Photo by Ronald HoebenIan McEwan is one of a triumvirate of English novelists (with Martin Amis and Julian Barnes) who make the case that contemporary fiction can be both serious and popular, and that good books can still be read and discussed, even when no professor is around to hand out grades.
Amsterdam, McEwan's latest novel, arrives in American bookstores fresh with the glossy patina that comes from winning Britain's prestigious Booker Prize. In it, two friends -- Clive Linley, a classical composer who has been commissioned to write a "millennial" symphony, and Vernon Halliday, editor of the distinguished (and embattled) broadsheet The Judge -- form a pact to take advantage of liberal Dutch euthanasia laws and finish each other off if either ever goes insane. Not that this is expected to happen anytime soon. As it turns out, however, both men begin to show signs of marked mental deterioration almost immediately. Then they have a massive falling-out. Thus the stage is set for a comically nasty denouement in the novel's titular city.
On the eve of a visit to Los Angeles, McEwan spoke by phone from his home in Oxford.
L.A. WEEKLY: What intrigued you about the story in Amsterdam?
IAN McEWAN: I've always wanted to get inside the mind of a composer--what it would be like to be on the job composing music. A composer has to deal with a world of complete abstractions, but one which is also rather sensuous, and I wanted to see if it was possible to reproduce the process. I've also long wanted to set a novel in the world of journalism. I like journalists -- I'm married to a newspaper editor. I've always admired books like [Evelyn Waugh's] Scoop and Michael Frayn's Towards the End of the Morning. There are lots of comical possibilities in journalism. Also, the changes in British journalism over the last 10 years intrigued me. There's been a fantastic move down-market by respectable broadsheets. They've all become more like tabloids in certain ways.
Did you begin with a satirical intent, or did it develop as you were writing the book? Certainly for the reader, the satire comes on slowly.
I had a wish to get the reader to take both men seriously. I didn't want to satirize them from the start, which would have been too distancing. My intention was to let Clive seem like a serious guy, Vernon too, and then slowly reveal their stupidity and hubris. The novel really came out of a private joke between me and a psychiatrist friend. We'd been talking about rapid-onset Alzheimer's, and I said, "If I get it, then get me to Amsterdam and finish me off." And he said, "Okay, as long as you do the same for me." We do a lot of hiking together, so if one of us forgot to take the water bottle, the other would say, "Right then, mate, it's Amsterdam for you." Or my friend would tell me that he'd taken his son to the airport, only to find that he'd gotten the date wrong by two days. So I'd say, "Right, Amsterdam, clear sign of mental decay." It was just a silly joke.
Some people are describing Amsterdam as a lighter novel, an "entertainment" in the Graham Greene sense. Do you agree with this, or do you think that people are confusing "lighter" with "shorter"?
I'd go along with the word entertainment insofar as I think of it as the kind of novel in which I hope the reader will find pleasure in the unfolding of the story itself, rather than being swept away by something that's really representing the world. I've always been interested in the kind of fiction you could read in three or four hours -- something that's slightly longer than a novella, about 50,000 words, and which can be held in the mind like a movie or an opera. There are writers who perform best at this length. One thinks of Kafka's Metamorphosis, Camus' L'Étranger, James' Turn of the Screw, Conrad's Heart of Darkness, perhaps even Updike's "Bech" stories. In many cases we remember them best by these books.
What effect do you think that the new Europe -- the euro and all that -- will have on British novelists?
The writers of my generation have always traveled a lot in Europe, so I don't think that recent political and economic developments will make much difference. I also have to say that the foreign novels I've read most, and which have had the most powerful effect on me, have been from America. The American imagination has always been of much more interest to me. If we're just talking in terms of the novel, which I think is always immune to whatever Parliament's doing, the lines between Britain and America are much more open than they are between Britain and France. The mutual ignorance between Britain and France is amazing given there's only 20 miles of water between them.
Why do you think that is?
You have to consider the fact of translation, which is always distancing. Then there's a bigger problem, which applies more to France and Germany than, say, Italy and Spain, which is that their literary cultures are in thrall to modernism in ways that I think have been quite disabling. So some of those things we value in 19th-century novels and hope to find in 20th-century novels -- descriptions of how we live now, the sense of what it's like to be alive in a late-20th-century city -- are things that a number of French and German writers feel are beneath them and belong in journalism. Something in the pragmatic Anglo-Saxon soul has kept these things alive.
Is Amsterdam the novel of yours you would have chosen to win the Booker?
I'd like them all to win the Booker, but I guess you only get one. I was very pleased to win with Amsterdam. My novel Enduring Love, which people made quite a lot of fuss about for not being on the list, is having quite a good run. I don't think that novel really needed the Booker to win readers, whereas Amsterdam, which is a comic, satirical novel, would probably not have found quite such a wide readership as it has done winning the Booker.
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How big an effect does winning the Booker have on a novelist? I've noticed that a lot of your earlier books have already been reissued here.
The paperback division of Doubleday Anchor has just acquired Black Dogs, which has been out of print, and The Child in Time was also acquired by them fairly recently. Winning the Booker always helps the backlist. It has become one of those literary prizes that has taken on a life of its own. There are dozens of literary prizes in Britain, but none has anything like the impact of the Booker. It's fairly hard for British writers to break into American readers' consciousness. It's also difficult for American writers in Britain. Both of us have rather intense literary cultures with their own sets of preoccupations and so on. I've slowly built up a readership in the States, but it's been a long process.
Ian McEwan will read from Amsterdam at Dutton's Brentwood, on Friday, January 29, at 7 p.m. For info, call (310) 476-6263.