McEwan, Ian

views updated May 09 2018

Ian McEwan

BORN: 1948, Aldershot, England


GENRE: Fiction, screenplays

First Love, Last Rites (1975)
The Comfort of Strangers (1981)
Amsterdam (1998)
Atonement (2001)
Saturday (2005)
On Chesil Beach (2007)


Ian McEwan, a contemporary British novelist and screen-writer, is widely recognized for the daring originality of his fiction, much of which delineates bizarre sexuality and shocking violence. Frequently centering on deviant anti-heroes, his works explore conflicts between norms and socially unacceptable drives of the unconscious.

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Childhood Abroad Ian Russell McEwan was born on June 21, 1948, in Aldershot, England, to David McEwan and Rose Lilian Violet Moore McEwan. His father was a sergeant major in the British army. McEwan's childhood was spent in the tracks of his father's assignments to empire outposts such as Singapore and Libya until the age of twelve, when he was sent to boarding school in England for five years. It was there that he became interested in English Romantic poetry and modern American and English fiction.

New British University Graduate McEwan entered the University of Sussex in Brighton in 1967 and earned a BA with honors in English in 1970. He then enrolled in the MA program in English at the University of East Anglia, where he was permitted to submit some of his short fiction as part of the requirements for his degree. Under the tutelage of novelist Malcolm Bradbury, McEwan wrote more than two dozen short stories and earned his degree in 1971.

McEwan is very much a product of the new British universities, popularly known as “plate-glass universities” as opposed to the older “red-brick universities” at which his contemporaries, such as Kinglsey Amis or Philip Larkin, have taught or still work. Built during the 1960s, the new universities set out to revolutionize curricula and the general structure of academic life in Great Britain. To a significant extent they succeeded, and their graduates, such as McEwan, have made a distinctive impact on the cultural life of the United Kingdom.

After a brief foray traveling in Afghanistan after earning his master's degree, McEwan returned to England and focused on publishing and his writing career. The country he returned to faced numerous challenges in the 1970s. The British Empire had disappeared in the post– World War II period, leaving Britain only with a handful of dependencies with mostly tiny populations and few economic resources. A Labour government replaced the Conservative one in 1974, though the change did little to stem the rapid inflation, labor disputes, and protracted conflict in Northern Ireland between Catholics and Protestants that marked the decade.

From Short-Story Writer to Novelist Three short stories written for his master's thesis were included in McEwan's initial collection, First Love, Last Rites (1975), which won the Somerset Maugham Award and established McEwan as one of England's most promising young writers. However, many critics expressed discomfort with his portrayal of childhood innocence warped by such anomalies as incest and forced transvestism. Three years later the second collection, In Between the Sheets (1978), appeared. In the same year McEwan published his first novel, The Cement Garden (1978). Its concerns—incest, murder (or at least murderousness), infantilism, and gender confusion—had all been foreshadowed in his stories.

Success as Novelist The publication of the novel essentially marked the end of McEwan's career as a writer of short fiction. He has written in a variety of genres since then, including novels, plays, an oratorio, and motion-picture and television scripts, but he has published only a handful of short-fiction works. Critical acclaim for McEwan's novels began building with the first of four novels to be nominated for a prestigious Booker Prize, The Comfort of Strangers (1981). Set in Venice, Italy, less for its romantic or historic properties than as a place of menace and distortion, it tells about an English couple on holiday. One night they lose their way and fall in with a local man who eventually involves them in his own life and eventually a murder.

New Territories In the mid-1980s McEwan's fiction moved into new territory. While traces of his interest in violence and abnormal psychological states remain, these subsequent works express much greater interest in broader questions of politics and history. With each subsequent novel, too, McEwan's narrators have become more readily understandable and sympathetic characters. They are often artists or writers, in relationships with spouses and children, and they pay attention to world history and politics in ways that the narrators and main characters from the short-story collections do not.

In a 1987 interview with Amanda Smith in Publishers Weekly, McEwan noted that his 1982 marriage to Penny Allen, by which he acquired two stepdaughters, and the subsequent births of his two sons were at least partially responsible for this shift in focus.

Important Later Novels Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, McEwan continued to publish challenging novels. With Black Dogs (1992), the author reflects on the aftermath of the Nazi regime in Europe. The Nazi party ruled Germany in the 1930s, and their aggressive territorial ambitions were a direct cause of World War II. Included in the novel was the fall of the Berlin Wall, a significant milestone in the end of Communist domination of Eastern Europe and the end of the Cold War. Amsterdam (1998) describes the moral dilemma brought about by a lingering mental illness. Atonement (2001), regarded as one of McEwan's best works, is a story told from the point of view of an impressionable young narrator clearly identified as imaginative and inclined to interpret events to suit her penchant for drama. Saturday (2005) is set in the context of the growing opposition to the Iraq invasion. On Chesil Beach (2007) is a story of sexual awakening, as a couple undergoes a difficult but fruitful transition from innocence to familiarity.

Since the early 1980s, McEwan also has increasingly explored forms of writing other than those of the short story and the novel. He has written television plays, movie scripts (both original and adapted from the fiction of others), children's literature, and the words for an oratorio. He is regarded as one of the most versatile English authors of his generation.

Works in Literary Context

Influenced by his interest in contemporary American and British fiction as well as Romantic poetry, McEwan is recognized for the originality of his fiction, much of which features bizarre sexuality and shocking violence.

Unconventional Stories McEwan's first novel, The Cement Garden, exposes a distorted adolescent world. This work examines the deteriorating relationships among four children who are left alone after both parents die. It opens with the death of their father. Attempting to cover the family garden with concrete because he is too ill to tend it, the father suffers a heart attack and collapses in the wet cement. The narrator, a homely adolescent named Jack, maintains a detached voice that casts a numbness over horrifying events.

McEwan's second short-story collection, In Between the Sheets, flows from realism to fantasy, horror to comedy. Magical realism permeates the stories, which frequently portray peculiar sexual relationships. Thus, destructive sexuality is also a prominent theme. For example, “Reflections of a Kept Ape” is narrated by an ape who contemplates his waning relationship with his owner, a struggling female novelist. “Dead as They Come” portrays a wealthy, egotistical man who becomes obsessed with a mannequin and then destroys her when he believes she has been unfaithful.


McEwan's famous contemporaries include:

Margaret Atwood (1939–): Canadian Atwood is a novelist, poet, and short-story writer whose talents lie in exploring the relationship between humanity and nature and scrutinizing power as it pertains to gender and political roles. Her novels include The Handmaid's Tale (1985).

Julian Barnes (1946–): British author Barnes writes novels and publishes crime fiction under the name Dan Kavanagh. His novels include Talking It Over (1991).

Anne Rice (1941–): American author Rice is famous for her novel Interview with the Vampire (1973). In her work, she blends accurate historical elements with such themes as alienation and the individual's search for identity.

Alice Walker (1944–): African American writer Walker first gained success with her novel The Color Purple (1983).

Martin Amis (1949–): British author Amis is a prominent contemporary novelist and son of novelist Kingsley Amis. Martin Amis is lauded for his satirical view of the excesses of youth and contemporary society. His works include Night Train (1997).

Jim Carroll (1950–): American author Carroll is best known for his autobiographical work The Basketball Diaries (1978), which was made into a film in 1995.

Post-War Settings Many of McEwan's later novels share a similar setting—the post-World War II era, often continental Europe—and feature stories that are multilayered. The theme of loss is also a hallmark of these books. Black Dogs, for example, explores the crumbling marriage of a couple against the fall out from Nazi rule on Europe. Their marriage falls apart after they encounter a pair of feral dogs which symbolize both the evil that humans, like the Nazis, are capable of as well as the extraordinary acts that people can accomplish when confronting such evil. While Amsterdam has a more contemporary setting, McEwan uses the death of Molly Lane to drive the plot and explore euthanasia issues in Great Britain. Her two oldest friends—a composer and a newspaper editor—make a euthanasia pact at her funeral, and though the pair come to odds, their story ends in Holland where the procedure can be more easily arrange. Atonement begins before World War II is launched when a working class young man, Robbie Turner, is falsely accused of rape on the estate on which his family works. The accusation is a payback for a misunderstanding a young girl sees between the young man and her elder sister. Much of the novel concerns what happens to the characters during World War II, as the young lovers lose each other, and the young girl suffers the loss of respect for herself and from her sister. Robbie goes to prison, but is allowed to serve during the war, bringing the conflict and all the death and destruction to the forefront.

Works in Critical Context

McEwan first came to public notice in 1975, and was immediately recognized as an important new voice on the fiction scene. Having at first achieved fame, or even notoriety, because of the edgy nature of his subject matter, it has also polarized the critical assessment of his work. While some critics have maintained that McEwan is a serious literary writer who addresses challenging issues in his work, others have asserted that he is merely a glorified horror writer who is solely concerned with producing gratuitously shocking prose. Despite these disagreements, McEwan has been consistently praised for his storytelling, characterizations, and adept handling of metaphor and symbol.

The Child in Time Many critics consider The Child in Time the most complex of McEwan's works, as it presents a political, personal, and metaphysical exploration of childhood. Based on an actual event, The Child in Time describes the agony of a father whose daughter is kidnapped from a grocery store. Consumed by guilt and grief, he steadily loses touch with reality, believing he sees his lost daughter everywhere.

Many reviewers stressed the novel's theme of lost youth, pointing to a character named Charles Darke, a successful politician who regresses to his childhood and ultimately commits suicide. Roberta Smoodin stated of the novel, “A lost childhood, lost childhood hopes and dreams remain present in the seemingly mature adult, McEwan suggests, not only in memory but in a kind of time that spirals in upon itself, seems to be recapturable in some plausible intermingling of Einstein and Proust, quantum physics and magical realism.”

Also emphasized by critics is how McEwan explores the idea of time, its passage, and how they affect the human condition. As Mike Brett wrote in the English Review, “McEwan's great skill here is to explore scientific theory in a way that illuminates the unforeseeable tragic potential in the mundane choices we make on an everyday basis.”

Responses to Literature

  1. McEwan often features adolescent characters in extreme angst. In small groups, discuss McEwan's comment on adolescence. Stage a debate about your beliefs for the class.
  2. McEwan's work first attracted public attention because it was unsettling and disturbing. Write a short review of his works commenting on his novels' shock value and literary merits.
  3. Choose two scenes from McEwan's works and write an essay comparing and contrasting their events, styles, and themes.
  4. After having read several of McEwan's stories, what kind of attitude do you think the author has toward the world? In your paper, support your argument with lines from his books.
  5. Read Atonement, then view the highly acclaimed film adaptation, released in 2007. In an essay, compare and contrast the two versions of the story. Does the filmmaker fully explore the novel's themes? What would you have done differently?


McEwan predominantly focuses on adolescent characters, depicting them as acutely alienated and prone to cruelty or degenerate behavior. Here are some other works that center around conflicted teens:

The Catcher in the Rye (1951), a novel by J. D. Salinger. This novel's main character, Holden Caulfield, is a well-known icon of teenage alienation and defiance.

The Ice Storm (1994), a novel by Rick Moody. This novel centers around two neighboring families and the difficulties both the adolescents and the parents have in dealing with the difficult issues of the early 1970s.

Ham on Rye (1982), a novel by Charles Bukowski. This semiautobiographical work chronicles the coming-of-age of a young man who lives in Los Angeles during the Great Depression.

Lord of the Flies (1954), a novel by William Golding. This story examines a group of schoolboys abandoned on a desert island during a global war and highlights the conflict between the forces of light and dark within the human soul.



Haffenden, John. Novelists in Interview. London: Methuen, 1985.

Ryan, Kiernan. Ian McEwan. Plymouth, U.K.: Northcote House, 1994.

Slay, Jack, Jr. Ian McEwan. New York: Twayne, 1996.

Stevenson, Randall. The British Novel Since the Thirties: An Introduction. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1986.


Brett, Mike. “Time, Science and Philosophy in The Child in Time.” English Review (April 2005): 12.

Byrnes, Christina. “Ian McEwan: Pornographer or Prophet?” Contemporary Review (June 1995).

Delrez, Marc. “Escape into Innocence: Ian McEwan and the Nightmare of History.” Ariel (April 1995).

Hamilton, Ian. “Points of Departure.” New Review (Autumn 1978).

Ricks, Christopher. “Adolescence and After.” Listener (April 12, 1979).

Smith, Amanda. “Ian McEwan.” Publishers Weekly (September 11, 1987).

McEwan, Ian

views updated Jun 11 2018

Ian McEwan


Born Ian Russell McEwan, June 21, 1948, in Aldershot, England; son of David (an army officer) and Rose Lilian Violet (Moore) McEwan; married Penny Allen (a healer and astrologer), 1982 (divorced, 1995); married Annalena McAfee (a journalist); children: Gregory, William (from first marriage), two stepdaughters. Education: University of Sussex, B.A. (honors), 1970; University of East Anglia, M.A., 1971.


Office—Publicity Dept., Doubleday Books, 1745 Broadway, New York, NY 10019.


Master's thesis of short stories published in 1975 as First Love, Last Rites; first novel, The Cement Garden, published, 1978; author of a banned British Broadcasting Corporation play, Solid Geometry, 1979; wrote screenplays for the 1983 film The Ploughman's Lunch and The Good Son, 1992, among others; his 1981 novel The Comfort of Strangers was adapted for film by Harold Pinter and director Paul Schrader, 1991; The Cement Garden was adapted for film by writer–director Andrew Birkin, 1993; Atonement was adapted for a film directed by Sir Richard Eyre and written by Christopher Hampton.


Somerset Maugham Award for First Love, Last Rites, 1976; Evening Standard award for best screenplay for The Ploughman's Lunch, 1983; Whitbread Award for The Child in Time, 1987; Man Booker Prize for Amsterdam, 1998; W.H. Smith Literary Award for Atonement, 2002; National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction for Atonement, 2003; Los Angeles Times Book Award for Atonement, 2003.


Ian McEwan, winner of Britain's prestigious Booker Prize for Amsterdam in 1998, is a writer with a well–established and, at times, even somewhat infamous literary reputation before his novels began to gain a North American readership. For many years he was known primarily for a literary style that delivered horrifically visceral passages but remained compellingly eloquent throughout. In his middle age McEwan began toning down the explicit with horrors that were far more accessible: the loss of a child, the betrayal of a friend, the disintegration of a family. His 2001 novel, Atonement, spent seven months on the best–seller lists in Britain. "McEwan forces his readers to turn the pages with greater dread and anticipation than does perhaps any other 'literary' writer working in English today," declared Atlantic Monthly critic Claire Messud.

McEwan was born in 1948 and spent part of his youth in Singapore and North Africa, where his father was stationed as a British Army officer. He finished his education at a boarding school in England, and went on to earn an undergraduate degree from the University of Sussex in 1970. Enrolling at the University of East Anglia in its graduate literature program, McEwan was part of the university's first–ever creative writing class, led by young British writer Malcolm Bradbury. The course reading list was heavily skewed to the postwar American canon, with selections from Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, John Barth, and others, and McEwan began submitting short fiction pieces along with his coursework to Bradbury. The latter influenced the former, he reflected later in a Guardian article he penned in 2000. "The ambition, the social range, the expressive freedom of American writing made English fiction seem poky and grey," McEwan explained. "To find bold and violent colors became my imperative."

The first story McEwan wrote and handed in to Bradbury was "Conversation With a Cupboardman," a morbid tale about a man who lived in a closet. It was followed by several others of a macabre nature—rife with themes of incest, assault, and even necrophilia—that appeared in First Love, Last Rites, published in 1975. McEwan attributed a crisis of confidence in himself for stoking such unusual creative fires. "I had been invisible to myself in my teens," he told journalist Phil Daoust in an interview that appeared in London's Guardian newspaper some years later. "A lot of my terror of things was in those stories—my terror of not making full or rich emotional relationships."

Other short stories followed, which were collected into a second volume, In Between the Sheets, in 1978. Soon afterward, McEwan was commissioned to write a play for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), and based it on a short story that appeared in his debut collection. But Solid Geometry was halted by the BBC mid–production, after executives deemed it "untransmittable" due to its subject matter: the plot concerned a man who keeps a sexual organ, purchased by an ancestor in 1875, pickled in a jar on his desk. The incident caused a minor stir in Britain, with many siding with McEwan, but others asserting that with Britain on the eve of electing its first–ever female prime minister, the story was beyond the realm of being politically insensitive and in just plain bad taste.

McEwan's first novel, The Cement Garden, was published in 1978, and served to further bolster his reputation as a literary maverick. The story concerned four orphaned siblings and was filled with some shocking scenes, including incest and the burial of their deceased mother inside a cement box in the house. In 1981, his second novel, The Comfort of Strangers appeared. Its plot concerned a couple vacationing in Venice who become involved with a mysterious expatriate, who leads them into a dangerous sadomasochistic game. Ten years later, the novel was adapted for film by the playwright Harold Pinter, with Paul Schrader directing a cast that included Rupert Everett, Christopher Walken, and Helen Mirren.

McEwan's fiction changed course in the mid–1980s when he became a parent. The violence in his work began to subside, and the protagonists became less openly deviant. In the The Child in Time, his 1987 novel, children's book author Stephen Lewis mourns the loss of his three–year–old daughter Kate, who simply disappeared one day in a grocery store and was never seen again. Time critic R. Z. Sheppard hailed it as "a death–defying story, inventive, eventful, and affirmative without being sentimental."

In his fourth novel, The Innocent, McEwan presents the unusual dilemma of English telephone technician Leonard Marnham, who is co–opted into a Cold War spy plot in 1955 Berlin involving a secret tunnel beneath the divided but not yet walled city. Leonard begins an affair with a German woman, but the plot turns truly sinister when they murder her husband. Leonard carves the victim up in what literary critics called a perfect example of McEwan's talent for writing famously gruesome passages. "He should not have been going through bone," the novel reads, as quoted in the Guardian. "His idea was to get between the joint. His idea of it was vague, derived from roast chicken Sunday lunches." The scene endures for some six pages, and Leonard then carries the cumbersome suitcases containing the parts around the city, looking for an appropriate place to leave them—a section "told with all McEwan's frigid skill," noted a Time review from Martha Duffy, who also compared him to author Evelyn Waugh for "sheer, mirthful heartlessness."

McEwan's 1992 novel, Black Dogs, took a more prosaic setting, with its protagonist simply attempting to write the memoir of his wife's aging, but still spirited parents. The title is drawn from the couple's 1946 walk in Provence, when the wife sees a terrifying apparition that comes to symbolize to her the darkest part of the human soul. "McEwan's meticulous prose, his shaping of his material to create suspense, and his adept use of specific settings produce a haunting fable," noted a Publishers Weekly contributor.

Around this same time, McEwan had his first experience with the Hollywood film industry. A short story he wrote, "The Good Child," was optioned for a film that eventually starred Macaulay Culkin and Elijah Wood. Wood plays a boy sent to live with relatives after his mother dies, and finds that his cousin Henry (Culkin) is a far more sinister force than he can handle by himself. The film was directed by Joseph Ruben, and Entertainment Weekly reviewer Ty Burr felt that both director and writer "tap into something we rarely admit about childhood: Where most kids learn to temper any innate sadism with ethics, some just don't." But McEwan was released from his contract by order of Culkin's famously influence–wielding father, and the experience soured him. He once described Hollywood screenwriting as "an opportunity to fly first–class, be treated like a celebrity, sit around the pool, and be betrayed," the Guardian profile by Daoust quoted him as saying.

McEwan's 1998 novel, Enduring Love, followed the travails of science writer Joe Rose who, on an idyllic picnic day with his beloved wife, spies a hot–air balloon in the sky that is failing; he and several others nearby grab its ropes, but then the wind kicks up again, with the rescuers left hanging—and so the "crew enacted morality's ancient, irresolvable dilemma: us, or me," the novel reads, and Rose and the others let go. A religious zealot is among the group, and then begins to stalk him. The coolly rational Rose diagnoses the man with a form of erotomania, named after a long–dead French psychiatrist, but the man's actions prove the undoing of Rose's ostensibly happy marriage. "McEwan does a superb job of making us believe what seems so unlikely, and that is the book's great power," noted Independent Sunday's Jan Dalley.

Only with McEwan's next novel, Amsterdam, did his work begin to gain a wider appreciation outside of Britain. Published in the United States in 1998, the story involves two longtime friends who make a pact after the London funeral of their former lover, Molly. She died a painful death, and Vernon Halliday and Clive Linley vow to one another that should the same fate befall them, they would help one another get to the Netherlands, where physician–assisted suicide is legal. McEwan's premise behind the plot is the possibility that euthanasia might be misused, a story that gets underway when Halliday, the newspaper editor, plans to publish incriminating photos of a British politician they both know that were found among Molly's possessions; Linley, the composer, objects strenuously on moral grounds. The novel finally won McEwan the Booker Prize for contemporary fiction, given to the best work of the year by a writer from Britain or its Commonwealth nations. Two of his previous works had also made it onto the estimable Booker list of finalists: The Comfort of Strangers in 1981 and Black Dogs in 1992.

Atonement, McEwan's eighth novel, was also short–listed for the Booker in 2001, and hailed as a tour–de–force on both sides of the Atlantic. It took "the British novel into the twenty–first century," declared Geoff Dyer in the Guardian in 2001. The story begins on a summer day in 1935 at a Surrey country estate at which the members of the Tallis family have gathered. There is Leon, the eldest son and a young London banker, who arrives with his wealthy friend; Cecilia, the older Tallis daughter, comes from Cambridge University, as does Robbie, whose mother is the longtime housekeeper at the Tallis estate. There are also cousins Lola, 15 years old, and her homesick twin brothers. Robbie wrestles with his growing attraction to Cecilia. He writes a letter that concludes with a salacious line, but decides to rewrite it; he accidentally sends the first one via her 13–year–old sister Briony, who reads it, and then when Lola is assaulted later on that evening, claims that Robbie is the culprit. Lola colludes in the accusation, and Robbie is convicted and imprisoned.

The next section of the book shifts ahead five years later to World War II, with Robbie freed from jail but now serving in the military as the Battle of Dunkirk rages—passages which McEwan based on his own father's stories—and Briony a nurse in London. Atonement progresses with a series of fateful pairings and consequences, but in the final section some of this is revealed to be merely the fiction of Briony, who became an acclaimed writer but is haunted by her guilt over that 1935 incident. When she was a young nurse taking the bandages from her patients' battle–ravaged faces, she realized "that a person is, among all else, a material thing, easily torn, not easily mended," the novel reads, according to Atlantic Monthly's Messud.

Atonement earned overwhelmingly enthusiastic reviews. Boyd Tonkin, writing in London's Independent, termed it "a magnificent novel, shaped and paced with awesome confidence and eloquence; as searching an account of error, shame, and reparation as any in modern fiction." New Yorker fiction critic John Updike reflected that McEwan's previous "novels have tended to be short, smart, and saturnine," and called Atonement "a beautiful and majestic fictional panorama."

McEwan has never failed to tout his first and only writing teacher as the source of his confidence as a writer. He recalled a magical incident in which he became separated from his publicity handlers in the heady Booker Prize announcement ceremony and round of press interviews, and found himself in a deserted hall that led to another corridor. "Coming towards me, from some distance away, were Malcolm and his wife, Elizabeth," McEwan wrote in the Guardian. "We approached each other as in dream, and I remember thinking, half seriously, that this was what it might be like to be dead. In the warmth of his embrace was concentrated all the generosity of this gifted teacher and writer."

Selected writings

First Love, Last Rites (short stories), Random House (New York City), 1975.

In Between the Sheets, and Other Stories, Simon & Schuster (New York City), 1978.

The Cement Garden (novel), Simon & Schuster (New York City), 1978.

The Comfort of Strangers (novel), Simon & Schuster (New York City), 1981.

The Ploughman's Lunch (screenplay), Methuen (London), 1985.

Rose Blanche (children's book), J. Cape (London), 1985.

The Child in Time (novel), Houghton (Boston), 1987.

The Innocent (novel), Doubleday (Garden City, NY), 1990.

Black Dogs (novel), Doubleday (Garden City, NY), 1992.

The Innocent (screenplay), Lakeheart/Miramax/Sievernich, 1993.

The Good Son (screenplay), Twentieth Century–Fox, 1993.

The Daydreamer (children's book), illustrated by Anthony Browne, HarperCollins (New York City), 1994.

The Short Stories, J. Cape (London), 1995.

Enduring Love (novel), Doubleday (Garden City, NY), 1998.

Amsterdam (novel), J. Cape, 1997, Doubleday (Garden City, NY), 1998.

Atonement (novel), Doubleday (Garden City, NY), 2002.



Atlantic Monthly, March 2002, p. 106.

Booklist, September 1, 1994, p. 43.

Contemporary Review, June 1995, p. 320.

Entertainment Weekly, October 1, 1993, p. 38; March 22, 2002, p. 101.

Guardian (London, England), August 4, 1997, p. 6; August 16, 1999, p. 8; November 29, 2000, p. 2; September 22, 2001, p. 8.

Independent (London, England), September 3, 1999, p. 5; September 10, 1999, p. 11; September 15, 2001, p. 3.

Independent Sunday (London, England), August 31, 1997, p. 22.

Maclean's, November 17, 1997, p. 106.

New Republic, October 15, 1984, p. 24; November 16, 1992, p. 41; March 25, 2002, p. 28.

New Statesman, September 11, 1998, p. 47.

Newsweek International, April 8, 2002, p. 94.

New Yorker, March 4, 2002, p. 80.

Publishers Weekly, September 14, 1992, p. 103.

Time, September 21, 1987, p. 76; June 25, 1990, p. 69.


Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2003.


McEwan, Ian (Russell)

views updated Jun 08 2018

McEWAN, Ian (Russell)

Nationality: British. Born: Aldershot, Hampshire, 21 June 1948. Education: Woolverstone Hall School; University of Sussex, Brighton, B.A. (honours) in English 1970; University of East Anglia, Norwich, M.A. in English 1971. Family: Married Penny Allen in 1982 (divorced 1995); two stepdaughters and two sons. Lives in Oxford. Awards: Maugham award, 1976; Evening Standard award, for screenplay, 1983; Booker prize, 1998. D. Litt.: University of Sussex, 1989; University of East Anglia, 1993. Fellow, Royal Society of Literature, 1984. Address: c/o Jonathan Cape Ltd., 20 Vauxhall Bridge Road, London SW1V 2SA, England.



The Cement Garden. London, Cape, and New York, Simon and Schuster, 1978.

The Comfort of Strangers. London, Cape, and New York, Simon and Schuster, 1981.

The Child in Time. London, Cape, and Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1987.

The Innocent. London, Cape, and New York, Doubleday, 1990.

Black Dogs. London, Cape, and New York, Doubleday, 1992.

Enduring Love. New York, Nan A. Talese, 1998.

Amsterdam. New York, N.A. Talese, 1999.

Short Stories

First Love, Last Rites. New York, Random House, and London, Cape, 1975.

In Between the Sheets. London, Cape, 1978; New York, Simon and Schuster, 1979.

Uncollected Short Stories

"Intersection," in Tri-Quarterly (Evanston, Illinois), Fall 1975.

"Untitled," in Tri-Quarterly (Evanston, Illinois), Winter 1976.

"Deep Sleep, Light Sleeper," in Harpers and Queen (London), 1978.


The Imitation Game: Three Plays for Television (includes Solid Geometry and Jack Flea's Birthday Celebration ). London, Cape, 1981; Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1982.

Or Shall We Die? (oratorio), music by Michael Berkeley (produced London, 1983; New York, 1985). London, Cape, 1983.

The Ploughman's Lunch (screenplay). London, Methuen, 1985.

Soursweet (screenplay). London, Faber, 1988.

A Move Abroad: Or Shall We Die? and The Ploughman's Lunch. London, Pan, 1989.


The Ploughman's Lunch, 1983; Soursweet, 1989; The Good Son, 1994.

Radio Play:

Conversation with a Cupboardman, 1975.

Television Plays and Films:

Jack Flea's Birthday Celebration, 1976; The Imitation Game, 1980; The Last Day of Summer, from his own short story, 1983.

Other (for children)

Rose Blanche. London, Cape, 1985.

The Daydreamer. London, Cape, and New York, HarperCollins, 1994.


Critical Studies:

"The Cement Garden d'Ian McEwan" by Max Duperray, in Études Anglaises (Paris), vol. 35, no. 4, 1982; "McEwan/Barthes" by David Sampson, in Southern Review (Adelaide), March 1984; Ian McEwan by Kiernan Ryan, Plymouth, Northcote House, 1994; Ian McEwan by Jack Slay, Jr., New York, Twayne Publishers, 1996.

* * *

Ian McEwan gained notoriety early in his career for his shocking and often disquieting subject matter. Child sexuality, murder, and bizarre characters became even more disturbing because of the unemotional, matter-of-fact manner in which they were described. While his work has matured, McEwan has not lost his ability to shock his readers and the loss of innocence that motivated much of his early work is still a prominent theme. McEwan, a stunningly diverse writer, has written short stories, plays, an oratorio, television and radio scripts, screenplays, and even a children's book, but the novel has long been the central focus of his efforts.

With the publication of his first book, a collection of short stories entitled First Love, Last Rites, McEwan was hailed as a new and exciting British voice. The disturbing and often surreal tales deal with a range of subjects, but child sexuality is a primary concern. One story tells of a group of orphans and their sexual initiation ritual, and another tells of a teenage boy's seduction of his younger sister. Though the content is sexual, the description is not erotic, but instead deeply disturbing. In Between the Sheets, another collection of short stories, was published next. Though it dealt with a wider variety of material, this book continues McEwan's use of shocking material.

The Cement Garden was McEwan's first novel and contains many elements familiar to readers of his short stories. Jack, the fourteen-year-old narrator, feels partially responsible for his father's heart attack, which took place while he masturbated instead of helping his father. When their mother dies, Jack and his siblings, two girls and a boy, bury her without reporting the death. They continue to live together, but their freedom and guilt send them into a descending spiral of bizarre behavior. This hedonism culminates in the arrival of the police while Jack and his oldest sister fulfill their incestuous desires in, of all places, a baby bed. The obvious symbolism here is present throughout the novel; children are being placed in adult situations. How McEwan shows them to react is frightening.

McEwan's next novel, The Comfort of Strangers, presents the readers with Colin and Mary, an English couple on holiday, who fall in with a local couple that they meet while lost. Though it appears so at first, their meeting was no accident. Robert, the husband of the Italian couple, is a brutish and abusive man. Though the couple disapproves of Robert's violent behavior, his influence improves their sex life. The situation soon descends into nightmare, concluding in murder. The novel, like all of McEwan's works, is beautifully written, thereby enhancing the disturbing aspects of the fiction. This novel's exploration of male chauvinism presents the reader with a new aspect to this troubling writer, but his obsession with the loss of innocence continues.

After The Comfort of Strangers, McEwan took a break from novels and short stories in order to pursue some of his other writing interests. McEwan returned to the novel with The Child in Time, set in the near-future. Stephen Lewis, a writer of children's books and a member of the Prime Minister's Official Commission on Childcare, experiences the loss of a daughter when she is abducted and never returned. He and his wife struggle to come to terms with the pain which soon forces them apart. The sexual imagery of McEwan's early work is notably absent from this novel. Even more surprising is the ending of the novel, which concludes on a hopeful note. Though their pain is not over, Stephen and his wife appear to be reconciling their differences. The focus of the novel continues a trend which began with The Comfort of Strangers. The characters still experience a loss of innocence, but the novel concentrates, not on the loss itself, but rather on the attempts of the characters to recover from that loss.

Another change for the author took place with the publication of The Innocent. Though on the surface the novel appears to be an espionage thriller, the espionage is more of a setting than a central concern of the novel. Based on an actual 1955-56 British-U.S. operation to tap the communications system located near the wall in Berlin, McEwan even uses real characters to flesh out his tale. The story, however, is more concerned with Leonard Marnham, a British technician at work on the project, and his relationship with Maria, a local woman with whom he is having an affair. Their love is complicated by Maria's abusive and usually absent husband, Otto. Predictably this complication culminates in the impulsive murder of Otto. In the ensuing attempt to cover up the killing, the two dismember the corpse and stuff it into two suitcases which they plan to dispose of. The grisly mutilation of the corpse is sure to convince any reader that McEwan continues to be aware of shock value. The subsequent, darkly comic attempts to dispose of the corpse are disastrous, and Leonard and Maria are forced to separate. This novel, like the last, ends on a hopeful note. Though McEwan seems unwilling to give his readers a simple happy ending, the two appear to be reconciled.

Separation continues to be a focus of McEwan's in his next novel, Black Dogs. Jeremy, the narrator, has formed a friendship with the parents of his wife. June and Bernard were once a young couple in love with much in common and a lifetime ahead of them, but a bizarre experience with the black dogs, who give the book its title, forces them apart. The incident deeply affected June and gave her an appreciation for mysticism and religion. Her husband, the rationalist, was unable to accept this change. The destruction of the Berlin Wall forms the backdrop to Jeremy's attempts to trace his way back and discover the truth about the incident which forced this couple apart. The novel concludes with June and Bernard's black dog story, and McEwan's trademark disturbing surprise appears.

One novel that stands apart from the rest is The Daydreamer, a book for children. This tale about transformations is centered around Peter, a ten-year-old boy who has a number of sensational adventures. That McEwan would write such a book is surprising considering his early works; however, The Daydreamer clearly demonstrates McEwan's remarkable versatility.

Enduring Love begins with the death of a man in a freak ballooning accident. The narrator, Joe, was involved and feels partially responsible. While dealing with his own feelings about the incident, he must also fend off the advances of Jed Parry, another participant in the incident, who begins stalking Joe. No one believes Joe's stories about a love-crazed pursuer, and even the reader may doubt Joe's sanity. The combination of experiences comes between Joe and his wife. The novel deals with a number of themes including the impossibility of objective knowledge, normalcy and lunacy, and love. A secondary plotline is even introduced involving the dead man and his family. McEwan skillfully juggles all of these themes and plots to create a powerful work. Once again, the novel ends on a hopeful note as the couple seems to be heading towards reconciliation.

McEwan's latest work is a dark comedy dealing with friendship, ethics, loyalty, artistry, morality, and even revenge. Amsterdam begins with a funeral. Molly Lane has died, and her friends and former lovers are together at her funeral. Two of the latter, Clive Linley and Vernon Halliday, are friends. Molly's long and painful illness preceding her death encourages the pair to make a mutual suicide pact should either succumb to a similar illness. As the two attempt to get back to their lives, Vernon acquires compromising pictures of Julian Garmony, another of Molly's former lovers and major political figure, and must decide whether to publish the pictures in the newspaper of which he is the editor. Clive, meanwhile, is struggling to compose a millennial symphony commissioned by the British government. The symphony has not been going well, and while in the grip of inspiration, Clive must make a difficult moral decision. Both characters' decisions end badly, and each character ends up despising the other for his choice. McEwan beautifully details each painful moment of their downfall. The ending is no surprise, but still manages to shock the reader. The novel winds up as an indictment of human nature.

McEwan's skill lies in his ability to get inside his characters and describe their thoughts and emotions. His skill at narration, description, dialogue, characterization, and suspense makes his novels difficult to ignore, and the sharp contrast between his beautiful writing and his often disturbing and shocking subject matter only serves to emphasize his skill. Issues of guilt, love, and fear are all involved with McEwan's primary concern with lost innocence. For McEwan that loss brings self-consciousness, and his large body of work explores this theme in a wide variety of situations.

Josh Dwelle

McEwan, Ian (Russell)

views updated May 29 2018

McEWAN, Ian (Russell)

Nationality: British. Born: Aldershot, Hampshire, 21 June 1948. Education: Woolverstone Hall School; University of Sussex, Brighton, B.A. (honors) in English 1970; University of East Anglia, Norwich, M.A. in English 1971. Family: Married Penny Allen in 1982 (divorced 1995); two stepdaughters and two sons. Career: Lives in Oxford. Awards: Maugham award, 1976; Evening Standard award, for screenplay, 1983. D.Litt.: University of Sussex, 1989; University of East Anglia, 1993. Member: Fellow, Royal Society of Literature, 1984.


Short Stories

First Love, Last Rites. 1975.

In Between the Sheets. 1978.

Uncollected Short Stories

"Intersection," in Tri-Quarterly (Evanston, Illinois), Fall 1975.

"Untitled," in Tri-Quarterly (Evanston, Illinois), Winter 1976.

"Deep Sleep, Light Sleeper," in Harpers and Queen (London), 1978.


The Cement Garden. 1978.

The Comfort of Strangers. 1981.

The Child in Time. 1987.

The Innocent. 1990.

Black Dogs. 1992.


The Imitation Game: Three Plays for Television (includes Solid Geometry and Jack Flea's Birthday Celebration). 1981.

Or Shall We Die? (oratorio), music by Michael Berkeley (producedLondon, 1983; New York, 1985). 1983.

The Ploughman's Lunch (screenplay). 1985.

Soursweet (screenplay). 1988.

A Move Abroad: Or Shall We Die? and The Ploughman's Lunch. 1989.


The Ploughman's Lunch, 1983; Soursweet, 1989; The Good Son, 1994.

Radio Play:

Conversation with a Cupboardman, 1975.

Television Plays and Films:

Jack Flea's Birthday Celebration, 1976; The Imitation Game, 1980; The Last Day of Summer, from his own short story, 1983.

Other (for children)

Rose Blanche. 1985.

The Daydreamer. 1994.


Critical Studies:

" The Cement Garden d'Ian McEwan" by Max Duperray, in Études Anglaises (Paris), vol. 35, no. 4, 1982; "McEwan/Barthes" by David Sampson, in Southern Review (Adelaide), March 1984.

* * *

Ian McEwan's stories chart his early and, to an extent, continuing obsessions with childhood and the body, with regression and abjection, and with innocence, violence, and complicity. He deploys these obsessions in order to raise disturbing questions about gender, power, pleasure, and narrative itself. His fascination with the perverse, the grotesque, and the macabre tends to align him, at least critically, with the sexual delinquency of the Marquis de Sade, Jean Genet, and William Burroughs. Yet his ability to disclose sardonic critiques of the reader's natural inclination to judge and moralize over the obscenity and violence of his fiction reveals him as compellingly postmodern. As enigmatic as he is upsetting, he refuses to endorse moral positions "that might pre-empt or exclude that mysterious and unreflective element … the possibility of opening up an investigation or free inquiry." As Kiernan Ryan has noted, McEwan's is "the art of unease, the art of impaling us on the awkward truths and intractable anxieties of our time."

McEwan's two collections of stories, First Love, Last Rites (1975) and In Between the Sheets (1978), are inextricably linked by their subject matter and the complexity of their ambivalent narratorial voices. The first collection is all the more disconcerting because of its penchant for consistently placing stories of incest, pedophilia, sadism, and cross-dressing in an adolescent context. McEwan has resisted the charges of voyeuristic deviance and perversion by stating that his fiction's genesis lies in "not what is nice and easy and pleasant … but what is bad and difficult and unsettling. That's the kind of tension I need to start me writing." The crucial component in rendering these themes not only palatable but also fascinating to his readership is the clinical precision of his prose. The cool, detached, impersonal flow of the sentences serves to anesthetize the reader, forcing an often unwelcome objectivity onto the most controversial subjects.

"Homemade" is concerned with the curiosity of a cynical, self-obsessed male adolescent whose search for sexual fulfillment ends in the rape of his prepubescent sister:

By the time I reached the top of the stairs, however, the blood having drained from brain to groin, literally, one might say, from sense to sensibility, by the time I was catching my breath on the top stair and closing my moist hand round the bedroom door-handle, I had decided to rape my sister.

The coupling is clumsy, brief, and unspectacular, but the narrator is exultant, having finally made it into "the adult world." The fact that this world has already been mimicked by his sister in her insistence that they play "Mummies and Daddies" before she shows him "where it goes" is further undermined by his recognition of this adult world as "the microcosm of dreary, everyday, ponderous banalities." The reader is forced to acknowledge that the sanctity of parenthood and the fragility of family life are simultaneously linked and compromised by the images the children have in their minds.

If anything, "Butterflies" is an even more disturbing story of pedophilic lust and murder. The narrator, who as so often remains nameless in order to preserve his steely masculinity, indirectly causes the death of a young girl when he tries to force her to touch his erect penis under a canal bridge. Our disgust at the events of the murder is made problematic by the insouciant, deadpan narration, perceived wholly from the pedophile's point of view: "I lifted her up gently, as gently as I could so as not to wake her, and eased her quietly into the canal." We are invited to peer inside the psychological intricacies of his depravity, to see the world as he sees it, perhaps to judge, certainly to try to understand. And perhaps the most shocking discovery for the reader is not the disinterested action of the impassive narrator but rather our sense of fascination with, maybe even our interest in and sympathy with, the protagonist himself.

McEwan's second collection contains a higher percentage of stories based on the adult world. As ever, the catalogue of psychological and sexual violence obliges us to reflect on the mixed motives governing our own response as readers. "Pornography" focuses on the horrendous fate of an unpleasant pornographer's assistant named O'Byrne. It takes the basic narrative of D. H. Lawrence's "Tickets Please" one stage further. The violent revenge of the two deceived women is not only something that O'Byrne masochistically desires but also, because of his terminal emasculation, something that is as welcome as much as it is dreaded. Moral revenge and obscene gratification are so meshed together that the reader cannot disentangle them, and our desire to judge McEwan's estranged narrators and unhinged protagonists once more rebounds upon us.

"Psychopolis," McEwan's much anthologized kaleidoscopic story of bondage, embarrassment, and mental disintegration in modern Los Angeles, has the multilayered texture and subtle theme and variations of the assured novelist. It includes a memorably discomforting scene for all male readers in which a desperate suitor urinates in his trousers at the request of his beloved, unbeknown to him seconds before she is to introduce him to her parents. The epiphany, which acts most effectively as a prism by reflecting light on many of the loosely related incidents of the story, comes in the comedy club. After a particularly awful monologue that unsettles the audience, the narrator's friend explains that "the idea, when it works, is to make your laughter stick in your throat. What was funny suddenly becomes nasty." It is hard to imagine a more pertinent comment on McEwan's stories than this.

As his success as a novelist has increased, McEwan has largely forsaken the short story form, but his work, especially his earlier fiction, remains highly contentious and controversial. McEwan's stories are seldom faithful to what they appear to be relating, at least in any qualitative sense. For him the word, whether spoken or written, is an entity in itself and distorts what it is supposedly trying to communicate. Memory is deceptive, selective, and partial, and the gaps it leaves are filled by the imagination. Every story, therefore, has elements added to it that are never arbitrary or fortuitous, for they are governed by the strange force that is not the logic of reason but rather of unreason.

For McEwan's narrators and protagonists, creativity is often little more than a form of retaliation against a life they find hard to live. They perfect it or debase it in accordance with their own desires and feelings of bitterness. They reword the original experience and modify what actually happened in order to satisfy the demands of their frustrations, their broken dreams, or their feelings of joy or anger. In this way the McEwan reader learns that the art of telling lies, which is the art of storytelling, is also, surprisingly, the art of communicating our deepest fears and longings. An imperceptible mixture of authentic and concatenated events, of real and imagined experiences, McEwan's stories are capable of depicting us in our entirety, both in our everyday life and in our fantasies, as we are, as we fear we might be, and as we would like to be.

—Simon Baker

McEwan, Ian Russell

views updated May 23 2018

McEwan, Ian Russell (1948– ) English novelist and short-story writer. A student of Malcolm Bradbury's creative writing course at the University of East Anglia, McEwan won the Somerset Maugham Award with his debut collection of short stories, First Love, Last Rites (1975). A second collection, In Between the Sheets (1977), confirmed McEwan's interest in the themes of sexual obsession, perversion and violence. His first novel was The Cement Garden (1978). Harold Pinter adapted McEwan's second novel, The Comfort of Strangers (1981), for the cinema. McEwan's Whitbread Prize-winning novel The Child in Time (1987) concerned the abduction of a girl and the subsequent emotional effect on her parents. He won the Booker Prize for Amsterdam (1998). Other novels include The Innocent (1990), Black Dogs (1992), Enduring Love (1997), and Atonement (2002).

Mcewan, Ian

views updated Jun 11 2018


MCEWAN, Ian. British, b. 1948. Genres: Novels, Novellas/Short stories, Plays/Screenplays. Publications: The Imitation Game (television plays), 1981; Or Shall We Die? (libretto), 1982; The Ploughman's Lunch (screenplay), 1982; Soursweet (screenplay), 1989. STORIES: First Love, Last Rites, 1975; In between the Sheets, 1978. NOVELS: The Cement Garden, 1978; The Comfort of Strangers, 1981; The Child in Time, 1987; The Innocent, 1990; Black Dogs, 1992; The Good Son, 1992; The Daydreamer, 1994; Enduring Love, 1997; Amsterdam (Booker Prize), 1998; Atonement, 2001. Address: c/o Publicity Dept., Random House, 20 Vauxhall Bridge Rd., London SW1V 2SA, England. Online address: