Ian McEwan was interviewed in his university magazine this month, talking about his early influences and how he became a writer. Since it’s an interesting story, and some of you may possibly not have seen the latest copy of Falmer: The University of Sussex Magazine, I thought I’d summarise it here.
Failure and disappointment
The most interesting part, to me, is that the career of such an illustrious writer began with failure and disappointment. In fact, the failure and disappointment turned out to be crucial in his development as a writer. It started with being expected to go to Cambridge, not doing enough work and failing to get in. Sussex was a very different and difficult experience.
For an 18-year-old, I was rather well-read in what was then an uncontested canon. I was disappointed to find that my fellow students hadn’t read much beyond their A-level texts. So we weren’t staying up late into the night talking about Wyatt or Milton or Tennyson. I felt very frustrated and even thought I’d leave.
A broader view
But then he discovered life beyond the canon. The English Literature course at Sussex was very broad, introducing him to new ideas in historiography, history and art theory, and even letting him study “quantum mechanics for know-nothing arts students”. He read Kafka and Thomas Mann in a course on the Modern European Mind, and immersed himself in the writings of Freud, and found himself changing.
[At Cambridge] I wouldn’t have got that contact with the broad sweep of European literature and thought, and it took me some while to appreciate fully the extent to which my mind had been reordered, as it were; wrenched away from the parochial, Leavisite criticism that dominated English literary studies then. Even now I continue to draw on that bold, optimistic, very 60s notion of a new map of learning.
So if McEwan hadn’t failed at first, perhaps he wouldn’t have gone on to be the writer he is today. Perhaps he wouldn’t be a writer at all – maybe he’d have become immersed in Leavisite criticism and be the world expert on an obscure corner of English literature. It’s impossible to say, of course, but it’s an interesting question.
Of course, we have to question our sources. McEwan is hardly likely to say in an interview with the University of Sussex magazine that he got nothing from his time there. On the other hand, he really has no reason to lie – if he didn’t get much out of Sussex, he could have just declined the interview. It’s not as if he needs the publicity.
Becoming a writer
McEwan started writing in his third year, influenced by his reading of Bruno Schulz, Kafka, Joyce, Forster and Woolf.
Here was this great conversation of civilisation going on, and you could join it; you didn’t have to just be a reader of it. I think most writers become writers through reading, through pleasure in reading.
In his third year he decided that he didn’t want a job. He got a pamphlet about a job in the diplomatic service, and saw a table with ages from 21 to 65 on one axis and salary expectations on the other.
You could read off the next 40 years. My heart sank. It wasn’t that the salary was low; but seeing a whole life set out like the mileage between two towns, that confirmed for me that I didn’t want a career. It was, I suppose, also the spirit of the times, to cut loose. Writing represented freedom to me.
By the way, if anyone’s wondering how I came across a copy of Falmer magazine, it’s because my parents went to the University of Sussex, also in the 1960s, and passed it along to me because they thought I’d be interested in an article about Ian McEwan’s early days as a writer. I was, and I hope you were too.
What’s your favourite McEwan novel? Let me know in the comments. Or feel free to start a learned discussion on Wyatt, Milton and Tennyson if you prefer 😉