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Conversation: Ian McEwan

April 13, 2005 at 12:00 AM EST
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JEFFREY BROWN: Saturday, Feb. 15, 2003: In Britain’s largest demonstration ever, more than a million people gathered in London to protest the coming Iraq War. And driving through those streets that day, Henry Perowne, a successful neurosurgeon and family man, thinks about the new age we all live in.

“There are people around the planet, well-connected and organized, who would like to kill him and his family and friends to make a point. The scale of death contemplated is no longer at issue. There’ll be more deaths on a similar scale, probably in this city. Is he so frightened that he can’t face the fact?”

The day was real; the character is fiction in the new novel “Saturday” by Ian McEwan, the 56-year-old author of numerous prize-winning books and widely regarded one of Britain’s and the world’s leading novelists. Now, in “Saturday”, McEwan is one of the first writers to come to grips with 9/11. He told us recently how difficult that was at first.

IAN McEWAN: At that point, I couldn’t think about novels at all. It seemed the only writing that was appropriate to that horrendous event was journalism, reportage. And, in fact, I think the profession rose quite honorably to the task. Novelists require a slower turnover, I mean, in time. It’s got to gather its emotional weight. And you have to look for the private aspect of the matter. And, in fact, this is a novel that is set not about that event, but its shadow, and it casts a very long shadow, not only over international affairs, but in the very small print of our lives.

JEFFREY BROWN: You mean, in a sense for a while, as the cliché goes, truth was stranger than fiction?

IAN McEWAN: Well, from my point of view, it was certainly more interesting than fiction. I became almost impatient with the literature. I wanted to be informed.

JEFFREY BROWN: And yet you’re a novelist. So what did you want to explore when you finally turned to your form and wrote “Saturday”?

IAN McEWAN: I wanted, as I said, a flavor of the present. I hadn’t really expected the present to be quite so fascinating as it had become, or quite so horribly fascinating. I hoped to sort of get a flavor of the city, not to deny also the pleasures involved in being in a city, and to mix anxieties with pleasures; to give the reader just a taste of the kinds of shared puzzlement, bafflement, underlying fear that I think we all have at this end of the century.

JEFFREY BROWN: In fact, McEwan used his own London apartment and neighborhood as the setting for much of the novel. “Awaking in the early morning, Henry Perowne sits in his kitchen with his son Theo, dwelling on their changing world.”

IAN McEWAN: “Despite the troops mustering in the Gulf or the tanks out at Heathrow on Thursday or the storming of the Finsbury Park Mosque, the reports of terror cells around the country and bin Laden’s promise on tape of martyrdom attacks on London, Henry Perowne held for a while to the idea that it was all an aberration; that the world would surely calm down and soon be otherwise.

“That solutions were possible; that reason being a powerful tool was irresistible, the only way out; or that, like any other crisis, this one would fade soon and make way for the next, going the way of the Falklands and Bosnia, Biafra and Chernobyl. But lately, this is looking optimistic. Against his own inclination he’s adapting, the way patients eventually do to their sudden loss of sight or use of their limbs — no going back. The ’90s are looking like an innocent decay, and who would have thought that at the time? Now, we breathe a different air.”

JEFFREY BROWN: The novel has received glowing reviews, a “day in the life” story, in which the life is set against world events and then nearly shattered by a chance encounter that could happen to anyone at any time. Does the situation after 9/11 in which you’ve set your novel, does it change life for the novelist? Does it either give you a new theme, or perhaps even a new responsibility, in the way you approach your own work?

IAN McEWAN: I think we should be careful not to over-inflate the matter. I mean, in the first half of the 20th Century, we lived through human disasters on a scale unimaginable. The Holocaust was once suggested would be the end of not only civilization, but art, too. And yet art, and especially literature, rose to the occasion. And I think the novel, you know, its business is the investigation of human nature.

This terrible event caused some people to say — I think completely mistakenly — that it would be impossible ever to write anything ever again. And this is a nonsense. I mean, it actually generates the need for more investigation. We barely know ourselves. And I think the novel, with its marvelous ability to take us inside other people’s minds, to give us the flavor and fine print of thought and consciousness, is well-placed to keep on.

JEFFREY BROWN: And your way of doing that is to insert history into your story, or your story right into history?

IAN McEWAN: Yes. I mean, if you set a novel in the mind of a thinking man going about his day, on such a day, Feb. 15, inevitably he is going to dwell on this. He doesn’t really know, unlike many people around me, he doesn’t really know his own mind almost. He’s very torn; he thinks the occupation will probably be a mess, and he’s sort of against it. But there’s another part of him that just longs for Saddam Hussein to be overthrown. In that sense, he’s rather rootless, but from my point of view, ambivalence is much richer than certainty.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, that’s the life that many of us lead as we go through history.

IAN McEWAN: Yeah, it is often hard. I mean, Henry’s very glad that he’s chosen the simple life of a neurosurgeon rather than become a politician.

JEFFREY BROWN: And this all takes place in one day, and we’re left not knowing what becomes of Henry. Do you know what becomes of him?

IAN McEWAN: Well, he ends up back at the window where he started his day, trying to stare into the future. And he imagines a similar doctor like himself in 1903 at the beginning of the 20th Century, you know, full of Edwardian contentment, relative prosperity and peace, trying to imagine what the 20th century was going to bring.

Well, if it’s even as half as bad that, we should be very worried. I mean, what lay ahead of that doctor immediately would be the First World War, the Somme, the great flu outbreak, the Depression, and then, of course, the Second World War and all it brought with it, and then, of course, the great tyrannies of totalitarianism. What faces us? I mean, it would be rather nice to make a pact with the devil to be shown, you know, the next hundred years. What wouldn’t we give?

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Ian McEwan, thanks for joining us.

IAN McEWAN: My pleasure.