McEwanesque. What would that even mean? The dark psychological instability of The comfort of strangers and lasting love? The joyous comedy of Solar and Nutshell? The intelligent social realism of Saturday and The Children’s Act? The metafictional games of Atonement and Greedy? Ian McEwan’s brilliant capacity for reinvention is a hallmark of his literary career.
It’s easier to say what McEwanesque isn’t: loose, meandering, plotless, long. Yet all of these adjectives could apply to his surprising new novel, Course. This cradle-to-grave (well, seven-to-seventy) tale is about the life and times of Roland Baines, born, like McEwan, in 1948. Roland shares more than just a birthdate with its author . Previous novels have used elements of McEwan’s own life, but “autobiographical” is another word we don’t associate with his fiction. Course represents a sustained and complicit flirtation with this mode.
When the novel opens, Roland is in his thirties, sitting in a messy house in Clapham, cradling his infant son. His wife Alissa has just disappeared, leaving only one word: “I love you but it’s for good. I lived the bad life.
Behind Roland, there is a childhood in the army – Aldershot and Libya, like McEwan – then an adolescence in “a boarding school, run by London County Council”. The description of those early years is immersive and vivid. You can feel the red blood of real memory beating behind episodes such as young Roland’s terrible certainty that he will go blind, a secret he keeps for two years (turns out he just needs glasses ).
The school source is there in the acknowledgments – Woolverstone Hall, where McEwan was a pupil – and an English teacher whose name appears in the text is thanked. Crucially, we also read: “No piano teacher such as Miriam Cornell has ever been there.” Beautiful young Miss Cornell harshly disciplines 11-year-old Roland, but she also kisses him on the mouth. She becomes the object of his earliest fantasies, and when Roland is 14, they begin a full-fledged, obsessive affair that only ends when he finally leaves school two years later. The damage is lasting. As an adult, Roland believed that “the only happiness, the only purpose and the real paradise was sex. A hopeless dream dragged him from one relationship to another. If it had happened once, it could, it had to do it again”.
Roland drifts in his early twenties, traveling and playing jazz piano; becomes an “ardent autodidact”; tennis coach and smuggles records to friends in East Berlin. Then comes love, marriage and parenthood with Alissa. After his escape, there is a brief police investigation. Alissa lives and does well in her native Germany. She just wants to write novels and cannot consider combining this ambition with motherhood.
The second act of Roland’s free life begins. He gives up on his own ambitions to become a poet and makes a lot of money in the greeting card business, then loses it again. He finds Alissa in Berlin immediately after the fall of the Wall. Her first novel is due out and she wants nothing to do with her old life. Roland begins a relationship with an old friend, Daphne. His father dies. Roland’s son grows up and visits his mother, who still doesn’t want to know him. Roland begins to keep a diary. Alissa becomes the quintessential German novelist, “taller than Grass…almost as tall as Mann”. Daphne returns to her husband.
Miriam’s memories continue to haunt him. An old family mystery is solved: Roland is contacted by a long-lost brother, born before his parents’ marriage and put up for adoption – as is McEwan’s Mason brother, David Sharp, one of the book’s dedicatees. Roland’s mother dies. He finds work as a piano player. The thing with Daphne begins again. And so on, marching through the Blair years and 9/11 to the pandemic.
“I’ve lived the wrong life.” Course is a novel about alternative lives. What if, instead of an inspiring English teacher, the major figure of your school years was a sexually deviant piano teacher? What if you were a great writer – but also a woman, with tougher choices to make to protect your gift? What if you were born to the exact same parents but grew up in a completely different family?
Roland is haunted by the theory of many worlds, in which “the world divides at every imaginable moment into an infinity of unseen possibilities…Somewhere out of sight, they were all true”. This is also, of course, how fiction works. Alissa warns us against too literal readings, as well as Roland, who is upset that one of his characters seems to be based on him. “Do I really have to teach you a lesson on how to read a book? I borrow. I invent. I plunder my own life. Everything that happened to me and everything that didn’t happen to me.
It is a sprawling and branching narrative. There are abandoned scenarios, non-sequences and seemingly unintentional repetitions. Disorder is not directly a detraction. All the random back and forth creates a rich texture, with people and places fading and blurring – just like memory, just like life.
More problematic are regular failures in McEwanese, a term easier to define than McEwanesque. You know what that means: those authoritative news bulletins that punctuate so many recent novels. “The Profumo case was only a year away…” It’s like someone is constantly checking their watch. I understand that McEwan wants to give us an idea of the era Roland is going through. But what we get are whole paragraphs in editorial mode, big fatbergs cluttering up the work.
The most glaring example occurs when Roland meets Alissa in Berlin. They haven’t spoken in years, and she says she has something to tell him. While waiting for her to speak, he reflects for half a page on the state of the world, which in 1989 brings hope. “Mrs Thatcher had demonstrated this at the UN – the political right had finally understood climate change and believed in action while there was still time…” The commentary is intrusive and implausible at this time of great drama personal. Too often these incongruous asides tear at the delicate fabric of convincing conscience. The summaries of the Covid crisis at the end of the novel are particularly tiresome.
The second half of the novel is particularly lazy, as if an elite sprinter had signed up for a marathon and discovered around mile 16 that there’s more to this pace business than he had imagined. . But Course
is a consistently enjoyable read, written, for the most part, with McEwan’s fearsomely clever fluidity. Roland’s shifting perspective on his own past is brilliantly realized.
And the sheer novelty is entertaining – reading a McEwan who is more like a William Boyd or a Jonathan Franzen. John Updike also comes to mind: the four Rabbit books rolled into one, an overview of the decades. We certainly have to applaud McEwan for so boldly breaking with type and daring to go the distance at this point in his career. (Think of the more circumspect page count of the late Roth.) Ultimately, the weight of Course this is what gives it its power. Despite these editorials, despite the ramblings and hasty correctives, here is a whole unruly life between the covers of a single book: a literary feat of undeniable majesty.