Ian McEwan: By the Book
Published: December 6, 2012
The author of “Atonement” and, most recently, “Sweet Tooth,” believes the greatest reading pleasure has “an element of self-annihilation.”
What’s the best book you’ve read so far this year?
Stephen Sedley’s “Ashes and Sparks.”Sedley was a senior judge in our court of appeal until last year and in this collection of essays he writes on a range of issues that concern the individual and the state. He belongs, as one commentator noted, to the English tradition of radical nonconformism — the title is taken from a 17th-century Leveller pamphlet. But you could have no interest in the law and read his book for pure intellectual delight, for the exquisite, finely balanced prose, the prickly humor, the knack of artful quotation and an astonishing historical grasp. A novelist could be jealous.
And what was the last truly great book you read?
Epithet inflation has diminished “great” somewhat so we have to be careful. Last year I reread “Hamlet.” I believe the play really did represent a world historical moment — when there leapt into being a sustained depiction of a fully realized and doubting human being whose inner life is turned outward for our consideration. Even then, I blasphemously wondered whether the last two acts were as great as the first three. Is some vital tension lost when Hamlet returns from England? Another recent encounter has been Joyce’s “The Dead,” which I’ve read many times. It needs to be considered as a novella, the perfect novella, entirely separate from the rest of “Dubliners.” An annual winter party; afterwards, a scene of marital misunderstanding and revelation in a hotel room; a closing reflection on mortality as sleep closes in and snow begins to fall — I’d swap the last dozen pages of “The Dead” for any dozen in “Ulysses.” As a form, the novel sprawls and can never be perfect. It doesn’t need to be, it doesn’t want to be. A poem can achieve perfection — not a word you’d want to change — and in rare instances a novella can too.
Do you have a favorite literary genre?
The novella. See above.
Do you read poetry?
We have many shelves of poetry at home, but still, it takes an effort to step out of the daily narrative of existence, draw that neglected cloak of stillness around you — and concentrate, if only for three or four minutes. Perhaps the greatest reading pleasure has an element of self-annihilation. To be so engrossed that you barely know you exist. I last felt that in relation to a poem while in the sitting room of Elizabeth Bishop’s old home in rural Brazil. I stood in a corner, apart from the general conversation, and read “Under the Window: Ouro Preto.” The street outside was once an obscure thoroughfare for donkeys and peasants. Bishop reports overheard lines as people pass by her window, including the beautifully noted “When my mother combs my hair it hurts.” That same street now is filled with thunderous traffic — it fairly shakes the house. When I finished the poem I found that my friends and our hosts had left the room. What is it precisely, that feeling of “returning” from a poem? Something is lighter, softer, larger — then it fades, but never completely.
Do you remember the first book that made you cry?
It was “The Gauntlet,” by Ronald Welch. I was 10 years old and in hospital, so I had time to read this wonderful historical novel for children in a day. Its hero, Peter, is transported in a dreamlike state back 600 years to a late medieval Welsh castle. Many adventures and battles and much falconry ensue. When at last Peter returns to the present, the castle is the awesome ruin it was in the opening pages, and all the scenes and the dear friends he has made have vanished. “Their bones must have crumbled into dust in the quiet churchyard of Llanferon.” It was a new idea to me then, time obliterating loved ones and turning them to dust — and I was stricken for a while. But no other novel on the children’s book trolley would do. The next day I read “The Gauntlet” again.
If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?
I wouldn’t trouble the president with advice, or with one more transient treatise on America’s supposed terminal decline. For the sake of the general good, I’d have him absorbed in poetry. What would suit him well, I believe, is the work of James Fenton. His “Selected” would be fine. The range of subject matter and tone is immense. The long, wise reflections on conflict (“Those whom geography condemns to war”) would be instructive to a commander in chief, and the imaginative frenzy of “The Ballad of the Shrieking Man” would give him the best available measure of the irrational human heart. There are poems of mischief and wild misrule. A lovely consolatory poem about death is there, “For Andrew Wood.” (“And there might be a pact between/ Dead friends and living friends.”) And there are the love poems — love songs really, filled with a sweet, teasing, wistful lyricism that could even (but probably won’t) melt the heart of a Republican contender. “Am I embarrassing you?” one such poem asks in its penultimate line.
If you could meet any writer, dead or alive, who would it be? What would you want to know?
I apologize for being obvious, but every time I watch the curtain come down on even a halfway decent production of a Shakespeare play I feel a little sorrowful that I’ll never know the man, or any man of such warm intelligence. What would I want to know? His gossip, his lovers, his religion (if any), the Silver Street days, his thoughts on England and power in the 17th century — as young then as the 21st is for us. And why he’s retiring to Stratford. The biographies keep coming, and there’s a great deal we know about Shakespeare’s interactions with institutions of various kinds. England was already a proto-modern state that kept diligent records. But the private man eludes us and always will until some rotting trunk in an ancient attic yields a Pepys-like journal. But that’s historically impossible. He’s gone.
Have you ever written a fan letter to an author? Did he or she write back?
In my experience an appreciative letter from a fellow writer means a lot. (More than a review. I’ve stopped reading reviews.) So of course I write them occasionally. I owe Zadie Smith one for “NW.” The last I wrote was to Claire Tomalin about her biography of Dickens.
Do you remember the best fan letter you ever received? What made it special?
An Italian reader wrote to describe how he met his wife. She was on a bus, reading one of my books, one that he himself had just finished. They started talking, they started meeting. They now have three children. I wonder how many people owe their existence to their parents’ love of books.
Of the books you’ve written, which is your favorite?
At the moment I put my latest, “Sweet Tooth,” just ahead of “Atonement.”
If you could be any character from literature, who would it be?
I don’t much like airports, long flights and lines for passport control and immigration, so I’d like to take on the form of Shakespeare’s Puck, who boasts of being able to “put a girdle round the earth in 40 minutes.” That would put London to New York at around five minutes.
What do you plan to read next?
I’m well into a book in typescript about Iran and nuclear weapons, “Mullahs Without Mercy” by Geoffrey Robertson, a well-known human rights lawyer here in England. It gives a history of the murderous revolutionary theocracy, including an account of the rarely discussed mass execution of imprisoned communists and atheists in 1988. We do not want a country so careless of life to have the bomb, nor do we want the 40 or so other countries waiting in the wings to have it.
But bombing Iran is not a solution. Robertson wants to bring international human rights law to bear on the problem. It should be a violation of rights to design or procure, let alone use, a nuclear weapon. The big five need to stand by their treaty obligations and set about the process of steady disarmament. Out of a dire situation, Roberston argues a case for optimism. If we can outlaw the dum-dum bullet, if we can put tyrants on trial for genocide, we can get serious about a nuclear weapon-free world.