Ian McEwan CBE FRSA FRS Writer



few contemporary writers have received as much acclaim as Ian McEwan a Booker winning novelist who is as popular with critics as years with his vast number of readers this film looks at his Nobel Saturday which takes place on the day of the march against the Iraq war in 2003 told through the eyes of the brain surgeon Henri Peron he's been at the window several minutes when he's aware of some new element outside he doesn't immediately understand what he sees though he thinks he does it's meteor burning out in the London sky traversing left to right low on the horizon gentle funder gathering in volume tells him everything it's already 18 months since half the planet watched and watched again the unseen captives driven through the sky to the slaughter everyone agrees airliners looked different in the sky these days predatory or doomed they felt some responsibility to the prison after 9/11 I did know writing from 6 or 9 months I became like a lot of people complete news junkie and out of that there grew us a sense of wanting to really have a novel right in the center of all those anxieties and twitchy neurotic feelings that the world had changed but we didn't quite know how that's what I wanted to begin to catch I didn't immediately think that I would set this within a day I thought history would still help me write it but after I'd got you know 20,000 words in I began to see that it would be a very useful structure for me obviously it's a route down which many writers have gone before so yes writing really as often happens writing tells you how to write in this particular normal Saturday it could be called a state of the world novel do you think the state of the world changed after 9/11 I mean time will tell we might actually discover this was just a local eruption and actually there's a bigger story swelling behind it which turns out to be who knows climate change you know this is actually a preoccupation of the early 20th century that it's going nowhere but certainly I've always been interested in those ways in which you know large-scale events and private lives interact shamelessly he always enjoys the city from inside his car where the air is filtered and – music confers pathos on the humblest details he's heading a couple of blocks south in order to loop eastwards across Tottenham Court Road Cleveland Street used to be known for garment sweatshops and prostitutes now it has Greek Turkish and Italian restaurants the local sort that never get mentioned in the guides this is the fare embodiment of an inner city by way diverse self-confident obscure and it's at this point that he remembers the source of his vague sense of shame and embarrassment his readiness to be persuaded that the world has changed beyond recall but harmless streets like this and the tolerant life they embody can be destroyed by the new enemy well-organized tentacular full of hatred and focused zeal how foolishly apocalyptic those apprehensions seem by daylight when the self-evident fact of the streets and the people on them are their own justification their own insurance the world has not fundamentally changed talk of a hundred year crisis is indulgence there are always crises and Islamic terrorism will settle into place alongside recent Wars climate change the politics of international trade land and freshwater shortages hunger poverty and the rest it does seem odd that you know we can compartmentalize our lives that we can be deeply worried about the terrible mess of the occupation of Iraq and at the same time you know having friends coming to dinner and having a wonderful time and these things can be in separate boxes so I was keen to see how happiness and anxiety might rub together yeah exactly 9/11 was in some ways an extraordinary kind of impediment throw no the path of the early 21st century novelists because here you are writing your books in your study somewhere and absolute world-shattering event takes place with extraordinarily political and moral social implications across the world and McEwan's responds to this to sit down and write Saturday is on the one hand absolutely up-to-the-minute in terms of response to what's happening in the world but it's also quite an old-fashioned book and by that I mean that it's an issue novel in the way that perhaps some of his Victorian predecessors used to write issue novels on a smaller scale you know focusing on a particular abuse or a particular piece of social legislation they thought was needed and what McEwan here is taking the extremely ambitious step of trying to respond not perhaps to comprehend but simply respond to this cataclysmic world event we've talked a bit about the Iraq situation did the fact that you were brought up in a military family give you a particular purchase on it my father was his background was Glasgow working-class he was very much in the culture of the pub the silence mess and later the officers mess he was quite a disciplinarian him he was regimental sergeant major feared by the men hated to how close were you to your father in your mother what influence might that have had on you as a writer he found it hard to be openly affectionate I think father's never fare quite as well as mothers doing my fiction my mother was very warm close intimate slightly neurotic worrying kind of person tense in Sonya the age of eight or nine I remember when my father was off on exercises obviously great sleeping my mother's big bed I'm sure the fraud Ian would have a lot to say about that I was very physically close to her and being sent off to boarding school was a real wrench I mean I I don't think I wept like a lot of boys did I just closed down four years not till I was 16 or 17 started listening to music reading poetry thinking about all those things to wake up again you were the first students I knew Malcolm Bradbury MA in creative writing at University East Anglia so you'd already decided you want to be a writer going to UEA for a year was a fantastic stroke of luck me I was the only student the course the creative writing course consisted of seeing Malcolm Bradbury or trying to see him in the term that he was meant to be teaching me I saw maybe three occasions for maybe 20 minutes as usually in the pub The Maids head I'd give him a story and he said I liked it a lot what are you doing now and I said well I think you writing a story about a boy who rapes his sister and he would say Oh fine when can I have it and and I mean there was no course but he was the superstar professor he was my readership and it meant that I wrote with a purpose I must have written I know 25 or 30 stories that year I first met Ian McEwan around the new revue which was edited by a very good friend of mine who 90 few years ago sadly Ian Hamilton a poet whose life while our mission was to run a literary review and he did precariously with enormous difficulty for funds but we know difficulty in getting people to contribute it one of the contributors was Ian McEwan James contributed to it I did Russell Davis did to imbalance their desire member on and on it went and he inhaled caught in the Pillars of Hercules in Greek Street in Soho which became a sort of pub cellar most evenings accepts on this not that there's any holy about Sundays but people didn't seem from what to turn up in Soho on Sundays and Ian emerged as rather shy start with a published these stories in early ones in the new revue itself which had east instantly seized the attention of literary readers they some said they were perverse some said they were downright nasty they were immensely original which is hard to be and they quickly gathered a constituency of like-minded readers who saw in McCune one of the voices of a new generation I did want something very bold and bright I did rather oppressed leading contemporary writing in the late 60s early 70s in Britain I thought in a in a tiny way what I wanted was very bold colours and I think I really did actually end up writing myself into a corner but looking at those stories while we're talking about senses of violence different sorts of violence violence against the morals of the time violence against the person violence against yourself even from the little you've talked about your childhood was the sense of violence around you in an army campus there is violence in the air these people are trying to go to war I mean experience has got to come from somewhere yeah I see it coming out of that look there was everything you described there plus a fantastic degree of oppression a very polite middle class lower middle class world in which however terrible things were no one ever said I'm unhappy normal life must always go on key to it all so it was pretty held down locked in and I think that when I was writing in my late teens early 20s I felt fantastic liberation I can say what I wanted last yes and it's rather like a shy person who has three glasses of wine at dinner and decides he wants to be bold like everyone else and goes too far Ian McEwan's early work was startlingly macabre McEwan saw his second know the comfort of strangers as the darkest thing he'd ever written when he finished it he felt he might never write again I just felt I was at the end of something I just couldn't see there was any future for me I was gonna writing myself into silence I thought would this fantastically destructive bleep murderous story of one couples sort of psychosexual dramas spilling out and destroying this vulnerable English couple who seemed incapable of actually ever defending themselves or defining themselves or understanding themselves in any way at all well shortlisted for the Booker Prize yeah yeah and your reputation was very high in people like you know myself and a lot round you review and all that it was very high and you really did think you'd written yourself out in fiction yeah I thought there was a fantastic disjunction between all the things I thought about and talked about with friends and the things I wrote about I felt as if I was only writing out of the sort of tiny corner of my mind what is nice about this is that you've got open and I worked with Michael oratorio say for once I was writing about something sort of outside myself as well as writing his first libretto we can also turn his hand to screenwriting Lamas Lucia's quite interesting in reference to Saturday because you're talking about a specific political moment post Falklands at the Tory Party conference yeah Thatcher is very bold to shoot it they're very both those things the oratorio and writing the ploughman's lunch emboldened me and got out of myself I can start to do something which is actually central to the English novel which is address society in some way and this is late I mean I started right in 1970 we're now in 1986 16 years later I finally thought I can now start to write properly McEwan strength is a writer and they are very considerable on basically one goes back to the actual basic thing that writers does which is the ability to write brilliant sentences I couldn't remember reading one of the very very early stories I think it's the way I think it's it's a it's a more of these aptly Gizem gastly black ones called pornography set in a sex shop and there he just describes you know the punters turning over these dreadful magazines and they the crowd they stir like trouble dreamers and I thought that's a brilliant sentence this man you know about that inspired me to start writing short stories reading something like that looking at his more recent work I think his great strength is something that most novelists these days shy away from and that is an attempt to engage with the world and what's going on with it it's increasingly difficult for novels novelists to do this because of the absolute complexity in comprehensibility of what's going on out there in in real life and also the fact that we're all technical or supposedly technologically interconnected and all these kind of innovations and I think I think McCune is making a very genuine effort to do what the novelists of a bygone age did and to try and make some kind of sense of this a man who attempts to ease the miseries of failing minds by repairing brains is bound to respect the material world its limits and what it can sustain consciousness slowness the actual not the magical should be the challenge fiction is to humanely flawed to sprawling to hit and miss to inspire uncomplicated wonder at the magnificence of human ingenuity perhaps only music has such purity and above all he admires bar he knows there is genius when he reads Anna Karenina he thinks well actually any one degree of patience could have accumulated all that detail you can see that it's sort of impressive but it doesn't really give him that rest a sense of the sheer inhuman nearing human quality of the perfection that he hears in so I want to just play with this idea of stories and where do we need them but to take it to in a slightly different direction if one's looking for the ways to arrive at the truth of the human condition now you've read a lot of signs and and you know but are they finding out things that are more worth knowing about I mean this is sacrilege really and then what you find in Anna Karenina I think we probably have not yet bettered a device than the novel for looking at what it's like to be other people know what it's like to be someone else I think movies for example are fantastically crude in this respect they can't give you consciousness they can't give you life lived from the inside even I have to say poetry it never quite give you what it's like to be an individual moving through time in a society he was ready to be interviewed we interviewed him in his house which was sort of the setting for the novel Saturday and everything was elegant careful meticulous and his replies were unexpected they came out of an awful lot of thought a hinterland of thought which he was bringing to bear on this novel and that they had nothing about in which he still carries I think that makes her being tentative and at the same time extremely sure of himself extremely sure his ground I should say and I suppose what really happening here is that here is the counter-argument to everything in Henry's consciousness that in fact he might not be able to respond himself but there is something almost visceral in the beauty of the poem that I'm suggesting can sharpen one's appetite for sort of fully lived conscious existence so if you think of novels as sort of like minestrone soups you know later on I wanted to add another ingredient another whose taste is really making the case for literature against all the weight of Henry's very sensible dismissal one of the strands and Saturdays that it's about consciousness and in a sense how matter becomes conscious and perón it doctor after all in a very a man who's dealing in the brain in a practical way and also in an intellectual way he's convinced that our behavior is determined by chemical events and codes in the brain and at one one day all these mechanisms will be revealed to us do you think that will happen I think they will be revealed to us but I'm not sure what it's to come back to an earlier point in the decision I'm not sure quite then what we will know that we don't already know about how to behave and how to live it might not tell us much you could crack the neural code but will it tell you how to behave and my suspicion is it might well not but he has a kind of faith and it's the only faith he has he says that in the material view of life in the philosophically material view of life there is a beauty and a grandeur that it doesn't diminish the world to think that it can be explained all in material terms in fact it is wondrous extraordinary just as much as if you sort life as being a certain kind of vitalists Park so I just want to give him my sense and it is one I share with him of the material view being rich warm human not

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