Harry Geels: Three special lessons from Ian McEwan's 'Lessons'

Harry Geels: Three special lessons from Ian McEwan's 'Lessons'

Harry Geels (foto credits Cor Salverius)

By Harry Geels

'Reading is so sexy: Gen Z turns to physical books', was the headline in The Guardian last week. A small addition: reading is above all educational. For example, I recently learned a number of special (and partly unexpected) lessons from McEwan's last semi-autobiographical novel 'Lessons', for example about socialism, Margaret Thatcher and the power dynamics between men and women.

Warning: This story contains spoilers

A number of bookfluencers on TikTok are helping to ensure that younger generations read more. Youth are also 'subtly' pushed in the right direction of reading books in other ways. For example, two young female protagonists were regularly seen reading in the first season of HBO's hit series The White Lotus – from the currently popular genre of 'rich white people who feel unhappy or behave strangely'. And they don't read pulp. Various websites have listed the books in the series, including those by Sigmund Freud and Friedrich Nietzsche.

It should therefore come as no surprise that The Guardian, among others, has picked up on the apparent trend of more reading (among young people). The fact that the British newspaper calls reading sexy is an interpretation of this new trend, which is partly inspired by digital fatigue: we are gradually becoming tired of the information bombardment of social media that also reinforces our own opinions via smart algorithms. Reading is of course more than sexy. It can also be educational (and exciting). But the concepts of sexy and educational may be related.

Three special lessons from Ian McEwan

Literature comes in countless forms. The best known is the division between fiction and non-fiction. The idea prevails that we mainly learn from non-fiction. But we can also learn a lot from socially committed novelists. That happened to me recently with Ian McEwan's most recent novel Lessons, a semi-autobiographical 'werdegang'; the life story of Roland Baines, a, as The Guardian so beautifully describes him, 'feckless (aimless) boomer', especially because he continues to wallow in self-pity after his wife leaves him and his newborn son for no reason.

McEwan interweaves the story with important historical episodes, such as the Cuban Missile Crisis, AIDS, German unification, Brexit and corona, making the book a feast of recognition and McEwan usually manages to capture the feelings of the events of the time. So I remembered that euphoric feeling that swept over the world when the Berlin Wall fell due to Perestroika. The Cold War was over and the world would become one again. But as so often happens, that euphoria quickly disappeared after we returned to the order of the day.

Realizing that everyone reads a book in their own way, I take away three lessons in particular from Lessons.

1) Labour embraced neoliberalism

The protagonist Roland is an active member of the Labour Party. But gradually, especially after Margaret Thatcher initiated neoliberalism, he began to feel uneasy. He sees that his left-wing friends, especially those with their own homes, are starting to behave differently. They get rich. Some even start their own companies and at a certain point Roland is faced with the moral choice of whether he wants to work and become a shareholder in one of those companies, which he ultimately does and, Roland himself, faces all kinds of dilemmas and 'just don'ts'. ' situations.

For me, the book gives a good picture of how subtly the left opportunistically embraced neoliberalism (and its associated globalism). This applied not only to Labour in the United Kingdom, but also to, for example, the PvdA in the Netherlands. In doing so, these parties ultimately alienated poor people from the traditional left.

2) Margaret Thatcher was a climate pioneer

Another special lesson was that it was not Al Gore with his Inconvenient Truth who drove the need for climate change, but Margaret Thatcher. In Lessons there is a reference to her famous speech from 1989 to the UN, the supranational organization that has slowly emerged in the decades since as one of the biggest drivers of the climate transition. It is as director Quentin Tarantino says: 'There are treasures to be found in every movie [or book], regardless of its critical reception or popular opinion.'

Naming this treasure of a lesson is important, because for me climate is not a left-right contradiction. It is not the domain of the 'left'. In fact, I think the climate transition will happen fastest through the principles of the free market. It is also not a discussion about ‘Growth versus Degrowth’. We, 'left' and 'right', simply 'forgot' about the climate in the eighties and nineties. We were all reaping the benefits of neoliberalism at the time.

3) The (power) relationship between women and men is complicated

A life story is of course also about relationships. The book immediately starts with a very special one: as an adolescent, Roland has a passionate sexual relationship with his music teacher. McEwan turns #MeToo around. And he does this again later when Roland's wife leaves him and his newborn son without accounting for it. Only much later in Roland's life does it become apparent that she did this to pursue her dream as a world-famous writer. Something that her mother did not do and caused psychological problems for both women. She therefore 'had' to leave Roland.

According to The Guardian, Roland's relationship with women is also an important theme in the book, although the British newspaper reads the story slightly differently: 'Roland learns from them [the women], lesson after lesson, everything from the demands of genius to the virtue of a clean kitchen table. It's a wearing trope: women as instruments and catalysts of male insight. But as Roland's granddaughter reminds him [at the very end of the book]: 'A shame to ruin a good tale by turning it into a lesson'.'

This article contains a personal opinion from Harry Geels