western literature. I think we all sense that the polarity is useful but also artificial. Our everyday reasoning is drenched in emotionality and yet we feel there is a tension. The detective-hero embodies these tensions. As a problem solver he is an arch-rationalist, and as a man who follows hunches and contemplates motivation he is a creature of the heart. I've got a feeling I could turn this to my own purposes. And this is what would lead me to poach on the genre.
LL You show a lot of interest in science, especially in The Child in Time. We are now living at the end of a century where there are new ways of conceiving the world, flew "episteme," new theories in the field of mathematics and physics, the theory of chaos, fractals and all that. ... Is science a source of inspiration for you and do you think it might lead to new forms of literature?
IMcE I've always been interested in science. I've often regretted I didn't do a science degree. I don't share the general suspicion, nourished partly by our Romantic tradition, and sustained even now, particularly in Britain, by a liberal arts education, that science crushes the human soul or the imagination. I believe the contrary. I think it's a route to wonder. The world as presently conceived by the cosmologies of physicists seems far more extraordinary, far more exciting, far more of a challenge and stimulus to the imagination than a world depicted as, say, being propped up by two elephants. The last twenty or thirty, years have seen extraordinary times in science. The rediscovery, or the renewal rather, of Darwinian thinking by way of genetics and the discovery of the structure of DNA has been particularly interesting. In the biological sciences Generally there's been something of a renaissance. The first three decades of this century encompassed the great classical era of modern physics; quantum mechanics and relativity theory offered two entirely distinct and contradictory ways of understanding the world. The mighty project of unifying them is beginning to be fulfilled. Perhaps an even more significant task will be to generate an ethics from these emerging syntheses. Philosophy is increasingly informed by neuroscience. Evolutionary psychology is beginning to offer a bridge between biology and the social sciences. Who knows, we might yet arrive at a radical synthesis of the humanities and the sciences. Where this leaves fiction, I don't know, but a writer is bound to be interested in the possible consequences of such things. That is why I've been interested in reading more science, and thinking, more about our distrust of it. In Black Dogs, my heart was really with
the character, Bernard, the rationalist. But I gave the best lines to June, the mystic. At some point, I'd like to redress the balance. I'd like to write a novel in praise of rationalism rationalism as I understand it, mediated by emotional wisdom and beyond that, in praise of what I think is probably the most splendid and most effective intellectual tool we've ever given ourselves scientific method. In the world of letters there is something vaguely perverse about this because the dominant assumption is still that numbers, scientific measurements, scientific endeavour is somehow cold and profoundly inimical to the soaring human spirit. But I just don't buy that.
LL So maybe new shapes and new forms will come out of that?
IMcE - Yes, I think they will evolve, but not in the hands of any one writer.
GM To come back to another recurrent motive in your books, the theme of loss and deprivation, absence and what is called in French "le travail du deuil": a number of protagonists are deprived of parents, often fatherless, for instance the protagonist in Black Dogs, looking for a substitute father and mother and the counterpart of that is another central motive of appropriation and possession. These two motives seem to be constantly interwoven in all your work. Could you comment on that, and has there been an evolution on that level, from the situation you describe in The Comfort of Strangers to the one you describe in Black Dogs?
IMcE Well, I never really understood it myself, but it's been pointed out to me at various times. There is a great deal of loss in my work and it was only in my mid-thirties that I began to understand the source of this sense of deprivation. In the story, "The last day of summer", a boy of eleven is involved in a rowing accident in which a mother figure and a small baby are drowned. This is the 'last day' of summer because the next day the boy's boat is going to be put away. It's September and he's going to go off to his new school. It wasn't until I was well into my thirties that I understood that the story is really about my being sent away to boarding-school at the age of eleven. The woman in the boat is clearly my mother, the baby in the boat is clearly myself, as is the boy. Their drowning is the 'death' of my mother, and the end of childhood. In those days boarding-schools were much harsher places than they are now. Being sent away as a child produced in me the sense of loss that has seeped into my fiction.
The other matter, possession, invasion. Well, like many writers, I suppose I have a sponge-like quality, an emotional neutrality. I absorb things from other people without being fully aware of it. This has obvious advantages for a writer, but if I'm not careful, people can invade my space all too easily. I've had to learn to put up barriers. The Comfort of Strangers expresses something of that anxiety if you open yourself up too much, you can be taken over. There are always people who want to take you over. I believe that there's a small indefensible core of your own selfhood which you have to hang on to at all costs.
GM Another aspect that could be related in a way to the previous one is the emphasis on family relationships, and conflicting family relationships, at various levels, for instance the complex and ambivalent relation there is to the father figure or father substitute in some of your works, for instance the ironic father figure in "Solid geometry ", the sadistic father in The Comfort of Strangers, and at times on the contrary a rather positive view of the father-son relationship as in The Child in Time, for instance, or to another degree, the substitute relationship between the narrator in Black Dogs and the figure of Bernard. Why again this ambivalent attitude to the father figure.
IMcE Well, I think a writer can only answer such a question in biographical rather than thematic terms. The father figures you mention come unbidden they push at the door. Which means I have to talk about my own father. He is presently very ill and weak, but he was once a powerful, domineering, slightly bullying man who was extremely loving towards me, passionate about me in ways that were both supportive and oppressive. I inherited my mother's shy nature. He was precisely one of those figures from my fiction who seemed to want to take me over. He was the regimental sergeant-major, feared and hated by the men below him because he was so strong, such a stickler for the rules, such a disciplinarian. You'd have to say he was a very effective soldier. He wasn't tough like that with me at home, but he was frightening. He didn't have and I think he would agree himself he didn't have an easy way of talking to children. He was a loving man who did not have the means to express his love. I remember once when he came to stay in my house and my seven-year-old son climbed on my lap while we were talking and put his arms around my neck. I hardly noticed; one of the joys of having children is that you simply inhabit this terrain of love. We went on with the conversation. And then my father pointed at little Gregory and said, 'That's amazing, that would never have happened between us. You were too frightened of me.' And I nodded, rather sadly.
One recurring nightmare scene from my childhood: my father would seize hold of me in a playful way and, ignoring my struggles, pretend that I was a baby and cradle me and make a shushing noise. He would do this in front of people. I felt that he was ridiculing my relationship with my mother. He thought that I was too close to her. It was an intense drama he enacted behind the mask of a joke. So I had very powerful and confused feelings about him. I loved him and I feared him. I enjoyed doing exciting things with him climbing the ropes of the Army assault courses, going out into the North African Desert with him. But I also shrank from his loud presence.
Perhaps this was another reason why Kafka interested me. He addressed his father in a long letter. I ended up addressing mine with stories and novels. In The Cement Garden, I killed him off early on. He's there in The Comfort of Strangers, and he pops up in other places. In the later fiction, I've tried to redeem him by becoming the father, by trying to take his strengths, his huge capacity for love and giving it expression.
GM I'd like to ask you a question concerning the broadening of your scope in literature, the growing part that is played by history and historical facts, and also by a reflection on the state of society. You've written, for instance, a reflection on the institutional discourse and power in The Child in Time, and more specifically on ideology and commitment in Black Dogs. Could you comment on that evolution from a rather restricted world in a way to broader social and historical issues, which were sometimes broached upon in your previous stories, but more definitely in the recent works?
IMcE Well, I said at the beginning of this conversation that one source of the closed-off quality of my short stories was my ignorance of the wider world. At the same time, I did describe relationships, often in fairly bizarre terms. A couple makes for a kind of society, and for a while the couple was my world. As I understood more I began to take courage and want to incorporate what I had understood.
An important moment of transition was writing for television. Dialogue without narrative gave me a moral freedom which I'd felt I didn't have in the stories. Or perhaps I mean it gave me a moral purpose which I thought would inhibit the stories. I wrote a television film called The Imitation Game, which is about a young woman's attempt to find interesting work during the war. It was heavily influenced by feminist thought. It certainly made a society, that of England in 1940, and although it wasn't completely successful, I began to understand what people meant when they talked of writers playing God.
The Comfort of Strangers edged into a slightly larger world, and by the time I'd written an oratorio about the threat of nuclear war and came to start The Child in Time, I thought I could find ways of bridging the earlier, small canvases of intense psychological states with a broader public reality oddly enough, through the idea of child-care manuals. In them one had an unconscious expression of the spirit of the age, of what people really wanted their children to be projections of their ideal selves.
From then on, I've never really been interested in anything other than trying to find connections between the public and the private, and exploring, how the two are in conflict, how they sometimes reflect each other, how the political invades the private world.
ALF In I979, you said: 'I don't know if this is a very good time for English fiction.' I wonder what you meant then and if you've changed your mind now.
IMcE Well, I think things have improved. The eighties were a reasonably good time for British fiction. Things opened out and we shook off our provincialism. All kinds of new people came alone. We had writers from the Commonwealth or ex-Empire bringing all kinds of Englishes into British fiction. A lot of good women writers came onto the scene. Literary fiction itself seemed to occupy more space in the public mind: new lists were started, and there was the success of the Waterstones book chain which by the end of the eighties had almost a hundred shops. The Booker prize, for all its idiocies. helped bring literary fiction to a wider readership. Then there was a spate of takeovers in the publishing world in the mid to late eighties, which led to writers being paid vast sums of money which I personally did not abhor. There was an interesting mix of formal experimentation with a commitment to remaining connected and relevant to a readership. There was a fairly general kind of audience that was ready to fork out money for hardback books. So I think we've had something of a silver age, certainly in quantity; only time will tell about the quality.
GM In your last novel, The Daydreamer, which is a children's book, in a way, you tread a new path. However you revert to the short story form you seemed to have given up. What part will the short story play in your forthcoming works? A second aspect of the question is that this book seemingly addresses a different readership. Yet, a number of stories concern the adult reader as well, and one is able to recognise familiar motifs and images that you used in other stories and novels for instance the doll motif that you used in In Between the Sheets, or the dismemberment motif that you used in various other stories and in
The Innocent. Why did you choose to rewrite these motifs differently? It also seems that you identify at last with the fictional writer of The Child in Time, who also wrote children's books.
IMCE Well, The Daydreamer is a series of stories with a central character linking them all. It also has a kind of shape. So in a sense it's a hybrid, a mating of novel with a collection of stories. There is a degree of development: by the end the boy-hero's final daydream takes the form of a humorous version of Kafka's Metamorphosis. He has a deep foreboding that the adult world he is soon to join is profoundly dull. Grown-ups seem to do little else in life beyond sitting, around talking, snoozing or worrying. He goes to bed with these thoughts on his mind, and the following morning, wakes to find himself transformed into a giant person, an adult. But then he tastes some of the pleasures of the grown-up life: he kisses a girl, he stays up late, he has interesting work: he's invented an anti-gravity machine. The future is redeemed.
When I wrote The Daydreamer I wasn't really thinking about short stories. I was writing for children, and I wanted self-enclosed, bedtime tales that would take twenty-five minutes to read, that would have strong plots, be surprising, and contain not a hint of moral instruction. I ended up with a collection of stories but I thought at the time I was doing something else. And that's the only way I'll write stories now. They can't be means to experimentation or pastiche. Perhaps I'll find some other way in the future (to try and answer your question) of fooling myself again into writing them.
As for the recurrence of themes, I can only say well, this is the furniture of my mind. I don't choose these things, they're there because I wrote as seriously as I would for adults. I wrote carefully, I put the stories together over a period of three years, I only wrote one when I really had one to write. The Daydreamer was written while I was working on Black Dogs and the screenplay of The Innocent. I'd like to think that The Daydreamer is a book for adults written in a language children can understand. In Italy it had an exclusively adult readership because of the way it was presented. Because it's a celebration of daydreaming, and therefore of the imagination, the Italians took it to be in the tradition of Calvino, of Cosmicomics and so on.
A book about daydreaming is bound to be, by extension, a book about writing. I have to say that over the last twenty-five years my pleasure in writing has steadily increased. To the point of delight. It used to be a source of pleasure-pain, a kind of compulsive self-torture. But now I know that the crucial ingredient of writing-pleasure is surprise. Surprising oneself with a thought, or a formulation. Making something that seems to come from a mind that is better than your own. On a good day, writing offers
itself up as pure mental freedom, and as one of the greatest single pleasures in life right up there with sex and skiing and mountain walking.
GM What will be the next pleasure of writing? Do you have any plans?
IMcE I have all the usual superstitions about speaking of the next thing, but it's there, embedded in the conversation we've just had.