The English master novelist’s latest describes a boy’s sexual awakening with his piano teacher, and its lasting impact on his life
Can an 11 year old fall in love? Yes. It’s a normal, sunny, delightful thing to do. Normal, sunny, delightful will be how they look back on it, with laughter and pleasure across their lives. Roland, the narrator of Ian McEwan’s Lessons (Penguin) is 11 and taking private lessons from a 23-year-old piano teacher at his boarding school. “Round-faced, erect, perfumed, strict,” she sits close to him on the narrow stool. “Her perfume overwhelmed his senses and deafened him.” Her arm is “firm and warm” against his shoulder. Roland’s mother is far away in Tripoli. In 1959, lonely little boys are not supposed to cry.
Miss Cornell, the teacher, is Everything: fantasy but real, strict but warm, impersonal but intimate. So intimate that when he makes a mistake at the keys she puts her hand – the hand with the painted nails – at the hem of his shorts and pinches him on the inner thigh. They go on with the lesson. Nothing is said and Roland starts to doubt his memory of the incident, despite the tiny blue bruise that appears. But he accepts it: “What happened, whatever it was, must be his fault and disobedience was against his nature.” By the time Roland is 14, he and Miss Cornell are having sex at her house in the village.
Forty years later, Roland, considering bringing charges against her, tracks her down in London. She says: “You would never find anyone who understood you so deeply or who would care for you more devotedly. Neither of us would ever find greater sexual fulfillment.” Her words exhaust him. There is truth in them but there is the other truth: their encounter was corrupt. And who knows what damage was done to him as a child? While he was destined to become a great concert pianist, Roland never finished school. Her fault? Forty years on, he remembers she had given him joy. It crosses his mind that to blame her for the projection of his life might mean that he is “the stooge of current orthodoxies”.
Roland is absolutely the centre of Lessons, which McEwan describes as “a whole-life novel”. The story takes in forces acting within him but more so from without. Roland’s life is engineered by forces over which he has no control. In July 1956, President Nasser of Egypt nationalised the British-run Suez Canal. Roland’s family lives in Libya, where his father is an officer in the British army; anti-colonial feeling is running high, and the women and children are packed off to safer places. For six months, Roland has an idyllic time in England with his mother to himself. They return to an anxious, emotionally muffled life in Libya, with his father often away, before he is returned to England for boarding school in 1959. Soon, the Cuban Missile Crisis threatens nuclear war. Roland, afraid he will die before ever having sex, hops on his bike and visits Miss Cornell in her house. His obsession with her, with sex, means he fails his exams.
In 1989, the Berlin Wall falls and Roland is swept into other worlds. His first wife, a German-British woman called Alissa, is now the most eminent European writer. Single-minded, she had left Roland and their seven-month-old son, Lawrence, in a dingy London house to become exactly who she has become. Roland is now a piano player in a hotel; he reads, thinks, cleans the house, has affairs, remarries, but, above all, he is a father. The relationship between Roland and Lawrence is beautiful, and beautifully done, with McEwan at his wry, observant best. Roland, as British as possible, is the attractive, self-effacing figure in a family – the one usually called mother. Feminism’s gift to men has never looked sweeter.
This complex, generous novel reveals another McEwan, exactly reflected in the fractured elegance and concentration of the figure on the cover. I want to use the word tender. Lessons is a quiet joy to read because at its heart is an enquiry into how we might, one day, acquire self-perspective, and, with this, a fresh perspective on the lives of those we love or have loved, and those who love or have loved us.