New novel by Ian McEwan: The Keyboard of Emotions

New novel by Ian McEwan: The Keyboard of Emotions

In “Lessons” Ian McEwan talks about everyday life and sexual temptations. In doing so, he creates a large European time and world panorama.

blurred hands on a piano keyboard

88 keys and two hands that play them: material for world literature with Ian Mc Ewan Photo: Frank Sorge/imago

Roland Baines, the ‘hero’ of Ian McEwan’s terrific new novel, is an ‘everyman’. The figure type comes from the English mystery play and has been handed down to the 20th century by the European monastic order theatre, where Hugo von Hofmannsthal has reworked this early modern legacy into one of the greatest successes of drama literature to date.

The intention of the Jedermann figure has been allegorical since its origins, i.e. didactic. “Lessons” is therefore the title of McEwan’s novel. We should learn something from a CV.

Which is why the person portrayed must not be a particularly important or terrifying individual, not an impressive hero, not a great villain. But one or one like you and me. The goal of reception is identification. McEwan’s message is that we are all Roland Baines.

Everyman Literature

In the Mystery Theater or in Hofmannsthal, everyone (and we with him) stands in the middle between poles with religious connotations: temptation through the world, power, sex and money on the one hand, and the narrow path to eternal salvation on the other. It is clear what direction traditional Everyman literature is pointing us towards.

In McEwan’s secularized mystery play the temptations of a failed life are occupied by women. The young Roland Baines, whom his parents – a British career soldier on post in Libya and his gentle, unhappy wife – have placed in a British boarding school, so to speak, falls victim there at the age of 16 to a piano teacher who is erotically abused by the very young man is possessed.

She colonizes his sexual fantasies, seduces him, ruins his school career and pursues the hair-raising plan to marry him in Scotland and have him as both a sexual partner and her most gifted student (a professional career as a pianist was open to him for a while) forever to keep.

Travel, drugs and affairs

She promises him sex and fame. But he would lose freedom, its freezes and its opportunities for triumph and disaster at the same time. The boy fled, dropped out of school and led – on long journeys, on drug trips, with affairs – the hippie life that was open to 20-year-olds in the 1960s, but which they could become aware of as a dead end between 30 and 40, in which many of them have perished.

The abuse has long-term consequences: Roland cannot establish and maintain relationships. In London he meets Alissa, a German-English woman whose father was more distantly related to the White Rose resistance group.

This is where the “German” thread of the novel begins, whose meandering narrative flow through the last century – and into ours – also flows around the defunct GDR, where Roland had friends before 1989, as well as the fall of the Wall, the reigns of Margaret Thatcher and Angela Merkel up to Brexit and the lockdowns of the early 1920s: a European time and world panorama.

Most important writer of her time

Alissa, however, falls victim to a temptation of her own. It is the artistic fame that Roland was made impossible by the sexual abuse. After the birth of their son, she left the small family and became the most important German-language writer of her time.

Roland sees her again on the day the Berlin Wall falls, shortly before the publication of her debut novel, which immediately becomes a worldwide hit and a definitive book in German literary history. And a second time: He visits the lonely old woman who is waiting to die of cancer in an everyday place near Munich.

She sacrificed happiness in life to her art. But the one left behind raises the child in a run-down terraced house in south London, earns his living as a bar pianist and finds late marital and family happiness with Daphne, whom he marries before she dies of cancer.

Favorite granddaughter Stefanie

He spends his old age surrounded by books, at the piano, between visits from family and friends and in the memory of a life that was broken early on but tolerably put back together. The last scene of the novel shows the old man surrounded by his large family with his favorite granddaughter Stefanie.

In conversation with the child, he indulges in the fantasy that the 21st century is a book that he will no longer read, but would like to know how it ends. I’ll read it, says Stefanie. Then I’ll tell you if it ended well. And she leads the a little unsteady old man by the hand into the dining room, because her mother has called for dinner.

Ian McEwan’s book can stay with you for months. The finely chiseled central characters surrounded by Tolstoy-like numerous secondary characters, the convincing sociological fine-tuning of British and German history, criminalistic, political and intellectual-historical subplots: “Lessons” is proof that the big story in the tradition of the 19th century is also possible and plausible in the 21st.

It’s hard not to think about the literary criticism discussion while reading Moritz Basslers book about “Popular Realism”. If one places the concept meant by this term next to McEwan’s novel, his work becomes recognizable as a spectacularly successful example of the literary direction defined by Bassler.

McEwan avoids the reader-author collusion whose hasty preparation all too often leads these kinds of books into banality. His narration remains open, impressible by everything it touches, in close contact with reality: realistic. Nowhere is moralized – not even in the really abysmal description of the seduction of the minor, i.e. in the description of a criminal offence.

Outrage, for which there is a lot of reason especially in the description of the two female main characters, is consistently undermined by the fine-grained, on Nabokov or Thomas Mann reminiscent dissolution of the questionable and even the evil motives. Also the she-devils in this one mystery play are, if we look closely enough, like us – everyone and every woman.

McEwan’s novel is something that was hard to believe in any more: great literature in an emphatic traditional sense.

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