The comfort of Ian McEwan
Indrajit Hazra interviews one of the finest writers in the English language, Ian McEwan, at the Jaipur Literature Festival.books Updated: Jan 28, 2008 14:53 IST
It’s not easy to situate Ian McEwan in the surroundings of a mall. But there he is, with the popcorn machines in the background, in Jaipur’s Inox cinema, waiting for the Indian premiere of the adaptation of his novel, Atonement, to come to an end and field questions from the audience. Along with him are some friends that include Golden Globe-winning and Oscar-nominated screenwriter Christopher Hampton. I butt in and tell McEwan that a sequel of his novel, Saturday, already seems to have been filmed in India. “Yes, quite,” he says with a crooked smile, pointing with his head to the poster of the Ajay Devgan-Irfan Khan starring Sunday that’s also premiered the same day.
The ‘Ian at Inox’ moment happens a day after I had joined him, his charming wife, journalist Annalena McAfee, Hampton and a few other friends at a table in Jaipur Diggi Palace hotel. My excuse was to have Australian Merlot (thoughtfully provided by the Australian High Commissioner) with one of the finest writers of our times and pick his brains on literature, his own writings and the way he viewed the world. “Why is there always an half-hour time zone difference in India?” he asks me. In between me comprehending his question and his realisation that India has only one time zone all across (“But isn’t the country big enough to have many more? Russia has 11!”), he has poured me another glass of red wine.
Conversation veers towards the town of Salisbury in England where his “dear friend” Vikram Seth has a house. “We had a lovely evening listening to music, yes Schubert, I think,” McEwan says. “He’s such a lovely guy.” The subject of the Magna Carta, the English charter originally issued in 1215 that became the ur-text for constitutional law and one of whose early copies is housed in the Salisbury Cathedral, comes up. It turns out that another copy is being auctioned. “Well, we have other copies, don’t we?”
Hampton has brought with him a few copies of the script of Atonement that a New York publisher has come out with. McEwan flips through the book and peers into a page. “I like the typeface,” he says, looking at the ‘old’ film-style typewriter script. Copies are signed and exchanged. It’s a nice little celebratory party.
I ask McEwan whether he thinks of himself as an ‘English writer’ and whether it would have bothered him if he was categorised as, say, a great practitioner of Anglo-Scottish-English writing. “All fiction is localised. You write about things around you. Travel narrows the mind,” he says with another of his tight thin-lipped smiles that lets out only that much of irony each time. “But of course it can be stifling. But I am a provincial writer. ‘World Writing’ is a bit like ‘World Furniture’, isn’t it?” As a ‘non-diasporic’ writer sipping Australian red at a literary fest in Jaipur with Ian McEwan, he made perfect sense to me.
Filming, Writing, Possessing
Snatches like this form my disjointed meetings with McEwan over the two days. He has the look of a lapsed Jesuit on the first day in his white shirt and black jacket as he answers questions about the film of his novel. McEwan is pleased with Joe Winter’s treatment of Atonement. As the writer of the novel of the film that has been wowing critics all over, he experiences most of the pleasures and none of the “hands-on fuss”. “People have come up to me to congratulate about the Golden Globe, which is nonsense. Now what if the film was very bad? Would I have got the brickbats? No, and rightfully not. So why should I get the bouquets if the film is great.”
Fair enough from someone who, the next day in a public session, pointed out wryly that when he started writing in the 1970s and did film script writing for British television, writers didn’t much take the director seriously. “I mean, there’s still a feeling among writers that for a good film you just need a good writer and a good cinematographer. The director’s job is to bring the sulking actress out of the trailer.” The audience laughs.
I find myself during one of the evening dinners — the night before the ‘for-television’ public session — again sitting next to the man. He’s now wearing a light blue jacket and looking like an extremely dignified version of Keith Richards. We talk about something that he has talked about with a hundred other journos — whether he believes, like many of us readers do, that there’s an ‘Early McEwan’ and a ‘Late McEwan’, the former being more dark (earning him the tag ‘Ian Macabre’), the latter being more nuanced. “I have to die for there to be a late McEwan,” he quips. But he considers the question seriously — for the hundredth time — and answers.
The (Old) Unbearable Darkness Of Being
In the early books, he didn’t want to go into the existential state of the characters. He wanted to go against the prevalent English novel and not describe the thoughts of characters, but tell what happened as it happened. The next day at the session he wonderfully describes what kind of a person he was when he wrote books like The Cement Garden (a mother’s corpse in the basement) and The Comfort of Strangers (‘strangely deviant’ couplehoods): “I had the kind of pessimism that only the young can afford.” The blackness, the darkness was getting too restricting, while he wanted to deal with a more complex, differently coloured world.
There is also a ‘biological-psychological’ reason McEwan cites in the session for his ‘change’: “When I was younger, the world could have gone to hell. Then suddenly I had children. I no longer wanted the world to go to hell because now my children would be in it too.” The night before he says all this, while we’re plying through proper nouns like Jonathan Swift, Thomas Browne and talking about the English Metaphysical poets — I asking him whether he had read John Donne’s great defence of suicide whose name eluded me at that point thanks to a bad memory or too much Sula, no one will know — he tells me about Kafka, his nameless characters, and nameless places and how McEwan wanted to “do that”. And then, almost in a conspiratorial tone that would have suited Guy Fawkes if he had succeeded in the gunpowder plot and lived to tell his tale, McEwan adds: “Then I rebelled against Kafka. I’ll explain when we meet tomorrow.”
The Personal Is The Political Is The Aesthetic
At the next day’s session, I detect in McEwan ‘question fatigue’. Among those thrown at him included: what he thought of his first visit to India (“I’ve never been with so many people at once, and yet I felt relaxed and ignored”), whether he was atoning for something by writing (“Only as much as you are”), and whether Saturday, his ‘post-9/11 novel’ presented only a Western view of the post 2001-world (“It is about how we view the world, I make no bone about it”). Which makes me feel doubly rotten to again plonk myself between Ian McEwan and friends — and wine bottle — and ask him not-quite-earth shatteringly clever questions.
But it isn’t all too often that I get to meet a person whose opening two sentences in his last novel make you realise why the comma and the full stop was invented for literature: “They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible. But it is never easy.” So I do play breath-stealer again, Annalena gracefully exchanging seats with me yet again so that we could mutter in the company of friends.
I ask him at the table where we first met a day before about his public defence of Martin Amis in the Guardian recently after Terry Eagleton and Amis, both teaching at Manchester University, had a public spat that ended up with the latter being termed a “racist” and “Islamophobe” by many liberals. “I live in London in an area where there are Muslims who’re going to pubs, smoking dope, not praying five times a day. Are they also apostates? They aren’t threatened with death. It’s not big deal. I’ve been on websites where peoplewho are ex-Muslims talk to each other freely.” McEwan can’t understand why such a big deal has been made of Amis’s critical comments about the ‘Islamic way of life’ in Britain.
Political awarness is to McEwan’s sense of looking at the world as a writer of literature the same way the physical, the ‘real’, is to the way he approaches the ‘inner life’ of men, the metaphysics. “The world asks to be named. Martin Amis and I once thought of writing an archetypal existential plot. It would have had an unnamed person checking into a hotel waiting for the order to kill an unnamed person. The order never comes,” McEwan says with a chuckle. “The world asks to be named.” He then tells me why real things — the physical things — need to be praised in literature, “like clouds and the sky”. When McEwan was researching for his book The Innocent in Berlin before the Wall crashed down, he would walk around the wall’s perimeter. When he asked West Germans who had written the best nivel about the Berlin Wall, they all said “That’s a subject for journalists, not writers”.
“Can you imagine Saul Bellow ignoring the Berlin Wall? Can you imagine John Updike ignoring it?” McEwan’s voice rings with incredulity even all these years later. “It was an aesthetic dictate to take note of the physical that made me give up on the... ‘dark stuff’.” The pause was searching out the words after which he repeats, “It’s the aesthetics of the phsyical that decided.”
A rebel...his cause?
It isn’t too later that we are interrupted — ironic, considering I had been doing most of the interrupting. There is a radio interview that McEwan and Hampton have to do before the Writer’s Ball in the evening.
At the Ball itself, McEwan is lost in the middle of the fireworks, the people and a particularly loud brass band that insists on changing the writer’s opinion on lush and loud by shaking the horns right in front of him. It is much later, after my second last drink (whisky) and during his last (white wine), that I go over to McEwan — multi-tasking with a poet and a plate of food — and ask him for my answer. “So why did you rebel against Kafka?” I thought I heard him say something about Kafka “not having a centre” and how, if he had gone to America, he would have ended up becoming a Cabbala teacher. Or that’s what I think he said. Only empirical evidence, backed by metaphysical surety and aesthetics can confirm that.