Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Ian McEwan has the valuable talent of pushing his readers to reflect on the more profound topics in life, and in his latest novel, Lessons, it feels as if, in a way, he meditates on his own path through the history of the 20th and early 21st centuries. The novels follows the story of Roland Baines, eleven years of age at the end of WWII, as he marches forward through the tumultuous years ahead, all while trying to search for answers deep in his own family history.
Table of contents
Ian McEwan Raises a Question of Free Will
Whether or not human beings have true free will is a topic which has kept awake our greatest philosophers since time immemorial, and the truth is we still haven’t settled on a definitive answer. Though it would seem we are technically free to do as we please, there also appear to be numerous external factors influencing our decisions and guiding our lives, as is the case for Roland Baines in Lessons by Ian McEwan.
The novel takes us to not long after the end of the Second World War, in the 1960s, a time when the casualties and full extent of the destruction are still fresh in people’s memories. Roland is an eleven year-old boy living at a boarding school in the United Kingdom, two thousand miles away from home, under the wing of his piano teacher, Miss Miriam Cornell.
As Roland quickly grows up, he finds himself irrevocably attracted to Miriam, nine years his senior, and so begins an ill-fated love affair which leaves with him with more scars and blackened memories than anything else. Just when he feels as if he’s doomed to solitude and emotional bankruptcy, he meets Alissa, with whom he finds a second chance at love.
Unfortunately for both of them, she lives in East Germany, on the opposite side of the Berlin Wall from Roland. He doesn’t let it at act as a deterrent, sneaking his favourite books and records past the checkpoints, eventually marrying the love of his life. One day, just as he thinks he is perfectly in control of his life, Alissa mysteriously vanishes, leaving him to care for their young son on his lonesome.
As various major historical events play out in the backdrop, including the Suez Crisis, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the explosion at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, Roland desperately tries to build a relationship with his son while digging into his own family’s past. However, the many questions tormenting him about his own predicament and lot in life might not have simple answers, or at least, not the ones he wants to hear.
A Man Shaped by History in Lessons
I think the first order of business is addressing the sort of book Lessons really is. While most bestsellers these days are all about creating massive intrigues and advancing the plot at a steady pace, Ian McEwan shows he is the kind of author willing to walk a more difficult path. Lessons is, in my opinion, more of a character study than anything else, one seeking to answer various existential questions, chief among them being just how much of our destiny we can actually control.
There are certainly plenty of other topics here which, depending on your personal outlook on life, might take the centre stage, but for me, nothing eclipsed Roland’s incessant struggle against what seems to be an inescapable fate. His dreams and ambitions for the future always look in one direction, but more often than not reality pulls him back the other way.
The events dictating his life are also much bigger than he himself, and no amount of wishful thinking will cause them to disappear. The Berlin Wall separates him from Alissa, she inexplicably disappears, and the entirety of Europe is living through the unstable political upheaval of the 1970s to the 1990s. Essentially, he has to try and live his own dysfunctional life with the world around him chaotically spinning out of control.
Naturally, there can be no question of total free will for a man such as Roland, but Ian McEwan posits that he is nevertheless not totally powerless. Despite the Powers that Be seemingly conspiring against him at every turn, he chooses to persevere from one challenge to the next, defying destiny’s malicious plans for his existence.
As terrifying and depressing as Roland’s journey can be during his more difficult times, there is also a bundle of hope to be found in how his life ultimately turns out in the end. Without giving too much away, he makes peace with the fact some things are bound to remain forever unknown, and partially succeeds in using his free will to triumph over his own circumstances.
The Uncertain Life of the late 20th Century
Roland might be our protagonist and primary vehicle to move through the story, but Ian McEwan doesn’t limit himself to focusing solely on him. Instead, he takes the opportunity to offer as an exposition into something he himself experienced: what it was like to live in the latter half of the 20th century.
More than just a commentary on one man, it’s, in my opinion, the author’s way of appraising his generation and the enormous cultural shift which happened between the 1960s and today. He takes his time in showing us exactly how people lived seventy years ago, what their routines looked like, how they spoke to each other, the values they held dear to their hearts… in essence, who they were as people.
There is one particular aspect of Lessons which I believe Ian McEwan executed with unrivalled mastery, and it’s the subtle changes he depicts in people as the decades go by. There is rarely any sort of jarring transition from one time period to the next, at least not until we get to the 21st century, the advent of the Digital Age. We get to slowly see the logical social evolution of Europeans over the past few decades, and the ways in which their lives were shaped by world history.
Not limiting himself to only subjugating Roland to the unpredictable whims of fate, he also makes it a point to show us the far-reaching consequences of the many wars and crisis scenarios on the people in a more general sense. We come to understand how those events forced people to make decisions they would have otherwise never had to consider, how deeply their lives can change as a result, and how it all resulted in the shaping of the modern world with its ideals.
Now, I should mention that McEwan doesn’t shy away from making his worldview crystal clear, and having experienced as much as he has, his statements always come with a firm dose of conviction. While you might not share his point of view, I think none can deny his arguments are well thought-out and have merit to them… which, at the very least, makes excellent food for thought.
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The Final Verdict
Lessons by Ian McEwan is not your usual work of literature and fiction, but it is perhaps the best among its peers at giving the reader a complete impression of European life from the 1960s to 2020. While telling us of one man’s attempts to wrestle some control over his life, the author also takes us on a riveting trip through the 20th century’s most impactful world events, and most importantly, tries to answer questions we’ve all asked ourselves countless times.
If you’re looking for a calmer and more unique type of novel, one brimming with realism, philosophy, sociology and historical excursions going back a few decades, then I think you’ll be thoroughly intrigued by what this novel has to offer.
Ian Russel McEwan is an English novelist and screenwriter, a Commander of the Order of the British Empire, and a fellow at the Royal Society of Literature. Many of his novels have received film adaptations, including The Cement Garden, The Comfort in Strangers, Atonement and On Chesil Beach.